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."