Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Goethe in Gotha

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ and Mary, ca. 1516-20
This summer I wrote a review of Sigrid Damm's book on the above subject for the Goethe Yearbook. I was reminded of the book this afternoon on my visit to the Morgan Library for the exhibition Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan Library. Most of the objects in the exhibition come from collections formerly in "East Germany," which I guess is an example of the enlarging compass of the transversal world (see previous posts). Several of the most beautiful objects come from Schloss Friedenstein, including the above painting by Louis Cranach the Elder.  Goethe passed many happy hours at Friedenheim, according to Sigrid Damm's account. The exhibition at the Morgan is one of a number of exhibitions (see list here) in connection with Luther Year 2017. The focus is the "media revolution" that powered the spread of the Reformation.

Damm's book is entitled Goethes Freunde in Gotha and opens by asking us to imagine what Goethe’s life might have been like had he gone to Gotha on his return from Italy, as was rumored he might do, rather than to Weimar. Goethe had been presented at the Gotha court during Carl August’s visit at Christmas 1775, apparently to satisfy curiosity about the Werther author, but the impression he made on that visit was summed up by the duke's brother, Prince August, in a letter written at the time: “Stolz und Mißgeschick macht Goethe wild und driest.” In the succeeding three and a half years, Charlotte von Stein’s remolding appears to have made Goethe “salonfähig,” and there occurred increasingly cordial relations between Goethe and Duke Ernst II (1745–1804) and Prince August (1774–1825), later Duke Friedrich IV. The Gotha Fourierbuch documents frequent visits, during which Goethe lodged at Friedenheim castle itself, in Suites 5 and 6. As Damm writes: Goethe was “ein gern gesehener und umworbener Gast und Gesprächspartner.”

Goethe and the duke shared scientific interests, for instance, a mutual interest in geology, and Ernst would be a shareholder in the Ilmenau mine. During research for his optical studies, Goethe also had the run of the laboratories and equipment in the astronomical observatory at Gotha, built under the aegis of Ernst. In the 1809–10 publication of the Farbenlehre Goethe expressed his gratitude for the support of the duke and the prince.

Seeberg Observatory in Gotha
Because of the observatory, Gotha had a reputation as a scientific center of European rank. In 1798, Ernst organized a congress of European luminaries in Gotha that included the doyen of astronomers, Joseph Jerome de Lalande, along with “Himmelskundler” from England, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The only exception was Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel, who was absent, due to the tensions between France and England. Damm asks whether the congress represented “der Keim einer europaischen “Gelehrtenrepublik.” Goethe's absence indicates that he would not be part of  this particular republic of letters. The congress in any case reflected the divide between his own scientific approach and the coming mathematization of science.

In August 1801 Goethe spent eight days in Gotha, residing with Prince August. Here is the prince’s account of Goethe’s birthday celebration: “Mein Bruder bat mich soeben, zu Ehren des Herrn Goethe und des Herrn [Heinrich] Meyer ein Mittagessen zu geben. Er nahm an diesem selbst teil, ebenso seine Exzellenz und Lady Fifry. Wir waren nur sechs Personen zu Tische. Der Abend verlief in derselben Weise.” Lady Fifry refers to Friederike von Frankenberg, wife of the privy councilor Sylvius Friedrich von Frankenberg. The day afterward, the same party was guests at lunch with Lady Frifry, after viewing the duke’s paintings in his quarters.

Lucas Cranach, The Young Luther (1520)
Damm does not give any indication of the range of paintings in the duke's collection and ventures only the following concerning the viewing: “Die Gesellschaft, die durch die Räume wandert. Bei welchen Gemälden mag sie länger verweilt haben?”

Indeed, which ones? Damm in uncharacteristiscally hesitant to speculate.

I wonder what Goethe would have thought of the dual portrait of Jesus and "Mary" (perhaps Mary Magdalene). The wall label at the Morgan calls it an "ambiguous" picture, and it does seem so, as far as the face of Jesus is concerned. The woman, however, seems more in the Cranach mode, as in the painting of the young Luther (Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony- Anhalt) portrayed by the younger Cranach.

"Western culture"

One really should read something new, something different every day. And my book shelves offer plenty of choice, often of books that I will never read again or have not ever read. Thus, they are ripe for de-accessioning, my unending task. A small pile grows that will go to the Salvation Army, but when I pull one off for the pile I first read a bit to see if there is anything that might inspire me. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore quickly went into the pile.

I will probably not keep Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, but one of the essays inspires this morning's post, which indirectly concerns the subject of world literature, especially the way in which modern cultural and material exchanges have created a kind of "one-world thinking" or a "traversal space" in the words of Aamir Mufti. (See previous post.)

Written in 1937, Camus's essay is entitled "The New Mediterranean Culture" and represents a talk he gave at the opening of La Maison de Culture in that year. Because of the subject of the essay, I am assuming that the house of culture is in Marseilles. I also assume it is partly in response to the rise of National Socialism.

Camus begins by wondering if the establishment of this cultural center is a gesture toward restoring an empty traditionalism and celebrating cultural superiority. To do that, however, would be a nationalistic gesture, and the Mediterranean is not a nation. It is a civilization that is not to be identified with a nation, but with the land itself, a sea basin linking about ten countries. What characterizes this "land" is the fact of the sun. Thus, according to Camus, "the men whose voices boom in the singing cafes of Spain, who wander in the port of Genoa, along the docks in Marseilles, the strange, strong race that lives along our coasts, all belong to the same family."

He mentions the feeling he has when traveling in Germany and Austria, of encountering people "who are always buttoned right up to the neck" and who, in his opinion, do not know how to relax. What a sigh of relief one breathes when one travels down to Provence, where you discover "casually dressed men," not weighed down by muffled anxiety. And here, in the south, one feel closer to citizens of Genoa than to those of Normandy. Something of the sun, of this "Mediterranean culture," probably drove Goethe to Italy, where, so it was imagined, life that could be lived more lightly than in the northern reaches of Europe.

Contemporary lodgings for tourists in the Gobi Desert
It strikes me that nowadays we all live, so to speak, in the sun, even if our home is in the northern latitudes. Our homes are built with central heating; if we venture outdoors in winter, our lightweight clothes keep us warm and, nowadays, are wonderfully lightweight. The tastes and smells of Mediterranean cuisine are available in New York, even perhaps in Calgary. Is this the goal of the West? To inhabit a Mediterranean-type culture?

Tourist travel since the 18th century has been toward the South. Explorers and adventurers may have gone to hard lands -- across the Gobi Desert, to the Arctic -- but these were generally people from lands that were also hard. How many Italians or Algerians have been to Antarctica? Of course, the modern history of exploration was initiated by the Portuguese, but their caravels also traveled south, and the lands they encountered offered riches that were easy picking.

Of course, today you can experience the Gobi Desert without becoming cold. Such is progress.

Friday, December 16, 2016

World literature and "Orientalism"

Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying (1878) (Louvre Abu Dhabi)
The title of this post is provoked by a book that I am now reading: Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literature by Aamir R. Mufti. Edward Said is an important presence in Forget English!, but Said's Orientalism and the claims made by Said in that study have been altered by Mufti. The issue here is not Said's claim of ideological prejudice on the part of scholars of Eastern languages or of artists presenting false views of Eastern subjects. Instead, in Mufti's view (if I understand the author correctly), Orientalism “consists of those Western knowledge practices of the modern era whose emergence made possible for the first time a notion of a single world as a space populated by distinct civilizational complexes, each in possession of its own tradition, the unique expression of its own forms of national ‘genius.’” And, ergo, world literature.

Mufti draws on various writings by Herder, for whom "humanity" was "an irreducible concert of peoples," each representing discrete national and ethnic characteristics. It was a time when "nation-thinking" was being elaborated, when societies were increasingly viewed in national-cultural terms. Herder was responding to the bloodless and relentless universalism of the philosophes with a defense of “particular, local, historically established, and communal ways of life, such as in the ancient Germanic world — organic ‘communities of brothers living beside one another.’” Scholarship on languages of the "East" -- Persia, India, the Arab lands, maybe China (Mufti doesn't mention it) -- resulted in the creation of such cultural categories. This version of “Orientalism” produced a conception of the world as “an assemblage of civilizational entities, each in possession of its own textual and/or expressive traditions.”

Yet, as Mufti writes, even if world literature is conceptualized as "one-world thinking," not all literatures or literary traditions occupy prime real estate, so to speak, in the space of the world, even as the “international geography of academic conferences, literature festivals, literary prize competitions, and other similar practice of contemporary literature surely facilitates such ‘beyond borders’ perceptions for those of us who participate in them in some way.”

There is much to agree with in Forget English!, but it is obsessed (as was Said) with “the asymmetries and inequalities of the institutions and practices of world literature.” In other words, we are back to Marxism again.

More later.

Picture credit: Khan Academy