Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Goethe in The New Yorker

Goethe, as illustrated by Boris Pelcer
A new anthology of Goethe's writing, The Essential Goethe (Princeton UP), edited by Matthew Bell, has prompted Adam Kirsch to give a galloping summary of Goethe's life and work in the current issue of The New Yorker. It is the first time that I have had occasion to find fault with a review by Kirsch, who is generally very thoughtful. Indeed, I mentioned an essay by him in a post a few years ago on this blog. But the New Yorker piece is rather potted, as if Kirsch had read a long encyclopedia article and excerpted it. All the high points are there -- e.g., the holism of Goethe's scientific view, the "objectivity" offered by Weimar, the "watershed" experience of Italy, the subject of "Bildung," the Olympian perspective -- but nothing distinctive emerges about Goethe's person or personality.

Kirsch brings out the old charge that The Sorrows of Young Werther started "a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero."

Here are a couple other assertions that one might quibble with.

"Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

Or of Goethe's death: "At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were 'More light!' Probably his vision was dimming and he just wanted someone to open a window. But it is also Goethe’s last perfect metaphor: one final plea for illumination, from a writer who had spent all his life seeking it."

I did like Kirsch's assessment of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: "Indeed, so many scandalous things happen in the novel—from adultery and illegitimacy to arson, incest, and suicide—that it often feels more like a gothic parody than like an earnest Bildungsroman."

Kirsch also emphasizes the difficulty of rendering Goethe's poetry in a way that truly captures its beauty, which is an obstacle to an appreciation of Goethe in the U.S.

A disappointing piece, although I like the illustration of Goethe by Boris Pelcer.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Geheimnis offenbar"

Goethe officially opens work at the Ilmenau mine, February 1784
I have a stack of books on Goethe that I am trying to get through quickly. Top of the heap was a short one, with text by Sigrid Damm and wonderful illustrations by her son Hamster Damm. (Yes, that seems to be a real name: maybe conceived in Holland?) It is entitled "Geheimnis offenbar": Goethe im Berg.

Like most books by Sigrid Damm, this one has a story to tell. The story here concerns the almost lifelong investment of time and energy by Goethe with the Ilmenau mine. It is an exemplary, almost conversational, analysis of certain subjects: the difficulties and complexities of mining in the 18th century; Goethe’s desire to have his name attached to a successful, real world project; and the failure of the mine and Goethe's transformation of failure (of the lack of metallic "Gewinn," so to speak) into personal gold. Aside from one exception, she does not draw on what scholars have said on the subject, but instead draws solely on writings by Goethe and others in his circle. She has done the research, with much attention to the "amtliche Schriften."

After an epigram -- “Im engsten Stollen, wie in tiefsten Schachten/ Ein Licht zu suchen, das den Geist entzünde” -- she opens with a scene, a “sunny day in September 1827” as Goethe and Eckermann make an excursion, and the 78 year old Goethe exclaims: “Was habe ich nicht drüben in den Bergen von Ilmenau in meiner Jugend alles durchgemacht!” Doubtless, writes Damm, he is referring above all to the Ilemenau mine. What follows is the history of Goethe’s engagement with the mine, filled with many high and low points. Despite Goethe’s allusion to his youth, his responsibility for the mine extends far into the future: from his 27th to his 63d year and “darüber hinaus,” the mine did not let him go.

Damm characterizes the project as follows. (Italicized words are those of Goethe or his contemporaries.)

“Die Metallgewinnung aus dem Erdinneren ist ein Werk, das er mit Ehrgeiz und einer großen Vision angeht.

"Ein Werk, das Grenzüberschreitung signalisiert.

"Wie unter seinem literarischen Werk soll auch unter diesem sein Namenszug stehen.

"Über die geistigen Impulse hinaus will der Erfolgsautor der ‘Leiden des jungen Werthers’ nun eine andere Dimension, er will das Leben selbst. Will Handlung. Tat. Das feste irdische Glück für andere ist sein Ziel. Durch sein Tun soll den Menschen einer wirtschaftlich schwachen Region, den Bergleuten, den armen Maulwurfen, wie er sie nennt, Beschäfftigung und Brod gegeben werden.

Ein soziales Projekt.”

Goethe speaks to the shareholders
Through all the years of practical efforts one thing stands out, namely, the power of Goethe’s name and personality to get the project off the ground. The personality of Goethe continues to play a role as the years go by and nothing pans out as expected (Trebra, the “Gutachter,” judged three years of work to the opening of the shaft, after which riches would be brought up), as the technical obstacles add up. It is he who keeps the shareholders on board as the need for money exceeds the initial estimate. As Damm details, in the end everyone loses his investment, in some cases his shirt, including the villagers who have thrown in their savings in the hope of future wealth.

Damm notes that in October 1796, by which date it was clear that the mine was useless and that there would be no help for the “armen Maulwurfen,” Goethe writes (source not given) concerning the death of the foundery master Schrader: “Seine Witwe bleibt freilich mit vielen Kindern zurück, an der wohl auch einige Barmherzigkeit zu thun ist; doch wird man sie wohl mit einer kleinen Abfindung los, weil sie wohl wieder nach Hessen zurückgeht.

Ouch is the response of a 21st-century reader, but Goethe did not live in the 21st century. Indeed, after reading this book, one has the feeling that, if Goethe lived now, he would have been head of the World Bank or a White House chief of staff.  Damm has combed all of the relevant documents, including the amtliche Schriften, which demonstrate in high degree Goethe’s administrative abilities. Goethe was not an idle dreamer. He consulted with all the relevant people, both the “Bergleute von der Feder,  die wissenschaftlich augebildeten Geologen, als auch die Bergleute vom Leder, die Praktiker,” too.  The mine had worked once; so it was thought, by 18-year-old Carl August, that it could be made to work again, with revenue for the duchy. Everyone had the best of intentions.

Some of the original Ilmenau investors
One can't help wondering about the seeming futility, and Damm brings in a modern expert, Kurt Seebuck, who has written a book about the subject: Silber und Kupfer aus Ilmenau: Ein Bergwerk unter Goethes Leitung. Hintergründe, Erwartungen, Enttäuschungen, which appeared in 1995, two hundred years after the final mine collapse. There were, as Seebuck mentions, ominous signs from the beginning. Already in February 1784 the “Geschworene” Schreiber had drawn attention to “den äußerst schlechten Zustand eines Stollenstücks.” Goethe investigated and was convinced of the need for repair of the passage. The costs were assessed at 1,440 Reichstaler and three years of work.

Damm asks whether it was the considerable amount of money or the enormous time delay, especially at this early moment of euphoria — Goethe had just given his speech at the opening of the mine — that caused Goethe to decide not to undertake the corrective maintenance? The result in 1796 was the “unsägliche Not, die mit dem Stollenbruch im Oktober 1796 über das Berkwerk hereinbrach.” As Goethe would later write: “Der Geldmangel der Gegenwart habe die Not der Zukunft geboren.”

Although this venture was taking place at a time when geological and mining knowledge was not as advanced state as it is today, Seebuck says that a close study of the archives of the Ilmenau mine at the time would have shown that the site chosen for the sinking of the shaft was incorrect. Indeed, an experienced “Praktiker,” had he studied the written history of the mine, would have been able to draw that conclusion. But in the 18th century “archival research when exploring the feasibility of mineral deposits was not yet recognized.”

In the end, Goethe’s own assessment was that it was the limits of nature herself that thwarted the venture (and all attempts to do good and, one must add, put his name on a successful, real-world success). In April 11, 1812, in response to Carl August, who had asked whether it was finally time to close the mine, Goethe wrote what Damm calls a “mit Wehmut das Scheitern eingestehende intime Aussage dem Freund und Mitstreiter,” which, she says, has no correspondence in Goethe’s public pronouncements about Ilmenau:

Es ist freylich ein Unterschied, ob man in unbesonnener Jugend und friedlichen Tagen, seinen Kräften mehr als billig ist vertrauend, mit unzulänglichen Mitteln Großes unternimmt und sich und Andre mit eitlen Hoffnngen hinhält, oder ob man in späteren Jahren, in bedrängter Zeit, nach aufgedrungener Einsicht, seinem eigenen Wollen und Halbvollbringen zu Grabe läutet.

The Johannes shaft at Ilmenau

In the “Tag- und Jahreshefte” for 1794, which Damm dates to the years 1819 to 1823, Goethe refers as follows to the failure: “die Ausführung [war] weder umsichtig noch energisch genug, und das Werk, besonders bey einer ganz unerwarteten Naturbildung [war] mehr als einmal im Begriff zu stocken.”

It is this “completely unexpected natural formation” that is the lesson Goethe draws from all these years of effort. Despite feelings of resignation, the failure that might have weighed on others is not something Goethe accepts. It is his nature to draw a lesson for himself from such efforts. When, in 1816 Christian Gottlob Voigt celebrates his 50th anniversary in public service, Goethe congratulates him with a poem, from which the opening epigraph draws:

Im engsten Stollen, wie in tiefsten Schachten
Ein Licht zu suchen, das den Geist entzünde,
War ein gemeinsam köstliches Betrachten,
Ob nicht Natur zuletzt sich doch ergründe?
Und manches Jahr des stillsten Erdelebens
Ward so zum Zeugen edelsten Bestrebens.

As Damm writes, if reflection and practical work went hand in hand at the beginning, by this point reflection remains. “Mit der Distanz, die auch der vergehenden Zeit geschuldet ist, verlagert sich die Auseinandersetzung mit dem Mythos Berg ausschließlich auf die künstlerische Ebene, findet im Werk selbst statt.” The geologist and miner (Bergman) in Goethe remains alive in the poet and natural scientist, leading him beyond the practical dimension of the “Kampf mit der Natur” to its ethical counterpart. The final part of “Geheimnißvoll offenbar” examines works that resonate with this dimension.

These include the figure of Montan in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. Whereas Wilhelm sees only “ein weitläufiges Alphabet” in the crevices and cracks in the rocks, Montan seeks to understand the “Schrift der Natur.” Ottilie in Elective Affinities participates in a mysterious connection with the magnetic forces in the earth. And of course Goethe’s experience with mines can be seen in “Das Märchen.” Damm devotes most of her conclusion to several scenes in the second part of Faust, especially the carnival scene at the imperial palace, in which she also sees Goethe’s uneasy response, especially in the use of paper money, to the beginnings of a capitalist economy. As the failure of the Ilemenau venture shows, “treasures” may indeed lie buried in the ground, but one cannot count on harnessing them. Nature will have her way.

The paintings here are by Hamster Damm. More information about the book can be found on the website of the Villa Rosenthal in Jena, which on Feburary 10 features a reading from Damm's book by the actress Steffi Kühnert.

Image credit: Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Boundary work

I came across the term "boundary work" in a book entitled The Limits of Matter: Chemistry, Mining, and Enlightenment (U Chicago P) by Hjalmar Fors, a Swedish researcher in the history of science. The book caught my eye because of the word "mining" in the title. I have written (see here) on Goethe's interest in mining and in mineralogy, which led to his first "scientific" writings. The impetus for learning about these subjects was his appointment to head a commission to investigate whether the ancient Ilmenau mine could again be made workable and produce some revenue for the duchy.

The Limits of Matter has several subjects. One is to draw attention to the role that Sweden played in the creation of "transnational knowledge" in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly scientific knowledge. France and England are generally seen as the main centers of Enlightenment thought, but this "centrist historiography," as Fors calls it, marginalizes other actors. He wishes to enlarge this narrative. As he writes, “One cannot be content with discussing over and over again the relative importance of the familiar group of well-known heroes that is routinely called up in the older histories of science.”

The Falun copper mine, Sweden
Sweden’s rulers controlled the Bureau of Mines, which oversaw Europe’s largest (until ca. 1750) export-oriented iron industry. The mines were of course highly dependent on the production of minerals, and mining officials were encouraged to seek ways to improve the flourishing mining concern. As Fors writes, these officials traveled extensively in the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Netherlands. (I wasn't aware that the Netherlands possessed mines of any importance, but maybe the officials went there because it was a center of publishing.)

Well known, at least in histories of science, are the Swedes Georg Brandt, for his 1735 discovery of cobalt, and Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who discovered nickel in 1751. But Fors' other subject is the way that the new science of chemistry, especially as it developed in identifying and classifying metals and metallic elements, contributed to Enlightenment rationality. For "chymists" in earlier centuries the material world had been considered malleable, shape-changing, transmutable: think alchemy, but also think fairies, trolls, and gnomes. By the late 17th century, however, "all over Europe powerful state actors, driven by economic and political concerns, instigated changes and reforms in mining, smelting, industry, and manufacture,” with the result that "chemists" (as they would be called) excluded all subjects that could not be mechanically known. Fors quotes historian of science Lorraine Daston on the way that phenomena that had earlier interested "natural scientists" became unfashionable, due to their lack of utility: “A new ethos of utility replaced the old one of curiosity … the stabilization of physical phenomena [was understood] as the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for practical applications.”

Establishing boundaries through exclusion
The process by which this exclusion occurred Fors refers to as boundary-work, a coinage of sociologist Thomas F. Gieryn (see “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review, 48, 6 [1983]: 781-95). Boundary work, as defined by Gieryn, "describes an ideological style found in scientists' attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities." Fors applies this description to the transition from "chymestry" to "chemistry." In the early period, “interested scholars and learned magicians usually held magic to be within the bounds of nature, and as acting through and within laws of nature." Skepticism against such phenomena as magic and transmutation was still limited, but by the 1760s “an array of entities and phenomena previously conceived of as natural were defined as outside of nature,” and “self-proclaimed enlighteners found the courage to voice public skepticism.”

For Gierkyn, boundary-work is concomitant with discipline formation, as scientists in their various fields attempt to establish the parameters of the discipline. But he adds something that I find of interest, especially in the modern world, which is so fraught with political correctness: “Boundary-work is also a useful ideological style when monopolizing professional authority and resources in the hands of some scientists by excluding others as ‘pseudo-scientists.’” In other words, the circulation of knowledge itself closes off acceptable subjects of discourse.

Two things about the above show Goethe as a denizens of two eras. The first concerns world literature, a very modern idea, which concerns the circulation of ideas beyond national boundaries, indeed the very circulation that Fors describes as occurring among scientific thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries. One is surprised that Goethe, because of his own considerable scientific writing, did not include in his concept the rise of scientific progress that was occurring because of the exchanges among inventors and savants.

The other obvious Goethe connection is the subject of witchcraft. As Fors writes: “Witchcraft accusations and the weight they were given in juridical evidence serve as a powerful reminder that people of the late 17 century defined reality quite different” from those of us who live today. And think here of Mephisto: “The early modern body was subject to many influences. Not only could it fall ill and become the victim of sudden physical violence. It could also be bewitched and shape-shifted, even squeezed into a keyhole."

Photo credit: Intent Blog; Zheng's Photo Gallery

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Goethe and Frederick the Great

Wilhelm Camphausen, Frederick the Great (detail)
In my last post I mentioned the small volume of Voltaire's memoirs that dealt mostly with the philosophe's relationship with the Prussian king. I do not know much about Frederick, so I ordered a biography recommended by Andrew Brown, the translator of the memoirs: Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters, by Giles MacDonogh. It arrived yesterday, and naturally I went to the index and looked for Goethe. And there was a Goethe entry, including "meets Frederick, 332."

I went to page 332 and found this amusing passage, which is preceded by a mention of a visit to Potsdam by James Boswell, who saw the king in parade but not in person:

"Through the duke of Saxony Weimar, Goethe had the chance that Boswell lacked. In August 1776 he wrote to his friend Merck that he had 'been really close to Old Fritz, I have seen the way he lives, his gold, silver, marble, monekys, parrots and torn curtains, and I have seen a great man reasoning with his own dumb dogs.'"

James Kirkland
Not only an amusing passage, but a truly delicious one. Could it be true? I consulted the endnote: Jessen, 456. It took me a while to figure out who Jessen was. MacDonogh's book contains no bibliography, and the full title of a reference is given only on the first mention. In other words, thirty pages earlier: Hans Jessen, Friedrich der Grosse und Maria-Theresia in Augenzeugenberichten (1965). Amazon did not offer a "Look Inside" of Jessen, so I reached a dead end there.

It then struck me that Goethe was not in Potsdam in August 1776. In fact, his only trip to Berlin was in May of 1778, when he traveled there with Carl August. He did not meet the king, as MacDonogh suggests, but he and Carl August did dine with Frederick's brother Heinrich. A letter to Merck about that visit was written in August of that year, i.e., in 1778, not 1776. In the letter Goethe describes his Harz journey and his ascent of the Brocken the previous year, before going on to mention the visit in spring to Potsdam. But it is clear from the letter to Merck that he did not meet the king in person. (MacDonogh: "Through the duke of Saxony Weimar, Goethe had the chance that Boswell lacked.") Here is what he said about Potsdam to Merck:

Auch in Berlin war ich im Frühjahr; ein ganz ander Schauspiel! Wir waren wenige Tage da, und ich guckte nur drein wie das Kind in Schön-Raritäten Kasten. Aber Du weißt, wie ich im Anschaun lebe; es sind mir tausend Lichter aufgangen. Und dem alten Fritz bin ich recht nah worden, da ich habe sein Wesen gesehn, sein Gold, Silber, Marmor, Affen, Papageien und zerrissene Vorhänge, und hab über den großen Menschen seine eignen Lumpenhunde räsonnieren hören.

MacDonogh has misunderstood what Goethe meant by "being really close" to Frederic. Having seen "the way he lives" is also not the same as "ich habe sein Wesen gesehen," while the last part of the passage in English is totally wrong. One has the impression from MacDonogh that Goethe observed the "enlightened" king in conversation with his dogs. Instead, what Goethe says is that he has heard the way that "the scoundrels" surrounding the monarch speak about "the great man."

So, maybe read Tim Blanning's new book about Frederick.