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."


Anonymous said...

One Faulkner scholar points out that the Mississippi country boy (he never finished high school) USES what he knows, viz., northeastern Mississippi especially--and Oxford, MS., of course. That is, the people, the countryside, the battered and unpainted dwellings. Lord, Faulkner knows this land, its people, the animals, the vegetation and industrialization; he knows hunting, farming, banking, aristocratic social life...the whole nine yards. At times, it is utterly tedious plowing through his encyclopedic knowledge of so many aspects of this way of life, including so many different trades. His family were soldiers, traders, bankers, university administrative assistants--you name it. It is a pain to read him, yet there is a strange delight in what he's done with this very particular place and its spirit. It truly boggles the mind that he was at first rejected by his own and embraced by the French, the Germans, Chinese, etc! It's hard to believe. Norman Podhoretz is critical of his lack of empathy...for the reader! He seems to be in his own little world, but I have to say he deserved all the amazing accolades. It hit him like a bolt of lightning that, one, he was a fiction writer and two, that his true subject was the very thing he had such ambivalent feelings about, his "home." At U. of Virginia he said, "My art is about me and the world."

cantueso said...

I have again read most of the first part of Faust, and again I am shocked at how rude Goethe gets in his witches' sabbath. Do you know whether that was included in Part I later, when Goethe was old?

It completely destroys the Gretchen sequence. It would have been just right in Faust Part II.

I am sorry Goethe is not read anymore by anybody except those that have to, but it serves him right.