Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"China in the German Enlightenment"

Have I mentioned this before? Some of you know that I was chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture for seven years. During that time we had a wonderful variety of scholars speaking on many aspects of this subject. In the wake of the debates over freedom of speech during the year of protests over the "Mohammed cartoons," I organized a series of talks on freedom of speech in the 18th century. The results appeared in a volume published by Bucknell University Press.

I have recently been anointed co-chair of another Columbia seminar, Religion and Writing, with my term officially beginning in the academic year 2017-2018. This is a two-year gig, as one of the present co-chairs has accepted an EU fellowship. This Thursday, one of the most notable members of the Goethe Society of North America, and indeed the president of our organization, Daniel Purdy will be speaking on "Publishing over Preaching: Jesuit Missionaries and Chinese Print Culture in the Seventeenth Century." (If you would like to attend, please contact the Seminar's rapporteur, Deborah Shulevitz. Her email is on the Seminar's website.)

In preparation for my introduction of Daniel on Thursday, I have taken a look at a recently published volume that he edited: China in the German Enlightenment. Very many interesting subjects are contained in its pages, including the fascinating-sounding “Leibniz on the Existence of Philosophy in China,” by Franklin Perkins. However, the one that caught my eye in particular is the chapter by John K. Noyes entitled “Eradicating the Orientalists: Goethe’s Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten.” Unfortunately the Amazon preview only allowed me to see two pages, but in those two pages I noticed that John referred to the Wolfgang Schadewaldt essay that I discussed in a post recently on "reflections in a watery medium." I look forward to reading more.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Goethe's rainy days in 1816

Thomas Jefferson's temperature notes, 1810–1816
It was in the summer of rain of 1816 that Goethe mentioned in a letter to the classical scholar Heinrich Karl Eichstadt of his interest in Lord Byron, which was also the summer in which Byron and his friends were in residence on the shores off Lake Geneva, also rained in. As in previous years, Goethe planned a stay at a spa in the hopes of physical “Linderung,” e.g., from his rheumatoid “Übel,” which caused him on occasion to be bed ridden. Nevertheless, as he wrote to Zelter on June 8, the “cimmerian” summer was standing in his way. Since we know that Germany can be cold in summer, it must have been really cold. Like many learned people, he made notes in his diary about the weather, although perhaps not so consistently as did our third president.

The above account is from Wolfgang Berhringer's Tambora und das Jahr ohne Sommer. According to Behringer, Goethe planned to  to travel to Wiesbaden, then to Baden-Baden. Without being aware of it, he was planning to travel to the center of the European hunger crisis, caused by the massive amounts of material erupted into the atmosphere the year before and producing the worst harvest since the 1770s. He had not got far in his journey to Wiesbaden, however, when, on July 20, the wagon in which he was traveling broke an axle, and Meyer, his traveling companion, suffered a head injury. Since he was in  his own coach, he could not exchange it for another. He returned to Weimar, where he spent the night and had dinner with the physicist Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni. According to his diary they talked about meteors. Chladni was among the first to identify the phenomenon of meteors. (Wikipedia identifies Chladni as "physicist and musician." Was he hearing the "music of the spheres"?) Behringer assumes they also talked about the continuing unusual weather, which was then occupying the thoughts of scientists. Chladni would publish an article, in 1819, with his own theories: "Über die Ursachen der naßkalten Kälte des Jahres 1816."

On July 24, Goethe journeyed instead to the Tennstedt sulfur springs. It took eight hours to reach Tennstedt from Weimar, as he reported in a letter to Meyer, writing that he had never seen "soviel Noth und Qual auf einem Weg von acht Stunden." He ended up not being very happy with the conditions there: the spa was a barely tolerable place to be and he frequently mentions the terrible weather, not to mention that neither the guests nor the facilities could compare with Carlsbad or Baden-Baden. Even simple walks were impossible. On his return to Weimar he was sunk in what Behringer calls “winter blues.” Throughout December, e.g., he suffered from an evil “catarrh.” Not until the new year was he again on his feet.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was not until February 1817 that he read a report in Cotta’s Morgenblatt about the Tambora eruption. Yet he seems not to have made a connection between the cold summer temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad agricultural yields of 1816. At the same time, as minister he was responsible for the mines and for the natural sciences in general. Thus, it is not surprising that he would notice the weather, and not simply because of his desire to go to spas, or to engage in conversations with Döbereiner on the oxygen content of the atmosphere and on sun spots. He was also occupied with the local consequences of flooding because of the constant rain. His observation about “Gewitterwolken” on July 21 fit his interest in cloud theory; since December of 1815 he had been occupied with Luke Howard’s  essay on clouds. There was lots of weather collecting at the time, people knew that something irregular was going on, but they didn't have the physics, especially the idea of global circulation.

Byron’s Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva
So, the weather was just one of many things occupying Goethe in these crisis years. In fact, in April 1815, when Tambora started erupting, Napoleon was re-erupting, raising an army in Paris, but the Battle of Waterloo would soon follow. Afterward, the nations of Europe, struggling from the effects of so many years of continental warfare, were not in good shape to deal with the environmental crisis. There were the problems of reintegrating trade after the wars, getting people to work in peacetime, reorganizing international trade, high unemployment. And then, in 1816, the growing season was reduced, and there was snowfall in summer in central Europe. England did not have a subsistence crisis because of its maritime trade and its imports from America. Half a million barrels of flour arrived in the ports of Liverpool in 1818. In central Europe, with rudimentary transportation systems, it was difficult to get food.

Landscape and weather were the base of much poetry at the time: doing weather though the lens of the theory of the sublime.The English writers living in Geneva that summer could not go boating, so they sat inside and talked. They enjoy watching the thunderstorms over the lake: aesthetic spectacle. Byron’s “Darkness” emerge from this time, as did Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Goethe and the Year Without Summer

People eating grass in Switzerland in 1816
A few posts ago I mentioned Goethe's diary entries during the summer of 1816, when the climatic effects of the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora began to make themselves felt in Europe. I now have Wolfgang Behringer's new book about the eruption, which fills in a few things. Behringer mentions a poem written at the death of Christiane that connects Goethe's mood with the current weather:

Den 6. Juni 1816
Du versuchst, o Sonne vergebens,
Durch die düstren Wolken zu scheinen!
Der ganze Gewinn meines Lebens
Ist, ihren Verlust zu beweinen.

As Behringer writes, the "Tambora crisis," especially the devastating atmospheric effects on agriculture for several years running, occurred in a "modern, media environment," thus differentiating our understanding of these effects from that of all previous climatic or subsistence crises. At the beginning of the 19th century, as European global expansion was at its height, there were already "worldwide" newspapers and journals. And everywhere we encounter educated, curious administrators, truly competent ones, communicating about what was going on around them.

The first example, and the most proximate one, was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of British Java, who immediately began commissioning reports from the local population about the eruption itself. During the first phase of the eruption, on April 5, 1815, the explosions were so intense that they could be heard throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They sounded like mortor fire, perhaps signs of a French sea invasion. Troops were called up in Yogjakarta to prevent a foreign attack. Raffles, however, recognized that it was an eruption. But, as Behringer writes, where was this volcano? By May of 1815 a circular had gone to all British who were residence in Indonesia with three questions.

The first concerned the chronology and the physical conditions. What day and at what hour was the ash rain noticeable, its duration, and its chemical composition?

The second question concerned the medical and economic consequences, in particular the effects on the health of humans and livestock and harvest.

The third question remained: where was the volcano?
Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa
 The worst phase of the eruption occurred on April 10. Besides the considerable amount of material that it released into the atmosphere, the eruption was so strong that it blew off the top part of the volcano, reducing its height from 4,200 to 2,850 meters and leaving a six-meter wide "caldera" with a lake in the middle. It wasn't until 1847 that the first European, the botanist Heinrich Zollinger, climbed the still smoking volcano and thus made the first report on the recovery of plant life.

As for Goethe, it was not until February 20, 1817, that he first read a report, in Cotta's Morgenblatt für die gebildeten Stände (note "gebildet" in the title of the Cotta publication, pointing to the media  culture noted by Behringer), about the eruption in Tambora. In his diary Goethe wrote: "Zeitungen. Morgenblatt gelesen. Geschichte eines neuentstandenen Vulcans auf Sumbawa." But, writes Behringer, like others among his contemporaries, he did not draw a connection between the cold temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad harvests of 1816.