Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My darling is gone

Du kamst, du gingst mit leiser Spur, ein flüchtiger Gast im Erdenland.
Woher? Wohin? Wir wissen nur: Aus Gottes Hand in Gottes Hand.

(Ludwig Uhland)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Goethe on sacred art

How do so many magazines pile up unread beside the bed? Today I'm trying to go through them quickly and toss them out. As always, there is at least one article or essay that I linger over, thus not getting through the stack at all. Today it was an article on Christ's genitalia by Dianne Phillips in the December issue of First Things. Entitled "Leo Steinberg's Artistic Vision," it reviews the somewhat radical publication on this subject, in 1983, by Steinberg. "Radical" in the sense that no art historian had ever written on it, despite the fact that there are a number of Renaissance paintings in which Christ's genitalia are depicted. Thus, the title of Steinberg's book: The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion.

According to Phillips, Steinberg (a Jew, but very sympathetic to Catholic theology as "probably the greatest, most coherent, most elaborate, most wildly imaginative system for the human mind") not only drew attention to an under-explored topic, but also attempted to re-theologize our understanding of Renaissance art. As Phillips writes, Steinberg was interested in the positive theological meaning that could be conveyed by a virile Christ." Though I was raised Catholic and imbibed a great deal of religious art, most of my experience has been in museums, not in churches. Indeed, that is the experience of most Americans, which facilitates, Phillips writes, the "aestheticization" of medieval and Renaissance art and makes us incapable of understanding them "as religious objects with precise theological meaning."

How does Goethe fit in here? Phillips writes that Goethe plays a major role in such aestheticization. It was a review by Goethe of a book on Leonardo's The Last Supper by the very learned Giuseppi Bossi that "established the modern interpretation" of that painting: "the sacramental significance of the meal was deemed incidental" to it.Here is a link to that review. Because the review is by Goethe, it comes off as incredibly pedantic, and in truth it could have been written by any art history student today. Goethe begins with Bossi's background and his suitability as restorer. He then tells us about Leonardo and his genius. We also learn that Leonardo's abilities were bestowed on him "by nature" and that his penetrating mind

soon began to be aware that behind the outside of objects, which he succeeded so well in copying, there still lay concealed many a secret, the knowledge of which it would be worth his utmost efforts to attain. He, therefore, set about enquiring into the laws of organick formation, the ground of proportion, the rules of perspective, the composition and colouring of his objects, the effect of light and shade in a given space.

When Goethe finally arrives at a discussion of the painting, it is to discuss the setting: "The place where the picture was painted is first to be considered." This is the Dominican refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Goethe's description makes it sound as if the painting was part interior decoration.

Opposite to the entrance, at the bottom, on the narrow side of the room, stood the Prior's table on both sides of it, along the walls, the tables of the monks, raised, like the Prior's, a step above the ground; and now, when the stranger, that might enter the room, turned himself about, he saw, on the fourth wall, over the door, not very high, a fourth table, painted, at which Christ and his Disciples were seated, as if they formed part of the company. It must, at the hour of the meal have been an interesting sight, to view the tables of the Prior and of Christ, thus facing each other ...

And so it goes, with analyses of the gestures of the hands and heads, of the postures of the disciples, and so on. It is thorough, but it leaves out of consideration any sacred meaning that even Leonardo surely intended.

Thus, Steinberg addresses, according to Phillips, such sacred meanings, in this case the theological paradox represented by the representation of the genitalia: namely, Christ's dual nature, both human and divine. Phillips ends by saying that Christian conversion has often been said to mean "falling in love with Christ." Thus, Catholicism (unlike the iconoclast Protestants) always recognized that "beautiful pictures and sculptures of Christ can be both a prompt and a magnet for the lover's gaze." At the same time, the eros that leads us to the divine "requires purification and healing to fully realize its telos." While the Renaissance imagery relates to concupiscence, it is concupiscence that is purified because "the innocent naked baby is vulnerable." The same can be said of images of the dead Christ that show traces of the genitals. Herewith a couple of paintings by Mantegna on this subject.

Now that I have said something about Goethe's all too familiar aversion to much Catholic art, what remains to be explored are the sources of this aversion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freedom of speech

Anyone who has followed this blog knows of my interest in the above topic. My book on the history of the subject is due out any day now. One of the events that precipitated the book was the so-called Mohammed cartoons protests. Today I came across the following article, "Nausea in Paris," on the interesting "Signandsight" website. The magazine Charlie Hebdo, one of the few publications to publish the cartoons when they first cause such a furor, has been attacked, this time for a special issue on "sharia law." (The picture above shows the publisher of Charlie Hebdo.) Read and take note of the pusillanimous reaction of Western reporters, especially Time's Paris correspondent Bruce Crumley. Pretty sad stuff.

I am not familiar with the author of the signandsight posting, Frederik Stjernfelt, but his point is well taken. It's not very brave for Western "intellectuals" to get in such a lather about protests by Catholics at some work of art of which they disapprove. When it comes to Muslims, however, the same intellectuals cannot disgrace themselves enough with their chatter about "cultural sensitivities."

Photo credit: Focus.de

Monday, November 7, 2011

Victor Klemperer on world literature

In off moments I liked to dip into a wonderful volume of essays by Clive James. An Australian by birth, he has lived in England since the 1960s. The volume is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. James' cultural reach is extensive, and the volume includes essays on quite a few German writers. This morning I read the one on Ernst Jünger, who, as James writes, "was incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene," meaning in Germany, during the course of World War II. The Nazi impact on German society was in every way disastrous, no more or less so than on the learned professions. Those who could got out, including Erich Auerbach who secured a post at a university in Ankara.

James writes that had Victor Klemperer, professor of Romance languages in Dresden, secured such a post, rather than being forced to remain in Dresden, where, as a Jew, he was denied access to pen, paper, newspapers, and radio broadcasts, it was unlikely that he would have produced Mimesis. "Fated to stay where he was," writes James, "he was granted the dubious reward of experiencing from close up what the Nazis did to the German language." James is referring here to Klemperer's book LTI, or Lingua tertii imperii, which documents the "officialese of slaughter." For those who can, I recommend reading it in German, but here is a link to selections from it in English. (Of late, Klemperer belatedly became known for the diaries he managed to keep during World War II.)

Actually Klemperer might have written an important study of world literature had he not been denied access to libraries during the Nazi era. In my research on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's groundbreaking Goethe und die Weltliteratur, I have come across an article written by Klemperer on this subject from 1929, during the very decade when Strich was first grappling with Goethe's concept. Unlike Strich, who is notorious for not footnoting, Klemperer does indicate the sources of his thinking on the concept of world literature.

As a note to James's essay and the posting of Auerbach to Ankara, several years ago -- at a conference at the Graduate Center on Erich Auerbach -- Jane O. Newman gave me a small article she had written concerning Fritz Strich's March 26, 1928, letter to the chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on behalf of Walter Benjamin, who was hoping for a posting there. Strich was the author of an essay in 1917 on German Baroque poetry, which Benjamin had cited repeatedly (according to Professor Newman) in his own study of German Baroque theater.

So many connections.

Picture credits: Sigmar Polke; Maira Kalman