Saturday, October 16, 2010

The California Sublime

Well, I have returned from my outing to the West Coast. The first days were spent in Oakland at the German Studies Association conference. There were a number of panels on Goethe's lyric production, from which I profited enormously. Most of the folks attending these panels were fellow members of the Goethe Society of North America, and it was great fun to be among them again, too, and to hear some really good and even some really incomprehensible approaches to Goethe. The application of philosophical perspectives to Goethe -- Hegel, Stanley Cavell (!), even Spinoza -- generally leaves me cold (though Nietzsche is an important exception), but such views are what makes the field of Goethe studies vibrant.

And, then, there was the panel I was on, "The Pre-Kantian Sublime," with fellow panelists Bethany Wiggin and Kay Goodman. What I found especially beneficial about the panels I attended was the high quality of the "Comment" after the presentations. Our panel's commentator was Birgit Tautz. Again, really excellent, and I learned a lot. Kay Goodman's presentation, on Luise Gottsched, the wife of Johann Christoph (lovely portrait of her here), formed a really insightful contrast to my own presentation on Bodmer. Luise Gottsched and Bodmer represent two aspects of the reception of the sublime style in German letters.

The German Studies Association is not restricted to literary scholars. Indeed, the members are to a great extent from history. The president of GSA this year is Celia Applegate, a historian at the University of Rochester. I am looking forward to getting a copy of her book Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. I had it in my hands for a few minutes at the conference's book exhibits and noticed that Goethe has a long entry in the index.

Professor Applegate gave the presidential address, entitled "The Importance of Culture." Abandoning any political correctness, she addressed the perilous state of the profession of German history and letters, in particular the effects of catering to students with "popular" subjects. It was a very good talk; she was very impassioned. The entire time, however, I kept thinking that she was at least ten years too late. The professoriate has got itself in this pickle, making the humanities irrelevant and, indeed, contemptible to many. I have always been surprised at the pusillanimity of the tenured. For decades they have witnessed the rise of mediocre scholarship and have kept their mouths shut. Well, like the federal government, spending the inheritance of future generations now, they have enjoyed their perks without caring about nurturing real scholarship and the future of the "liberal arts."

Let me not dwell on this topic, since there is nothing I can do, except pursue my own work.

After Oakland I traveled over to San Francisco, where I spent a few days with friends. It was the first time I enjoyed decent weather in SF. Indeed, it was so warm that there was practically no haze by early afternoon, not to mention fog.

The day after the conference I visited the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. From an architectural point of view, the de Young is really a lovely museum. Moreover, the first thing I encountered in their American section was the above painting on a sublime subject, a diptych of Niagara Falls from 1832 by the Moravian-American painter Gustav Grunewald (1805-1878). (Here is a link to Grunewald, with some biography as well as another Niagara image.) I particularly like the detail from Grunewald's painting at the top of this post, showing viewers above the Falls. Indeed the museum has quite a number of 19th-century American paintings with the sublime as their subject.

My own experience with the sublime, however, was my bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and then down (and down and down) to Sausalito. It was a gorgeous day, and, what was more, I discovered a kayak site at a small public beach in Sausalito. Afterward, there was the bike ride back up (and up and up) to the bridge. I peddle around Manhattan all the time, on a one-speed bike, and can even manage the hills in Central Park just fine. But the hills of San Francisco and environs are a different matter. I had to get off the bike a couple of times and push it up the hill. Much to my delight, when I got to the San Francisco side of the bridge, I discovered a bus that would take me to Golden Gate Park. I was able to attach my bike to the front of the bus. Hurray! All in all, a splendid experience.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Irregularity" in Art

In my last post I mentioned that Bodmer and Breitinger, in their defense of John Milton's Paradise Lost, made a case for "irregular" beauties, as against the symmetry and proportion demanded by neoclassical poetics. What could be more irregular than the Alps, with which both men were surrounded their entire lives long. And, indeed, those mountains are often invoked in discussions of the sublime in the 18th century. Joseph Addison, in Pleasures of the Imagination, writes of the delight occasioned by great objects: "the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipicies, or a wide Expanse of Waters." He goes on to say that our "imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity." Immanuel Kant, in his pre-Critical Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), mentioned mountains with peaks above clouds, raging storms, and Milton's portrayal of hell as arousing "enjoyment but with horror."

What surprised me about Bodmer and Breitinger, however, is that neither mountain beauties nor mountain horrors play a role in their thoughts on the sublime. Still, I think that their advocacy of "irregularity" in poetry may owe something to accounts of travelers concerning the effect on the imagination of the Swiss Alps. A major account of the mixed feeling of delight and dread was written by an English cleric, Thomas Burnet. In Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681 in Latin; 1684 in English), he wrote of seeing in the Alps "vast Bodies thrown together in Confusion. ... Rocks standing naked round about him; and the hollow Valleys gaping under him." He found himself appalled at the "incredible Confusion" that broke down all his ideals of symmetry and proportion. "They are the greatest examples of Confusion that we know in Nature; no Tempest nor Earthquake puts things into more Disorder."

At the same time, Burnet also conceded that the majesty of the mountains produced awe in him. Though the mountains are "ruins," they also "shew a certain Magnificence in Nature."

As I said, neither beauty nor dread in Bodmer or Breitinger, but in their advocacy of art that grips the imagination they may have been influenced by such accounts.

Yesterday, when I was looking for images to illustrate the post, I came across this painting by Salomon Gessner, whose pastoral tales Goethe criticized for their tameness. The scene shows nymphs, to be sure, but what struck me was the setting. It definitely does not look like a tame landscape. For Gessner and for Bodmer, the sublime was not so much a pyschological category as it was a tool of artists or poets to stimulate the imagination of viewer or reader. Here, Gessner introduces some "irregular" natural forms, while Bodmer defended Milton's irregular diction and striking metaphors.

Picture credits: Harold's Planet (click on image to enlarge); Kunsthaus Zurich

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Sublime

I've finished writing my presentation for the panel at the German Studies Association and have sent it off to the moderator of the panel. It is not my final word on the subject; after all, the presentation is limited to 20 minutes. That is the form of these academic panels. The real work will begin when I return and attempt to put everything I know into a couple of essays for publication.

Herewith a few thoughts that are not in my presentation, and they concern the rejection of neo-classical, French aesthetics in German letters in the 18th century. Let me start with Ernst Cassirer's nice summation of the essence of this aesthetics: the work of art, be it poetry, painting, sculpture, "is more perfect according to its degree of success in reflecting the object itself unencumbered with the cloudy spots and distortions resulting from the nature of the subject." The artistic program of the "Sturm und Drang" poets in Germany was predicated on the categorical rejection of this attitude and the introduction into art of "the cloudy spots and distortions." (One can see that neoclassicism actually had a long shelf life. The sculpture here, by Antonio Canova, was executed in 1814. Not to forget that architecture in America in the early 19th century was heavily reliant on neoclassical ideas: think Monticello.)

Goethe was a major figure of this generation of poets in the early 1770s in Germany. In a wonderful review, which appeared in the "organ" of the Sturm und Drang, the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen in 1772, he wrote that he preferred a wooden leg to the dozens of "ivory feet" of the nymphs in Salomon Gessner's pastoral tales. In a review of "Poems by a Polish Jew," he praised the poet for abandoning the family trade in favor of poetry, but criticizes him for bringing nothing from his background into the poetry. Instead, he is no different from all the other "powdered" heads to be found in good society and on the promenades.

When one reads about the Sturm und Drang, particularly in graduate school, one has the feeling that the rejection of neoclassical aesthetics came about over night. But is has a genealogy, beginning with Bodmer and Breitinger in Zurich. Of course, one cannot say that the two Swiss writers were rejecting French models. They were simply trying to introduce something new into the literary discussion. From Longinus, translated by Boileau, the French neoclassicist par excellence, they assimilated the idea that poetry is more pleasing if it is not perfect. Longinus, defending "lofty geniuses," preferred "grandeur with some attendant faults" to "success which is moderate but altogether sound and free of error." He went on to say that "invariable accuracy incurs the risk of pettiness, and in the sublime, as in great fortunes, there must be something which is overlooked." Thus Bodmer and Breitinger introduced the idea of "irregularities."

Bodmer, who translated John Milton's Paradise Lost into German, wrote a very long treatise on the marvelous (das Wunderbare) in poetry, which was basically a defense of Milton's epic against the criticisms of Voltaire and other French writers. Voltaire had objected to the lack of correspondence between what was represented in the epic (e.g., the battle between the bad and the good angels) and the empirically experienced laws of nature. Gottsched in Leipzig was, of course, on the side of Voltaire. Besides defending Milton's language, Bodmer also drew on Leibniz's notion of "possible worlds." Such worlds may not be accessible to the senses, but they are to the imagination, especially the imagination of the poet. Such worlds have their own probability, and poetry has as its subject the imitation of them.

I realize that I have said little about the sublime itself, but it was the sublime in writing that, for Bodmer and Breitinger, was represented by Milton's epic. Their influence on the continuing preoccupation with the sublime until the end of the 18th century and beyond can be seen in the oeuvre of Henry Fuseli, the Swiss-born artist and disciple of Bodmer who executed an entire cycle of paintings on Milton's Paradise Lost. The painting at the top of this post, Satan Starting, Touched by Ithuriel's Lance, is described in book 4 of the epic. As an aside, this painting disappeared after 1779, only to reappear in 1994, in the auction of the estate of Rudolf Nurejev, who has been described as a "dancer who could pause in mid-air." If one compares the poses of Nurejev here and that of Satan in Fuseli's painting, it is easy to see why the dancer would have been drawn to this work.

Photo credit: Lessing Photo