Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Scythian horseman
I was reading this morning an essay by Susan M. Shell on "Kant's Conception of the Nation-State and the Idea of Europe" (to be found in this volume). I referred in an earlier posting to Rousseau's animus against cosmopolitanism. In a note Shell quotes Rousseau from Emile on this subject: "The Europeans are no longer Gauls, Germans, Iberians, and Allobroges. They are nothing but Scythians who have degenerated in various ways."

The quote is interesting. Is Rousseau assuming there was a "European" identity, or may he simply be referring to the various peoples who occupied "continental" Europe?

Certainly cosmopolitanism was not spread simply by the advance of Enlightenment ideas. I have been arguing for a long time that the spread of "Enlightenment" was as much due to commerce as to the power of ideas simply sweeping aside superannuated notions and prejudices. "Europeanism," however, also had a material component, the spread of similar goods and services across a region uniting people in habits on consumption and manners. It is become conventional wisdom that trade and commerce and the long-range communications that result are evil. Thus, Rousseau, who linked commerce to the decay of manners. I don't know, however, if he specifically linked it with cosmopolitanism. Here is another Frenchman, François-Noel Babeuf (1760-1797), discoursing on greed, who must be considered a utopian:

"Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others."

Similarly, Morelly in Code de la Nature, of 1755:

"The only vice that I perceive in the universe is Avarice; all the others, by whatever name they be known, are only variations, degrees, of this one."

I don't believe Goethe ever discoursed in this way, though I am willing to be corrected.

Photo credit: Fravahr

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The starry skies above

Beethoven vor nächtlichem Sternenhimmel (Richard Pfeiffer)
The back problem continues today. Thus, another day on my back in bed, which has its positive side. It is rather meditative, because I don't get up and move around. Thank goodness I have a laptop. I have spoiled myself, for instance, allowing myself a second cup of tea in the afternoon. It is true that I can stand and walk, but sitting for any length of time is out of the question. Last evening I ventured out for a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and am paying the price today.

In connection with the Beethoven string quartets being performed there, the Met has offered two lectures on Beethoven. The one last evening on Beethoven and the Romantic sublime was by Marsha Morton of the Pratt Institute. It was an excellent paper, but I am not sure what the general Met audience took away from the presentation, even if it was accompanied by slides: references to Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kant, and Schiller's essay on the poetry of Friedrich von Matthisson are only a few of the names that flew around fast and furious.

In contrast, Edmund Morris's talk three days before on the effect of Beethoven's deafness on his late works was audience-friendly, with a lot of learning dished out in small doses and enlivened with audio clips and with Morris himself at the piano illustrating some of his points.

Nevertheless, both presentations helped me to understand why I find Beethoven's music, aside from the sonatas, so torturous to listen to. Morton concentrated on the dissonance, irregularity, bombast, and so on that characterize the aesthetics of the sublime in the late 18th and early 19th century. Early critics of Beethoven, finding him unlistenable, remarked on just these characteristics. Morton gave credit to E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose  essay on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony fashioned the new and appreciative reception of Beethoven.

Beethoven watches over Liszt's performance (Josef Danhauser, 1840)
It wouldn't be a contemporary talk if gender issues were not introduced, in particular the "masculine" qualities of the sublime (already discussed by Edmund Burke) and thus sublime music, according to Morton became more and more eroticized by the time of Liszt.

The title of Edmund Morris's talk was "The Roar That Lies on the Other Side of Silence," and he made a plausible case for the effect of Beethoven's early tinnitus and the drumming and roaring in his ears as deafness set in. According to the program, "Beethoven's most exquisite (or sometimes frightening) effects may have arisen from his deafness."

Well, one man's exquisite is another man's torture. When I first met Rick, my husband, he was part of a music group that met monthly to listen to music, with one person each time presenting new recordings. One of the members of the group, quite knowledgeable, nevertheless hated what she called "nervous music"; thus, the group didn't listen to music written after Schubert's death, 1828. Rick was more ecumenical. Toward the end he especially liked Mahler.

The final audio clip of Morris's presentation was the full recording of "Meeresstille," which Morris prefaced by noting that Goethe had not even responded after  Beethoven had sent him the score. I had to laugh at that, especially after hearing the recording. No doubt, I am one of those people who prefer pleasant (angenehme) music. I presume Goethe was also. As I wrote in an essay a few years ago, Goethe seems to have put the sublime behind him quite early, way before the Romantic writers took it up.

Picture credit: Beethoven Haus, Bonn; Objective Art

Thursday, February 21, 2013


I hurt my back at the gym yesterday and ended up on my back most of the day. I listened to Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762), recorded by LibriVox. The readers are a mixed lot, not as good as the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Still, a good way to spend the day when I could barely walk and found it difficult to read in a prone position.

About a year ago I took the above picture, because the advertisement reflects what I have noticed about European tourists in New York. One used to be able to tell Germans apart from the French or the Scandinavians, the Spanish from the Italians, and so on. Germans do wear strange eyeglasses, not to mention their color sense is really weird, but nowadays Europeans are practically indistinguishable. Rousseau seems to have made a similar observation, according to David A. Bell (writing in The New Republic):

"Rousseau loathed cosmopolitanism, and believed in the deliberate cultivation of national identity. In one of his lesser political works, he lamented the fact that 'today, no matter what people may say, there are no longer any Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, or even Englishmen; there are only Europeans. All have the same tastes, the same passions, the same manners [ ...] all talk of the public welfare, and think only of themselves.'"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Goethe and Rousseau

Yesterday I made chili, and, what do you know, it actually tasted like chili. In between I was reading Rousseau, mostly in connection with the 18th-century roots of modern utopian thinking, on which I will be giving a paper at a conference in September.

 My reading up until now suggests that two of the major utopian ventures in the 19th century, those of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, were influenced principally by the "rationalists" among the Enlightenment. This rationalism is graphically expressed in the architecture of the Owenite and Fourier settlements.

And in particular in the writings of Robert Owen, one gets the feeling that he believed that once people "saw the light" concerning social ills they would immediately convert to a rational program of amending these ills. Edward Bellamy, clearly inspired by such rationalism, wrote a novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, in which all the ills of a future society had been eliminated. The life of this new society, however, in the words of William Morris, was that of a "machine life." Morris writes of Bellamy: "His only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of its by means of ever fresh developments in machinery."

Preparing the ingredients
 (Virginia Woolf, reviewing in 1918 a novel entitled A Practical Utopia, wrote that "too much stress seems to be laid upon the development of electricity and too little upon the development of humanity. ... It is comparatively easy to imagine a town clear of smoke, or dinner raised by touching a switch, or an entire house run by a competent engineer in the basement.")

I bring in Morris because he had a different vision of utopia, which he described in his review of Bellamy's novel. namely, a society in which every citizen felt himself to be responsible for and interested in the details of its administration, in which "the business of life" was not shuffled off "on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State," and in which "variety of life" was as much society's aim as "equality of condition."

The vegetables are cooking
This is a long way around of getting to Rousseau and Goethe, but Morris's utopian vision was a "small state solution," and the "romance" he wrote portraying it, News from Nowhere, was influenced by the "creative" Rousseau, a man of the heart and passions. It was this Rousseau that had an effect on the Sturm und Drang Goethe. This morning I finished rereading Rousseau's 1750 essay on the effect of the arts and sciences upon morals. What a screed! But Werther's criticisms of "scholars" and the imagery of virtue and innocence in Lotte's quasi-idyllic life in The Sorrows of Young Werther certainly owe a lot to Rousseau's prelapsarian projections. Idylls and utopian literature have much in common, lacking the so-called evils of civilized life against which Rousseau anathematized.

Goethe would seem not to have taken Rousseau's writings on political theory into account, e.g., The Social Contract (1762), although he must certainly have known of these writings, especially after the French revolutionaries claimed Rousseau as one of their own. The opening of Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen certainly draws on Rousseau: "Law is the expression of the general will." Because of the excesses of the French Revolution it may have followed that Rousseau himself was to blame. After all, had he not written in The Social Contract: "Individuals become citizens by surrendering their private interests and opinions to the 'general will'"?

Almost ready to eat
Rather than presaging totalitarianism, the term "general will" reminds me instead of Adam Smith's use of the term "invisible hand." Smith meant by this the process by which markets automatically channel self-interest toward socially desirable ends. Rousseau's amour propre and pitié were the sentiments in humans that also allowed them to think beyond their private interests and, instead, in terms of others and thus the interests of all. (I was interested to see that the editor of my Rousseau edition claims that ethically the "General Will" is "one and the same as Kant's concept of moral rationality.") Of course, Rousseau also inveighed against money and trade as contemporary perversions of morals. He would not have understood that markets can be moral. (More on this another time.)

Goethe was not a political thinker like Kant or Rousseau. He was a practical man, hardened by work in the administration of the duchy. His own ideas on a future in which people would not be at war or enmity were contained in the concept of "world literature." But more on that later, too.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Goethe and America

"Flourishing Tomahawk," by N.C. Wyeth (1925)
 Between his youth and his older years America became of more interest to Goethe. Ernst Beutler, as I mentioned in the preceding post, traces this transformation in the early article "Von der Ilm zum Susquehanna: Goethe und Amerika in ihren Wechselbeziehungen." The most manifest indication of this interest is the Wilhelm Meister series, not in the Theatrical Mission, in which America is not mentioned at all, but initially in the Apprenticeship ("Amerika [wird] als Widerspiel von Europa eingeflochten"), then more fully in the Journeyman Years. Goethe wrote the first two at the end of the 18th century, the last in the 19th. By then, the U.S. had become an independent nation, and the world itself (the European world, in any case) had entered a new era, that of "Welthändel." Many Germans left their homeland and emigrated to the other side of the Atlantic. Beutler is also of the opinion that Goethe lost his trust in the "Old World." He despaired of Europe's capacity to adapt to the machine-and-masses future. He began to see that the future belonged to the "New World," in particular the U.S.

What struck me most was Goethe's positive view of America. Already in the late 18th century, America was viewed unfavorably by most of his contemporaries. I posted earlier about Ellis Shookman's article "Attitudes to North America in Wieland's Teutscher Merkur." Germans had many aspirations for the new republic, but as soon as it came into being the carping began, with the usual suspects decrying Americans' commercialism and lack of culture. Goethe seems to have been more influenced by the account of Prince Bernhard, the second son of Carl August, who traveled for a year in the U.S., from July 1825 to June 1826. It goes without saying that most of the people Prince Bernhard encountered were of high rank, including the second President Adams. The prince's portrayal of America charmed Goethe so much that he began reading Fenimore Cooper's novels, six of them in English, at the age of 76!

If the young Goethe had looked to the classical past, to Italy, the older Goethe looked toward the future. He recognized in America a world power in nuce. This is clear from his comments on the Panama Canal, which he was sure the U.S. would build. (This was indeed the case, though not until later in the century and certainly not as Goethe envisaged.) Speaking with Eckermann in 1827, he said that the U.S. should not let the opportunity pass it by: "It can be foreseen that this youthful nation, with its determined tendency toward the West, will in thirty to forty years have taken possession of and populated the great regions on the other side of the mountain ranges." He further predicted that large trading cities would be built on the Pacific coast, extending trade to China and the East Indies. How accurate he was!

Prince Bernhard's travel account also included his visit to a Moravian settlement on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where the prince was overjoyed at hearing German spoken all day long. Thus, Goethe sent his band of emigrants to seek their fortune in America. While so many have come here to make their fortune, to pursue dreams that could not be realized in their homeland, others sought to build utopia here.

Picture credit: Bluegrass Special

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Goethe and America

I have started reading Ernst Beutler's essay "Von der Ilm zum Susquehanna: Goethe und Amerika in ihren Wechselbeziehungen." Susquehanna is a river in the Northeast, where Coleridge contemplated locating a utopian colony of Pantisocrats. As I prepare for the paper I will be presenting in September, on the 18th-century sources of utopian thinking, I am trying to keep Goethe in the picture.

By the way, the website is now up for the conference: "Culture Shock, Utopian Dreams, Hard Realities."

The painting above, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, was executed by John Trumbull ten years after the event. Goethe, according to Beutler, saw the painting in Stuttgart in 1797, and "thus got an idea of contemporary American painting." He wrote to Schiller about the work, in which he saw combined "the excellences of the artist and the errors of the dilettante." Trumbull had finished the painting in London, but found there no engraver to reproduce it; thus, he brought it to the Messe in Frankfurt and gave it to a dealer named Poggi, who found an engraver in Stuttgart. According to Beutler, on his return from Paris Trumbull picked up the original and the engraving, with which he was immensely pleased. President George Washington was the leading "subscriber" to receive a copy. Years later, in an essay in Kunst und Altertum, concerning battle paintings, Goethe returned to a discussion of Trumbull's painting.