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.

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