Monday, July 20, 2015

Goethe and his scribes

Francesco Clemente, "History of the Heart in 3 Rainbows," from Palimpsest

I have been wanting to post something on Albrecht Schöne’s new book, Der Briefschreiber Goethe. It deserves several posts, but a recent review in Book Forum gives me an opportunity at least to mention it (vorübergehend, let us say, since I will return to it later). The BF review (by Clive Thompson) concerns Palmipsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles, who is also the author of Library: An Unquiet History.

The reviewer notes that writing has often been associated, “in the West, anyway, with the rise of interiority and the individual … It is by sitting in solitude with our thoughts, pen in hand, that we develop our most profound ideas about society, ethics, and ourselves.” As Battles points out, however, none of the writers in the Western literary tradition sat down in solitude to write. Instead, they dictated, often to slaves (in Greece and Rome).

One of the major benefits of having taught “Great Books” to undergrads while I was in grad school was the chance to read works I might otherwise have bypassed. These included Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates opposes writing on the grounds that it promotes forgetting, in contrast to orality, which encourages memory. As with gossip, however, oral transmission encourages a distortion of the original message, to the point where the original is no longer recognizable. Similarly, the oral transmission of "literature," such as the epics of Homer or other “ancient” writers, produced varying versions. The production of a standard text has been the task of philologists from the time there have been philologists.

To return to writing itself, which is the subject of Palimpsest (how I love that word: I must bring it into my spoken vocabulary), writing originally served commerce and statecraft, of “tallying just what was in the coffers of the state and the grandiose one of expressing the might of rulers.” Scribes thus wrote “at the king’s bequest.” On the other hand, as I remember from grade school so many years ago, it was Phoenicians, early tradesmen par excellence, who originated the script that is the basis of our alphabet.

Writing for purposes that were purely literary, on the other hand, was “a victory.” Thompson quotes the Canadian poet and translator Robert Bringhurst: “Literature in the written sense represents the triumph of language over writing: the subversion of writing for purposes that have little or nothing to do with social and economic control.”

And Goethe? As we know, he preferred to dictate, not only his literary works, but also his correspondence. The letters discussed in Schöne’s volume (there are nine “case studies”) were subject to much thought, though interiority as we understand it was not at issue. Rather, it was process of coming up with the correct rhetorical strategy for the person being addressed. His earliest letter to the 16-year-old Ludwig Ysenburg von Buri, dated May 23, 1764, when Goethe was 14 years old,  displays “heitere Souveränität … über das rhetorische Instrumentarium.”

Moreover, as Schöne adds in a footnote, this early letter in which Goethe presents his case for entry into the "Gesellschaft derer Arcadier zu Phylandria,” was not, aside from the signature, in his own hand. The scribe was Johann David Clauer. Goethe's father was the guardian of this mentally ill man, who was in any case a “Dr. jur.” He resided in the Goethe family home for 30 years, during which time he took dictation and also executed written documents for Goethe’s father. In several essays on Goethe, I have stressed that rather than drawing on his own “experience,” he was calling on established literary forms when he drafted his literary works, just like all poets before the 18th century. Goethe's genius, I have always thought, lay in disguising his literary forefathers, but in dictating to an amanuensis (another great word I have to make more use of) he was following in a venerable tradition.

Picture credits: Schirn Kunsthalle; Jonnie Miles/Getty Images; Crystal Links

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