Saturday, June 25, 2016

Goethe and Christiane

Der Geheimrat und sein Mädchen
I have a long overdue book review to write this summer: Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar (2014). In preparation, I am going back and reading two of Damm's earlier books on the "Goethe circle." As I prepare to head out to British Columbia for the rest of the summer, my suitcase includes Cornelia Goethe (1987) and Christiane und Goethe: Eine Recherche (1998). The latter book is structured in terms of "parallel lives," which over two centuries bring the two together in Weimar. While Goethe's ancestors go from strength to strength through the centuries, the Vulpius clan represents a case of downward mobility.

 By the end of the second part of this book they are on the brink of their meeting on July 12, 1788, in the park in Weimar, when Christiane approaches Goethe with a request from her brother for support. As Damm writes, without exception all accounts admit of no doubt that this is what happened. Except, as she continues, there is no surviving document from Christian's brother requesting support, and it was not until July 19 that Goethe's friend Knebel vacated Goethe's garden house, which became the love nest. Still, both Goethe and Christiane date the beginning of their "Liebesbund" to this date.

The subtitle, "Recherche," means investigation, which this book certainly is, and one cannot help being touched and impressed by the amount of research Damm has undertaken, burrowing in archives, traveling to small Thuringian towns to go through church records. In the church in Rothenstein she finds a grave marker of Johann Friedrich Vulpius, who was pastor of the community for 39 years before passing away in 1715. The account Damm gives here of the struggles of Christiane's father should disabuse anyone of nostalgia about life in a town dominated by a court in the mid-18th century.

Part 3, which I am now reading, concerns the initial and clandestine arrangements between Goethe and Christiane shortly after his return to Weimar from Italy and, then, the household he was forced to form after she became pregnant and he had to leave the Frauenplan house. Carl August's wife did not want to have Goethe's bastard child running around under her nose. From the beginning, as Damm writes, Goethe didn't intend to sanctify their relationship with a marriage license or ceremony, not because he had hesitations about accepting his responsibility to Christiane. It was because of his "paganism," his anti-Church sentiments, and his aversion to marriage. Besides, a "wild marriage" corresponded to his post-Italian notion of himself living in Weimar as "artist" and "guest."

So, in order to avoid a bourgeois or Christian marriage, Goethe had to transport to a new house his lover and his lover's aunt and stepsister. His long-time cook and his trusty factotum were dismissed. His own working arrangements were disrupted, and he no longer had all his favorite possessions around him. He had to assert himself in a milieu that for ten years had sheltered him and given him a stage on which to play a leading role, but that had becoming disapproving. Oh, Goethe!

Picture credit: Lydia Keßner

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Goethe and Jane Austen

How many ways can we say "dreamboat"?
I am not sure why it has taken me so long to get around to watching the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. It may have been Keira Knightly in the role of Elizabeth Bennet, but having finally seen the movie I find that I was unduly prejudiced against her. She is excellent. The family setting at Longbourn also adds much charm to this version, serving as a strong contrast to the formal, rigid world of the landed gentry and aristocracy.

One knows that Jane Austen was familiar with Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, as that work is mentioned in the epistolary "juvenilia" Love and Friendship, but after watching this 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice I could not help thinking that she might have been familiar with Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. One might make the case that the restricted settings of Austen's novels are reminiscent of the village in which Goethe's places his idyll. The restricted number of characters in Hermann und Dorothea -- six -- also hews closely to that of Austen's Emma, which even includes a pharmacist! While the French Revolution is clearly an impetus for Goethe's vision in his small epic, it is only in Mansfield Park and in Persuasion that Austen allows hints of an outside world lurking to wreak destruction of settled and contented ways of life.

"Don't pay attention to anything I say!"
Peter Hume-Brown in his biography of Goethe writes the following about Hermann und Dorothea: "The personages in the poem are all recognized types of the classes to which they belong, have precisely the traits which can be understood and appreciated by the general mind. There is here no subtle psychology as in Tasso and Iphigenie, no abnormal character like Werther which appeals only to artificial natures." I like that part about "no subtle psychology." Neither Austen nor Goethe idealizes the inhabitants of the their tales, but present them for the most part in their most pleasing incarnation.

But Pride and Prejudice shares something important with Hermann und Dorothea: the two male principles fall in love at first sight. It is also suggested, by the cutaways of the first visual "encounter" between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, that Elizabeth Bennet is likewise smitten. She, however, is not a worldly person, and it takes her longer to come to the realization that she has probably been in love with him from the first. As for Dorothea, who seems very wise and, not surprisingly, has more reason to be cautious, here is what she says about Hermann:

“Und als ich wieder am Brunnen ihn fand, da freut’ ich mich seines
Anblicks so sehr, als wär mir der Himmlischen einer erschienen.”

Whenever Elizabeth looks at Darcy, her eyes show that she is in love, even at the moment when she has told him he is the last man living she would ever marry.

Both novels also concern marriage to someone who is initially not thought as "suitable." Something like impropriety exists between their circumstances. In Hermann's case, his father wants him to marry a woman with a dowry, but once Hermann sees Dorothea he insists he will not marry at all if he cannot have her. Mr. Darcy seems to be of the same persuasion and must only convince himself to set aside his objections to her family. Ultimately, love conquers all.

Picture credit: Black Magic

Friday, June 17, 2016

Goethe's views on art

Interior of Strassburg cathedral
It is an accident of my earliest work on Goethe — the pre-Weimar period — that I am familiar with so many early Germanists. Tom Saine asked, in response to my first submission to the Goethe Yearbook — on Goethe’s Leipzig poetry — why I did not include any recent scholarship in my essay. Well, aside from a very important article by Heinrich Detering and also work by Stuart Atkins, most of the scholarship on that period came from now-forgotten scholars: Hermann Baumgart, Fritz Brüggemann, Max Hermann, Heinz Kindermann (Der Rokoko Goethe), Albert Leitzmann. (By the way, Professor Detering just published a book on Bob Dylan.)

In my ongoing struggle to de-accession books, I recently came across Goethe: A Symposium, edited by Dagobert D. Runes (another forgotten name!), published in 1932 on the centenary of Goethe’s death. It includes an essay by Hermann August Korff (he of Geist der Goethezeit: has anyone read it lately?), and is entitled “Goethe’s Views of Art.” I have read many essays by Goethe on the various arts, but have always felt a certain alienation. His writings on art do not speak to me. Even if the most mundane New York Times art reviewer does not come from the same place as myself, I at least am aware of where he is coming from: his prejudices (deconstructive, in particular) are very much on view. I even understand Diderot’s essays on 18th-century art better than I do Goethe’s.

Goethe was of not particularly interested in the visual arts of his time. His views, according to Korff, were in opposition to the spirit of the day, indeed produced “out of the spirit of a very noble, but nonetheless doctrinaire erudition.” They are profound thoughts, but do not approach any problems in the artistic milieu of his time. Moreover, his insights on the arts of the Renaissance and antiquity “fall completely within the critical groves hewed by Winckelmann, and are not therefore actually original.” As for the Laocöon group, “before which the eighteenth century lay prostrate, worshiping, [it] is to the present nothing but a stereotyped virtuosity of Greek decadence.” As Korff mentions, Goethe had little access to “true treasures” of the past, so that his views could offer little to “the substance of art history.”

Korff, however, situates Goethe’s artistic views in a way that makes him more understandable to me. His discussion of Goethe’s earliest essay on art, On German Architecture, is not solely a case of enthusiasm for the architecture. Goethe was not truly “subjugated” by the temper that is known as “Gothic.” The essay reflects more truly his turn away from the neoclassical aesthetics that he had imbibed from Oeser while a student in Leipzig and that formed the content of the poems in the Neue Lieder and the so-called "Das Buch Annette." The essay on German architecture, a product of his encounter with Herder in Strassburg, leaves aside all of the fine formality that characterizes “neoclassical rococo.” Important for Goethe, in the discussion of the cathedral, is the role of humans in imposing their emotions onto matter. Thus, the term “characteristic,” which for Goethe was the primary condition for true art, grounded in the soul of the artist.

View of Strassburg cathedral, showing WW2 bomb damage
As Korff points out, this enthusiasm for architecture was not repeated in Italy, aside from a “momentary infatuation with Palladio” and despite the classical monuments there. In Italy, he simply found substantiation of the views already articulated in the Erwin essay. Henceforth, it makes little difference whether Goethe writes of sculpture or of painting. Of interest in this respect is his fondness for in-between forms: reliefs and vases.

The plastic arts, however, unlike architecture, have imitation as their essence. How to make imitation the expression of a soul?

It is temperament, that of the artist, which becomes  “the integrating organ of artistic representation.” An important work of art is not “objective,” as Korff writes, but is “a subjective reproduction of nature — a union of nature and artist, a rebirth of nature out of the spirit of the creator. It is not the nature, which the artist shows us, but his nature.”

Goethe’s preference for the classical style derives from his belief in its resistance to change, to mutability. That style was “the only pure embodiment of the principle of form,” of which the restless modern spirit could offer no examples. Thus, for moderns, form was an expression of the soul of the artist. It goes without saying that, for Goethe, the soul could not be vulgar or inharmonious if it were to produce “true art.”

Korff’s essay has led me to think that Goethe was looking for a “spiritual principle” in art, but at the same time seeking a motivation that was not Christian. Christian art, one might say, was the embodiment of eternal, unchanging principles, but Goethe did not like those principles. In addition, even when he wrote the Erwin essay, before his closer study of ancient art, agreed-upon standards in art were giving way to the production of artistic works that had the stamp of the individual artist. Goethe, however, wished to “ground” art in something besides mere personality.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Goethe at the Gotthard Pass

The Gotthard hospice, 1785
I receive a weekly email from the Swiss Embassy entitled "Switzerland Today." This week's missive concerned the opening of the last stage of the Gotthard Tunnel. There are some truly weird photos of the inaugration ceremonies on the BBC News website. One shows a topless woman decked as a bird hovering above actors representing the nine construction workers who died during the building of the tunnel. All this and more were brought to the guests by the German impresario Volker Hesse.

Goethe's first visit to the Gotthard Pass took place in this very month in 1775, during his first Swiss journey. The very short diary entries for June 22 do not mention the Gotthard by name, and indeed he seems not to have stayed very long at the pass. At 6:30 a.m. he left Wasen with his childhood friend, Jacob Ludwig Passavant.

21. halb 7. aufwärts.
allmächtig schröcklich
Geschten [Göschenen]
gezeichnet. Noth und Müh -- und schweis. Teufelsbrüke u. der teufel. Schwizen u. Matten u Sincken biss ans Urner Loch hinaus u belebung im Thal. an der Matte trefflichen Käss. Sauwohl u Projekte.

At the Capuchin hospice, they ate the famous Ursen cheese and refreshed themselves with "einen leidlichen Wein." The next morning already, they were on their way to Andermatt: "ab 35 Min auf 4."

Passavant in 1775
Here is the description of the climb in Dichtung und Wahrheit: "Den 21sten halb sieben Uhr aufwärts; die Felsen wurden immer mächtiger und schrecklicher; der Weg bis zum Teufelstein, bis zum Anblick der Teufelsbrücke immer mühseliger."

Passavant tried to convince Goethe to continue on to Italy, but Goethe refused. As Nicholas Boyle writes: "Goethe seems to have been under some external pressure, it is unclear from which quarter, though probably from his parents, to return soon to Frankurt, and he was anxious, given that he had to return, to see the frontier from which he did so, to clarify, as it were, the possibility he was leaving unfulfilled."

Gotthard route in winter, 1790
On the second Swiss journey, with Carl August, the climb was really arduous and more dangerous, as they were traveling in winter. (See my account in an essay in volume 15 of Goethe Yearbook.) He wrote to Frau von Stein of their arrival at the Gotthard on November 13, 1779: “Auf dem Gotthart bey den Capuzinern.” The letters (also those of Carl August to his wife) served as the basis for the later Letters from Switzerland. The main part of that narrative, as Boyle writes, "deals continuously with the long trek from Geneva to Chamonix and Marigny and up the Valais to the Furka and the St. Gotthard, where the book ends." The concluding paragraph of Goethe's account, according to Boyle, which "bears a strong resemblance to the last lines of ‘Winter Journey in the Harz,’ describes the geographical situation of the St. Gotthard so as to make it a nodal point between Germany and Italy, the eastern and the western Alps, near the sources of the Rhine and the Rhone."

Indeed, the pass is a geographical meeting point, and a watershed , with four major rivers rising nearby: the Rhine, the Rhone, the Reuss, and the Ticino.

It is hard to imagine how people once bore the cold in these mountains without clothes we nowadays buy at North Face or Patagonia. Goethe describes in Letters from Switzerland  the arrival at the hospice of one of the monks: "Der Pater ist von Airolo herauf gekommen, so erfroren, daß er bei seiner Ankunft kein Wort hervorbringen konnte. ... Er war von Airolo herauf den sehr glatten Weg gegen den Wind gestiegen; der Bart war ihm eingefroren, und es währte eine ganze Weile, bis er sich besinnen konnte."

The hospice at the pass dates from 1237, or at least that is the date of the first written account of its existence. (Saint Gotthard was a Benedictine bishop of Hildesheim, canonized in 1131.) Goethe's account makes clear how busy the route was, even in winter. He describes, for instance, the mule trains, of which there could be, as he writes, "keine beschwerlichere Reisegesellschaft." The mules are always stopping on the small path, forcing humans to make their way around them and the baskets strapped on both sides. If you stop to admire the view, you soon hear their bells behind you.

The Gotthard tunnel
Goethe's interest in plans for the Suez canal and other large building projects is well known. It is hard to imagine, however, that he could have envisioned the work that has gone into constructing this amazing tunnel.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hitler: monster or human?

Hitler the monster by A.L. Tarter
I have never been intrigued by the person of Adolf Hitler. Most of what I know of the history of World Wars I and II comes from college history courses. I am more familiar with the literary writers of the Nazi era or the portrayals of that era in literature or fiction than through in-depth historical study. A friend told me yesterday that she was reading a book entitled 1944: I can't see myself picking it up. There are too many other books I want to read, mostly on literary subjects. Still, from my earliest days as a student of German, I did ponder the connection between Germans and the phenomenon of National Socialism, especially its genocidal program. Two years studying in Germany in the late 1960s did not really offer an answer, even after I had got to know people who had been alive in World War II. As an American, I have been very blessed not to have ever been confronted with such evil. One lives only when one lives, and I cannot say how I would have reacted had I lived in Germany and seen Jewish neighbors being hauled away. The Nazi state was a terror state, as was life under the Soviets.

For most of us, the Hitler we see in news clips seems so preposterous that it is hard to account that anyone took him seriously. And thus, we throw up our hands and don't look further at the phenomenon of Hitler. Thank goodness for historians who do take the trouble to enlighten us. A recent issue of London Review of Books has a review by Neal Ascherson of Hitler's Ascent, 1889–1939 by the German Historian Volker Ullrich. (Here is a link to the German edition.) The LRB heading, "Hitler as Human," indicates Ulrich's focus: the caricature of Hitler as having no private life "perpetuates the view that his crimes were committed by a monster –– not by a German or Austrian human being." Ullrich shows that Hitler did have a private life –– although a pretty boring one –– that he had friends, especially married couples, the wife of which would mother him and whom he would reward with displays of Austrian charm.

Austrian charm at tea time
Ullrich's book was criticized in Germany for its personalizing of the Führer, and Ascherson concedes that the most fascinating parts concern "Hitler among women or with his flaky nouveau-riche guests up at the Berghof, over Berchtestgaden." Yet these sections, as Ascherson writes, are embedded in a detailed narrative of his political life, from youth to his installation as chancellor and up to the outbreak of World War II. The following quote from Ascherson's review was for me the most illuminating aspect of Hitler's perversity:

"Reading this familiar 'early years' tale again, Hitler as a personality no longer seems so outlandish. What does mark him out is his conscious abandonment of conventional morality: the monstrous, shameless ease with which he lied, betrayed, and murdered. The traits of his character, on the other hand, are not remarkable in themselves. Thousands of people around us daydream about world conquest, fondle hate fantasies about what they might do to immigrants or jihadists, lap up conspiracy theories or impress their mates -- after a pint or six -- with bellowing rants about politicians or bankers. Most of them, fortunately, stay below the political radar. They lack a soil in which their urges can swell until they overshadow the earth. They lack the license of Alasdair Gray's Law of Inverse Exclusion (outlined in his novel Lanark), which 'enables a flea in a matchbook to declare itself jailer of the universe.' And they lack a weapon."

BTW, on Hitler's voice, Ascherson writes that it was an excellent one and that his harsh Lower Bavarian accent "seems to have given North Germans an impression of sincerity rather than provincial uncouthness." But, as he admits, reading or listening to the speeches today, one is left with a sense of bafflement: "How could anyone have taken seriously such stagy bellowing and preposterous ideas?" Hitler seems to have been an astute performer. His speeches were preceded by a "strong warm-up," after which he strode onto the stage or into the hall, "deliberately late." Where possible, the seating was spread out horizontally before him, which gave his performance a stronger impact.

Picture source: The Daily Mail