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.