Thursday, May 28, 2015

Goethe and the sublime

Owachomo Bridge, in Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)
In my last post I wrote about the mountains of the American Southwest (click on images for enlargement) and their difference from those of Europe, which were inspiration for theories of the sublime. This was an aesthetic category that arose in the 18th century, precipitated by the 1674 retranslation by Nicholas Boileau of the ancient treatise of Longinus. The reception of the sublime was itself part of the dismantling of normative poetics in the 18th century. For Longinus, the sublime was a rhetorical category, and his treatise mapped the ways in which a poet or an orator could achieve the sublime style in order, as he wrote, to "transport" listeners.  "Our soul," he wrote, "is uplifted by the true sublime." He mentioned in particular three sources of elevated language that could achieve this effect: the formation of figures, noble diction, and dignified composition.

In "Von Deutscher Baukunst" of 1772, Goethe would seem to have taken lessons from Longinus. In the guise of a pilgrim visiting the cathedral at Strassburg, he portrayed himself as transported by the sight of this immense structure: "Anfangs ein Schauern, das uns überläuft, und sodann etwas dem Schwindel ähnliches, das uns oft nöthiget, die Augen von dem Gegenstande abzuwenden." By this time, the sublime was no longer principally an aesthetic category, as described by Longinus (and also by Bodmer), but was increasingly applied to natural wonders. Thus, Goethe used various adjectives to describe the cathedral that stressed its magnitude and irregularity, as if it were a huge natural wonder, rather than a man-made creation: Ungeheuer, groß/Größen, erhaben, königlich, Riesengeist, Würde, Macht, Koloß, Herrlichkeit, großen ... Maßen. By using naturalistic imagery, Goethe was relating the artist's products to God's creations of the natural world. Thus, the poet's creations are quasi-divine. Well, this was in the Sturm und Drang era, when Goethe felt inspired most intensely by his poetic Genius.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Beginning in 1776, with his appointment to the Ilmenau mine commission, Goethe immersed himself in the study of geology and launched his scientific studies  He took his duties seriously, even visiting mines. It was an era of much interest in the origins of the earth, and Goethe began to develop his ideas on the subject of granite, which he considered to be the earth's"Urgestein." One outcome was "Über den Granit" in 1785, in which he again appears as a solitary traveler, this time confronting a monumental natural object. As in the Strassburg essay, he is apostrophic, addressing the granite formations as "euch ihr ältesten würdigsten Denkmäler der Zeit." As in "Von Deutscher Baukunst," he heaps up descriptive adjectives. In the case of the cathedral, Nature's hand guided the artist;  in the scheme of the earth's creation described in "Über den Granit," the creative function is all Nature's. Goethe concludes the essay by asserting that it is her principles that are the task of the scientist to comprehend.

This 1785 essay was a temporary relapse into the Sturm und Drang manner. In 1779, he and Carl August had traveled to Switzerland, journeying by horse over some dangerous mountain paths, but while the account of that journey indicate appreciation, marvel, even astonishment at what he sees, Goethe's equanimity in the face of these stupendous, and dangerous, phenomena was now supported by his recognition that they were not aberrations or the result of chaos or of undirected violent processes.  His thoughts concerning the sublime go hand in hand with geological-historical considerations about nature. Immersion in science fortified his conviction that, whatever the seeming disorder of the natural world, an unseen hand nevertheless operated according to eternal laws.
Hiking in Canyon de Chelly
Interestingly, this perception of purposefulness was already apparent to Goethe seven years earlier, at least to his literary stand-in, the pilgrim in "Von Deutscher Baukunst."  For him the disorienting feeling initially produced by the sublime object was likewise replaced with an equanimity that parallels the "hohes Gefuhl von ewiger Festigkeit" that Goethe experienced in the mountains of Switzerland. As he wrote in the earlier essay: "Deinem Unterricht dank ich's, Genius, daß mirs nicht mehr schwindelt an deinen Tiefen ..." Bodmer, in his writings on the sublime, also indicates that the use of one's understanding, including study and reflection, lessens one's apprehensions in the face of seemingly monstrous natural phenomena.

Goethe lived on the cusp of geological science. Today, of course, we know how the monumental geological formations were formed, and we also know that they were the result of violent processes. For instance, the very patch of land on which I am now writing was once part of a "supercontinent," which broke away about 200 million years ago due to tectonic movement of the earth's crust. Arizona began to rise due to similar forces about 60 million years ago. I just read the following in John McPhee's Basin and Range: "The sea is not all that responds to the moon. Twice a day the solid earth bobs up and down, as much as a foot." How would Goethe have responded to that?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Sublime

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
The aesthetic category of the sublime has interested me for some time. I have posted several times on the subject and also published an essay on Goethe and the sublime, which dealt with Goethe's earliest geological writings. In response to that essay, Glenn Most, a scholar from whose writings I have much profited, wrote me and asked why Bodmer did not appear in my references in that article. So, I plunged a bit deeper into the subject and investigated Bodmer's writings on the subject, which also led to an essay that appeared in the Goethe Yearbook. In both essays, mountains played a prominent role.

Goethe Girl in Monument Valley
Since that time I have encountered very different kinds of mountains from those that feature in European writings. For the second time I am visiting friends in northern Arizona. On the first visit two years ago we drove to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and I also had an opportunity to see the red sandstone formations in Sedona. This past week we made a whirlwind trip to Monument Valley and Natural Bridges in Utah and Canyon de Chelly and the Petrified Forest in Arizona. (900 miles: glad to get out of the car at the end.) My friends agreed that there is something "alien" about these formations, as in "outer space." It is true that some Indian tribes have lived in them or in their vicinity, but they cannot be cultivated or farmed in the sense of agricultural communities, in contrast to their domestication in most parts of Europe.

West Mitten Butte in Monument Valley
One is amazed at the grandeur of the Southwestern mountains, especially when they appear in groups. Their otherworldly character comes perhaps from their isolated and overpowering presence, as they tower over a "landscape" lacking any evidence of human cultivation. Some 18th-century theorists of the sublime asserted that mountains, oceans, and other large natural phenomena were evidence of divine creation. Evidently the Indians in this part of the world found them sacred, yet it is difficult to imagine Adam and Eve walking or working in this landscape or being "stewards" of this creation. The fact that you can't DO anything with these mountains contributes to their sense of being alien. Thus, in the 19th century Westerners felt no compunction about building railroads through them (e.g., through the Petrified Forest) or mining them.

In my next post I will discuss Goethe and the sublime.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Goethe biographies

Goethe Girl with cowboy poets
I am enjoying an extended (eight days) absence from Manhattan, visiting friends in northern Arizona. One item on our itinerary is a trip to Monument Valley. I continue to be interested in the different geological formations of Europe and of the American West.

On the flight out I started reading Andrew Piper's biography of Goethe (2010), which appears in the Brief Lives series of Hesperus Press, offering, as per the back jacket, "short, authoritative biographies of the world's best-known literary figures." Such is Goethe, as Piper reminds us throughout this very readable biography. Early on, I had the feeling that Piper worked with a chronology Goethe's life at his side, assuring that all the high points were treated, but he is seldom abstract or vague. For instance, after Goethe returned to Weimar from Italy he was made director of the theater, expending a decade of energy and time. This is followed by a nice detail that gives an impression of Goethe's ambitions as well as the limitations he endured: "The theater was of modest size (fourteen rows of benches in a fifty-foot-long room with a twenty-foot-wide stage), although its initial repertory was not: it consisted of eleven operettas and thirty-five plays in the summer season alone."

Works for sale at Phippen Museum Western art show in Prescott
Piper has the enviable ability to summarize, with pertinent detail, large historical moments, as, for instance, the opening gestures of the French Revolution in a single short paragraph and its initial effects on Germany (none, aside from the interest of intellectuals). He is also good at sketching, in a few strokes, the kernel of Goethe's works, although occasionally producing a clunker, e.g., re Werther: "It is the story of a young man with too much emotion. He falls in love with another man's fiancée, is an incessant reader, and imagines that he can see the entire universe in a blade of grass. By the end of the novel, he will shoot himself in the head as a copy of Lessing's play Emilia Galotti lies open on his desk."

Generally the insights are better, and Piper is good at relating Goethe's poetic production to his life or experience. On Tasso: "In it we can see how difficult courtly life had become for Goethe and how retreat and solitude had emerged as fundamental ingredients of his own creativity. ... Torquato Tasso was one of the most eloquent laments about the artist's awkward position in the world."

Arizona watercolors by Margarethe Brummermann
Schiller is introduced as an "itinerant playwright who had been unable to find permanent employment at one of the handful of large repertory theaters in the German states. His first play, The Robbers, had been a tremendous sensation ..., but he had never been capable of churning out standard bourgeois fare like Kotzebue or Iffland." On the success of Schiller's inaugural lecture in Jena: "No one cold move a crowd quite like Schiller."

Each "stage" of Goethe's life channels different priorities. For instance, the felt immediacy of the early poetry ("Mailied") gives way go "an artistry of reflection ("Auf dem See"),

It is a good overview, a very intelligent one, and it also places Goethe in a larger European context, with references to Keats, Carlyle, world literature, and so on. Lately I find myself interested in more partial studies of Goethe, which include two that I am currently reading, Albrecht Schöne's study of Goethe as a "Briefsteller" and Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar. More news on those two books to come.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Goethe a classical liberal?

One comes across Goethe in many places. Whenever I peruse a scholarly work, I go quickly to the index to see if he is listed, and often he is. I once sat next to the political scientist Charles Murray at a dinner. When he learned that my work was on Goethe, he told me about a book he was working on that ranked the most important "innovators" in various fields according to the number of sources that mentioned them and the amount of space dedicated. He told me that Goethe was one of the most referenced figures of all.

Franco Moretti's Hamlet network
The book was published in 2003 as Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. In the category "Western Literature," Goethe is in second place with an "80" ranking, right after Shakespeare. He is followed by Dante (62), Virgil (55), Homer (54), Rousseau (48), and Voltaire (47). Schiller stands at 38 between Victor Hugo (40) and Boccaccio (35). It would be interesting to see a Franco Moretti-like diagram giving a breakdown of the categories of sources that reference Goethe.

Regarding the question posed in the title of this post: Was Goethe a classical liberal? I found a piece  on that subject at the Mises Institute website, a forum on the work of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. The piece is by the German-born economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who refers to Goethe as a classical liberal. According to Hoppe, after the French revolution early Germans liberals became "democrats" and nationalists, while Goethe opposed the political creed of liberty and equality as well as political centralization. If anyone is surprised to learn this, Hoppe quotes Goethe from Maximen und Reflexionen: "Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks."

This description may well fit Goethe, although I find it difficult to imagine Goethe accepting the following summary of his politics found on an online site:

"Classical liberalism is a political ideology that values the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government. It developed in 18th-century Europe and drew on the economic writings of Adam Smith and the growing notion of social progress. Liberalism was also influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that governments exist to protect individuals from each other. In 19th- and 20th-century America, the values of classical liberalism became dominant in both major political parties. The term is sometimes used broadly to refer to all forms of liberalism prior to the 20th century. Conservatives and libertarians often invoke classical liberalism to mean a fundamental belief in minimal government."

Any reaction?

Image: Sherlockian-SherlockThe Stanford Literary Lab; The Libertarian Republic

Monday, May 11, 2015

Erinnerung an Schiller; addendum

Schiller and the Körners
This is belated, as Schiller's death occurred on May 9, but I was reminded this morning by mail from the Goethezeitportal, which included some nice images. I was also led to a site with which I was unfamiliar: Erinnerungen, devoted solely to Schiller.

Ich dachte mich selbst zu verlieren, und verliere nun einen Freund u in demselben die Hälfte meines Daseins.

ADDENDUM: Above I made note of a website devoted to Schiller. On looking more closely I discovered that the site, "Erinnerungen," is the title of a book by Gisela Seidel, which is subtitled Lebensrückblick in autobiographischer Form. Schiller never wrote an autobiography, but Ms. Seidel has improvised one. A review can be found at Goethezeit-Portal.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Goethe and wine

Although I have profited much from secondary scholarship on Goethe, I always prefer works that are richly larded with quotations from his writings. For instance, I liked thie "primary" approach of Rüdiger Safranski in his Goethe biography: Die Kunst des Lebens. (Here is a link to my post on that bio.) I have recently begun reading Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar, most of the pages of which are in the italic font that in German publications indicates quotation from the original sources.

While perusing the Goethe shelves at the Columbia U. library I came across Goethe: Der Dichter und der Wein (2000) by Christoph Michel. Documents and household accounts also make up its contents. Document 29, from Goethe's diary of April of 1780, interested me, indicating that Goethe thought he drank too much:

 1 April. gleich früh frisch gefasst. ... Seit drez Tagen keinen Wein Sich nun vorm Englischen Bier in acht zu nehmen. Wenn ich den Wein abschaffen könnte wär ich sehr glücklich. ...

1 April. bey Hofe gessen. Massig ist halb gelebt.

15. War sehr ruhig und bestimmt, die lezten Tage wenig eingezogen [bezieht sich auf Teilnahme an der Rekrutenaushebung und am Theaterbau]. Ich trincke fast keinen Wein. Und gewinne täglich mehr in Blick und Geschick zum thätigen Leben.

Louis Ferdinand, painted by J-L Mosnier
The following account (no. 138) of Prince Louise Ferdinand of Prussia, in a letter to Pauline Wiesel on December 16, 1805, contrasts with the accounts of the "stiff" or ceremonial Goethe from this time. Perhaps the champagne lightened Goethe's mood:

Ich habe nun Goethen wirklich kennen gelernt; er ging gestern noch spät mit mir nach Hause, und saß dann vor meinem Bette, wir tranken Champagner und Punsch, und er sprach ganz vortrefflich! Endlich deboutonnierte sich seine Seele; er ließ seinem Geist freien Lauf; er sagte viel, ich lernte viel, und fand ihn ganz natürlich und liebenswürdig.

Hardly a year later the prince died at the Battle of Saalfeld. According to the Wikipedia account: "When he saw his forces beginning to rout, Louis Ferdinand charged the French cavalry. He was killed in combat by Guindet, quartermaster of the French 10th Hussars, after Louis Ferdinand refused an offer to surrender and wounded the French NCO."

The prince was also a composer, and none other than Goethe's own musical adviser Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Frederick II's Kapellmeister,  considered him a great pianist. Beethoven dedicated his Third Piano Concerto to him. His friends included such writers as Wackenroder and Tieck. One can imagine that he and Goethe would be congenial spirits.

The artist and critic Wilhelm Zahn, later professor at the Berlin Academy of the Arts,  visited Goethe in 1827. He was invited by Goethe to a breakfast celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Weimar cross-bow guild ("Armbrustschützengilde") and reported (no. 158) on Goethe's pleasure in wine:

Eine große Gesellschaft war versammelt, und der edle Wein floß in Strömen. Alle tranken tapfer, aber der alte Goethe am tapfersten. Mit innigem Behagen sah er einen nach dem andern matt werden und kläglich abfallen. Ihm allein konnte der Wein nichts anhaben. Wie ein siegender Feldherr überblickte er das Schlachtfeld und die niedergetrunknen Reihen.