Friday, February 28, 2014

Lessing revisted

Lessing, by Cornelius Rinne
On my desk is Jonathan Rée's review (in the London Review of Books, 2/6/14) of a new biography of Lessing by Hugh Nisbet. Reading Lessing's plays in graduate school, I was charmed by the language, which made me think Lessing was, like Goethe, someone I would like to know more about. Rée finds, however, that Lessing is a figure hard to bring into focus. Coleridge, for instance, impressed by Lessing's philosophical essays, found that a Life of Lessing was too much. According to Rée, Coleridge was not to blame:

"Lessing never gave any indication of the kind of unified personality whose growth and vicissitudes might make a good subject for biography. He was one of those writers who play perpetual hide-and-seek with their readers: you may admire him but -- as Kierkegaard once put it -- your admiration 'will not let you enter into a direct relation with him, since what is admirable in him is precisely that he prevents such a thing.'"

True or false? The quote from Kierkegaard comes from "Something about Lessing," which Rée considers "one of the loveliest tributes ever paid by one writer to another." ( Another thing to add my reading list.) In it Kierkegaard confesses that he wasn't keen on the "universally admired" aspects of Lessing.

I've recently come across Lessing in connection with my work on the role of commerce in Goethe's idea of world literature. It concerns a  trial in which Voltaire was involved in 1751 in Berlin and for which Lessing translated some of Voltaire's court documents. In a marvelous book by Jerry Z. Muller, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought, I discovered that Voltaire was a big proponent of the free market. His support is usually seen in connection with his attempt to break down the power of established religion: the London stock exchange, for instance, was a site of "tolerance" among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traders. In the Philosophical Letters, according to Muller, the market was pictured "as the basis of peaceful coexistence." Contrary to many in the 18th century, particularly the church and other moralists, Voltaire defended the pursuit of luxury. "Abundance," he wrote in The Wordling, is "the mother of the arts."

Voltaire held that self-interest was good for the social order, and he took care of his own self-interest. It seems that he was quite avaricious, and he became wealthy by lending large sums of money to members of the royalty in return for lifelong annual payments. For instance, he "donated 150,000 livres to Prince Charles-Eugene of Württemberg, in return for a lifelong annuity of 15,570 francs; in case of his death, 7,500 a year would be paid to his niece and mistress, Mme. Denis." Muller says that Voltaire's famed hypochondria may be attributed in part to these economic pursuits. Although he lived to be eighty-four, Voltaire constantly spoke in the last decades of his life of illness and "his imminent demise." In this way he hoodwinked debtors who were only liable to repay their debt as long as he lived.

Lessing and Lavater at Mendelsohn's home, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1856
In 1750 he moved to Potsdam, at the invitation of Frederick II, and became involved in a financial adventure that led him to a trial that involved illegal financial speculation with the "court Jew" Abraham Hirschel. (A record of the trial is available at Hathi Trust.) Lessing, who had already translated fifteen of Voltaire's historical essays, was employed to translate into German certain pleading in Voltaire's lawsuit against Hirschel. Neither Voltaire nor Hirschel emerged from the lawsuit unscathed. As Adolph Stahr wrote in his biography of Lessing: "Voltaire hatte Anfangs auf die königliche Gunst getrost; aber er mußte bald erfahren, daß der große König in Sachen der Gerechtigkeit keinen Spaß verstand." When Voltaire told Frederick that he had won his lawsuit, the monarch wrote in sarcasm:

Weil Ihr den Prozess gewonnen habt, so wünsche ich Euch Glück dazu. Es ist mir sehr lieb, daß diese häßliche Geschichte einmal ein Ende ist. Ich hoffe, daß Ihr keine Händel weiter haben werdet, weder mit dem neuen Testamente ...

Frederick went on to write a play Tantale en procès, a satirical comedy in which he made fun of the avaricious Voltaire. As Stahr writes: "So kam Voltaire aus diesem schmutzigen Handel noch mit einem blauen Auge davon." Lessing, who had before the trial been a great admirer of Voltaire and had occasionally dined with him in Berlin, expressed his opinion of the poet after the trial in an epigram entitled "Der geizige Dichter." Here are a few lines from a later epigram about the affair:

Und kurz und gut, den Grund zu fassen,
Warum die List
Dem Juden nicht gelungen ist,
So fallt die Antwort ungefähr,
Herr V*** war ein größrer Schelm als er.

According to Muller, Voltaire was time and again accused by friends and associates of the traditional negative attributes associated in the Christian tradition with mercantile activity. Voltaire's reaction was continually to denounce the Jews, a classic case, writes Muller, of projection.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "mind" of capitalism

The illumination of the philosophes
I continue to work on my essay on Fritz Strich and find myself somewhat bogged down in the subject of "Geistesgeschichte." Strich in his writings constantly refers to "Geist," either to German or French "Geist" and so on, or to the "Geist" of history and so on. This can first be seen in a very important essay he published in 1916 entitled "Der lyrische Stil des 17. Jahrhunderts." It is acknowledged that the essay inaugurated the discipline of Baroque literature. An indication of the low regard in which 17th-century literature was held can be seen in a comment by Wilhelm Scherer in his history of German literature (1883): "Aber nie hat ein unbedeutender Dichter mit so geringem Recht eine bedeutende Stellung in der Literaturgeschichte errungen, wie Opitz."

The connection of Geistegeschichte and the inauguration of Baroque literary scholarship has itself become a subject of recent academic interest in recent decades. Hans-Harald Müller in his Barockforschung: Ideologie und Methode, ein Kapitel deutscher Wissenschaftsgeschichte 1870-1930) of 1973 associates the two with proto-fascist tendencies. Klaus Garber in 1976 (Martin Opitz, Der Vater der deutschen Dichtung": eine kritische Studie zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik) finds in Geistegeschichte support of monopoly capitalism in the German empire at the end of the 19th century. Both of these studies are very well researched and documents, but they reflect a tendency of Western intellectual life since the 18th century, namely, to reject the inheritance of the past. In the case of Geistesgeschichte, it is probably the failure of this very optimistic "doctrine" of universal progress that has consigned it to the dust heap of history.

In this article Strich discussed the "naturalization" in German poetry of the baroque (lower case) style. In a much later article (1938) he would discuss the Spanish and Italian roots of "baroque," but in 1916 he was simply making the point that the accentuation of German poetry, its "Betonung," and the contraries contained in the alexandrine style, made it a "natural" for the German language to express the new "spirit of the time." This spirit was a realization of "den jähen Wechsel aller Dinge, ... : daß alles auf Erden eitel ist, ein Schatten, ein Wind, ein Rauch, ein verklingnder Ton, eine Welle. Man ist ein Ball, den das Verhängnis schlägt, ein Kahn auf dem empörten Meer, ein Rohr, das jeder Wind bewegt."

The Thirty Years' War plays a big role in the interpretation of this mood of the time. Henning Boetius, in his edition of Daniel Morhof's Unterricht von der Teutschen Sprache und Poesie (1682), has written of the 17th century: "Der mittelalterliches Ordogedanke, der bis den Humanismus hinreichte, Denken wie soziales Leben auf ein Göttliches hin hierarchisiered, ist im 30jährigen Krieg zerbrochen." Yet even while wars were leading the nations to bankruptcy, grandiose architectural projects and intellectual developments continued.

Descartes published his Discourse on Method in 1637, and Galileo was writing the founding texts of modern physics. Men born in the 17th century were the first generation to come of age outside the world of Aristotle, outside a sense of order of the universe. The telescope showed that limits could no longer be placed on the world. Poets may not be the legislators of the world, but they are often the first to respond to such changes in the world. Thus, they responded, in Germany and elsewhere, especially to the heretofore-unperceived immensities of the universe, to the displacement of Europe included, stand still with the planets revolving around it.

What inaugurated all these changes, what fractured the previously stable world view, including the confessional differences that ostensibly sparked the Europe-wide warring, was the opening of the world to commerce. That scientific knowledge began to accumulate, without any standard of truth, indicates that rapid turnover in "goods." It in only ironic that European exploration began with an Italian; the major Italian thinkers of the Renaissance period seemed blissfully unaware of change in perspective. In the Baroque essay, Strich characterizes the Renaissance poetic style as "measured": "der ganz auf Mass und Messbarkeit angelegt ist," expressed of eternal things. The Baroque, in contrast, gives expression to "dem werdenden, sich wandelnden, momentanen Erlebnis."

What is this experience but that of capitalism, The spirit of history, the "mind" of the title of this post, is that of capitalism.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The owl of Minerva; update

I wonder if Winckelmann ever came across such a lovely object in his archaeological work. This tetradrachm was found in Lyon, where excavations probably did not begin before the 19th century. (I am willing to be corrected on this.) It is now in room 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon.

UPDATE: Dagmar Riedel (follow her on Twitter; also here) informs me that Winckelmann would likely have seen the Athenian tetradrachm, as such coins circulated widely in antiquity. They can be found, for instance, in early modern Wunderkammern.

In connection with Fritz Strich, especially his practice of Geistesgeschichte, I have been reading about Hegel. It is an odd thing, and perhaps somewhat scandalous to say, but one can learn a lot about Hegel's philosophy by reading what others write about him. I came across Hegel's phrase about Minerva this morning while reading Clive James' marvelous small essay on the philosopher: "The owl of Minerva begins its flight only in the gathering darkness." James is taken with the phrase for its clarity, since after Hegel's death, "his prose became famous for being unyieldingly opaque." James likes such poetic lines plucked from philosophers, and he goes on to cite Kant's dove and Benjamin's "angel of history," while saying that Benjamin is not considered a philosopher. Though he might be when he wrote of the angel of history, flying backward with its hands raised to its face, "appalled by the spectacle of the ruins piling up constantly before its eyes."

I have noticed in my research on Strich that some contemporary German scholars attempt to link Geistesgeschichte to proto-fascist tendencies. As James points out, some of Hegel's thought may have contained lethal tendencies, but, as Hegel's metaphor indicates, "the time had to become lethal before the tendencies became obvious." Hegel thought history was tending in a good direction -- how optimistic was Geistesgeschichte! The problem was that his thought could be highjacked by those heading in a different direction. For instance, Marxism. The Nazis were actually late-comers.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Goethe on Winckelmann

After a portrait by Angelica Kauffman
Goethe's essay on Winckelmann was published anonymously, along with two other contributions to "Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert," by Cotta in 1805. The other two authors were Heinrich Meyer and Friedrich August Wolf, Weimarer "Kunstfreunde." It was of course known that Goethe was involved: he was the publisher, and he also signed the dedication to the duchess.

Goethe's essay is composed of small chapters, each with a heading: e.g., "Heidnisches," "Freundschaft," "Schönheit,""Katholizismus," and so on. As Ernst Howald writes in his introduction to a 1943 edition of Goethe's essay, this format spared Goethe the trouble of writing about things that he didn't know or hadn't experienced himself: much of the information was amassed from Wincklemann's letters, especially those to his friend Berendis. Winckelmann seems not only to have reported on his intellectual discoveries but also to have poured out his soul in his correspondence. In the chapter "Charakter," Goethe writes as follows:

Eine solche Natur könnte wohl mit Behaglichkeit in sich selbst zurückkehren, doch finden wir auch hier jene alterümliche Eigenheit, daß er sich immer mit sich selbst beschäftigte, ohne sich eigentlich zu beobachten. Er denkt nur an sich, nicht über sich, ihm liegt im Sinne, was er vorhat, er interessiert sich für sein ganzes Wesen, für den ganzen Umfang seines Wesens und hat das Zutrauen, daß seine Freunde sich auch dafür interessieren werden. Wir finden daher in seinen Briefen, vom höchsten moralischen bis zum gemeinsten physischen Bedürfnis, alles erwähnt, ja er spricht es aus, daß er sich von persönlichen Kleinigkeiten lieber als von wichtigen Dingen unterhalte.

Howald calls Goethe's portrait of Winckelmann "die reinste Darstellung humanistischer Menschenaufffassung Menschenschilderung, die wir haben. Nie ist von einem bedeutenden Mann menschlicher -- in humanistischen Sinne -- nie männlicher und würdiger gespsrochen worden." Thus Goethe's account avoids all the messy details and other infelicities of Winckelmann's life. What is otherwise the essence of Winckelmann's personality for later biographers "steht am Rande" in Goethe's portrayal.

Howald writes: "Sorgfältig, vielleicht sogar ängstlich vermeidet er es, in die Abgründe der Seele zu versinken; er wünscht festen Boden unter den Füßen zu behalten." It was impossible for Goethe to view Winckelmann, as did Herder and others, as having had "ein verpfuschtes Leben." Despite all of Winckelmann's personal shortcomings, "Winckelmanns Wesentliches liegt nicht in seinem Schicksal oder seinem Leiden, sondern in seinem Handeln, nicht im Passiven, sondern im Aktiven. Darin liegt der Mensch, darin zeigt und entfaltet sich seine Persönlichkeit."

Portrait by Anton v. Maron, 1768
I loved the essay by Goethe. It kindled my interest in the "classical" period of his production, which has been, I must admit, the least attractive part of his life and oeuvre for me. Nevertheless, I could not help thinking as I read each of the short, individual chapters that one could, with such an outline, write a novel. The story is there; all one needs now is to fill it in with local and personal detail. I am not speaking of messy facts, but of "color," which would certainly bring Winckelmann and Rome to life.

Winckelmann is all that Goethe describes, but he is also "modern": despite his lowly background, he pulled himself up by his boot straps, so to speak -- and what could be more appropriate for the son of a shoemaker? -- and came to consort with some of the most important men in Europe, not to forget that he inaugurated modern archaeology.

In this connection I watched an interesting documentary last evening on Winckelmann's role in bringing to light the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Well worth viewing.