Friday, August 28, 2015

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

Am 28. August 1749, mittags mit dem Glockenschlage zwölf, kam ich in Frankfurt am Main auf die Welt. Die Konstellation war glücklich; die Sonne stand im Zeichen der Jungfrau, und kulminierte für den Tag; Jupiter und Venus blickten sie freundlich an, Merkur nicht widerwärtig; Saturn und Mars verhielten sich gleichgültig: nur der Mond, der soeben voll ward, übte die Kraft seines Gegenscheins um so mehr, als zugleich seine Planetenstunde eingetreten war. Er widersetzte sich daher meiner Geburt, die nicht eher erfolgen konnte, als bis diese Stunde vorübergegangen.

Image credit: Auckland Goethe Society; Thaumazein

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Goethe and the Gothic novel

Sunset at Wendy's house
Heather and I took the ferry yesterday afternoon to Vancouver Island and spent the day shopping, mostly for groceries, of which there is a much greater selection than on Malcolm Island. My cooking experimentation continues, with mixed results. Heather likes to go to used book shops, so we stopped at one in Port McNeill, at the church of Saint John Gaulbert (985–1073), the patron saint of forest workers (forestry being a traditional occupation of this region).

Roasted peppers with pine nuts
I did not intend to buy any books here, but the first one, literally, that my eyes fell on at the bookshop was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Just that morning I had read Jane Brown's discussion of that novel in Goethe's Allegories of Identity. In discussing the influence of Goethe on Romantic-period tales and, subsequently, on Freud's "depth psychology," Brown mentions that the former incorporate elements of "the newly popular gothic novel," a genre that began "quite suddenly in 1764" with the appearance of Walpole's novel and went on to greater acclaim with Ann Radcliffe. As Brown writes, Goethe's "Märchen" shares Otranto's interest "in family curses, mysterious ceremonies, and a vaguely Italian setting, but it [also] uses two striking motifs ... underground vaults and dangerous giants." Furthermore, Mignon's ancestry has much in common with such gothic elements: "Italy, monks, stubborn fathers, and incest." Similarly, Elective Affinities, for instance, with its preoccupation with death and places of burial.

From 1794 German translation of Otranto
So, I laid down $2.00 and brought The Castle of Otranto home. I was surprised at how readable it was, despite the outlandish events. Partly this derives from the amount of "low comedy" in the novel, especially when the noble figures interact with the domestics. Matilda and Bianca's discussion of the perfect lover would seem to come straight out of Shakespeare, as does especially Manfred's long exchange with two domestics about the "terrible sight" that has terrified them.

"Sot! cried Manfred, in a rage, "is it only a ghost then, that thou hast seen?"
"Oh, worse! worse! my lord," cried Diego: "I had rather have seen ten whole ghosts."

The terrible sight turns out to be a "great giant" hiding in the "chamber next to the gallery."

Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Goethe and world literature

Obviously I am obsessed with the deer in the back yard. Occasionally there are two of them. I have discovered that if I throw some plums from my balcony, one will approach. I am beginning to think the deer here are a bit like the squirrels in New York City parks: you can be sitting on a bench, and they come right up to you and beg. This is a fishing island; I don't know of any hunting going on. The deer seem to wander around as if they weren't worried. In any case, from the picture it appears that the deer is thin, although maybe deer are always thin.

Searching for plums
When I am not working on my own book or reading Jane Brown's book on Goethe and allegory, I take some time out to read Dieter Lamping's short survey, Die Idee der Weltliteratur: Ein Konzept Goethes und seine Karriere. I carry it with me when I take the ferry over to Port McNeill to do some shopping or when I walk down to what is called "Graveyard Point," after the Finnish cemetery there. It is also the only nearby place on the island where I can get cell phone reception. Not that I have anyone I need to call, but sometimes I do so just to use the darn phone.

Does she look thin?
When I get back to New York, having finished my book and my review, I will turn back to an essay on world literature on which I have been working for way too long. I generally hop around in Lamping's book, to keep in touch with the issues. Today was a really lovely day, and I sat on a bench at the beach reading the chapter "Nationalliteratur und Weltliteratur." Lamping mentions that very few scholars follow Dieter Borchmeyer, who sees Goethe, Marx, and Nietzsche anticipating the replacement of national literature by world literature because of the development of "modern civilization" and more open societies. No, everyone seems agreed that Goethe did not envision the end of the individual national literatures. World literature, Lamping writes, is always national literature, as is national literature world literature, when it participates in the kind of international exchange (Austausch) that Goethe had in mind.

Yet, he goes on to say something that I don't agree with. He writes that the distinctiveness of literature is not due to its language, but rather to its poetic "Verfastheit," from which emerges a store of forms, themes, subjects, motifs, and the like, which all literatures share. But what would be "national" about a particular literary work simply by participating in "sprachübergreifende Beziehungen"? And what does that mean, anyway?

If I can make a comparison with the visual arts, I suppose there is, for instance, a Japanese style of modernist architecture, just as there is a Swedish and a Brazilian style. And I suppose one might identify certain details as "Japanese" or "Swedish" or "Brazilian." Yet each is participating in an international idiom, just as are playwrights who write in the idiom of Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard or even Andrew Lloyd Weber. Can one really describe any of these by nationality? It's all one big melting pot, as Erich Auerbach rightly wrote in his essay on world literature.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Faust" and the self

Yolanna has once again made me the recipient of her garden's bounty. First the flowers, then a bag of greens, including the beautiful chard. The lovely piece of salmon comes from Don and Sue. With my limited pantry, I was able to prepare half of the fillet with a lemon-maple syrup glaze. I have plans for the other half with the large zucchini Yo gave me.

I continue to make my way through Jane Brown's Goethe's Allegories of Identity. The chapter “The Scientific Self: Identity in Faust” is an analysis of role playing. It continues her examination of Goethe's literary responses to Rousseau, in the case of Faust the representation of the lack of fixed identities. Jane Brown is an expert on Faust, and her rapid fielding of textual examples that “reflect” (which includes mirrors) the instability of identity follow one another as rapidly as the shifting cloud shapes (another reflection of instability) in that play. Even the shifting forms (“schwankende Gestalten”) of the opening lines of the play announce the theme of instability. One must read the chapter slowly.

Let me quote Brown herself here: “The process of recurrent destabilization is largely driven by theatricality, the primary mode of representing the world in Faust.” Everyone “plays a role” in this drama, even God in his opening scene with Mephistopheles, who first appears to Faust not as “himself” but as a black poodle. Faust thus becomes not simply a case study of shifts of identity, but also of the instability of identity. Throughout, there are “parodic or collateral versions of Faust the striver.”

My first salmon "catch" of the season
As I am not quite half way into he book, I hesitate to make any judgment on a larger argument (or one of her arguments), namely, that the “true self,” as Brown writes in this chapter, drawing on Goethe’s reading of Kant, “like the thing in itself, is the equivalent of natural law.”  Both are fluid, existing in time, but also mirroring “something more permanent than themselves.”

In the previous chapter, “The Theaterical Self,” in which Egmont, Tasso, and Iphigenie were analyzed in regard to this instability of self, Brown mentions in passing the mixing in Egmont of an 18th-century neoclassical political tragedy and a sentimental tragedy. As she remarks, the play separates the two genres into separate scenes. This subject interests me very much, as I have written on the poetic mixing of genres in a similar play, Clavigo. My essay (Goethe Yearbook, vol. 8 [1996]: pp. 1-27) addressed the range of Goethe’s literary efforts of the 1760s and early 1770s, when Goethe was clearly more imitative. Yet, while experimenting in a variety of traditional forms (e.g., pastoral, anacreontic), he was not necessarily faithful to his literary models. Clavigo, as I argued, received its “existential weight” by such poetic contamination: the introduction into a classicist play of a non-heroic (i.e., bourgeois) character literally altered the character’s self-conception. Clavigo, almost literally, did not know “who he was.” The drama Faust, of course, is a mixing of the most diverse poetic genres and meters, of which Brown's reading reminds us anew.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Goethe and interiority

Goethe Girl prepares to launch
Last weekend, my first in Vancouver, was spent mainly on neighboring Comorant Island, where I took part in the annual Alert Bay 360. There were 105 paddlers. The fastest time was 55 minutes; I circumnavigated the island in 1:41, which was not the slowest time. Not too bad for someone who has been out in her kayak this summer only twice. Back in Sointula, I have settled into my cottage. It’s a great thing about traveling to places one already knows: there is not the feeling of alienation in foreign places. Indeed, a sight familiar from last August is a local deer in the backyard eating up the plums that fall on the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Looking for plums

And of course I have finally got down to work. Aside from finishing my own book, I read every day a bit of Jane Brown’s Goethe’s Allegories of Identity.

Getting ready for the starting gun
Brown’s engagement with Rousseau seems new on her part, although the title indicates a continued interest in the subject of allegory, as in her previous work, The Persistence of Allegory. I will delve later into her main argument, but a slow reading of the first several chapters indicates that we have here a typical Brown approach: close reading of texts and good use of sources. She does not wander off into ungrounded speculation. I don’t know enough about Goethe–Rousseau studies to evaluate how much  new ground is being broken here, but the literary and biographical parallels she makes in the first major chapter (on “Passion”) are exciting to read. This excitement (for me, in any case) continues in the following chapter (on “Social Responsibility”).

First Nations boat
In both cases Goethe is portrayed as responding directly to Rousseau and correcting him as well as completing or reversing his intentions. Sometimes, Goethe sounds practically intentional, e.g., when Brown writes of Goethe’s “efforts to relive and correct the moral failures of Rousseau’s marriage.” An example, however, of Goethe’s “interaction with Rousseau’s morality in his own life” is indeed illuminating. The relationship with the aristocratic Mme de Warens, who was Rousseau’s benefactor and tutor, was apparently not sexual; later, however, he had a non-intellectual domestic partnership with  the laundress and chambermaid Thérèse Levasseur. Similarly, as Brown writes, “Goethe’s long and significant relationship with Charlotte von Stein, a (married) court lady with whom Goethe began a rarefied love affair shortly after he settled in Weimar in late 1775, and his mistress Christiane Vulpius stand out as analogues to Rousseau’s –– the first with an older aristocratic and idolized woman who educated him, and the second with a woman beneath him in social status who kept him happy” (25).

While Brown insists that she is not tracing causality, the “parallels, underlying patterns, and conversations among texts” that she identifies will support her thesis, namely, that there is a line of transmission from Rousseau to Goethe to Freud in conceptualizing and representing interiority and “modern selfhood.” Stay tuned.

Photos: Alert Bay 360

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

On vacation, sort of

I am once more in my blue cottage in Sointula on Malcolm Island for the month of August. It is a time of writing, reading, and relaxing. I have discovered that getting out of New York City for two months every year, in winter and summer, is the way to go. My house is at the corner of 13th Avenue and 3rd, as indicated on the map. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

 More news to come, but among the things I have brought with me is a copy of Jane Brown's Goethe's Allegories of Identity, of which I have a review to write.