Monday, July 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Bodmer!

The Swiss man of letters Johann Jacob Bodmer was born on this day, July 19, in 1698. Bodmer was a figure that, if you were studying German, you encountered in graduate school. He was always linked with another Swiss literatus, Johann Jakob Breitinger, and the two B's were further presented as oppositional figures to a certain Leipzig literary "pope," Johann Christoph Gottsched. The opposition between the two critical camps -- Zurich and Leipzig -- came down to the issue of figurative language in poetry. Both Bodmer and Gottsched were apparently figures capable of attracting a number of acolytes, indeed very many of those who were working as writers or critics in the early part of the 18th century in German-speaking lands. The battle between the two, carried out with much invective, went on during the decade of the 1740s.

Gottsched was in some ways a more commanding figure, especially physically, which may have something to do with why he is more likely to be heard of today than is Bodmer. Lessing reacted pretty harshly to Gottsched's neoclassic literary recommendations in 1759, after which it was felt that Gottsched's time as arbiter of taste was over. Later, Goethe, in his autobiography, penned a satiric portrait of Gottsched, and this view has pretty much stuck.

Bodmer must have had a milder character, and seems to have been much loved by his friends and "pupils," including the painter Heinrich Füßli, or Henry Fuseli, as he was known after he emigrated to England. The portrait of Fusseli with his mentor indicates the reverence with which Bodmer was held by those who knew him. Among his literary acquaintance and correspondents were the poets Wieland and Salomon Gessner; the critic and philosopher Johann Sulzer; Johann Casper Lavater, author of the famous "physiognomic fragments" (to which Goethe contributed); and the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Bodmer was instrumental in launching the career of Friedrich Klopstock, but there is much more to his literary influence. Important in connection with my current research, he is probably the principal conduit for the transmission of the aesthetic concept of the sublime into German letters. Later, he translated John Milton's epic Paradise Lost, and his enthusiasm for Milton was the bone of contention between him and Gottsched, who found the Englishman's flowery language too "Baroque." If Gottsched represented the influence of French poetics in German letters, it was Bodmer who introduced English literary currents. Being from a "republican" nation, he felt great admiration for England. Peter Hanns Reill, in his book on the German Enlightenment and the rise of historicism, has noted that the early journal published by Bodmer and Breitinger, The Discourses of the Painters, was much influenced by Joseph Addison's Spectator essays, especially its "cosmopolitan description" of English customs.

When the Sturm und Drang era of German letters began, in the late 1760s, Bodmer was pretty much regarded by the young shakers and movers as superannuated, but this literary movement was precisely a reaction against the French neoclassical poetics recommended by Gottsched. Sturm und Drang writers, including Goethe, had by now discovered the liberating effect of English writers, including Shakespeare and Ossian, a discovery that owes much to Bodmer's pioneering efforts. This image of Bodmer as a young man shows, however, the different time in which he and Goethe came of age. This may, however, have been the way Bodmer looked when Henry Fusseli first knew him.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Outsider artists

OMG: I notice I have not posted anything for ten days. Besides writing the conclusion to the book on freedom of speech, I have been busy, mostly reading Joyce Appleby's long book (494 pages) on the history of capitalism, for which I also had to write a review. The review was finished this morning, and will now "sit" over the weekend to see whether I am ready to send it off.

Instead of Goethe and the 18th century, let me post a few pictures of works by artists that I have been looking at in the past couple of weeks. One is quite established, though in his lifetime he was not well recognized, at least not in art schools, according to my friend Barbara Cushing, with whom I went to see an exhibition of his works at the Whitney. I am talking about Charles Burchfield, a really weird but also wonderful painter. The painting below, for instance, is called An April Mood. Talk about April being the cruelest month ... I prefer the works (many watercolors) that seem to emit light and color. You can see others on the Whitney website.

I'm not sure whether the other two artists whose works are here will be pleased to see themselves called "outsider artists," though I am linking them with Burchfield because they seem to be pursuing a course that sets them off from other artists who are "hot" these days. Their works are ephemeral and off the beaten path, so to speak, which fits with the circumstance of my getting to know them. And those spiky trees in the Burchfield painting certainly suggest the work of Tom Loback.

I met Tom several years ago when I was out for a morning walk on the greenway along the Hudson River. For a long time he worked anonymously, and the first New York Times piece to take note of these river-side sculptures did not identify him. There was a second sculptor at that time, but his pieces, in contrast to Tom's driftwood sculptures, required string to keep the many parts together. Tom's are intricately fitted together and have become more complex over the years. He told me back then that he lives "downtown" (maybe the Village?) and that he takes the subway up to 125th and then walks down along the river picking up driftwood and building his sculptures. A couple of days after I took the photo at the top of this post (click on image to enlarge), I biked along the river and noticed several more sculptures, even more ambitious. I also like seeing them when I am kayaking on the river.

Bridget Polk I met for the first time the other day, though I had seen her balanced rocks earlier. Her photos of the rocks are way better than mine, but I include one of my shots here since it shows her at work. Having written on Goethe's encounters with geology, I am obviously fond of artists who work with rocks. As can be seen from her website, Bridget likes natural materials, though her giant balloons are really cool.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Goethe Country"

When I was writing my dissertation and also traveling more in Germany than I have in recent years, I would like to visit places associated with Goethe, for instance, Frankfurt (Goethe's birthplace), Sesenheim (site of Goethe's romance with Friedricke Brion; now in France, but in Goethe's time very much German in character), Wetzlar (home of Lotte Buff, who became the "Lotte" of The Sorrows of Young Werther, and where Goethe spent several months in a legal internship). And, of course, I have been to Weimar and spent time seeking the vanishing traces of Goethe's residence there. Virginia Woolf calls such pilgrimages "scientific," in that we visit the country where a great novelist lived in order to see to what extent he was influenced by his surroundings."

I came across Woolf's comments yesterday in an old issue (June 26, 2009) of the Times Literary Supplement, an excerpt of a review from 1905 of two books: The Thackeray Country and The Dickens Country. According to Woolf, one cannot really speak of "country" in connection with Thackeray or Dickens. Country, she writes, "calls up a vision of woods and fields, and you may read through a great number of these masters' works without finding any reason to believe that the whole world is not paved with cobble stones. Both Thackeray and Dickens were Londoners; the country itself comes very seldom into their books, and the country man or woman -- the characteristic product of the country -- hardly at all."

In contrast, Woolf claims that writers like Walter Scott or Thomas Hardy have "made the country theirs because they have so interpreted it as to have given it an ineffaceable shape in our minds, so that we know certain parts of Scotland, ... of Dorset as intimately as we know the men and women who have their dwelling there .. and so we may say not only that novelists own a country, but that all who dwell in it are their subjects."

Germany in the 18th century was a land of considerable local variation, and Goethe's early literary work in particular cherishes these differences. Partly this was an effect of the Storm and Stress aesthetics, a reaction against the universalizing tendencies of French neo-classicism. In the end, however, Goethe himself went neo-classicist, and one would be hard put to say (though many have tried) exactly where, for instance, Elective Affinities takes place. My Better Half points out that The Italian Journey, the account of Goethe's two years in Rome, contains references to the fruits of the south and to food eaten, but no mention of the specific qualities of Italian food. Likewise, the one longish encounter with a woman, in Naples (June 2, 1787), with the German-born Duchess of Giovane: we seem to witness the scene as if through a veil. All that is personal and particular has been leeched out. It was one of Goethe's "achievements" to transcend the specifically poetic character of places.

My Better Half also points out that Goethe made up for this lack of specificity in his scientific writings, in particular when writing of rocks. Goethe amassed collections of minerals and rocks from his travels, for all of which he penned exquisitely detailed labels. But Goethe's rocks are not the moors of, say, Brontë/Heathcliff country (pictured at top). Bernd Wolff, in his trilogy of novels on Goethe's geological explorations in the Harz mountains, sought to supply this missing "country."

Goethe's move away from the particulars of German history and culture to abstractness may have something to do with his rejection of nationalism. The rejection started with his animus toward the Romantic poets, especially their return to "German" themes in their writing. Especially after the Napoleonic wars, Goethe became a "cosmopolitan."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Goethe-Schiller Friendship Once More

A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement had a review of poets' friendships that reminded me of my recent posts on Rüdiger Safranski's book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship. The TLS review concerned a new book by Christopher Ricks on the literary "friendship" between Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell, "under the sign of Eliot and Pound." The quotes are there because the relationships were not really personal ones, as in the case of Goethe and Schiller, but of literary influence.

The reviewer (Benjamin Markovits) opens with the observation that many poets become famous in pairs and that their friendships seem to matter more than the friendships of other writers. I'm not sure if the numbers ("many") really bear out this claim, and Markovits doesn't mention, for instance, Wordsworth and Coleridge. In any case, I like the reason he gives: "the pressure on poets to re-invent their tradition -- it is easier to make up a game if you have someone else to play it with." Ricks' book, True Friendship, offers an analyses of these games, with close textual readings. Ricks suggests (according to Markovits) that unconscious borrowings by poets are more interesting that conscious ones, "suggesting as they do the way a poet engages with other poets on a level deeper than his or her critical opinions."

The relationship between Goethe and Schiller was more "programmatic" than the relationships Ricks describes. We are talking about Weimar classicism, after all. A major difference with 18th-century writers, even supposedly "modern" ones like Goethe, however, is the extent of conscious (rather than the "deep levels" noted by Ricks) borrowing of literary predecessors. Earlier poets were quite proud of being part of a continuous literary lineage, and showed their "legitimacy" as poets by drawing on the heritage. Shakespeare didn't feel less of a writer of sonnets because Petrarch also wrote them. "Originality" -- suggesting lack of literary origins -- first came about in the 18th century, but it was not something that earlier generations of poets would ever have been proud to claim about themselves.

I think that what distinguishes Goethe from earlier writers is that he went out of his way to hide the traces of the influence of earlier writers. There is a well-known scene in The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which Lotte and Werther witness a violent thunderstorm. She exclaims, "Klopstock!" This exclamation refers to a poem by Klopstock admired by everyone with any feeling in the 1770s. As Werther writes, recounting the moment, "I remembered at once that magnificent ode of his which was in her thoughts, and felt overcome by the flood of emotion which the mention of his name called forth. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of ecstatic tears, and again looked into her eyes. Divine Klopstock! If only you could have seen your apotheosis in those eyes!" (Victor Lange and Judith Ryan translation).

Much has been written about the influence of Klopstock on the young Goethe, for instance, by Meredith Lee. Goethe, as he recounts in his own autobiography, read Klopstock avidly as a child. But the passage in Werther is followed by another comment that indicates that Goethe is ambivalent about this influence: "And your name [i.e., Klopstock], so often profaned, may I never hear it uttered again!"

This is "anxiety of influence" avant la lettre. Since the reign of "originality," all that is left is unconscious assimilation of both poetic and non-poetic factors.