Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Utopia and Reform

I want to add a few more comments to my earlier posting ("Intellectuals and Power") on Franco Venturi's book, and in particular Goethe's reason for staying in Weimar. Goethe's interest in working for political reform shows the penetration of ideas within Europe by the 1760s, in which Paris and the circle around the Encyclopedists played a major role. There was, writes Venturi, a "great convergence of those who were ahead of the times, and those who were behind, of those who had shown the way, and those who had tried to follow." A determination to change things was spreading, "however diverse the problems in various parts of Europe were." And it was believed, among these forward thinkers, that they should be the ones to guide society. Thus, I return to quote that led me to look at Venturi in the first place: "Power and philosophy seek each other." By the 1780s, the philosophes in France had "advanced" beyond reform and were instead "preparing for revolution." Not so in Weimar, by which time Goethe had abandoned government service and the revolutionary effects on German lands were still a couple of decades in the future.

Venturi's goal in his book was "to put the problem of the impact of republican tradition on the development of the Enlightenment." The importance of the ancient Roman republic in the symbolism of the French revolutionaries can be seen, for instance, in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, but there were contemporary republics in Europe that produced lots of ink. One of these was Geneva, and it was this city that formed the centerpiece of Rousseau's ideas in the Social Contract. And here we find a nice link with Bodmer, who was a great fan of Rousseau's ideas and whose dramas of the late 1760s reflect the virtuous republic that Rousseau espoused.

According to Venturi, in turning to Geneva Rousseau envisioned a kind of utopia. To survive as a republic, Geneva would have to go back to the period of its origins, even before the Protestant reformation, because it was there that Geneva "would discover that just division of political power which had been lost in the 16th century under the rule of a few noble families. ... [T]he image of a city in which virtue was rooted in a long tradition never left him."

Bodmer was a professor of Swiss history for nearly 50 years, and during this period he inspired a number of young Swiss for republicanism and against the undemocratic politics of contemporary Zurich. Notable among Bodmer's disciples were Lavater and Henry Fuseli, who went into temporary exile in Germany in 1761 because of their exposure of an unjust magistrate whose family was set on revenge. Moreover, Bodmer's dramas, published in 1768-69, exemplify the corruptions of republics and the choices of virtuous citizens desirous of maintaining ancient privileges of liberty. No doubt because of censorship, they are set in ancient times and bear such titles as Thrasea Pätus, Marcus Brutus, Tarquinus Superbus, and Die Tegeaten. As Jesko Reiling points out in his recent study, these dramas were much maligned in their own time, as being too full of ideas and too empty of aesthetic attraction. Bodmer shares with Rousseau a certain humorlessness, and he even went so far as to defend his dramas by saying that the theater as it was developing in the late 18th century, especially its emotionalism, served the goals of absolutism by making citizens unpolitical. Do I hear intimations of Bert Brecht?

Even before David painted his Oath of the Horatii (1784), Fuseli had already drawn on Swiss republican tradition, that of the ancient Swiss Confederacy, in his 1780 painting. (See my earlier post on this.) Bodmer is now receiving much scholarly re-assessment, and his connection with the republican tradition is waiting to be drawn. (Interestingly, Venturi mentions him in the introduction to his Utopia and Reform, along with other neglected German-language thinkers.) The influence of his republicanism can be seen in another work by Bodmer's disciple Fuseli, a defense of Rousseau at the time of the latter's quarrel with Hume.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

World Literature

David Cornwall, aka John le Carré, has just been awarded the Goethe-Medaille 2011, along with the Polish writer Adam Michnik (both pictured above) and the French avant garde theater director Ariane Mnochkine. The ceremony took place in the "Residenzschloss" in Weimar. They were distinguished for their contributions to German letters as well as in connection with the focus of this year's awards, namely, "the cultural future of Europe."

According to the account in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, Michnik is optimistic about such a future, while Le Carré is more skeptical, sounding a note that I often invoke. He is quoted as saying that a united Europe remains a project of elites, its institutions far removed from the concerns of citizens and dominated by economics: "What is needed is a peaceful revolution of the middle classes."

I think it was the advent of a "united Europe" in Goethe's time, which was not so much cultural as economic, that determined Goethe's own thinking about the prospects of what he called world literature. Goethe didn't imagine that the nations of Europe would give up their individual destinies or particular character; he hoped, as he wrote, that they would simply learn to get along, which he thought would be helped by acquaintance with the various literary products of the nations. Franco Venturi, in the book on which I posted yesterday, writes that a characteristic of the surviving republics in pre-revolutionary Europe -- e.g., Holland, Venice, Genoa -- was the desire for for peace and harmony. Though he mentions the commercial nature of these republics, he does not stress the connection between a "spiritual ideal" -- harmony, tolerance, etc. -- and the material conditions -- economic prosperity -- that make this ideal possible. Thus, though I would agree with Le Carré concerning the elite nature of the project of united Europe and its appalling "democracy deficit," I think he underrates how much affluence and prosperity make Western ideals possible. Well, as far as I can discern he remains an unreconstructed Leftist.

A year ago, while doing research on my world literature project, I discovered that Le Carré had become acquainted while a student in Berne with Fritz Strich, the "father" of modern studies on this subject. Until Strich's 1946 work Goethe und die Weltliteratur, this aspect of Goethe's oeuvre was practically neglected; starting in the early 1950s, however, that work begat an industry in world literature. As I posted earlier, our understanding of world literature would be assisted by studying the background of how Strich came to his subject. Thus, I was interested in whether Le Carré had any particular memories of Strich and wrote to him. His response, which I am paraphrasing, was as follows:

While he was pleased to learn that the work of Strich was of interest to Germanists, he could not help me in any meaningful way. He was barely seventeen when he attended Strich's seminars, and his German was "indifferent," and much of what was said "went over" his head. However, Strich had "the humanity to notice this" and allowed him to stay behind at the end of his seminar for a few minutes, instructing him in the groundwork of German literature that might enable him to rise to Strich's own level. Le Carré followed his instruction, and by the time he left Bern was equipped with the tools with which he could one day appreciate Strich's eminence. In his note to me, Le Carré confessed that he was a "broken reed" when it came to "the finer points of his [Strich's] theses, or indeed the substance of them" -- meaning world literature. His lasting impression was of "an elderly, distinguished gentleman who had spotted a student who was completely out of his depth" and to whom Le Carré found himself greatly indebted when he returned to German literature.

The substance of this response has been reported in other newspapers and reports in Europe in recent years, including here, on the occasion of the speech Le Carré gave in 2009 at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the University of Berne. In it he again gives due credit to Fritz Strich.

What particularly touched me about Le Carré's response was its similarity to mine at the age of seventeen, when I too went off the university. I come from a really white-bread American background. For instance, before college the only plays I had ever seen performed live were high school productions (though back in my day they were quite professional), and I had never been to a museum. My decision to study German in college was solely determined by my fondness for a history teacher in my last year of high school, who had the intriguing last name of "Braeutigam." I started making up for my intellectual deficits in college, but probably the most formative experience was the year I spent studying in Marburg as a junior in college. Though I didn't study with anyone as eminent as Strich, I had the same experience, not only with professors but also with German students, who went out of their way to assist me in the fine points of the German language and its history. And, of course, they took me into their homes and their activities. For instance, I learned to drink beer and wine!

Photo credit: Breitbart; Modern Alliance; Trübe-Linse

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Intellectuals and Power

A scholar from whom I much profited while writing the introduction to my volume on the history of freedom of speech was J.G.A. Pocock, especially articles on the problematic nature of the concepts of "Europe" and "the West" generally. As Pocock wrote in the article "Some Europes and Their History," Europe is a word used to denote "a great many things that are important in human experience." It was in another work, Pocock's multivolume study of Edward Gibbon, however, that I came across an interesting quote: "Power and philosophy seek each other." It comes from the book Utopia and Reform by the Italian historian Franco Venturi. Recently I got Venturi's volume out of the library and read it in several sittings, finally finding the quote in the last chapter. I will say more about this work in succeeding postings, but I wanted to mention something today because it sheds some light on why Goethe chose to stay in Weimar.

Venturi's starting point, as the title indicates, was the perceived need, beginning in the early 18th century, for a solution to a felt political crisis. The absolutist states, with their desire for expansion and power, were placing intolerable burdens on the population and on the functions of government, while the still existing independent republics had insurmountable problems of their own. As Venturi writes, ideas of reform and utopia were linked by the attempt to modify aspects of society inherited from the past and to bring about practical change. The absolutist governments of Prussia, the Hapsburgs, and Russia were in this sense top-down reformist. Catherine the Great, for instance, ordered the translation of Western works in the 1760s. There was, as Venturi writes, a "determination to change things," which derived from a common language and center in France, in particular the writings of the Encyclopedie circle.

In this reform of existing institutions, the philosophes, according to Venturi, were asking to be allowed to act as guides: "Everywhere in Europe, one finds this pretension, this determination to lead and guide society." I will try not to get ahead of myself -- by the 1770s, especially in France, reform of existing institutions had been abandoned in favor of a total transformation -- and now turn to Goethe.

Goethe went to Weimar in 1775, as the Duke's guest, and initially played a role that fit in with the cultural policies of Anna Amalia. Weimar was becoming a literary center, one of the most important signs of which was the Teutscher Merkur, established by Wieland. Still, Weimar was remote and backward, even in comparison with Goethe's native Frankfurt. Moreover, as is well known, the first decade in Weimar was a backwards step in Goethe's literary production, something Goethe himself acknowledged by fleeing to Rome in 1786.

His reasons for remaining in Weimar touch on the very issues that Venturi mentions. In "enlightened Europe" of the 1760s and 1770s, the new intelligensia became conscious of its own strength in "speaking truth to power." Indeed, Goethe's Sturm und Drang works might be said to voice these challenges to traditional authority -- church, state, or otherwise. Within Goethe's first year in Weimar, Carl August had appointed him as one of his privy councilors. Did it seem to Goethe that he might be able to help transform a small, impoverished duchy through "enlightened" reforms?

Nicholas Boyle, the most recent biographer of Goethe, thinks so. As he writes: "Weimar offered him an entrée to the court life that he had hitherto seen only briefly and from outside, and like any other autocracy, untrammeled by constitutions and traditions, it offered to young, ambitious, and gifted men the prospect of far more rapid advancement in the exercise of administrative power than could be hoped for in the cautious city-states, where promotion came essentially only with age ... Goethe saw in Weimar's offer the possibility of doing something -- perhaps even useful to his fellow men ... certainly of fulfilling the ambitions that his father had had perforce to renounce when the door closed on his own political career."

In the end, the experiment failed, and in 1785 Goethe withdrew from his governing duties and ended his political career. His one success at "reform" seems to have been in helping the Duke to subdue, according to Boyle, "both the martinet and the playboy within" and making of him "a benevolent despot." In this respect, Goethe was more successful than Voltaire had been with Frederick the Great. (See Lytton Strachey's entertaining account of that relationship.) Power and philosophy sought each other, to paraphrase Venturi, and the result was disillusion on both sides.

Picture credits: Felix Petruska; Helmut Roewer; Roger Payne

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Goethe on Schwanau

I came across this charming postcard on the Goethezeit-Portal website. The date on the card would seem to refer to a visit by Goethe on the island of Schwanau on July 17, 1775. The visit would have occurred on his return from the so-called first Swiss journey, which Goethe undertook from Frankfurt with the Stolberg brothers in May of 1775. Goethe was supposedly fleeing from the pressure of his amorous entanglement with Lili Schönemann. The poem "Auf dem See," recording an outing on Lake Zurich, recalls this relationship. (Here a translation by the singer Tomoko Yamamoto.) While in Zurich he stayed with Lavater, who introduced him to some of the local eminences, including the now aged Bodmer. Though Goethe had dreamed for years of making a journey to Italy, he went only as far as the Gotthard Pass, which he reached on June 23.

I have looked through all of my reference books and can find no indication that Goethe was actually on Schwanau, a small island in Lake Lauerz. There is today an inn on the island that has a "Goethe-Stube" that can accommodate (according to the inn's website) 30 guests. As can be seen in the photo above, the room, with its windows and ceiling, looks just like the one in the postcard.

Goethe's visits to even the most obscure locations are pretty well documented. For instance, a year earlier, in July 1774, Goethe made an excursion on the Rhine and the Lahn with Lavater and Basedow. According to the plaque picture on the postcard, Goethe and his companions left their ship and had a "Mittagsmahl" at the "Wirtshaus an der Lahn" near Coblenz.

It was already fashionable in the 18th century to travel in the footsteps of beloved authors. In 1791, for instance, Friederike Brun visited another Swiss island, the Isle of Saint-Pierre on Lake Biel. It was made famous by Rousseau, who described his idyll there in 1765 in the fifth promenade of Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Rousseau, when the lake was not calm for rowing, liked to find a charming, isolated nook, where he could dream undisturbed and where the view, he wrote, was limited only by the distant range of mountains. After enjoying lunch in the humble room in which Rousseau stayed, Brun, in a nice inversion, refers to the prospect outside the window, hemmed in by the peaks of glaciers: "The view is limited, but vast for the imagination." The title of one of her poems gives an idea of her sentimental itinerary: "Die Insel auf dem Bielersee (An Rousseaus Schatten)."

So, the visit to Schwanau remains mysterious. Maybe someone reading this has information on the visit there?

Saturday, August 20, 2011


One of the things that kept me busy last month was the task of indexing my book. Indexes are one of the arcana of scholarship, along with footnotes. In most cases today the footnote has lost its former position at the bottom of the page of text and has been relegated to the back of the book, thus becoming an "endnote." The footnote has even been the subject of an impressive academic study by Anthony Grafton, who specializes in the arcana of scholarship. According to Grafton (this is a quote from a review of The Footnote: A Curious History), the footnote is "critical to the scientific nature of historical writing and therefore reflects both the ideology and technical practices of the craft. The footnote confers 'proof' that the historian has visited the appropriate archives, dusted off the necessary documents, and consulted and exhausted the secondary literature. It is, in short, a badge of legitimacy." Okay.

I have not yet come across a scholarly study of the index, but it too has a history. The most famous index is of course "the Index," the list of books prohibited by the Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic in the years before Vatican II so the Index was not an unfamiliar term to me as a child. I didn't associate it with Descartes or Galileo but with certain scandalous movies.

In contemporary publishing of course the index is not a separate entity, but goes to the back of the book. I am certain that everyone reading this knows what an index is. Suffice it for me to say that the index has received literary treatment. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle includes a character who is an indexer who claims (I am taking this from Wikipedia) to be able to read an indexer's character through the index. I look forward to hearing what people think of my index. I have prepared indexes before -- I had a career in scholarly publishing before turning scholarly myself -- but this one was a hair tearing-out experience. Had I read Cat's Cradle I might have taken the indexer's advice never to index one's own book. Nevertheless, the work made me appreciate even more the general excellence of the book. Perhaps a reviewer will even note the excellent index!

There is a parody of an index in Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, reflecting the narrator's insanity. A final literary example is the novel House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which, among other unconventional attributes, includes a 200-page index of words in the novel. The Guardian reviewer called it "a satire of academic criticism." Well, at 709 pages, I am unlikely to read it.

Picture credits: Indianetzone; Avesta Archives

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Catching up, a bit

I have fallen behind in my posting. Overload is the only way to describe the past couple of months, not least because of health issues involving my husband. We persevere.

Another bit of overload was preparation for my talk at the New York Public Library, which actually went swimmingly. It took place at 1:30 of a Thursday afternoon, and there was a very large crowd. My aim was to demonstrate how current anxieties regarding speech have their origins in the 18th century. For instance, people worried back then not only about offending the feelings of what were considered the "disadvantaged," but there was also the tendency to categorize non-Europeans as large ethnic or racial groups, thus effacing the differences among individuals. This tendency, I would suggest, is part of the "universalizing" narrative of the Enlightenment, whereby we are all "humans," rather than individuals affected by history, tradition, custom, convention, etc. In fact, it is all those historical and traditional traces that one must jettison in order to be "enlightened."

Thus, even some of the most "advanced" thinkers of the Enlightenment, those men Jonathan Israel (a contributor to my book) has referred to as belonging to the "radical Enlightenment," had reservations about "public opinion." They argued for the freedom to publish and to voice their own opinions, of course, which they believed would lead to the discovery of what they called "truth." Truth, however, is not the standard of modern liberal societies, where the free flow of information and opinion drives material progress.

It is not their fault that they could not foresee the advent of a garrulous public square. Among the philosophes, I believe it was only Rousseau who saw this coming. He was very uncomfortable with dissent and disagreement. His solution was to suggest that we all give up our opinions to a "General Will," which we arrive at by avoiding the opinions of others and listening instead to "the voice of duty."

You can imagine that the subject of my talk could have been somewhat arcane for a non-academic crowd, but I livened it up with a remarkable visual presentation. The Mac has its own version of Power Point, which offers some really wonderful effects. I don't think a single person fell asleep.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

It's Entertainment!

Various matters have kept me from posting lately, but I saw something this morning that seemed to require comment, especially since I have posted on this subject already, namely, the Alexander McQueen exhibition. In fact, I have posted on it twice.

I live on the West Side of Manhattan, directly across Central Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since I am there frequently, I saw the McQueen show early on, when it was still possible to view it without much of a wait. Something about the exhibition really caught on, however, and gradually the lines began to lengthen. If you go to this link, the exhibition space for McQueen is the orange area at the top on the second floor.

The lines for the show soon snaked out down that narrow hallway parallel to the 19th-century galleries (in light purple on the map). They then began to extend further, making a 45 degree turn and continuing through the Ancient Near Eastern galleries (the part that is indicated by blank space above the three green rooms, 175, 174, 173), all the way to the Great Balcony (which you can see labeled on the map). It wasn't long before the lines went down the Great Staircase itself and down into the rotunda of the museum. This morning, as can be seen in the above photo, the lines are now outside the museum and snaking around the back up to the east drive of Central Park. One of the guards told me people had started lining up at 6 a.m. The museum will be open until midnight tonight and tomorrow.

So, why did this exhibit catch on? Well, I am not going to spend much time analyzing it. As I wrote earlier, novelty has much to do with the crowds. Novelty produces a certain desperation; people don't want to think they missed something new. Of course, we are an age saturated with the continuous production of the new. In fact, the brightest minds of the generation under 50 years of age are engaged in producing entertainment. I'm not immune to good entertainment. Though I don't have a TV, I gladly watch Burn Notice on my iMac.

McQueen, whatever one thinks of his couture creations, was highly gifted, though the "vision" thing was a little offputting to me. I remember saying to myself as I looked at some of the clothes: "I can see why this guy committed suicide." Very morbid mind. (See example above. Amazingly the collection is called "ready to wear.") It is probably this morbidity that also drives people to the show. We want to see extreme things. Maybe because we are banned from extremities in our speech. Being honest nowadays, after all, is often called hate speech. Politeness has been expunged by McQueen.

All that is novel passes. According to the Drudge Report yesterday, the most recent episode of Jersey Shore was a "bust": only 9 million viewers! (Full disclosure: I have never seen it.) Will people talk about Alexander McQueen a year from now? Or will they only talk about the fact that they stood in line for two hours?

Photo credits: Wall Street Journal online; Oodora; NJ.com