Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going on Vacation

Some of you know that my darling husband passed away last year, two days after Thanksgiving. The picture above shows us on Governors' Island last Memorial Day, when he looked the picture of health. Things can change rapidly. At the beginning of August, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Though he underwent an intensive course of treatment, the disease took its own aggressive course.

During his illness, I managed to keep up this blog intermittently, and since his death it has helped to distract me from my grief.

For several years before he became sick, I was working on a book, one that Rick was eager for me to finish and to publish. In his honor and memory, I am now going to take a break from the blog and do just that. As much as I like relating my thoughts about my reading and about Goethe, I am going to concentrate solely on this book for at least the next six months, by which time it will be finished.

In the meantime, I can always be reached at goethe.girl@gmail.com.

Thanks for your interest in this blog. I will be back.

Goethe and "The Liberal Imagination"

The "liberal imagination" refers of course to the book of that name by Lionel Trilling, which I have looked at again since reading a TLS review (2/3/12) of Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch. In an essay in The Liberal Imagination entitled "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," Trilling says something that captures what 18th-century scholars know to be the case:

"Some of the charm of the past consists of the quiet -- the great distracting buzz of implication has stopped and we are left only with what has been fully phrased and precisely stated. And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace."

The "buzz of implication" (I think it may have been E.M. Forster who coined this term), never "precisely stated," always surrounds us in the present: "in the tone of greetings and the tone of quarrels, in slang and humor and popular songs, in the way children play, in the gesture the waiter makes when he puts down the plate, in the nature of the very food we prefer."

We scholars of the 18th century are always trying to suss out this "buzz of implication," and it is what writers of historical novels attempt in their re-creations. I would hazard the guess that the popularity of certain contemporary writers is based on their ability to evoke just this buzz of implication. I think, for instance, of Jonathan Franzen's novels.

Even though I had read several essays in Trilling's The Liberal Imagination many years ago, it had never quite registered with me that Trilling was "critiquing" the assumptions underlying the liberalism of the 1940s and 1950s. This was an era (as I now read it in Trilling's preface) when liberalism was "the sole intellectual tradition." Liberalism, in Trilling's view, encompassed a wide swath of opinion. In an essay on Trilling in The New Yorker in 2008, Louis Menand wrote that, for Trilling, a liberal was "a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy." Since there was, according to Trilling, no conservative intellectual opposition, liberals had no counterforce that would force them to examine their weaknesses and complacencies. Thus, The Liberal Imagination aimed to put "under some degree of pressure" the assumption that the world could be made right as imagined by liberals.

In this connection, I was struck by something else in the review of Why Trilling Matters. The reviewer (Allan Massie) mentions Trilling's essay on Freud and literature. Though Trilling admired Freud's work, there was also much in it to "disquiet" him, in particular with what Trilling called its "affinity with the anti-rationalist element of the Romanticist tradition." Freud was of course a thoroughgoing rationalist, and psychoanalysis attempted to reconcile neurotics to reality, but Freud also held that psychic well-being was impossible in modern society, because of the renunciation required by "civilization." Much modern literature, however, as Trilling recognized, "seemed to approve of aggression rather than acceptance, and of the superiority of the individual will to conventional morality."

This put me in mind of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, on which I recently posted. I mentioned there Arnold Hauser's description of that novel as "the first important criticism of romanticism as a way of life," in particular the "absolute sterility of the romantic turning away from reality." Goethe may have founded the Bildungsroman tradition, but many of the writers who followed in this tradition feature characters who do not make peace with reality. Goethe's "hero," in contrast, as Hauser writes, learns "that one can only do the world justice if one is spiritually bound up with it, and that one can only reform it from inside." Thus, Goethe's critique of "the liberal imagination" avant la lettre.

Picture credits: Libcom; Columbia College; The Liberty Fund

Friday, February 10, 2012

Goethe and letter writing

Peter Green, in The New Republic reviewing a volume of letters of Ernest Hemingway, says some things that seem equally applicable to Goethe, especially in regard to creating a literary persona. For instance, despite one or two intriguing items, Hemingway's early correspondence offers mostly "unconnected glimpses from a life: glimpses invariably given the particular slant that 'the enditer of this screed' (as young Hemingway frequently referred to himself) for one particular addressee (father, mother, siblings, friends at school or work, ex-buddies from the Italian front) at one particular time." From this, Professor Green goes on to assert that Hemingway was a "classic compartmentalizer when it came to human relationships," adapting his style to audience.

If one reads Goethe early letters, particularly those he wrote while he was a student in Leipzig, one sees something similar. The tone of his letters to his younger sister, for instance, are playful, while ladling out big doses of instruction. He switches languages, venturing into French and even English, in which he composes a poem. (Interestingly, Professor Green mentions that the letters of schoolboy Hemingway are "dotted with ungrammatical and syntactically illiterate Latin phrases"; the same is true of the Italian and French in his later letters.) That Goethe is trying out different styles and forming a literary personality is evident in the letters he writes to his friend Behrisch at the same time. These letters constitute a small play modeled on Lessing's Miss Sara Sampson. (Take my word for it; I have written an article on this subject. See Goethe Yearbook, vol. 8.)

Basically Goethe was imitating the style of other writers, and Hemingway also came by his craft in a similar way. Green mentions that Hemingway got a job in 1917 as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star, covering City Hall, the courts, police blotter, etc. He learned thereby to "write with accuracy and brevity, stressing the facts, eschewing opinions -- training that proved invaluable later when he began hammering out his fictional style." So, nothing out of the ordinary here -- simply a practice of all the most notable writers.

The letters in the Hemingway volume span the years 1907 to 1922 and represent the first of a planned sixteen volumes. I'm not a scholar of Goethe's correspondence, but he may have written more letters. Unlike Hemingway, however, who penned (or typed) his own letters, Goethe began very early dictating his correspondence, along with his literary efforts. Rome may have been an exception, though he was accompanied there by a servant/factotum. (Certainly the diary he kept on his journey to Rome was heavily edited before publication as Italian Journey.) By the end of his life the tone of his letters is a monotone, perhaps a function of dictation. By then, of course, as the painting at the top of the post reveals (from 1831), he had created a persona that matched his self-image.

Picture credits: Recherche; Renegade Blog

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Goethe and modernity anew

I have been thinking a lot about Goethe's supposed modernity, and especially about why some people (I include myself here) find it so hard to read Wilhelm Meister. On the subject of modernity, I noticed in a recent issue of the TLS that even Dante has been drafted. The great Romance scholar E.R. Curtius declared the Commedia to be "the world drama of the Latin Middle Ages ... played out for the last time." According to reviewer David Robey, however, "few classics speak to the modern world as much as the Comedy." Among other books on Dante, Robey mentions A.N. Wilson's Dante in Love, which devotes a chapter to the English Victorian reception and of Dante's continuing relevance: the Comedy, according to Wilson, deals with "one of the central dilemmas of our times -- how we, having lost our common culture, can relate our inward preoccupations to the world of experience beyond us." Got that? (See also this link for Wilson on Dante.)

A contrasting view is offered by my recent subway reading, Arnold Hauser's wonderful volume Naturalism, Impressionism, and the Film Age. Even though Hauser is an art historian, literature is center stage in his accounts of the transformations of art history through the ages. He opens by contending that we moderns are cut off from the past, an "incision ... probably nowhere so deep as in literature, where the frontier between the older works which are merely of historical interest to us and those that arise from now onward ... represents the most remarkable breach in the whole history of art." He goes on to describe our separation from older works of literature as constituting an "unbridgeable gulf." Their interpretation requires "a special approach and a special effort on our part." Finally: "We read the works of older literature differently from those of our own age.

Hauser recognizes Goethe's achievement: Wilhelm Meister is the "first Bildungsroman in the strict sense of the word." He also writes that it is "the first important criticism of romanticism as a way of life." Its message is the "absolute sterility of the romantic turning away from reality: he [Goethe] emphasizes that one can only do the world justice if one is spiritually bound up with it, and that one can only reform it from inside."

Goethe lacked, however, the recognition that there is no peaceful reconciliation of the individual and a given social situation. Thus, we do not find in Wilhelm Meister what we have come to expect in novels since the 19th century, namely, the portrayal of a character within a "realistic" social milieu. While there are realistic elements in Wilhelm's milieu, he is not in conflict with it. He experiences some stumbles on his path, but in the end he sloughs off his immaturity and unrealistic expectations and follows the counsels of his betters in worldly knowledge. The novel does not give expression to what Hauser calls "the cultural problem of the age -- the antithesis between individualism and society." It was, says Hauser, Balzac and Stendhal who "saw the prevailing tensions much more acutely and judged the situation with a greater sense of reality than Goethe."

Even Goethe's most interesting novel (in my view), Elective Affinities, is psychological rather than sociological. I recall when I first read it many years ago that I was expecting a German version of Jane Austen in whose novels, according to Hauser, "social reality was the soil in which the characters were rooted," though society was not a problem that Austen "made any attempt to solve or interpret." Having grown up on the canonical 19th-century English novels, I recognized that Elective Affinities represented a different beast.

Hauser dates the creation of the realistic novel to 1830, which, in his estimation, is when the 19th century began. In the 1820s, when Goethe was still active (and exploring the concept of world literature), Balzac was writing plays and librettos for comic operas. It was only in 1832, the year of Goethe's death, that he embarked on the series of novels that would paint of portrait of "all aspects of society." Stendhal's The Red and the Black appeared in 1830. Though Goethe may have been familiar with it -- he kept up with current literary matters in France -- he was not likely to have been inspired by it at this late date.

Goethe was in any case opposed to "naturalism" in the arts, and I wonder if this opposition arose from a sense that society was beginning to make claims on the arts. Goethe was not writing for "society," for the middle class, for the newly emerging reading public, which wished to see its interests reflected in the arts. (That would be Dickens' bailiwick.) In this respect, The Sorrows of Young Werther makes a great exception in Goethe's career. After Weimar, his reading public was restricted to a small segment of the cultured class.

Picture credits: The Guardian; WyrdLight; Bing Crosby Media Archive

Friday, February 3, 2012

Goethe and modernity

A reader of this blog has asked for reading recommendations for Goethe. He blamed himself for not being able to get through Wilhelm Meister and asked whether Werther would be a good place to start. I told him it was not his fault that he couldn't finish Wilhelm Meister. It seems to me that Goethe is most appreciated in German, especially his poetry, which generations of Germans have responded to. I am also beginning to think that Goethe, beyond us specialists, is more of interest for his place in the intellectual firmament of his time and for intimations of future tensions. He wrote on so many phenomena, made so many Orphic pronouncements -- note all the sententious maxims in the above "Lehrbrief" (apprenticeship certificate) from Wilhelm Meister -- that it is not surprising, for instance, that the Green movement has found inspiration in his writings, not to mention all the people spooked by science and technology. I'm surprised Goethe hasn't been drafted to comment on global warming.

Thus, I was particularly intrigued by a review in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement by Jeremy Adler on a translation of Wilhelm Meister. Professor Adler mentions Henry James' praise, in the July 1865 issue of the North American Review, for the novel in Carlyle's translation. James goes all out, outdoing even Germans in his estimation of the qualities of Goethe. Here is the money quote:

"Few other books, to use an expression which Goethe's admirers will understand, so steadily and gradually dawn upon the intelligence. In few other works is so profound a meaning enveloped in so common a form."

James goes on to compare its effect to that of other contemporary novelists, finding the latter wanting, precisely for their entertainment value: "We gladly admit, nay, we assert, that, unless seriously read, the book must be inexpressibly dull. It was written, not to entertain, but to edify." And further, "It is, indeed, to the understanding exclusively, and never, except in the episode of Mignon, to the imagination, that the author appeals."

As Professor Adler writes, these comments of Henry James show "the formative, if controversial presence on the British scene," of the novel. For Adler, the "kernel" of Wilhelm Meister -- and thus its effect in Britain -- lies in its view of "Bildung," expressed halfway through by our hero: "To tell you in a single word: ever since my youth, to educate myself, just as I am here before you, was obscurely, always my wish and my intention." Adler traces the influence of this "dictum" in Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, and Newman, men who fought the same "battle for the moral and aesthetic high ground" that Goethe and Schiller had fought in Weimar in the 1790s. Thus, Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meister leads "directly to High Modernism."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Young Goethe in love

A reader of this blog emailed me this morning a YouTube link to the movie Goethe! I immediately prepared my morning tea and settled in to be entertained.

After an opening scene in which Goethe is seen making a mess of his legal examination at the university in Strassburg, the action moves to Wetzlar, where Goethe went in May 1772 to continue his training at the Imperial Cameral Court. From a physical point of view, Alexander Fehling gives a good impersonation of Goethe, matching very much the following description of Goethe by a contemporary:

"He possesses what is called genius and a quite extraordinarily lively imagination. He is forceful in his emotions. His cast of mind is noble. ... He loves children and can long occupy himself with them. He is bizarre, and there are various things in his deportment, his exterior that could make him disagreeable. But he is nonethless well regarded by children, women and many others. He acts as it occurs to him to do, without concerning himself whether others like it, whether it is fashionable, whether convention permits it."

The person making this observation was Johann Christian Kestner, engaged since 1768 to Lotte Buff. He is portrayed in Goethe! by Moritz Bleibtreu (above), who is such a masterful actor and whose performance as Kestner is so touching and so dominating that Goethe (as portrayed by Fehling) began to seem very silly and not very deep.

It's not surprising that the movie takes liberties with the "historical record," indeed quite amazing liberties. For instance, in real life Goethe knew Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem only in passing, yet in the movie the two are bosom buddies, sharing a desk at the cameral court, getting drunk together, and racing through the countryside on horseback. Goethe is even shown as present at Jerusalem's suicide. The biggest liberty is in the relationship between Goethe and Lotte Buff. As mentioned above, Kestner was long engaged to Lotte when Goethe appeared in Wetzlar, yet the movie portrays Goethe as having been there first and, moreover, having sex with her. Yes, bare bodies and all.

Right from the start, however, I was struck by how much even a Goethe scholar like myself tends to view Goethe's life in these months through the lens of the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The screenplay makes the most of this tendency, leaving in certain scenes from the novel, e.g., the iconic one of Lotte slicing bread for her brothers and sisters.

And it transforms other scenes from the novel, the most compelling one of which is the famous thunderstorm scene with Lotte and Werther. In the novel this scene echoes the scene in Book 4 of the Aeneid, in which Dido and Aeneas, having taken shelter in a cave from a storm, make love. (As portrayed below by Goethe's friend Johann Heinrich Tischbein.) In the movie, Goethe and Lotte take shelter from a storm in a cave, where the sex scene takes place.

Emilia Galotti, a copy of which is found on Werther's desk after his suicide, is shown in the movie to be Lotte's favored reading. The movie even tries to tell us where the name "Werther" comes from: we see Lotte writing Goethe a letter beginning "Mein Werther" (i.e., My dear one).

Still, the movie was lots of fun, mostly because of its wonderful recreation of 18th-century life. You really get the feeling for the roughness and debauchery of ordinary life, the public nature of even private moments. The house in which Lotte lives with her many siblings is wonderfully re-created, as are the restrictive circumstances in which that family lives. Clearly, however, the director is trying to illustrate the sources of artistic inspiration. There is a wonderful scene of Goethe and Jerusalem at the market in Wetzlar, getting drunk and cavorting with ladies of the night, that suggests a re-creation of Walpurgis Night; they even watch a performance of a Faust puppet play.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Goethe's Venetian epigrams

I have wanted to continue the previous postings, on Goethe in Venice, and I spent some time in the past couple of weeks reading the so-called Venetian Epigrams. At first glance, I was not too impressed. They seemed to me to be rather sterile. The meter also didn't seem natural (Goethe was experimenting with classical forms), and the attempt to imitate Latin grammar meant that you often have to read the poems several times to figure out which noun goes with which verb. Moreover, the mythological apparatus sounds false. There is also the offputting cynicism, which, however, is part of the conventions of the genre.

Yet a deeper immersion proves more interesting. At the same time, there are some problems in discussing the epigrams as a poetic "product" or collection.

The stay in Venice, from March 31 to May 22, 1790, inspired Goethe to write "several hundred" epigrams, which he began to assemble in a Libellus Epigrammatum on his return to Weimar. Twenty-four such poems appeared, under the title "Sinngedichte" (the German poetic term for epigram), in Deutsche Monatschrift in 1791. It is a fairly innocuous effort. At Schiller's encouragement Goethe made a larger selection, of 103 epigrams, which appeared in Musenalmanach fur das Jahr 1796. The Munich edition of Goethe's works includes these 103 poems, under the title "Epigramme. Venedig 1790," but it also publishes (alongside the "Sinngedichte") "Epigrammen Erstes Buch Venedig 1790" and "Epigramme Zweites Buch," containing 136 in total.

There are various manuscripts of Goethe's epigrams, but none can be taken as definitive. The Munich edition is clearly trying to demonstrate that there is some kind of structural principle. The collection containing 103, for instance, and that of 136 show many duplications, but the poems also follow a different order. Compounding the problem is that some of the people who handled Goethe's manuscripts after his death went through them and literally used a razor to excise offensive passages. I mentioned in an earlier posting on this subject that one of the themes of the epigrams was religion. I was quite taken aback at the animus toward Christianity in "Epigrammen Erstes Buch Venedig 1790." At least in formal terms, this animus in toned down in the collection of 103 epigrams.

It strikes me that these problematic aspects are irresolvable, and as I read and reread the poems it seemed that the greater problem is that Goethe's epigrams seek to accommodate material that is not appropriate to the genre. The overriding theme is the felt tension between the present situation of Venice, a place that draws travelers and is therefore to be savored, and the longing for home, where the beloved is.

I think that there are two ways that Goethe might have solved the problem. The first would have been to restrict himself to composing a cycle of poems based on the love for Christiane and their child. These are, in my view, the best in the collection (see e.g., nos. 95, 96, 98-102). Here, for instance, is David Luke's translation of the first four lines of no. 102:

It is such joy to hug my beloved so close, to desire her,
And in her heartbeat to hear her first confession of love:

Joy still greater to feel life coming, another life pulsing
As it moves, as it thrives, in her dear nourishing womb!

Goethe, however, took his Martial along with him on the trip, evidently intending to be inspired by the ancient genre. In his attempt to be "symbolical," these lovely poems about the beloved jostle uncomfortably alongside very cynical observations on Venice, many about prostitutes and other low life. Since the beloved is Christiane Vulpius, a woman to whom he was not married but who had just borne his son out of wedlock, the juxtaposition of her with prostitutes is jarring, not to mention not very complimentary.

A second method, and more interesting, would have been to have used the material in the epigrams as the basis for a short novel. In that way, the observations on politics and religion and street life would have served as the realistic background for the traveler's musings about what has been left at home. In fact, I may write this novel myself!

Picture credits: Démodé; National Gallery of Art (UK); Sunday Observer; Amazon

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Goethe in Venice

I mentioned in an earlier post three important things that had happened to me in New York. I should have mentioned a fourth, which is my association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not only am I so fortunate as to live just across Central Park from the museum, but I have also been an editorial consultant for many, many years. Before I got my Ph.D., I had been a scholarly editor at the University of Texas Press, which led to my work in Tokyo at the University of Tokyo Press. Later, while writing my early novels and doing my doctoral studies in Manhattan, I continued to work on a part-time basis at the Met. It was while I was writing my dissertation that I met Rick. Though I did teach at local universities while a doctoral student, and later enjoyed my role as chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, my relationship with Rick precluded my accepting an academic appointment outside of New York. Meeting Rick was the best thing that has ever happened to me; I can't imagine now that I would include a tenured university position as among the important things in my life.

To return to that fourth important thing, my association with the Met. Not only do I enjoy the privilege of a close-up view of the workings, indeed the innards, of a great museum, but the steady exposure to works of art constantly prompts me to think about the issue of "taste," which was such an 18th-century concern. I have written on this subject in various posts (e.g., here and here). A small exhibit at the Met, Art in Renaissance Venice, 1400-1515, made me think anew about Goethe's taste in painterly subjects.

According to the Met's website, the exhibition "presents a comparison of the two primary artistic dynasties, the Bellini and the Vivarini, and explores their workshop practices and specializations in the context of the Venetian art market." Goethe mentions the Vivarinis in the essay Ältere Gemälde. Venedig 1790 (published in 1825 in Über Kunst und Alterthum), commenting (WA I, 47, 213) on their placement of small human figures in the painting of Saint Roch in his coffin.The essay begins with comments on the "oldest examples of the newer art," represented by mosaics and "Greek paintings." Of the former he has seen nothing that is worth devoting his attention to. The "old Greek paintings" (die alt-griechischen Gemählde") are to be found in the Greek Orthodox cathedral, and he opines that even the face of the Virgin appears to be modeled on portraits of the imperial family, e.g., Constantine and his mother. I am not sure whether Goethe was aware that these paintings date to no earlier than 1500. In any case, this is a narrative of progress, in techniques and subject matter, culminating with Goethe's favorites: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.

His comments on the techniques of these painters, for instance, the reason for the darkening of the colors over time, shows Goethe at his pedantic, art-student best. He even devotes two sections of this essay (again, illuminating for art historians) on the workshop in the monastery of Saints John and Paul ("eine Art von Akademie der Gemählde-Restauration"). Among other things, he describes the painstaking work that is carried out to repair holes in the canvases of older paintings.

He also seeks to show the emancipation of these artists from religious conventions. I think it is probably true that most of the works we now associate with them are of non-religious subjects, their luscious paintings of the earthly surface of life being heavily represented in public collections today. It's hard to know how many of such paintings Goethe ever saw; clearly in Venice he was viewing paintings in churches and monasteries, many of which are still in situ. The gorgeous photo above by "Maurizio 51," of the interior of the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci, reveals how Goethe probably viewed much of the art he saw in Venice.

His comments on Tintoretto's painting of the appearance of the angel to Saint Roch in prison are interesting. In order to render the "repulsive subject" more tasteful (schmackhaft), Tintoretto has drafted "beautiful female witnesses." (Detail at top of post.) How else to explain the presence of these courtesan-appearing women in such a setting? Really, should one have trapped a saint and females of bad reputation (Mädchen eines übeln Lebens) in the same cell with other criminals?

I posted earlier on Goethe's dislike of religious art, because of the "repulsive" or "gruesome" subject matter. The Met exhibit had a nice little painting of such a subject, by Antonio Vivarini. It is entitled Saint Peter Martyr Healing the Leg of a Young Man, from about 1450. It depicts the Dominican saint (as per the label) "healing a young man who cut off his own leg in penitence for having kicked his mother"! Since it was probably commissioned for a Dominican church or confraternity, Goethe may have even seen it. The notion of sin was becoming passe obviously.

Painting credits: MMA, Robert Lehman Collection (1975.1.81); MMA, Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation (37.163.4)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Goethe in Venice

I mentioned earlier that friends had vacationed in Venice before New Year's and sent me the reminder in the photo at the left (click to enlarge and see the sign indicating "viale Goethe") that Goethe had left his mark on the city. Today I will write a bit about the city's mark on him, which is one of the lesser fields of Goethe scholarship.

Travel accounts of the past two centuries are often records of desire, particularly the attempts of travelers to discern the past in the milieu of the present. Thus, 17th- and 18th-century travelers to Italy sought to resurrect the vanished classical past from the ancient ruins. For northern European travelers, especially Germans, Rome in particular occupied an outsized role in the imagination.

Goethe had longed since his youth to visit Italy, which he finally did in 1786, spending two years there. As Nicholas Boyle writes in his biography of Goethe, however, the real Italy itself was merely confirmation that "the object of his desires had a place and habitation on this earth." Those two years in Italy were not really spent on the ground, but "in Arcadia, in a creation of his mind and heart." Goethe devoted little attention to the actual Italy (unless it was geological or plant in nature), exploring few of the customs of the land, the very thing that most of us look forward to experiencing in foreign countries. The difference can be seen by comparing Goethe's Italian Journey with the diaries and memoirs of Friederike Brun, who spent considerable time in Rome and southern Italy exploring both the past and documenting the present. Her writings of these years were published before Goethe's Italian Journey, and I suspect he studied them closely. (My account of Frederike Brun as a traveler can be found in this publication.)

Goethe had passed through Venice on his first Italian journey, but it was in 1790 that he returned, on a quasi-official Weimar mission: the Duke's mother had been in Rome for the past two years, and Goethe was to accompany her on this stage of her return trip to Weimar. Her delay in leaving Rome, however, meant that Goethe stayed longer than expected. By now, Goethe had settled in Weimar with Christiane and had a small son, a domestic situation that was clearly satisfactory. Thus, the epigrams record disappointment at what is not in Venice: the snowy mountains of the north and the German Faustina left behind in Weimar. The erotic vein of the Roman Elegies is abandoned. In contrast, Italy on this second journey was more clearly observed than on the first, "imaginative," visit. It was now, writes Boyle, "a place of dusty roads and dishonest hotel keepers."The literary product that emerged is the Venezianische Epigramme, a "cycle" of 100 or so short poems that drew their formal inspiration from such ancient precedents as Martial.

This collection occupies a secondary place in Goethe scholarship, probably because of the seemingly unmediated character of the reflections in the poems. Boyle writes of this being a "distempered time" for Goethe. What is unprecedented about this work is that they are "full of Goethe's opinions. ... Never before in his writing have views been expressed in so undramatized a form, so unattached to any persona other than of Goethe at a particular time and in a particular place." Boyle also adds that "the image of the traveler, of the man who is not at home, is fundamental to the collection." Thus, Goethe would seem to exemplify the flâneur (see also here), before being a flâneur became a literary and artistic subject.

Though the subjects are wide-ranging and, unlike in the Roman Elegies, contain quick sketches of Venetian daily life, Boyle identifies three thematic areas: political, cultural, and sexual. The effects of the French Revolution was in its early stages, and Goethe's references to street-corner revolutionaries contain some interesting observations, including, I was interested to see, the following two lines on the nature of freedom of speech. (The epigram itself, however, went unpublished in his lifetime.)

Leider läßt sich noch kaum was rechtes denken und sagen
Das nicht grimmig den Staat, Götter and Sitten verlezt.

(Unfortunately it is hardly possible to think or say anything right that is not savagely wounding to the state, the gods, and morals.)

Sex seemed to preoccupy Goethe at this time. For instance, he devotes some lines to Venetian prostitutes, whom he had seen in his wanderings in the labyrinth of Venice streets. Of these epigrams Boyle writes that their character was so explicit -- nudity, erections, masturbation, sodomy, venereal disease -- that they were not published for over a century.

The third theme shows Goethe, as Boyle writes, at his most "explicitly and violently" anti-Christian. "Christianity is presented as a series of illusions," while the epigrams consistently focus instead on "Epicurean materialism," which offers "the unadulterated truth" about God, man, and the world.

According to the Goethe-Handbuch, Goethe failed to mention ("with a single word") the grand palaces on the Canal (seen above in the gorgeous photo above by Todd Landry), and the Byzantine and Gothic influences on the architecture simply passed him by. He had the following to say about St. Mark's: "The architectural style is commensurate with every manner of nonsense that was taught or perpetrated there." Goethe did not, however, neglect the paintings to be found in Venice, and he and his companions, Friedrich Bury and Johann Heinrich Meyer, made a systematic tour of practically every church and public collection in the lagoon city and, in this way was Goethe's understanding of the history of Venetian painting enriched.

This post is becoming very long. Thus, I hope to devote the following post to a continuation of Goethe in Venice, in particular to his impressions of the paintings he saw there, reflected in an essay from 1825, Ältere Gemälde. Venedig 1790.

Picture credit: Visual Culture; Todd Landry (as above)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Versatile Blogger award

Since Christmas, when I got an email from friends who were visiting Venice, I have been contemplating a posting on Goethe and Venice. Today, however, I will do something different, though it begins with kayaking, which is not foreign to this blog. One afternoon seven summers ago Rick and I were walking along the Hudson River when we noticed a sign advertising "Free Kayaking." We had the choice of two singles or a double. We took a double, the last time that ever happened: Rick liked to call doubles "divorce boats." Thus began our adventure with the Downtown Boathouse organization. We became volunteers in the 72nd Street program and kayakers. Of the two of us, I was the more avid; Rick took up biking four years ago, but he was always on hand at the end of Sunday afternoon to close up the program.

I always like to say that three important things happened to me in New York that would surprise folks back in Louisville. First among them was that I met and married Rick. The second was that I was published (book reviews) in The Wall Street Journal. The third was that I kayaked in the Hudson River. There is not a single Goethe scholar among the folks I kayak with. But though we have come together from very different backgrounds, united by our love of the water and the craft of kayaking, I have discovered in my recent troubles some very staunch supporters, like XL and Derick (at left) and Larry (pictured with me below at the Boathouse).

Also among them are Vlad and Johna, kayakers extraordinaire. Finally I am getting around to the subject of today's post, the Versatile Blogger award. I was nominated for it by Vlad and Johna's blog "Wind Against Current." I love their blog for several reasons. First off, Vlad and Johna are always describing kayak trips that I wish I were on, e.g., a circumnavigation of Staten Island. (And I remember when the height of my kayaking achievements was to kayak across New York Harbor to Governors Island!) Their descriptions communicate the fun and joy that one has in kayaking. And they offer fabulous photos (taken by Vlad) of the trips. Summer, winter, whenever: the weather doesn't stop them.

Among the qualities for consideration for the award, Versatile Blogger mentions "the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the subjects covered, the level of love displayed in the words on the virtual page ... [and] the quality of the photographs and the level of love displayed in the taking of them." Wind Against Current certainly exemplifies these criteria, but there is another facet that I suspect often emerges in the course of doing a blog: even though one starts a blog with a certain subject (i.e., kayaking), you find yourself venturing into the world. Thus, Vlad recently documented his Christmas tree lighting preferences. Or ice skating in Central Park.

I was very flattered that Vlad and Johna thought I was a versatile blogger. This could have been "only" a Goethe blog, but I was prescient enough to call it "Goethetc." I mentioned in a long-ago post that, when I used to live in Asia, I would write long letters to friends back home telling them about what I was doing. In the electronic age, the blog serves the same function. Those letters took me a long time to compose, and the same goes for the blog. That's why I don't post every day. If I did, I wouldn't have time to do anything else in life.

So, that's the long and short of blogging for today. Versatile Blogger recommends nominating 15 other blogs. Well, I don't follow that many blogs, but I would like to pass on the names of two blogs that I love. The first is Geographic Travels. The force behind it goes by the name "Catholicgauze." He takes us all over the earth, including Iraq and Afghanistan, connecting geography with current politics, most recently on Iran and the straits of Hormuz. He is also something of a cultural anthropologist, and I recently learned that there were not 13 original colonies, but 15. (Check it out.)

The other blog is First Known When Lost, which is one of the most perfect virtual spaces I have ever inhabited. It always features a poem and at least one painting. The title of the blog tells much about the contents. It is a place to stop and contemplate, to reflect on the things that matter -- and that have always mattered. Enough said. Go and look.