Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Goethe as newspaper reader

My work station
My stay in British Columbia has been a great respite from the febrility of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I speak of the mood produced during the current political season, which affects New Yorkers excessively and which is an effect of too much newspaper and TV reporting. (And a friend has just written to say that I have missed three weeks of 90 degree weather in New York.) I can't recall now when I ceased to read a newspaper or to consider reading one an important part of life. I do remember many years ago that I was struck by how boring I found The New York Times, at least the life style sections. A feeling of weariness comes over me these days whenever someone passes along to me a book review from the Times. Michiko Kakutani should really get a new job.

But even when it comes to world events, I usually avoid the opinions that flow forth from the press. Again, the sight of rush hour travelers on the subway reading the opinion pages of the Times induces the same weariness as I feel about the arts pages. The past two years have been full of world events that, however horrible, are nevertheless, when viewed historically, not really out of character (so to speak) for humankind. Have we become so secure in our way of life that we can no longer fathom that there are bad people out in the world, especially bad people who want to destroy it?

I did follow the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 because of my interest in the issue of freedom of speech. (See my volume on the history of this right in the West: Freedom of Speech: The History of An Idea.) Otherwise, however, the reporting, along with the opinon-mongering, following such events is tendentious and finger-pointing. And everyone, literally everyone, in New York always has an opinion, especially on the causes. After the Orlando shootings, I vowed never to utter my opinion on events that dominate the news cycle. And from what I have observed, simply from glancing at headlines in passing or when I open my internet browser, the press, including newspapers, has really been disgustingly tendentious in its current political coverage. It is all opinion, all the time.

Eisert at home
Thus, I was pleased to discover that my views on newspaper reading coincide with Goethe's. Again, how foresighted he was, which I have gleaned from a publication encountered this past week. So many fine publications on aspects of Goethe's life and work, and so easy to miss their appearance. I speak of an edited volume, the motto of which is „Göthe ist schon mehrere Tage hier, warum weiß Gott und Göthe.“ The quote is from Clemens Brentano, who was a student in Göttingen during Goethe's visit there in 1801. The volume appeared in 2000, produced in conjunction with an exhibition at the University Library in Göttingen in 1999: „Der gute Kopf leuchtet überall hervor“ – Goethe, Göttingen und die Wissenschaft. It was edited by Elmar Mittler.

The volume includes several fascinating pieces, but the one that most caught my attention at the moment is by Hansjürgen Koschwitz, “Sag’ mir, warum dich keine Zeitung freut? Goethe als Kritiker und Leser der Presse.” Herewith a few observations.

Goethe Girl takes a break
Goethe considered daily reading of the newspaper, especially "Tageslektüre an vorderster Stelle," was designed to nourish "Illusionäres in den Köpfen der Menschen." Its gravest blemish was to estrange people from reality, "sie hinzuhalten und über den Augenblick zu verblenden." Spending time with newspapers directed readers' attention to what was trivial, while distracting them from what was meaningful. He also saw in newspapers the source of tendentiousness, the advance of opinion ("des Meinens") and the retreat of knowledge ("des Wissens").

Freedom of the press does not mean simple reporting of the news; it is the freedom to publish "opinions," to "speak truth to power." Goethe held, however, that such freedom of the press would lead to everyone having the same opinion (Gleichschaltung der Meinungen) and thus a  collective state of mind, the end result a kind of repressive purpose. As for the first, keep it in mind the next time you read about the "97 percent consensus of scientists" on global warming.

Nevertheless, Goethe did read newspapers regularly, for "the news." As Professor Koschwitz writes, newspapers informed him about foreign affairs, especially politics, and kept him in touch with "das Wogen der Welthändel." Many entries in his diaries indicate that he read newspapers daily. In the 1820s one of his favorite newspapers was a French one, Le Globe.

Yet, even in the most volatile of times, Goethe could put the newspaper aside. Koschwitz points out that he gave up reading them, even Le Globe, in the months before the July Revolution of 1830 that would lead to the end of the Bourbon Restoration. Goethe told Eckermann that he did not want to be distracted while writing the Walpurgis Night scene. He added something that coincides with what I feel and why I have withdrawn from observing world events. There is simply nothing I can do about things, while opining about them is a waste of time: „Da ich aber darauf keinen Einfluß habe, so will ich es ruhig abwarten, ohne mich von dem spannenden Gang des Dramas unnützerweise täglich aufregen zu lassen.“ Aufregen zu lassen is the operative expression: "to be upset," "to be irritated." To what purpose?

Goethe wrote in a similar vein to Zelter at the time of the Parisian events, namely, that knowing what is going on does not make one smarter or better ("man [wird] durch die Kenntnis dessen, was der Tag bringt, nicht klüger und nicht besser").

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