Sunday, September 26, 2010

Goethe and Wilhelm Tell (Again)

Now that I am no longer chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, I can really enjoy the meetings. I particularly like the cocktails portion, in the lounge of Faculty House, in the hour before the talk, when I can sit with my scotch and soda without worrying about whether there will be enough chairs for the attendees and so on. Last Thursday was the opening meeting of this academic year, and the speaker was Elizabeth ("Cassie") Mansfield, a professor of art history at New York University. She spoke on a painting by François-André Vincent, who in his time was admired for his historical re-creations. (As in the lovely painting below, from the National Gallery of Australia, of the Roman general Belisarus.) The painting in question was Democritus among the Abderites. Yes, Abderites! In case you didn't know, the Abderites were a pre-Socratic school of philosophy, and Democritus was one of its proponents. Somewhere back in graduate school I actually dipped into Wieland's novel History of the Abderites.

Professor Mansfield was making the point that Vincent, a "liberal" artist, though in favor of the French Revolution, was directing some veiled satire on the growing power of the Paris mob. Professor Mansfield made the interesting point that Vincent was more admired at this time than Jacques-Louis David, who has come to represent the Revolution in art. David was an enthusiast, after all, and perhaps, as Cassie indicated, Vincent's more critical reaction to the Revolution kept him from being straightforward.

A more compelling case for Vincent's attitude toward the Revolution was another example Professor Mansfield showed us, namely, the1795 painting at the top of this post, from the Museé des Augustins in Toulouse. Here, Vincent has portrayed Wilhelm Tell, in the famous scene in which, during a storm on Lake Lucern, he escapes from Gessler and his soldiers. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Two years later, in 1797, Goethe made his final visit to Switzerland, when he was still thinking about writing his own Tell epic. (See my earlier posts on this subject, here and here.) In preparation for my paper on Bodmer at the German Studies Association next month, I have been reading about Henry Fuseli who was one of Bodmer's disciples in the 1750s. Goethe admired Fuseli's work, and after his visit to Switzerland with Carl August in 1779, he had written to their mutual friend Lavater, asking if Fuseli might help him prepare a "memorial" of this journey as a present for the duke. According to Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle, Fuseli declined to cooperate. In 1797, Goethe saw Fuseli's painting of the Rütli oath, in which one sees similarities to David's later painting of the oath of the Horatii. What amazing artistic inter-connections.

Picture credit: historywiz

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gallery viewing

We've been hitting the galleries in Chelsea again. September marks the start of the season, and for a change there was some really interesting work, if one hesitates to call it "art." Above and below are some works by the South Korean artist Airan Kang at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. Naturally, the colored lights drew our attention, but even more so the reference to Kant's "Critique of Judgment" in the "pile of books" at the front of the gallery. Who said these old white guys don't have any relevance?

I always love reading the press releases, "propaganda," as Rick refers to them. The curators of these exhibits always outdo themselves with pomobabble. Here is a description of Kang's book-shaped sculptures fashioned from resin and LEDs: "For nearly a decade she has been both personifying and objectifying discourse and our concepts of knowledge by simulating libraries, bookstores, and reading rooms. ... This exhibition conflates material and ephemeral depictions of knowledge to realize the pluralistic space of our imagination." Got that?

Goethe, of course, was represented. I would have been surprised had he been omitted.

I suppose what is most impressive about some of these works is the amount of craftsmanship involved, for instance, in the exhibition of stainless steel sculptures -- "Real Fakes" -- by the Chinese artist Liao Yibai. But to what purpose all this craft?

These works seem to prompt us to be "knowing," to be on the game, to see that we are manipulated by beautiful material goods. According to the propaganda, the exhibition "questions the skewed concept of value on a variety of levels. The oversized lavished sculptures of watches, rings, handbags, and high heel shoes confront the multitudes of popular brands and logos and their overwhelming presence in today's society. Yibai's newest body of work examines this increasing obsession with opulence and luxury goods while glorifying and laughing at it simultaneously."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Goethe and Beethoven

I think it's time to devote some attention to Goethe again. It has been a while, but my excuse is my involvement in two projects -- the free speech volume and the GSA panel on the pre-Kantian sublime -- that have taken me away from Goethe. Still, he turns up in unexpected ways, in daily life, at least in my daily life.

Last evening during pre-prandial libations Rick was bragging that he had just purchased (through iTunes) the complete Beethoven symphonies for $6.00. The symphonies were performed by the Tblisi Symphony Orchestra. ("Tblisi is a real city," he insisted when I laughed. "It has 500,000 people." He also reminded me that Louisville, where I grew up, once had a world-class orchestra. He also reminded me that the mid-size cities of the former Soviet Union produced orchestras that do a good job on these "war horses": Kiev, Rostock, etc.)

It is well known that Goethe had conservative tastes in music. Indeed, he had an aversion to Beethoven's music, though he did value Beethoven as a person. They met in July of 1812 at the spa Teplitz, where Beethoven had gone hoping for a cure for his growing deafness. In his novel Immortality Milan Kundera has memorably recreated an incident recounted by Bettina von Arnim in which Goethe and Beethoven, out for a walk, came upon the Austrian empress Maria Ludovica and her entourage. According to Bettina, who said she had the story from Beethoven himself, Goethe doffed his hat, while Beethoven pulled his own hat deeper over his face. And then, after the royals had passed, Beethoven bawled Goethe out for his subservience.

Bettina didn't report this story until 1832, the year of Goethe's death, and it is generally felt that Bettina used Beethoven as a mouthpiece for her own liberalism. Nevertheless, it is true that Goethe was very respectful when it came to the "old political order." By 1812 he had spent almost forty years in Weimar. The French Revolution had of course undermined, but not destroyed, this order, and within two years the Congress of Vienna would thwart many of the liberal impulses that inspired Beethoven and, indeed, the Romantic generation in Germany.

According to the Goethe Handbuch, Goethe first heard an aria of Beethoven in 1807, without, however, knowing who the composer was. Until 1810, when E.T.A. Hoffmann (a composer himself as well as a writer) wrote a review of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was practically unknown in north or central Germany. Mostly he was known for his virtuoso piano artistry. He became a cult taste among professionals, however, and also among Romantic poets. It was in 1810 that Bettina forced her way into his presence in Vienna. (Kundera's novel also recreates the meeting of Beethoven and Bettina. The painting here of the young composer indicates why she might have been infatuated with him.). Beethoven, who had been studying Goethe's poetry, had just finished composing several songs as well as his Egmont score, based on Goethe's play of 1787. Bettina encouraged him to write to Goethe, which he did, and he received a polite response from Goethe. He also heard some of Beethoven's piano works, but, according to the Goethe Handbuch, was at a loss as to what to make of them.

In letters to his wife, Goethe reported of meeting Beethoven in Teplitz and of hearing him play the piano. Later he wrote to Zelter, the composer and intimate friend: "His talent astonished me; unfortunately he is a totally unconstrained personality." Goethe was indeed impressed with Beethoven as a musician and as a person. Later Egmont was performed in Weimar, as was Fidelio. Still, as the Goethe Handbuch reports, the new instrumental music was foreign to him and also sinister (unheimlich). As he wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée in 1811, "It wants to encompass everything and instead always looses itself in the elemental" (das will alles umfassen und verliert sich darüber immer ins Elementarische). This echoes his reaction to the destruction produced by the French Revolution, the descent into chaos in its attempt to recreate the world anew. During the last years of his life he often listened to Beethoven's piano music, without being able to get over his feeling of alienation from it. Felix Mendelssohn played the first movement of the Fifth Symphony for him in 1830.

Listening to the Third and the Fifth last evening I could recognize that Goethe would have been turned off by the driving impulse of the music. Just as Goethe was living on the cusp of a change in political history, so, too, was he present for this transition in music. Beethoven represented a great leap forward, not yet in the First and Second symphonies, which are very Haydn-like, but by the Third Symphony Beethoven could be said to have "become" Beethoven. According to Rick, the Third was long and hard for the public to appreciate, but it soon got the point, and, ever after, musicians were no longer like Mozart and Hayden, but were like Beethoven. Much to Goethe's chagrin.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The volume on the historical origins of freedom of speech was inspired, so to speak, by the Mohammed cartoons protests of 2006. As I write the conclusion to the volume, Americans are protesting the construction of the "Ground Zero mosque." There are also Koran burnings. Time to weigh in on these issues.

In both cases -- the Muslims and the Americans -- people are exercising their right to voice their opinions. What is remarkable, however, is the asymmetry in the reaction of the West's intellectual class to the two protests. The Muslims: well, they are "offended," and we have to respect their sensibilities. The Americans: well, they are intolerant and racist and Islamophobic to boot.

The Indian-born British writer Kenan Malik asserts that the protests of Muslims, starting with the Rushdie affair, have been politically motivated by the most conservative elements in the Islamic world. Speaking of himself as a young man before the Rushdie affair, in the 1980s, Malik writes that "radical" in a Muslim context meant someone who was a militant secularist, who challenged the power of the mosques. The Rushdie affair, however, took place at a time when the left, disenchanted with secularism, began buying into the multicultural politics of ethnic particularism. The result has been the undermining of "progressive trends" within Muslim communities and the strengthening of the hand of religious fundamentalists.

He also blames journalists, who like to find the most extreme figure to quote. Thus, the fundamentalists have become the "real Muslims," in contrast to the vast numbers who have come to the West in order to live a better life and to escape from the fundamentalist politics that Middle Eastern rulers manipulate to keep themselves in power.

Such an assessment is what many of us have suspected. He doesn't go so far as to label the confrontation between the West and Islamic fundamentalism a continuation of the confrontation of world powers of the Cold War, though I think there is an element of that.

Such politics aside, what interests me is the reaction of Western intellectuals at this time. As I have said before, free speech is in crisis, precisely because the Western intellectual class is no longer is confident of its own principles. Should I say that they are pusillanimous? Since the 18th century progress has been defined by eroding the values that people most cherish, staring with religion. It was a sign of "open-mindedness" to be "tolerant" of attacks on one's pieties. Art -- painting, theater, movies, etc. -- has become a principle vehicle for spreading open-mindedness. When Catholics in New York protested in 1999 against paintings by Chris Ofili, freedom of speech was naturally invoked by the ACLU and others, and the exhibition went on.

As Kenan Malik points out, however, you cannot find a theater director in Europe today who would put on a performance of Voltaire's Mahomet. Random House, "publishing giant," backed out of publishing The Jewel of Medina, a romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet's youngest wife. (By the way, it was a university professor who alerted Random House about the "offensive to Muslims" nature of the novel.) When a museum in Holland decides to remove an exhibition of photos of gay men wearing masks of Mohammed, the left-wing Dutch newspaper praises the museum for its "great professionalism." Imagine that response had the Brooklyn Museum canceled its exhibit of Chris Ofili's paintings!

One might think that intellectuals and the media have tied themselves in knots over free speech because they are uncomfortable with dissent. (See Rousseau's general will.) Maybe it is more the case that they are uncomfortable with dissent from their opinions. Ordinary Americans, however, are showing that freedom of speech isn't limited to the ruling class. (I love the superiority of this site, showing "the most ignorant Ground Zero mosque signs." Note that ignorance is not defined; it is simply assumed that the sentiments are signs of ignorance. Compare the signs with the picture above: I don't think Americans can be said to have a corner on "ignorance.")

(People have complimented me for the images on this blog. For the subject of freedom of speech, however, I have really been challenged, since the relevant images are generally so unattractive and don't fit with those on other postings. Thus, I chose here the opposite sentiment and the picture at the top by artist Nancy Glazier.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Freedom of Speech

I am encountering trouble with my conclusion to the free speech volume. I write a couple of what seems to be pretty good pages; then, there is a wall. Let me put down a few things, which may help me move forward.

I start out by making the claim that freedom of speech, before it was a legal right, was an essential part of the West's material progress. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that the philosophes sought to crack the monopoly on "the word" held by church and crown by demanding the right to discuss the findings of the new "natural science."

The prohibitions were strongest in the outlying parts of Europe. For instance, Peter the Great forbade everyone in the Russian realm, excluding religious teachers, from writing behind locked doors. In Spain, the Inquisition was still in effect. The French crown also presided over a variety of prohibitions and regulations. Nevertheless, the tide of scientific and technical knowledge that began to sweep Europe could not be held back. Even Peter the Great wanted to "modernize."

The new knowledge, however, also freed people from their ties to authority and tradition and eroded the power of kings. Thus, there arose a body of doctrine concerning the rights of individuals, which now finds expression in the liberal constitutions of the West.

It is the combination of the two -- a body of shared values embodied in legal instruments and a standard of living that is historically unprecedented -- that has created what can be called a "cultural product."

It seems to me that this cultural product, including freedom of speech, is in crisis today. A defense of freedom of speech and indeed of other civil rights -- is challenged in the non-Western world and even within the West itself. The West now stands accused, like European monarchs of old, of monopolistic behavior in the matter of rights.

In presiding over this volume on the history of freedom of speech in the 18th century, I have made the argument that, in a "multicultural world," the West's rights, as stated above, are a specific cultural product. Thus, the volume does not take a position on the rightness or wrongness of freedom of speech as it currently exists in the West, nor does it plead for limiting or expanding the right in the interest of social comity or truth, respectively. Instead, I readily acknowledge the postmodernist view of cultural relativism.

The problem seems to be that the West has considered its rights "universal," i.e., applicable to all people at all times and in all places. But, as Jeremy Benthem said of natural rights, the doctrine was "from beginning to end so much flat assertion." It is this presumption of universality that has drawn the animus of critics. Islam, after all, also claims universality for its doctrines, and many of its adherents believe these are self-evident. But Islam, like other "world" religions, are also powerful traditional, institutional entities.

Since the 17th century the West's "thinking class" has had a problematic relationship to religion. The image to the left expresses what many philosophes thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and also reveals how their thinking has filtered down to popular culture. This rejection is also part of the "cultural product" I am describing. Thus, Europe and America increasingly seek to expunge the presence of religion from the public square. For instance, schools in traditional Catholic regions -- Poland, Bavaria -- are now being forced to remove religious symbols from the classrooms. But religion is part of the cultural inheritance of the West, and if Europe will not take its religious inheritance seriously, why would the new populations, be they Muslim or otherwise, be respectful of Europe's secular values?

More later.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Freedom of Speech

Well, I am back to the free speech volume, officially entitled "Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea," writing the conclusion. If anyone has bothered to read long-ago posts, you will know that the volume was inspired by the Mohammed cartoons controversy several years ago. At that time, as chair of the Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture at Columbia, I organized a series of talks on the historical origins of free speech, since it struck me that no one was defending this freedom on what seemed to me a self-evident basis: namely, because it is OUR freedom. It's like defending your children, no matter how bad they are. Haven't we all seen a TV news reports of some horrible crime by a hoodlum, and the mother, trotted out for the camera, swears up and down that he is a good boy who could not have done what he is accused of? If only our university professors would defend Western "values" with such vigor. Against all the postmodernists who say that all cultures are equivalent, I counter: "Maybe, but this is the culture that I live in. If it's between me and them, then I want us to win." What also struck me at the time of the cartoons controversy was that postmodernists had such an easy time poking holes in the argument that rights were "universal."

In a sense I would say they are universal, applicable to all peoples at all times, since I believe that most people would prefer to have rights. Look at the Iranian protesters. As they have discovered, however, and despite all the U.N. proclamations, rights don't grow on trees. The rights we enjoy in the West have been historically achieved. But we have forgotten that centuries-long process and succumbed to the belief that there is something inevitable about rights. Thus the series I organized, and the book to be published, which contains essays by different scholars on aspects of the debates concerning speech in the 18th century.

It may be that all great civilizations imagine that their values are universal. Certainly Islam does. So, too, do the Chinese. But both of those civilizations have histories that they draw on to sustain their challenge to universality. Only in the West do we imagine that our history is evil, for instance, the Crusades: I mean, weren't Europeans only trying to reclaim a part of the world that had been Christian until the Muslim armies conquered it? Instead, we like to imagine that there are abstract universal truths. No doubt this belief has much to do with the fact that the scientific revolution began in the West, and science is ahistorical.

But there are precedents in the West itself for a belief in universal values. One element was the Roman empire, which at its height ruled a vast multi-cultured realm on which it stamped the name of Rome. Though Rome was generally content to leave its subjects to their own gods, provided they paid their taxes, there were rewards to Roman citizenship for its far-flung citizens. Certainly the elite classes of the empire, especially those in its outposts, were drawn to Rome's universality. The other element was Christianity. Though few Christian thinkers entertained the notion that men's earthly conditions could be made equal, all men were regarded as equal in the eyes of the Creator. In addition, Rome itself, whether the center of imperial or Christian power, was dependent for its administration and culture on a class of men who saw themselves as inheritors of a unified intellectual and spiritual legacy.

One should not underestimate the impress of this universalist vision on the intellectual life of early modern Europe, especially on the radical philosophes who were products of the institutions created by the earlier empire. As with the ancients, these men were cosmopolitans, "citizens of the world." Thus, their defense of freedom of speech did not appeal to facts on the ground, namely, native traditions or native history. Instead, they rejected this legacy and projected their universalist vision onto the future. For these modern cosmopolitans, history and tradition were reservoirs of bad practices that had to be overcome in the name of progress.

If we are to defend our rights against those who would impose other systems (communism; sharia), it's time to turn away from Kant and return to Herder, to history and culture.

Picture credit: Liberating Wings