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

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