Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goethe as Idol of the Modern World

In being a Goethe scholar, one has a certain satisfaction or even a feeling of distinction, since Goethe is generally recognized as one of the greats, even by those who are only familiar with his name. I suppose it is like being a scholar of Milton or of Shakespeare. Even among writers whose work is considered "great" (e.g., Joyce, Proust, Wordsworth, Dickens), few of them have an oeuvre that is as rich and, in Goethe's case, abundant (letters, views of contemporaries, as well as scientific and legal writings). This abundance and richness led in Goethe's lifetime already to a kind of glorification of his person.

It is not that there have not been critics of Goethe, and in reading their oppositional views one comes to see Goethe in a different light and understand him a little better. One such writer was the biologist Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whom I discussed in an earlier post. Another critic was the Jesuit writer Alexander Baumgartner (1841–1910), from whom the title of this post comes. His 3-volume life of Goethe appeared in 1879, and an excerpt appears in volume 3 of Goethe im Urteil seiner Kritiker, edited by Karl Robert Mandelkow.

Baumgartner, writing fifty years after Goethe's death, takes issue with the 19th-century "deification" of Goethe. I use that term advisedly. According to Baumgartner, Goethe's admirers transported him to that "religious-political battlefield" which Goethe himself deliberately avoided during his life. He was proclaimed the prophet of a new Gospel of "Tat und Gesinnung," with the intention of driving out true Christianity's Gospel of "Wort und Glauben."

Here are some examples of those who, in Baumgartner's view, have drafted Goethe in the secular cause: Heinrich Dünzer, e.g., called Goethe "Hohenpriester der Liebe." Ernst Haeckel elevated this "Prometheus" onto the banner of his materialistic evolutionary history. David Strauß recommended Goethe's works as a surrogate for the "superannuated" Gospels. For Johannes Scherr, the "Haus zu den drey Leyern" is a new Bethlehem. In sum, "Eine umfangreiche Literatur predigt unter der Devise 'Goethe' nur Unglauben, Darwinismus, Spinozismus, Naturalismus, alle Sorten von Gefühls-, Kunst- und Naturchristentum."

Baumgartner is of course an apologist for orthodox Christianity, especially in the context of Quanta Cura (1864), and his objections concern Goethe's aesthetic "morality" (Sittlichkeit).  He writes: "Goethes Philosophie, Religion und sogenannte Weltanschauung ist weiter nichts als der seichteste und flachste Naturalismus." He is particularly troubled that "der geliebteste Lehrer Deutschlands" had such a cavalier attitude toward women: "Besonders für Frauen und Mädchen ist Goethe der schädlichste und verhängnisvollste Schriftsteller. Wie in seinem Leben, so hat er auch in seinen Schriften, mehr als irgend ein anderer Dichter, den Frauen geschmeichelt, alle ihre Schwächen verherrlicht und glorifiziert, aber nur, um sie schließlich, nach Körners Ausdruck, herabzuwürdigen." Strong words.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Images from "Wilhelm Meister" novels

Wilhelm still held that lovely hand
A reader of this blog has written to ask about images of the Wilhelm Meister novels. There are tons of images of Mignon, but very few of Wilhelm. For this blog I am always on the lookout for interesting illustrations, and if there were any of Wilhelm I would have turned them up. Perhaps it is Wilhelm's colorless personality that has left artists without inspiration? I did find a few interesting images relating to the novels today, however, that I am posting. (Click to enlarge.) The one above is clearly from the "Travels," from a 19th-century English edition of Goethe's works, but I would not in a million years have imagined Wilhelm looking so courtly.

Conosci la terra dove fioriscono i limoni?
The second image here, one I like very much, is a modern version of Mignon by the illustrator and cartoon artist Manuele Fior. It appears on his blog and includes a translation of "Kennst du das Land" in Italian.

The final image is from the cover of a 2014 Italian translation of La vocazione teatrale di Wilhelm Meister. Wilhelm looks much more interesting in this incarnation.

Monday, March 16, 2015

German domestic life in the age of Goethe

A Domestic Scene (MMA 1971.115.6)
I frequently pass by this small painting when I am at the Metropolitan Museum, as I was today. It naturally makes me think of Goethe. The living quarters of the Goethe House in Frankfurt are not as luxurious as those represented here, but the painting may give an example of actual conditions somewhere in the Rhineland. Perhaps the house of Lili Schönemann? And certainly the father is reading aloud to the ladies, which we know was a family activity in the Goethe household.

The painting is attributed to "German Painter" and dated 1775–80. It was originally thought to be by the Dresden painter Johann Eleazar Zeissig, called Schenau (1737–1806),  but, according to the Met's website, comparison with secured works by that painter in 2013 turned up differences in style.

The website suggests several painters who might have executed this work, including Goethe portraitist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. At left is an example of a family portrait by Tischbein, also in the Met (MMA 2002.564): The Children of Martin Anton Heckscher, from 1805. The painting was donated to the Met in 1971, "Gift of the family of August Heckscher II, in his memory." Martin Anton Heckscher, originally Marcus Abraham Heckscher, a descendent of a long-established banking family in Hamburg Altona, converted to Christianity to escape the rising anti-Jewish sentiments of Hamburg merchants. His son Charles August Heckscher (born 1806) emigrated to the United States in 1829 and acquired wealth by opening a trading house. Later, he seems to have become fabulously wealthy in the anthracite business. It is interesting that the painting of the three boys remained in the Heckscher family for so many years. This makes me think of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, in which family wealth led to decadence as symbolized by art; not so in the case of the Heckschers, however, whose wealth and love for the arts continue to enrich public institutions.

Another suggestion for A Domestic Scene is the painter Kaspar Benedikt Beckenkamp, whose portrait of the married couple below, from 1795, is in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. There is something about the Beckenkamp painting that suggests the milieu in which Goethe lived in Weimar in these years.