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?

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