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

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