Monday, June 29, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook arrived in the mail last week. The editors of the Yearbook, as in volume 20 (on Goethe's lyric poetry), are devoting a part to a special subject, in the case "Goethe and Environmentalism." It is edited by Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar, two scholars whom I have not yet met but who are both at the University of Sidney in Australia. A glance at the notes to their introduction to this special section of the Yearbook indicates that they have already published much on the subject of Goethe and environmentalism.

I will probably discuss the introduction and the articles in at least two posts. But let me preface things by some notes I made as I was traveling by bus to Newark Airport several weeks ago. It is hard to believe when traveling that stretch of highway that New Jersey is known as the Garden State. My thoughts concerned how this "landscape" would fit in with the aesthetic categories of Beauty or the Sublime. Bodmer had a category called "das Ungestüme," or "the turbulent," but it referred to forces that have a calamitous effect on humans and are beyond their control or understanding. An example would be the Lisbon earthquake. The sublime in nature, in contrast, is something we can come to understand.

Pulaski Skypike
Unlike those categories, the New Jersey turnpikes do not represent natural phenomena. Everything is the result of practical human activity, not of natural beauty or sublimity. To an eye accustomed to make aesthetic distinctions, the highway environment can only be regarded as ugly. There seems to be no orderliness, just a hodgepodge of railroad tracks, warehouses, abandoned tire cemeteries, toll booths, advertising signs right and left and overhead (auto dealers, Burger King, and McDonalds, Toll Booth Ahead) and of course cars, cars, cars and trucks, trucks, trucks speeding forward at 80 miles per hour. The purpose of most of the activity is commercial, and many people today, if they are not outright wanting to abolish commercialism, prefer their commercial environment to be gentrified, like the center of an imagined New England town.

A billboard you can smell
The activity on the turnpikes is too grossly commercial, without seemingly any appeal to our higher faculties, in particular our feeling for beauty. And commercialism, as we know, contributes to the degradation of the environment. But if we use our reason, as Kant urged us to do, we also come to recognize that all that commercial detritus is part of a great economic machine that also provides us with the goods and services we need for our lives.

The above as a preface to my own thoughts on environmentalism, which I too often find to be the newest version of an old phenomenon, Zivilisationskritik. Stay tuned.

Photo credits: Porlier Outdoor Advertising Company; Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880; North

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Utopian writers

Georg Forster and father in Taihiti
For mundane reasons (although one was serious: a broken little finger), I am very behind in blogging. The new edition of the Goethe Yearbook arrived this past week, and already the opening section, on "Goethe and the environment," deserves a response, which I will get to shortly. There is much there to disagree with.

In the meantime, a short report on two writers, living a century apart, but both involved in radical politics, Georg Forster and Ernst Toller. Radical means active in attempting to establish utopias, one of my research interests. The attraction of utopia remains for me a conundrum. Both were the subject of recent podcasts.

The first podcast introduced a new work by Jürgen Goldstein, Georg Forster: Zwischen Freiheit und Naturgewalt, which traces Forster's trajectory from enthusiast for Taihiti to revolutionary. Affected by what he perceived as Taihiti's harmonious and egalitarian human order, which contrasted so starkly with European social conditions, Forster believed that the laws of nature could be applied to politics. Thus, he threw in his lot with the Jacobin Club in Mainz and the Mainz Republic. He was in Paris in 1793 when the Mainz Republic was overthrown and never returned to Germany, where he had become an outcast. He died alone, neglected, in poor health (probably the enduring effect of his three years at sea with James Cook), and disillusioned by the turn the revolution in France had taken.
The Tanna ground dove, now extinct, drawn by Forster
Goldstein calls Forster "der ungelesene Klassiker der deutschen Geistesgeschichte." Indeed, Forster is a wonderful stylist, but I had never before connected his travels, especially to Taihiti, with his later utopian visions. It is interesting to compare European reactions to other countries and mores with the stance of, say, Chinese, who would not have found anything to admire in Taihiti. Perhaps it was because Forster was viewing the island through the lens of the Enlightenment, particularly the French variety, that he was so receptive to what appeared to be life lived in accordance with nature. As the podcast reporter noted: "Er hat die Natur und das Politische kurzgeschlossen, d.h., er war der Meinung, es könnte natürliche Revolutionen geben. ... Er hat sich vorgestellt, Revolutionen gehen naturwüchsig vonstatten."

Ernst Toller, Revolutionär
I encountered Ernst Toller late in graduate school, but never had any notion of how wide ranging his literary and essayistic work is, nor the extent of his political activities. While Forster was involved with the Mainz Republic, Toller was actually president, for six days, of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. As soon as he took office he began issuing proclamations, including one mandating Sunday as a day of rest (for the workers, of courseö this was a workers' republic), but his term ended before the first Sunday was reached!

For his role in these activities, he served five years in prison, escaping a death sentence through the intercession of Thomas Mann and Max Weber, among others. He wrote some of his well known Expressionist works in prison. He was of course persona non grata to the Nazis and emigrated in 1933 already, first to London, then to the U.S., where he died, a suicide, in May 1937. W.H. Auden wrote the poem "In Memory of Ernst Toller" at that time.

The shining neutral summer has no voice

To judge America, or ask how a man dies;

And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice
Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave

Of one who was egotistical and brave,

Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?

O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed

Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?

O for how long, like the swallows in that other cell,

Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,

Where people do not occupy or hide;

No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among

The other war-horses who existed till they’d done

Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:

They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end

The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living

And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing

We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

The occasion for the podcast review of Toller is the publication of a 6-volume edition of his works (in bright red binding) by Wallstein Verlag.

Photo of Toller: Der Tagespiegel

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What would Adorno say?

I once asked Rick, who was more au current about pop culture and celebrities (he read, for instance, Page Six), what was the big deal about the Kardashians. His reply: big boobs, big butts. Okay. I sort of get it.

"Kim Kardashian is known for her pert derrière"
Bruce Jenner, once a major celebrity himself, also for his physical endowments, spent too many years in the estrogenic (word?) world of the Kardashian women. It would not be surprising if a full-blooded male absorbed a large dose of the sexual hormone from such an ambiance. Yet, perhaps he simply got tired of being overlooked and decided to go them one better. And he has done so. Has any of the Kardashian women been featured on the cover of Vanity Fair? Not to mention being taken seriously, for heaven's sake, by most of the media?

Two predictions:

1. Expect to see presentations at the MLA on Jenner. Indeed, I suspect papers are already being prepared or revised to reflect this new development in "gender" studies. The graphics will be thought-provoking.

2. Since Bruce has kept his Bruce-part, he has an  opportunity for a new incarnation. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Female First

Friday, June 5, 2015

Goethe biographies

I posted already on Andrew Piper's short biography of Goethe, but here are a few additional take-aways from my reading.

Waterloo imagined
1) Goethe, as Piper writes at the start, was conversant in many fields representing the accumulated heritage of a thousand years, but he also was a man of his time, with his life coinciding with "some of the more decisive transformations of European society." Some of the events he lived through: the Seven Years' War, the French Revolution, the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo, and the July Revolution of 1830 in France. The fall of the HRE coincided with the rise of the nation state.

2) Speaking of Cornelia, Piper writes that she was "Goethe's first and probably truest love." After her death, "Goethe would spend the rest of his life searching for and falling in love with sister figures." True or false?

3) Of Kätchen Schönkopf, "Goethe's great love" of the Leipzig period, Piper writes that marriage was out of the question "for class reasons." But Goethe was only 17: did marriage ever really come seriously into question? I doubt it.

4) I was glad to be reminded of Herder's belief that language shaped nations and that "poets were the ones who shaped language." Fritz Strich, in his many essays on world literature, always stresses that a language expresses the spirit of a people.

Pfarrhaus Sesenheim (1770), drawing by Goethe
5) Piper calls the relationship with Friedericke Brion "a love affair." They spent "a great deal of time together, much of it alone." Later (p.29), when writing of Lili Schonemann, Piper asserts that, "unlike this traumatic separation from Friedericke, ... Goethe was careful to leave his affair with Lili unconsummated and thus leave Lili's social status untainted." Whoa!

From what we know, through plenty of later documentation, Goethe tended to fall hard for a woman, then withdraw, although not in a sexual sense. In my essay on the Sesenheim idyll, I explored the literary formation of the episode. Recently I have been struck by the similarities with Marianne von Willemer and the composition of West-East Divan.

6) Granted that Goethe's practice of law in Frankfurt after his return to Sesenheim was "a lacklustre performance," can one really say the same of "all of his subsequent administrative duties"? I have the sense that Goethe's performance in Weimar was anything but lacklustre. See (9) below.

7) Re Wetzlar: Goethe immersed himself in a domestic scene "that he was not wholly a part of." Good observation.

Lotte as "secularized" Madonna
8) Interesting is Piper's observation that Lotte re-creates "Christianity's virgin mother in a secular domestic chord (nicely amplified in the Eucharistic gesture of breaking bread with the children)."

9) In re (6) above, Piper's own description of Goethe's duties on the Privy Council in Weimar belies any sense of a lacklustre performance on Goethe's part. As Piper points out, Goethe "led an initiative to reopen a silver mine near Ilmenau." Although this venture was unsuccessful, Goethe spent years trying to make it work. This activity also contributed to his interest in geology and to his many mineralogical speculations.

10) Weimar as a site of "intellectual networking."

11) Finally, Charlotte von Stein. Piper writes that she was an "important medium of temperance" and helped him navigate the ways of the court, in the process weaning him away from his Sturm und Drang inclinations. Piper believes the "love affair" was in this case consummated. I have always doubted this, because it seems that everyone knew everyone in Weimar and such an indiscretion would hardly have escaped notice. On the other hand, after a few years in Weimar Goethe certainly became buttoned up, so to speak, as friends like Merck noted, so perhaps the buttoning up was a way of assuring that he did not reveal a sexual liaison. But then, again, the poetry he wrote under CvS's influence is so idealized, unlike the sensuousness of the Divan lyrics or the Roman elegies.

That's all for today. Guests tomorrow, so I am cooking up a storm this evening.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Goethe and cuisine

Ludwig Passini, Caffe Greco (1855)
My interest in cooking since Rick's death has also led me to reading a lot about "food culture," in particular the history of cuisine and of cooking. Last year I subscribed to the journal Gastronomica. The subtitle should have warned me: The Journal of  Critical Food Studies, which is published out of the University of California. I had thought the depths of academic inanity could go no further until I started skimming (reading was out of the question) the issues that arrived quarterly in my mailbox. De-masking is the rule. The current issue, for instance, contains a "research essay" entitled "Toward Understanding the Psychology, Ideology, and Branding of Seasonality in Japanese Gastronomy," in which one learns that practitioners and proponents have "mythologized [Japan's] high-end cuisine," thus misleading consumers from the environmental insult of this cuisine. One's heart sinks when reading such stuff. The piece "Red Meat: American Political Banquets and Partisan Culture" begins by describing a political banquet featuring Joseph McCarthy. Come on, guys! McCarthy is so old news!

Picasso, The Frugal Repast
Yet the current issue does have one piece of interest, which includes a translation from the 1846 work Paris à table by Eugène Briffault. The author and translator is J. Weintraub, who seems not to be an academic at all, but a writer from Chicago. Weintraub begins by mentioning that Paris à table is among the "seminal works" for the study of 19th-century gastronomy: Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du goût (1825) and Dumas's Grand dictonnaire de cuisine (1873). The main part of the article is a translation of the section "Dinner in the Current Age," which describes how the high and mighty and the lowly eat and all the grades in between.

I have posted before on Goethe as gourmand and his fondness for food and drink, but until I read this piece it had never struck me that Goethe probably never ate in the kinds of restaurants that were frequented by the rising bourgeoisie in Paris in the early part of the 19th century. Rick once pointed out to me the absence in The Italian Journey of discussions of Italian food. Goethe was in Berlin and Rome, but not in Paris or Vienna; and since he was in a courtly capacity in the former, the customs of the rising bourgeoisie in these cities were not something he experienced. He no doubt ate some well-prepared meals, especially at home, and he certainly favored freshness, but did he experience "cuisine"? Did Weimar have a concept of cuisine? You can learn a lot of about Goethe when you discover what he did not partake in, especially when it concerns customs that have become integral to la vie moderne. By the way, the Caffe Greco, which Goethe does mention in The Italian Journey, has a website featuring photos of interior and exterior.

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Last Crumbs
Even from a distance, however, Goethe was able to discern the features of modern life as this new age was coming into being. In the excerpt from Paris à table, Briffault mentions that the French venture everything when it come to food: "We take openly from foreign lands whatever we find to be good and pleasing in their practices. The special character of our table is a cosmopolitanism unknown to others." Discussing the effects of tourism and travels, he writes: "Manners have intermingled; thanks to living together and speaking all languages, we become familiar with all traditions, and each brought home the best of what had become seen among others."

Does this not sound like Goethe talking about world literature?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Traveling back in time

French couple taking selfie
I am back in Manhattan. Some final thoughts on Southwestern geology, however. which also gives me a chance to post a few more favorite photos.

I came across a quote from Joseph Conrad (from Heart of Darkness) in McPhee's Basin and Range. The quote captures the sense of "otherness" –– what my Arizona friends referred to as "alien" presence –– that these formations seem to represent:

Goethe Girl in Monument Valley
"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. .... This stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it anymore; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones."

Motel with a view
In an earlier post I had said that one could not imagine Adam and Eve walking through such landscapes as are to be found in the Southwest. Of course not! As Conrad notes, there was a time on the earth when no humans dwelt on it, when there was no evidence of human manipulation. Even the Old Testament indicates that humans were not here first.