Friday, November 22, 2013

De-accessioning things

I have been going through my husband's books in preparation for donating them to the Philosophy Program at the Graduate Center of CUNY. We met in the library there many years ago, when I was writing my dissertation. I was looking up something on Leibniz; Rick's interest was Newton, who stands on the shelves right next to Leibniz in the Library of Congress classification. He came up to me and asked me about my interest in Newton. The rest is history.

Among his books I found my ancient copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which I mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. It is amazing what a pack rat I am, having toted that volume around all these many years. I must have thought I would get beyond that first sentence, and indeed I have pulled it from the books that will go the Graduate Center. So, perhaps in this lifetime ...

Rick's jahrzeit was November 2, though his actual date of death was November 26, just a few days from now. I can hardly believe that I have lived two years without him, have been without the special joy he brought to me life. The one thing that has kept me going during my grief has been my work. There was much struggle with the Bodmer essay, but finally it appeared. Also some book reviews and a couple of essays.

I have not been very good these past two years in clearing out Rick's things. It is heart-breaking to go through his clothes, but especially his many notebooks, which include, for instance, the many notes he took on Newton's optics and on German Romantic-period science, in preparation for a project we would one day undertake together. I have been very concerned, however, that my apartment might degenerate into the state it was in when I met Rick, during that dissertation phase, so I have been ever mindful these two years that I have to prevent that. Finally I am ready to let go of his books.

I have had a bookplate prepared to insert in the books, which indicates his interest in color theory.

Picture credit: Color System

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vanity and Goethe's mysterious "Kästchen"

The Morning Toilette, by Petro Antonio Martini
I was browsing the fall issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table, by Jane Adlin. As she points out in her introduction, "the history of the vanity begins, arguably, not with a table but a box." The first illustration is of the cosmetic box of the cupbearer Kemeni of the Twelfth Dynasty, which was made of cedar with ebony and ivory veneer and silver mounting.  The box, a storage container for ointments, face paints, perfumes, and other potions, was excavated in 1910 from the tomb of Reniseneb by Lord Carnarvon. Of course, I thought of Goethe's tale Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren as I browsed the Bulletin, which contains beautiful examples of portable boxes and tables.

According to Adlin, self-adornment and the use of cosmetics went into decline in western Europe in the fifth century, to reemerge in the Renaissance among the aristocracy. Thus, the demand for "specifically designed accoutrements," which for me would seem to be another indication of the way that fashion has transformed the West. It is no surprise that the dressing table, as Adlin writes, "reached the apex of its role as both a marker of social standing and an object of fine design and craftsmanship."

Dressing table, 1760-90 (MMA 62.171.14)
It was during this same period that another vanity was devised to address the latest personal grooming trend, this time among men: shaving. I must say that this is a subject that I have never thought of in connection with the "age of Goethe." Yet every picture of Goethe (Schiller, too, and others) shows him clean-shaven. Adlin writes that men, unlike women, stood at this morning ritual, which led to a construction with drawers for holding grooming supplies and an adjustable mirror. Did Goethe have one of these? Did he shave every day?

Toilet Service, 1683-84 (MMA 63.70.1-21)
Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren of course contains a "Toilettenkästchen" (has a study been done of the many mysterious Kästchen in Goethe's works, e.g., that of Ottilie in Die Wahlverwandtschaften?) with its promise of "Verjüngungskunst." The example above from the Met's Bulletin gives an idea of this object. The mock-serious scene at the top, also from the Bulletin, shows the practice of a fashionable young Frenchman at his morning toilette.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The physiognomy of nature

River Paraiba do Sul by Johann Moritz Rugendas, ca. 1820-25
I read contemporary fiction, at least a dozen novels a year. Some years ago, about the time I stopped teaching, I inherited a book group. It had begun meeting decades earlier, when several housewives-mothers formed the group in order to continue reading the novels they loved in their youth and college days. The group’s members are now grandmothers, and over the years several have died or moved on and others have joined, but there is a core that has been around the entire time. When the group arrived on my doorstep, it had gone through the major classics and was mostly reading contemporary fiction.

Alongside discussions of the literary qualities of a novel (or lack thereof) as well as ferreting out forgotten classics and the top of the "B" list (for instance, Somerset Maugham), I have several goals. First, to evaluate what reviewers and critics think important in literary fiction. Second, to be skeptical of said critics and reviewers. Like many New Yorkers, the women are inclined to follow the guidance of the The New York Times, but, after many disappointments, they have learned that few novels merit the effusive praise bestowed on them by reviewers. Likewise, the Booker Prize winners have turned out to be a mixed bag. Therefore, we discuss the judgments of reviewers and how those judgments are formed. We address the question of whether there is something called literary standards; or whether it is sufficient simply to "like" something. In this connection, I manage now and then to introduce a little of Kant's aesthetics.

I can't help noticing that non-American novelists have more of a philosophical mind set than do American writers. If one reads The New York Times Book Review, one gets a strange idea of the most important novelistic subjects. Here are a few pull quotes from that eminent publication:

"Only Bitterness Remains: In David Vann's first novel, isolation and an Alaskan winter take their toll on a marriage" 

"Growing up Fast: As this novel's 14-year-old narrator looks on, her affluent suburban family disintegrates"

"Power of Recall: A writer recollects her long-estranged mother, and her own long-estranged childhood"

Dysfunctional Family by Tim Slowinski
It can't be denied that such novels portray a fragmentation of the contemporary social fabric, which is certainly the case, but is life in America really so dysfunctional, or do these works merely confirm the vision of America as a bad place that acquisitions editors learned about in college?

How refreshing it is to read European or South American writers, whose writings leave such a deeper impression on the mind! In the spring we read Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque, and Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox. This "season" we are reading Tom McCarthy's very weird The Remainder and Zola's Ladies Paradise.

We just finished the novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by the prolific Argentinian writer César Aira. The landscape painter in question is Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), one of a number of German painters who traveled to the New World during the "century of peace" following the Napoleonic wars. Rugendas's travels took him to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial territories. No sooner did Daniel Kehlmann feature Alexander von Humboldt as a novelistic subject in Measuring the World, here he appears again, though not in person.

The novella concerns Rugendas's attempt to portray the landscapes of the Caribbean and Central and South America according to the physiognomic theories of Humboldt. The term is suggestive of Lavater, of course, but though Airas does not mention Goethe it seems to have been through Humboldt's friendship with Goethe that he developed his theory of landscape portrayal. Goethe in turn was influenced by Philipp Hackert.

Landscape with a Calm by Poussin, 1650-51
(J. Paul Getty Museum)
This view of landscape was different from that of the "classical" views of, e.g., Poussin or Claude, who were not realists: their trees and vegetation, for instance, all look alike. Humboldt encouraged painters to attempt a fidelity to elements of the landscape, but at the same time to present a picture of nature that would also be an image of history and culture. Be faithful to nature, but not subservient to reality. This perhaps followed Goethe's morphology: the "law" behind the formation of natural forms was derived from the forms themselves, from their physiognomy.

So it was that Rugendas, as portrayed in the novella, is continually making sketches that will then be integrated into a meaningful "totality," a Naturgemälde. Besides the wonderful writing, what makes An Episode fun to read is that the narrator keeps dropping bits of seemingly profound observation about art, performance, optics, civilization, and history. The backdrop of course is the imposition of the European colonial vision on the non-European continent and people, which leads to the "episode" that changes the life of the painter Rugendas.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wittgenstein on progress

When I first studied in Germany, in Marburg, many years ago, I was still in my teens and rather uneducated. Some fellow students were discussing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which led me to buy a copy (in the neat Suhrkamp edition) of the Tractatus. The first proposition brought me up short: "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." Such a simple sentence, but what did it mean?

Something similar had happened to me two years earlier, during my freshman year in college, when I opened the big textbook for my Sociology 101 class. The opening sentence of the first chapter: "Sociology is one of the social sciences." It was English, but what on earth did it mean? The sentence represented a kind of intellectual Rubicon: would I cross it and stumble forward, or take the easier path and retreat? The decision is obvious. I forged on with that class, also with German 101, and two years later I was studying in Marburg, still baffled by many things. One might say that I had "progressed" intellectually, but the experience illustrates how difficult such progress is.

This experience came back to me recently while reading a post on one of my favorite blogs, First Known When Lost. The post was about the vanishing of a once-familiar world, and introduced a poem by the English poet Kathleen Raine. FKWL is a richly illustrated blog and in this case included paintings by Samuel Palmer. At the end of the post, the FKWL blogger commented on the present-day belief that we have "advanced" beyond our forefathers. It is true that I have progressed beyond the intellectual accomplishments of my own parents, but do I possess any more wisdom or understanding of life? Hard to judge, except in a subjective sense.

In concluding the post, our blogger quoted Wittgenstein on progress, contradicting the optimism of the 18th-century philosophes:

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Basil Blackwell 1969).

Picture credit: New Philosophy

Saturday, November 2, 2013

World literature and communications

For ages now I have been questioning the use of the word "progress" in the sense of moral improvement. It is true that our ethical sphere has expanded over the past two centuries (abolition of slavery, emancipation of women), but I am troubled by our tendency to regard such "advances" as the outcome of our moral superiority over previous generations, even sometimes the immediate past. In the 18th century, the philosophes censured the religious and social institutions of the past because of the latter's imposition of what the philosophes saw as backwardness. We have moved far beyond the 18th century, however, and it seems that every week I come across a review or an article in which the 1950s is described as an age of "repression." We are all moving "forward," thus Vorwärts.

My contention is that all of this progress has been propelled by mundane material factors, carried by the explosion of industry and technology in the early modern period. World commerce and trade multiplied the objects of fashion and in our households to such an extent that we became "cosmopolitan" in ways of life and standards of living. Something similar took place in the cultural sphere. Despite the historical rivalries between the countries of Europe, each began to assimilate some flavor of the culture of the others. As Joseph Texte wrote in Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature, the "classical spirit" of French literature absorbed Nordic input from England and Germany.

Commerce doesn't stay with the same old same old. Some new item of trade is always required to lure consumers. Novelty is thus the engine of capitalism. Our attitudes and values travel the same path, as we exchange old ones for new, more enlightened ones. To take an example from my own lifetime. Back in the 1950s, one spoke of divorce as causing a "broken home." Many decades down the road, it turns out that we were living on the cusp of a profound change in family relations, indeed on the cusp of "single-parent households."

Kant saw in cosmopolitanism a requisite for universal peace among nations. Peace, however, requires a lack of competition, which seems hardly compatible with capitalism and the constant production of novelty. Hegel gave a spiritual spin on this materialistic process, and it was left to others to change what Hannah Arendt has called "the interpretation of history into the making of history," e.g., Karl Marx. Together with Goethe's pronouncements on the subject, Fritz Strich described world literature in terms of a dialectical movement of the spirit of different nationalities.

Goethe seems much more modest in his thoughts on world literature. I can't help thinking that he somehow envisioned the development of communications technologies, although in his life only the semaphore (from 1790; it must have played a role in the military skirmishes between the French and the allied forces that Goethe observed first hand) showed the possibility of almost-simultaneous communication over long distances. Of course, he did not propose effacing the individual character of "peoples" or nations into even a "European spirit." World literature is thus an advanced form of "communications" technology. I wonder what his reaction would be to our contemporary modes of communication.

Picture credits: Luctor et emergo; Majstersztyk

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The cosmopolitan spirit"

Just a few more comments on Joseph Texte's book on Rousseau and cosmopolitanism. Texte seems to define cosmopolitanism as Romanticism bred with the "classical spirit," the latter of French provenance, of course. This cosmopolitanism has now (writing in 1899) gone on to "embrace the literature of the world." Thus, Frenchmen like Hugo and Chateaubriand, he writes, are no longer Frenchmen in the way of their predecessors, but speak to a more "European side of the national genius."

He then imagines a literary scenario that, in many respects, has come to pass by the early 21st century. Noting the number of books published on the "little European continent," the multiplicity of translations, and facility of exchange, he asks the following:

Would it be so absurd if, from the comparison, the juxtaposition, and, let us admit it, the confusion of so many works from every country in Europe, there should result a sort of composite ideas consisting of elements artificially compounded so as to form a literature no longer ether English or German or French, but simply European--until the time should come when it would be universal? Should such a day ever arrive, across the frontiers  -- if any remain -- there will be stretched a network of invisible bonds which will unite nation to nation and, as of old during the Middle Ages, will form a collective European soul.

He does not see this "peril" as imminent, as there remain obstacles in its way, "men held together for long years to come by community of race, of language, and of historical tradition" and preserving the literary heritage as a "sacred legacy." Leslie Stephen, in his review of Texte's book, comments on this scenario: "At present, we do not seem to be rapidly approaching the period at which patriotism will be lost in universal philanthropy. When the 'parliament of man' has been elected by the 'federation of the world,' it will be time enough to make up our minds as to the gain and loss."

 Stephen continues:

The real danger is ... a little different. It is quite true that the modern author does his best to be in one way cosmopolitan. He goes about the world searching for new sensations. If an original writer arises in France or Germany, Russia or Norway, he is translated and imitated, and has his sect of fervent admirers in every other civilized country. That, no doubt, represents a very different state of things from the old order, under which each vernacular literature grew up utterly unconscious of the existence of others, or even from the order in which a small body of critics could lay down a code of absolute laws and keep to the elaboration of a single type.

He does not allude to economic trade and commerce, probably because men of intellect like Leslie Stephen (don't forget Carlyle and Ruskin) disdained trade and commerce and believed in something like an intellectual spirit progressing through history.

The spread of Roman culture (click to enlarge)
 From my reading of Goethe's comments on world literature, it strikes me that he was aware that it was specifically the rapidity of world commerce and trade that was affecting the field of culture. He writes, for instance, of the "rapidity" of these transformational processes going on by the early 19th century. According to Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig in his contribution to Debating World Literature (ed. Christopher Prendergast), Goethe was engaged with "a changing field" and thus did not concentrate on any one discipline. Instead, his "encyclopedic interests" caused him to perceive "new general structures for poetic and intellectual work, ... [a] transformation of cultural space ... and the emergent conditions for further interest and exchange."

Commerce in its crassly material sense of economic trade has, by now, produced a composite "West," nations sharing lifestyles that are, with ever lessening national variations, pretty similar. Back in 1950, if my parents had traveled to Europe, they would not have felt comfortable staying in most French or German homes, simply because the interior facilities would have been so foreign to them. Today the differences are ones of style, and indeed many American homes now copy the interiors of French or Italian or German interior decor.

The same goes for literary "products," at least in the literary market place.

Picture credits: San Rafael Chamber of Commerce; Bible Light