Saturday, June 17, 2017

Goethe and the Cult of Personality in 19th-Century Britain

Female preacher at a Quaker meeting
My friend and colleague Gregory Maertz, professor of English at Saint John’s University, reminds me of the men and women interviewed on HR2 “Doppelkopf,” one of my favorite German podcasts. Alongside his expertise in 19th-century British literature, he has recently published a volume of essays on the influence of Goethe in Britain in the late 18th–early 19th century. The title of the volume, Literature and the Cult of Personality, is a hint of the importance of Goethe, especially for Thomas Carlyle, at a time that the latter referred to as “these hard unbelieving utilitarian days.” In an age bereft of spiritual certainties, literature replaced the role of religion for Carlyle, and it was Goethe who became the prophet of the new dispensation, with his texts comparable to the Acts of the Apostles for people of faith. Thus, Goethe became “the Uniter and Reconciler” of “the inward spiritual chaos” of “the most distracted and divided age .. since the introduction of the Christian religion.”

It has been pointed out that Carlyle’s criticism is decidedly lacking in formal evaluation of Goethe’s works.  Instead, Goethe’s “oracular significance” was based to the greatest extent on what Carlyle perceived as his “sincerity” (or maybe “authenticity” as per Lionel Trilling?): Goethe was not simply some painter of words or imitator of poetic formulas. He lived what he wrote, which was suggested to Carlyle by Goethe’s own oracular pronouncement in Dichtung und Wahrheit: "Everything that I have published previously consists of fragments of a great confession."

While Carlyle is the best-known mediator of Goethe’s influence in Britain, the first chapter of Literature and the Cult of Personality concerns the first translators of German literature, writers loosely identified with the Godwin circle. They were among the earliest and most fervent supporters of the French Revolution, which very quickly made them marginal, not only with respect to the dominant politics (which were anti-Jacobin). The stance of being ideological outsiders may have been second nature to them, as many were Dissenters (e.g., Quakers, Methodists) or female, thus, with little access to what Greg calls the Oxbridge or public school education based on Latin and Greek.
Thomas Holcroft

A member of this circle, Thomas Holcroft, was so sympathetic to the French Revolution that he was effectively banished from publishing under his own name, even after his acquittal for treason in 1794. The appeal to him of Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea is not surprising, and he  produced the first translation to appear in Britain.  As Greg writes, the text allowed Holcroft to center himself “in a foreign otherness,” while the conflict within Hermann’s family mirrored that of the Godwin circle “in the wake of war hysteria and government reaction.” Goethe himself praised Holcroft for his translation in a letter of May 29, 1801, in which he distinguished two approaches to translation.

Because of my own work on the reception of Milton in Germany in the early 18th century, I was interested to learn of the many contacts of Germans in Britain already by then. Several German scientists and Enlightenment figures became members of the Royal Society on its founding in 1663, and throughout the following century German musicians and painters worked in England. The youngest Bach son, Johann Christian, organized concerts of Mozart’s music in London and arranged his appearance at court in 1764. John Wesley transmitted many German hymns into the Methodist musical inventory.

Thus, Goethe was not the first or only German writer whose works appeared in translation. Fuseli, who arrived in England from Zurich in 1760, produced the first translation of Winckelmann in English, and Henry  Hudson’s translation of Lavater’s Physiological Fragments appeared in a lavish edition of three volumes (1789, 1792, 1798). The plays of Kotzebue were wildly popular on the London stage (in contrast to those of Lessing or Goethe). Indeed, as Greg writes, the dominant literary public felt “nearly universal antipathy toward Goethe,” precisely for the lack of moralism in his works. In the words of the Anti-Jacobin Review, “he has attained that divine morality which looks down on all forms of human conduct, with equal eye, and sees in the lewdness of Faustus, or the purity of Iphigenie, but that exact adaptation of effect and cause of conduct and motive, which he characterizes the constitution of things.”

There is much of interest here. I liked William Taylor's characterization of Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) as a "biographical novel," revealing (quoting here Schopenhauer) the inner significance of everyday life, in contrast to the outer significance. Further chapters discuss the reception of Kant, Henry Crabb Robinson, the Romantic idealization of the artist, the influence of Goethe in New England, and Goethe’s role in the literary formation of George Eliot.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Safranksi biography of Goethe in English

A reader of this blog wrote to inform me of the appearance of the English translation of Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Rüdiger Safranski. I wrote a review of Safranski's book for the Goethe Yearbook when it appeared in German a few years ago and even devoted a few posts to it, including this one.

The translation is by David Dollenmayer, a professor of German at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I do not know Professor Dollenmayer, but a little internet research has turned up quite a bit of praise for his translations from German. The Other Press features several of these translations on its website. In 2010 he was the receipient of an Austrian Cultural Forum in New York award for his "translation-in-progress" of Michael Köhlmeier's Idyll With Drowning Dog (Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund), first published in 2008.

In a statement regarding NEA funding in 2014, for Michael Kleeberg's A Garden in the North (Ein Garten im Norden), Dollenmayer wrote that, in a career of teaching German language and literature, translation seemed like an extension of close reading.

The review of Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Ben Hutchinson appeared in the above-pictured June issue of The Literary Review. According to Hutchinson, Dollmayer "has boldly decided to translate all quotations from Goethe’s works and letters himself, rather than use existing translations. Occasional anachronisms aside – Goethe the ‘whiz kid’ – this works surprisingly well, giving a single, unified voice to a diverse body of work."

Congratulations to David Dollenmayer on this publication and for its contribution to wider acquaintance with Goethe in the English-speaking world.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Goethe's Lotte in Seoul

Lotte adored by Goethe, Lotte Hotel Seoul
Global Goethe is a site recently inaugurated by the Goethe Society of North America to serve (as per the website) "not just as a repository of translations, adaptations, performances, and visualizations of Goethe and his works from around the world, but also as a place for collaborative scholarship that examines the many representations of Goethe across languages and cultures." One of its first features concerned a Korean company, Lotte Co. Ltd., which was founded in 1948 by the South Korean businessman Shin Kyuk-Ho, who had a fondness for Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Go here for Global Goethe's first post on the Lotte company.)

Lotte is a major manufacturer of sweets, and its corporate message, "Sweetheart in Your Mouth," is resonant in connection with Charlotte. According to a Wall Street Journal article of April 17 (behind a paywall) on the Lotte company, the founder was struck by the intensity of the passion Werther felt for Lotte. In the words of one of Lotte's directors: "We want Lotte to be beloved by everyone, like Lotte was."

This link to the Lotte group indicates that the company is much larger than chocolates. It is involved in the chemical and construction industries, and there are baseball teams bearing Lotte's name, in Korea and in Japan, not to forget a chain of luxury hotels around the world. According to the WSJ article, a copy of Goethe's novel is placed in each room of the hotels. The 123-floor Lotte World Tower in Seoul boasts a 17-foot statue of Goethe, a replica of the marble one in Berlin's Tiergarten.

As soon as I read that there was also a two-story-tall illuminated gold-hued statue of Lotte at the Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul, I got in touch with the New York City publicist for the Lotte Group, asking if she could obtain a photo of the statue for me. After weeks of back and forth emails, a photo arrived today, for which I am most grateful. The statue, pictured at the top of this post (click to enlarge), is located on the rooftop park of the department store. I think this statue of Lotte must be a first.

Also posted here is the photo of the statue of Goethe, situated in Arena Square of Lotte World Tower in Seoul, which was also sent to me by the Lotte publicist. I wonder how many Goethe statues there are around the world, erected because someone felt a passionate attachment to Goethe's work. I would be interested in hearing from anyone (with photos, please) concerning Goethe statues worldwide. With thanks for this first installment from the Seoul and New York City representatives of Lotte.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Homeopathy and German Romanticism

The same issue in which Tim Parks' essay on Victor Hugo appeared (see my earlier post) also featured a quarter-page ad from the University of Toronto Press announcing the publication of several new books, including one by Alice A. Kuzniar, who is a member of the Goethe Society of North America. The new book is The Birth of Homeopathy out of the Spirit of Romanticism. It seems that homeopathy is of German origin,  founded in 1796 by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. According to the publisher's description, Hahnemann "ardently proposed that like cures like, counter to the conventional treatment of prescribing drugs that have the opposite effect to symptoms." Alice, who teaches in Canada at the University of Waterloo, can be seen in a YouTube video discussing the controversial medical treatment. The book's focus is the intellectual culture circa 1800, including among German Romantics. I have not yet seen the book, but I have a feeling that Goethe features in it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"World Literature" can evidently be about anything

Princess Xquic
Okay, I am going to vent here, but please excuse me. After all, how many times have you patiently listened to people venting about Donald Trump?

My breath is sometimes taken away when I have occasion to read contemporary literary "scholarship." Take the following sentence from the conclusion of an article appearing in PMLA in 2016 (vol. 131.5). The "Xquic" in the quote concerns a short story from 1990 by the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Apparently Xquic is a Mayan mythological figure.

"Reading 'Xquic' proleptically sheds light on our institutional moment in which the proliferation of the world and the global across our increasingly Byzantine (and often, as in Rey Rosa's story, suspiciously funded) administrative landscapes is indelibly linked to the simultaneous but distant scenes of transnational corporations that continually shadow intellectual life at universities in the United States."

Got that?

Under most circumstances I would not be reading the PMLA, and in truth I was not actually reading the issue. I am finishing a scholarly article for a journal that turns out to follow the MLA style manual for its Works Cited. I don't have any copies of the PMLA on my shelves at home, nor a copy of the MLA Style Manual. I was surprised to discover that no local New York Public Library branch has a copy on its Reserve shelves. So, I traveled to JSTOR in order to consult recent issues of PMLA to make sure that all my references matched the MLA style. The most recent issue of PMLA online included the article from which I quoted above. The article is entitled "Unsettling World Literature." Since the article I am writing concerns the subject of world literature, I downloaded the piece. The execrable sentence quoted above appears shortly before the Works Cited. The author is Anna Brickhouse, not only a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Virginia, but also at work on "a project on translation and catastrophe."

Can anyone really read such articles, if one is not among those "initiated" in the jargon? At one of the last MLA conferences at which I made an appearance, I attended a talk by a graduate student who read a paper that was filled with such deadening verbiage. At one point in the talk, he looked up from his paper. When he went back to it, he had lost his place, and it took about a minute to figure out where he was. It was very amusing. Apparently he couldn't figure out what he was saying either.

And what, one may ask, does Professor Brickhouse's article have to do with world literature, anyway? I have to confess, as with the young "scholar" at the MLA conference, that I get the point. In fact, one doesn't need to read the ten pages of Brickhouse's article to get the point. All the talk about comity among the nations, tolerance, universal values, etc. that can be discerned in Goethe's comments on the subject simply provided intellectual cover for predatory capitalism. We all get the point. But spare us your cynical hypocrisy. What I would like to hear about is how Brickhouse's own intellectual life is "shadowed" by transnational corporations. Isn't she compromised by teaching at the University of Virginia, whose sturdy endowment is certainly buttressed by said corporations? Come on. Let's have some mea culpa.

Picture credit: Deviant Art

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The perils of politics for literati

"My Bleeding Heart" by Angela Kennedy
Tim Parks has a review of a new study of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in the May 4 issue of London Review of Books. The opening paragraph -- concerning the scope of Hugo's ambition, the range of his genius, the vastness of his output, but especially "the oceanic immensity of his self-regard" -- put me in mind of Goethe. I was also interested to read that Les Mis (500,000 words) was composed over 16 years, which is small change in comparison with Faust, which took Goethe almost 50 years to complete.

What impressed me most about the review essay was the dangers for literary men of becoming involved in politics. Hugo was elected to the National Assembly in 1848. Remember 1848? That was the year that Europe was breaking out all over in revolutionary agitation. Yet, despite the impression we might have from seeing the play or the movie of Les Misérables, Hugo did not come out on the side of the common man at that time. After visiting the barricades put up by Parisian workers rebelling at the new government's introduction of compulsory conscription for the unemployed, Hugo demanded the barricades be dismantled; when that did not take place, he ordered the National Guard to open fire, resulting in the deaths of a lot of workers.

Les Misérables the novel offers a different scenario, with, as Parks writes, the book's narrator appearing to be entirely on the rebels' side. In truth, Hugo was a real hypocrite, using his writing to present a different picture of himself, constantly drawing attention to society's evils in order to elevate his "sonorous and accomplished self-importance." Parks ends his review by mentioning what Leopardi observed in his own huge "notebook," Zibaldone, namely, "that compassion in literature simply allows the reader to congratulate himself on his humanity without producing any change in behavior."

Goethe, too, was involved some decades before Hugo in what passed for politics under the Old Regime. There are many indications in his writings of his compassion for the lower orders, but it must be admitted that he did not indulge in literati theatrics of the type that Victor Hugo appears to have inaugurated. He was aware of the writings of social reformers and quasi-socialists, for instance, of the Saint-Simonists, which he read with great interest, but Goethe really seems not to have had a sentimental bone in his body. If he did, it was in any case held in check by the classical norms he imposed on himself, especially in his political dramas. In his late novel, Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship, he explores the situation of rootlessness experienced by individuals under capitalism and technological change, but here, too, any compassion is muted by a very distanced portrait. I have not read Zibaldone, but I wonder if Leopardi was familiar with Goethe.

Picture credit: Angela Kennedy

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 3)

Sun Ji, "Memory City (Shanghai)"
Some final remarks on this subject, here concerning three elements of Goethe's conception of world literature: world, nation, and language.

Europe in a sense made itself the world in the 19th century. It became privileged out of all proportion to the rest of the earth because of its early ability to capitalize on the scientific and artisanal know-how that it had accumulated over the centuries. This accumulation was an internally driven process: the various countries of Europe all contributed, in the various vernaculars, to the knowledge that would one day send us to the moon and enable heart transplant surgery. These achievements, along with the rising standard of living and in “improvements in the arts of living” transformed "the West" by early 20th century into a wealth-producing commercial society enjoying a rising standard of living and embracing institutionally secured ethical ideals and societal expectations.

Yet this Europe is no longer the world. The scientific premises on which rest the civilizational expertise of modern life are always and everywhere accessible, whatever one’s origins. The  growing spread of literacy and education has increasingly permitted more and more people to participate in the accumulation and application of scientific knowledge and to share in the fruits of the wealth thereby created. And everywhere, of course, people are exposed to ideas of European origin, which are now felt by non-Europeans to be "universal."

Nevertheless, the West is privileged in one way that cannot be so easily assimilated by non-Westerners. The existence of national languages with long literary traditions is rare. Indeed, non-Westerners today, when they participate in the public sphere, generally write in one of the formerly colonial languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese. The one major exception today is Japanese, as Japan itself came late to the notice of European colonists. It already had a vernacular literary tradition, after having imported Chinese writing in the 5th century, and was fortunate to escape the imposition of a colonial language.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist
So it is that European writers are able to continue writing in their mother tongues today, because the European countries have literate populations who continue to read in these languages. Such widespread literacy was also an accompaniment of Europe's rise to a world economic power by the 19th century. European novelists in that century gave voice to the disruptions occasioned by the transformation of their cultures under capitalism. Although it is true that the novel has often been a genre for expression interiority, it has also been a vehicle for conveying the conditions of individuals who have lost their footing in society and in the world at large because of the loss of tradition. Charles Dickens for one made a living portraying such individuals, with many of whom we identify because we too are often lost in a world in which the old signposts have been demolished.

Thus, it is not a surprise that the major literary form worldwide today is the novel. As the rest of the world now comes to terms with "globalism" -- which simply means the spread of the processed that transformed Europe into a commercial society -- people everywhere are experiencing the same losses as ordinary Europeans once felt, trying to forge individual destinies when the earth continually moves under their feet. How, indeed, to live when everything that was solid has melted into air?

Picture credit: Earth Island Journal

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 2)

Let us consider anew whether the concept of world literature has any relevance today in the sense that Goethe meant. Those who have read my earlier posts will recognize that I am, to a certain extent, channeling the ideas of Minae Mizumura, while extending her insights to the subject of world literature.

Goethe lived in “a European world” in which learned men like himself could read and speak several languages. For instance, he was able to read French works in French, English ones in English, Italian ones in Italian. For languages with which he was unfamiliar, he read translations, as in the case of Chinese and Middle Eastern poetry. He even felt that translations  of his own works helped him to understand them better. As he wrote to Boisserée (April 24, 1831):

Bei der Übersetzung meiner letzten botanischen Arbeiten ist es ganz zugegangen wie bei Ihnen. Ein paar Hauptstellen, welche Freund Soret in meinem Deutsch nicht verstehen konnte, übersetzt ich in mein Französich; er übertrug sie in das seinige, und so glaub ich fest sie werden in jener Sprache allgemeiner verständlich sein, als vielleicht im Deutschen.

The mutual familiarity of Europeans with the works of other Europeans had been standard for centuries. Whatever their political and linguistic divisions, they were united in a common Christian culture. Following the fragmentation of Europe in the Middle Ages, learned people had continued to communicate in a universal language, Latin. Thus, the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and so on traveled all over the continent. With the invention of printing, books in translation began to appear, of Latin works as well as of works in the vernaculars. Long before Goethe considered the topic of world literature, “Europeans” (avant la lettre) were already communicating and sharing both their literary works and their scientific discoveries. As the wealth of the western European nations increased via the application of scientific discoveries and the fruits of colonization, a new European “culture,” i.e., one shared by the various countries, was developing. It comprised an increased standard of living and common ideas about what constituted the good life. Like all "cosmopolitans," they believed that everyone shared their views.

We all feel ourselves to be the center of our world, and Europeans were only different in that they traveled far and wide and became the center of an increasingly larger world.

I am not sure whether Goethe understood what such power would mean. I am also not sure whether he was aware of the multitude of languages in the world. In any case, most of the world spoke languages that were not written down. Thus, they had no literary heritage, which is what distinguished the various European nations. Among the colonized, there developed a class of people who learned the language of the colonizers. They became bilinguals, able to move between their native tongues and the language of the colonizers, for whom they served as translators.  The effect of this can be seen today in India, where all educated people speak English. But how many of them write today in Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, and so on? Since Goethe’s time, what we have seen is that “local” languages are receding in importance in favor of colonial or imperial languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese. If a writer today from, say Somali, wants to reach an international audience with his novels, does he write in Somali (16 million speakers), or does he write in one of the colonial languages?

There are exceptions, however, which I will discuss in the next post.

Picture credits: Leonel Graça; India the Destiny

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 1)

"Imperial Federation Map of the World"
The concept of world literature has been around going on two centuries — Goethe’s ruminations on the subject began in the late 1820s — yet one cannot help feeling that Goethe therewith released a demon into the world. There is a decided motility about the term: almost every writer on the subject begins by wrestling with a definition, as if to capture a moving target. I am reminded of the category of the sublime, which lay dormant for so many centuries: then, toward the end of the 17th century, the world felt a need for it and has henceforth also been struggling to define it. In both cases, one suspects that, had the terms not existed, they would have had to be invented. Despite the spread of the term “world literature” among comparatists in the 19th century, it is surprising how little philology there was among Germanists on the background or the sources of Goethe’s thinking before the appearance in 1946 of Strich’s Goethe und die Weltliteratur, even as seemingly every other aspect of his oeuvre was being subjected to examination.

Strich, however, had been working in this field since the 1920s: his first essay on world literature was published in 1928. His foray into the subject seems to have been precipitated by the vexed position of Germany among the nations after World War I. In the 1928 essay and in those that followed, he described the peaceful literary commerce among the various European vernaculars in the early modern period. This commerce had led to pan-European literary movements, ranging from the Renaissance to the Romantic period. So it is today, for instance, that "Baroque" art is recognizable (at least to scholars), whether it was created in Spain or in Germany. This cross-borders exchange — occurring even when Europe was wracked by the Thirty Years War — suggested to Strich the promise of world literature as articulated by Goethe in 1828:

If we have dared to announce a European, indeed a universal world literature, we do not mean that the various nations should take notice of one another and their various achievements.  In this sense, such a literature has already existed for some time and continues and renews itself more or less.  No! we mean rather that the living and ambitious literary artists [Literatoren] learn from one another and, through affection and common purpose, find themselves compelled to be convivially [gesellig] productive.

For Goethe the exchange of literary products, correspondence among authors of various nations (for instance, his own correspondence with Carlyle and other European writers), translations, and so on seemed to promise that the peoples of the world were in the process of becoming better disposed toward others. World literature as UNESCO avant la lettre.

This was also the message of Strich's Goethe and World Literature (English, 1949). In 1946, after two world wars, in which Germany’s international stock had reached its nadir, Strich still held that the goal of world literature was to unite all humans into what he called “einer übernationalen, allgemein menschlichen, humanen Kultur.” In the 1950s, however, as Europe came to terms with the world-wide legacy of colonialism and as the formerly colonized territories began to assert their own identities, Strich’s optimism was considered passé and his interpretation too “European.” Even as Goethe and World Literature unleashed a world literature industry, it was Erich Auerbach’s more pessimistic essay from 1952, lamenting what he saw as a growing world monoculture, that set the tone for much of what has followed.

Auerbach, who wrote only this single essay on world literature, has been for a number of years a touchstone for “postcolonial” scholarship on world literature. This is the result of the translation and publication of his essay in 1969 by Edward Said, for whom Auerbach was exemplary of a “critical consciousness” that did more “than strengthen those aspects of the culture that require mere affirmation and orthodox compliancy from its members,” that resisted “the kind of filiation that is representative of traditional literary production.” Writing in 1983, Said even claimed that Auerbach’s Mimesis was not simply — as it might appear to most readers — “a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it.”

The postcolonial negation of allegiance, of filiation, of culturally transmitted values, i.e., of “Eurocentrism,” however, simply reiterates the process that made “the West” so powerful by the beginning of the 20th century, namely, the constant circulation of goods in the modern marketplace, which is not solely a matter of goods, of the everyday consumables of the market place. Such circulation demands erasure, the jettisoning of what was loved only yesterday in favor of new goods, among which can be included literary and critical movements and attitudes. The postindustrial world is just as impatient with filiation as was Edward Said. His critique of the European literary canon and its humanistic values reflects one of the most characteristic features of Western life of the past several centuries: the abrogation of the intellectual and cultural authority of the past, with the battle of ancients and moderns marking an early milestone. Rejection has been naturalized by the ideological discourse of progress.

The postcolonial critique is of course only one of many academic trends (Marxism, deconstruction, feminist studies, ad nauseum) that purport to tell us how bad and irrelevant “Western culture” is. And Western scholars today, especially in the U.S., lured by the latest fashions, have jumped on this bandwagon. One might suggest that the number of academic conferences, especially on an international level, from Angola to Manchester, validate Goethe’s concept of “fruitful communication.” Indeed, postcolonial scholarship has become a virtual cash cow, an opportunity for the like-minded to gather together.

I see I have not got to the question posed in the title of this post. Part 2 to follow. Stay tuned.

Image credits: World Literature 101; Repeating Islands; Postcolonial Networks

Friday, April 14, 2017

Philipp Hackert's waterfalls

Waterfall of the Aniene River at Tivoli (1769)
A friend in Oberammergau regularly sends me links to worthwhile German TV shows, mostly literary. Yesterday I watched a segment of Arte's "Die grosse Literatour: Goethes Italien." Nothing particularly new: lots of scenes of present-day Venice, Rome, and Naples along with the reading of excerpts from the Italian Journey. Naples was the last stop on the show; no Sicily. Lots more tourists in Italy since I was there last -- decades ago! The contemporary scenes were made more interesting by paintings of the same scenes from the 18th century; many of the buildings appear to be the same.

The most charming part of the program was the interview with the curator of the Casa di Goethe in Rome, located in the quarters that Tischbein rented and in which Goethe stayed on the via del Corso. It seems that the Casa di Goethe is currently hosting, until September, an exhibition of works by the German photographer Kerstin Schomburg, who is also featured in the Arte program. She was in Italy photographing some of the sites that Hackert painted, including waterfalls, for which he was apparently well regarded. The painting at the top of the post is from near Tivoli. (Click on images to enlarge.) The show is entitled Punti di Vista.

While I was searching for images for this posting, I came across the Iberia Airlines website, which has the most scandalously incorrect information about the Casa di Goethe. Here is the money quote:

"In 1786 the poet moved to Rome, where he founded a meeting place in his home, for writers and artists of that era. Goethe was a very politically active person, and, due to that, left a great mark on the city. Also, he always expressed his love for the city of Roma, to which he left his residence in his will after his death."

Please do not quote that as by me.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Goethe and Dante

I have been reading Goethe's Italian Journey and tweeting daily tidbits. Yesterday, in another connection, I read Erich Auerbach's 1929 essay, "The Discovery of Dante by Romanticism" in the splendid translation of Jane O. Newman. In this essay, Auerbach sketches the Dante reception in Germany in the 18th century. Of Goethe, Auerbach contends that he “never became truly intimate with Dante; his admiration for the Divine Comedy (or at least from some very few passages in the poem) was diluted by his instinctive antipathy for a personality like the Tuscan’s that was so fundamentally different from his own.”

The Goethe Handbuch sketches a more nuanced rapprochement of Goethe with the Italian poet, although it is true that the influence was on the level of poetic form and motifs, not of world view. For instance, Gerhard Schulz, in the entry on the 1806 poetic cycle that begins with "Mächtiges Überraschen," writes that the meaning of the cycle is captured in the last two words of that poem: new life. As in Dante's sense of Vita nuova, one of the first great collections of love poetry in "the Christian-European tradition." In Dante's work, according to Schulz, the experience of love first finds its true meaning in the poem itself. It was unclear to me from this entry, however, to what extent Goethe was familiar with the Vita nuova.

Of great interest was the stand-out entry on Goethe's "late poetry" (das lyrische Spätwerk), of 1819–32. The work of this period, writes Mathias Mayer, is characterized, among other things, by a "dialogue with foreign languages and cultures." For instance, the tercets of the poem "Im ernsten Beinhaus war's" indicate a dialogue with Dante.

Domenico Petarlini, Dante in Exile (1860)
Even though Auerbach knew Dante's works inside out, I would guess that he was thinking mostly in terms of the relationship of Faust to Dante's Divine Comedy. In this connection, Auerbach asserts that the "two worlds" of the works are “fundamentally incomparable.” The most important point: “The characters and scenes in Faust are, finally, the stuff of an individual’s soul and its history, unintelligible if they do not refer to the one who experiences them. In the Divine Comedy, they belong to an objective order outside the self.”

I learned from this essay that it was the Schlegel brothers, especially August Wilhelm, and Schelling, who “produced the most significant set of observations about Dante and his poem produced by Romanticism narrowly defined.” Schelling was the first since "the twilight of the hegemony of the Catholic Church and its philosophy" for whom "the integrity of the magnificent poem became visible.” Auerbach credits Schelling with understanding that the Comedy’s “characters enter into and manifest a kind of eternity as a result of the specific space that they are made to occupy in the poem.” Further, “the all-encompassing crux of the poem’s significance is this: our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgment.”

I actually can imagine that Goethe recognized this significance and simply rejected it. Auerbach was more correct in respect of world view than in the influence on Goethe of Dante's poetic forms when he wrote that Goethe had no connection or rapport with “either the intellectual or the material world of the Trecento.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Goethe's classical half-view

Monreale mosaics, photo by Dennis Jarvis
V.S. Naipaul in a small book of essays from 2007 entitled A Writer's People discusses what he calls the "classical half-view." The classical half-view derives from a refusal to look too closely at reality. One of his examples is the writer Cicero who wrote to a friend about the five days of games organized by Pompey. Cicero went to all five days, and in the letter he mentions the displeasure of the crowd on the final day at the killing of twenty large elephants. The only other ancient source is found in Pliny’s Natural History, where the Roman crowd was said to rise and curse Pompey as the elephants were being speared. Cicero was present, writes Naipaul; unlike Pliny, he “could have spoken more plainly. He could have told us more.”

But he was a friend of Pompey’s; he would not have wanted to diminish the event, and so ...  he preferred to use words to hide from what he saw. He preferred to have the half view. It enabled him, in the brutalities of the ancient world, to see and not see.

Monreale cloister, photo by Per-Erik Skramstad
Reading Goethe's account of his travels to Italy has put me in mind of Naipaul's "classical half-view," no more so than in the Journey's pages on Sicily. On this day in 1787 Goethe visited the Monreale Cathedral and its Benedictine monastery. He writes that the monks showed him some of their collections, of which he notes one that particularly struck him, a "Medaille" with an image of a young goddess. He also mentions that the abbot had a fine meal prepared for him and Kniep and sat with them for half an hour answering their many questions. Does he mention what he asked or what the answers were? Not at all.

Monreale cloister
The above images give an idea of what the cloister looked like, which could hardly be inferred from reading the Journey. One is struck, according to the end notes of my edition, by Goethe's lack of attention to the the mosaics on the ceiling of the cathedral, a major example (Hauptstück) of Norman-Byzantine art. When he went to Italy, however, Goethe was under the influence of Winckelmann, which narrowed -- indeed, prejudiced -- his perception of Italy. He suffered from the classical half-view. Indeed, it quite amusing to read his reference to the very grand monastery as a "respectable establishment" (eine respektable Anlage).

Photo credits: Planetware; Wonders of Sicily

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Goethe in Sicily

Christian Heinrich Kniep
"What are men to rocks and mountains?" This line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has some resonance in connection with Goethe's visit to Sicily in 1787.

I have been working my way through Goethe's Italian Journey and have taken to recording some of his observations, day by day, so to speak, on his Twitter site. I usually compare the Journey with letters written to Weimar as well as with the Diary. Now that we have reached Sicily, however, there are few entries about Sicily in the Diary, and there is also a breach in the letters from March 23, 1787 (to C.G. Voigt from Naples) until April 17 (to Friedrich von Stein from Palermo). Thus, there is no truly illuminating information about first impressions.  I have not done any research on this, but it would seem that the portions of the Journey devoted to Sicily are post facto, perhaps prepared from on-the-spot notes that were later destroyed. I am ready to stand corrected if anyone has any information on this.

Goethe was of course accompanied by the artist Christian Heinrich Kniep, who served, if not as a stenographer, as a recorder of sights,  for tangibles, which for Goethe was obviously important. An indication of this is the entry for April 5, 1787 -- today! -- concerning an excursion he and Kniep made in Palermo. This is the opening:

"In the afternoon we visited the pleasant, fertile valley that comes down past Palermo from the mountains to the south, with the Oreto river winding through it."

It appears that Palermo is situated in a basin formed by three rivers, one of which is the Oreto mentioned by Goethe. Today, the river divides the downtown part of the city from the industrial western sections. Clearly it was more picturesque on Goethe's outing and, as Goethe writes, Kniep was busy finding the most attracting vantage points.

The most notable aspect of this particular entry is Goethe's dressing down of their guide, who was eager to explain the "local history," in particular concerning the battle at this spot in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal was defeated in 251 B.C. (The notes to the English edition of the Journey, by the way, point out that the defeated general was Hasdrubal.) For Goethe, this was pure pedantry and, as he writes, he "crossly rebuked him for so wretchedly evoking these departed spirits." Goethe declared his desire not to be startled out of his peaceful reverie by such tales of tumult (Nachgetümmel), which naturally surprised the guide.

Er verwunderte sich sehr, daß ich das klassische Andenken an so einer Stelle verschmähte, und ich konnte ihm freilich nicht deutlich machen, wie mir bei einer solchen Vermischung des Vergangenen und des Gegewärtigen zumute sei.

Goethe's understanding of "classical" soon emerges. He begins foraging in the shallows of the river for stones, which likewise astonished the guide. As Goethe writes, here, too, he felt unable to explain to him that the best way to understand a mountainous region was "to use rubble in order to obtain an idea of those earthly antiquities, the eternally classical mountains." (As always, the English here is mostly from Robert R. Heitner's translation.)

 ... daß hier auch die Afugabe sei, durch Truümmer sich eine Vorstellung von jenen ewig klassischen Höhen des Erdalterums zu verschaffen.

His booty amounted to almost forty specimens, the mineral content of which he goes on to describe. Tangibles again.

Picture credits: Alchetron; Your Rock Store

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Beast of the Apocalypse
Yesterday I journeyed by Long Island Railroad to Queens. I wanted to travel on the 1:46 p.m. train, so I left my apartment on the Upper West Side at 1, knowing that the subway runs regularly at that hour and would get me to Penn Station in plenty of time to buy a ticket and a sandwich to eat on the train. I was in no doubt that the train would leave at 1:46, which it did. I could plan my return trip to Manhattan similarly.

Yet, amid all this regularity, this rationalization of everyday structures of life, why were several people sitting on the dirty floors of the subway begging? Why indeed were the floors of the subway littered with newspapers? Why, with all the public money that is spent on welfare, on helping people to get enough to eat and to have a place to live, why, indeed, do so many people live so “unrationalized”?

Bloody signs in the sky, 1531
I ask these questions as a way of winding up these posts on climate hysteria. Back in the so-called Little Ice Age, heavy snowfall, avalanches, flooding, not to forget harvest failure, price increases, disease, and infertility were seen as signs from God foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution for sin. After 1560 every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches. The impetus for the persecution of witches came not from the institutions, but from “below.”

I started these posts on climate hysteria during the Little Ice Age as a way of situating our current apocalyptic thinking about climate change. According to Wolfgang Behringer, whom I have often cited in these posts, the 17th-century hysteria about climate cooling began to wane with the age of reason. Make that the Enlightenment. It began to be understood that the catastrophes resulting from the adverse weather conditions were a consequence of what we would now call “underdevelopment” and of ineffective — make that corrupt — political and social institutions that are still the norm for much of the world. “The public was no longer prepared to accept sermons about divine retribution, but pointed to the structural deficits and political omissions that hindered relief operations after crop failures. Why were the roads so bad that bread cereals could not be expeditiously imported? Why were the warehouses too small to supply the poor? … Why had royal officials not made adequate provision?”

The authorities were forced to act, and did so. In Holland, for instance, there was an agrarian revolution beginning in the late 16th century. With the introduction of dyke-based land reclamation, crop rotation, irrigation, sowing of new varieties of seeds, famine became a rarer occurrence. This happened after 1709 “in the space of a single generation.” In Holland, of course, witch hunting had long been abandoned: “even heretics and Jews had the possibility of a relatively good life.”

Also occurring in Europe was an artisanal revolution. Among the many instruments produced and sold in large quantities were barometers, thermometers, pumps, and prisms. Newspapers took to recording daily atmospheric pressure readings.
Ice skating in Weimar

The dark winter landscapes of Pieter Bruegel gave way to friendlier winter depictions, and winter sports became popular, e.g., ice skating, of which Goethe was so fond. Of course, the rigors of nature were not over, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Goethe sought to avoid visits to the court in Gotha during the winter. Versailles must have been a fearfully cold place, despite all the glitter and glamour, but there arose the “Sun King” construct, promising a better future. Not only Louis XIV but also HRE Leopold I stylized themselves as “heat-providing central stars.”

Of course, the rise in bureaucratic structures that facilitated improvements in land use and in recovery from catastrophe was accompanied by a growth in populations, which in turn has put pressure on the earth and its resources, as have the industries that keep people employed, diverted, entertained, comforted, and so on. These developments, in my opinion, are serious for our fellow non-human creatures, but I do not believe that they cause the earth to become warmer or colder. That is a function of processes beyond our planet. We are simply not that powerful, although the ideology of progress suggests that we should be able to contain these processes.

Nowadays, apocalyptic visions come from “above,” from the intellectual classes.  Thus, the concept of “eco-sin,” so redolent of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Behringer writes, in earlier times, a sin was an offense against God’s command that deserved to be punished, and it was the task of priests to point out violations of divine law.

Goethe Girl is really sticking her neck out here by quoting Behringer to the effect that civilization was a product of climate warming: “The Neolithic Revolution and the rise of ancient civilizations became possible in periods when it was somewhat warmer than it is today.” If the IPCC’s latest predictions are accurate, those levels will be reached again at some point in the twenty-first century. “Then the Alpine glaciers will melt, but not those of the Antarctic. We will save on heating costs and use less fossil energy. What will become of the deserts? Will they really spread? During the Atlantic period, more water circulated in the atmosphere and the Sahara was fertile.”

So, if the earth is becoming warmer, we must take measures to contain and reduce its effects, just as in the Enlightenment people began to apply “reason” to counteract the effects of extreme cold. It is not a time to reprise the role of Nostradamus.

Picture credit: Martin Joppen

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Goethe Essay Prizes

The Goethe Society of North America has announced two essay prizes for this year, including one for the best essay on Goethe and science. I am pasting the information below. The deadline for submission is April 15, so please pass on the announcement to anyone who may be working in this area.

The GSNA Essay Prize and the Richard Sussman Essay Prize The deadline for nominations or self-nominations for our annual prizes—is drawing near. Please submit a copy of the essay (electronic version preferred) by April 15, 2017 to the Society’s Vice-President, Catriona MacLeod. See the website of the organization for terms of award/ eligibility:

Picture credit: Ahram Online

Goethe at Paestum

I am not abandoning my continuing posts on "climate," but it turns out that Goethe, on this day in 1787, was in Paestum. I have been working my way through Italian Journey, and everyday I tweet something Goethe wrote on the day in question. His description on March 23 deserves more than 180 characters.

Through Tischbein Goethe had met the painter Christoph Heinrich Kniep, who is now renowned for the drawings Goethe hired him to execute on his Italian travels. On March 23 they traveled in a two-wheeled carriage, to Paestum, alternately taking the reins. Goethe was initially not pleased by what he saw. As he writes, he found himself in a thoroughly alien world. His eyes, he writes, his whole being, were accustomed to slender architectural forms, "so that these blunt, cone-shaped, dense columnar masses seemed annoying, indeed awful" ("so daß diese stumpfen, kegelförmigen, enggedrängten Säulenmassen lästig, ja furchtbar erschienen").  But, he adjusted his eyes, as can be seen in this nice translation posted by "Rome Art Lover":

I pulled myself together, remembered the history of art, thought of the age with which this architecture was in harmony, called up images in my mind of the austere style of sculpture -- and in less than an hour I found myself reconciled to them and even thanking my guardian angel for having allowed me to see these well-preserved remains with my own eyes.

 Picture credit: World Tour

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate hysteria, historically viewed

Burning witches in Derenburg, Germany, ca. 1560
 Among the effects of the Little Ice Age, on which I posted recently, were childlessness, livestock epidemics, repeated harvest failures, sudden deaths of children, late frosts, persistent rain, sudden hailstorms in summer. It was an apocalyptic age, as Wolfgang Behringer (Cultural History of Climate) writes: the  heavy snowfalls, avalanches, and flooding, but also harvest failures, price increases, diseases and other effects were all interpreted as signs from God, foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution.  It strikes me that the 18th-century attacks on superstition and backwardness were less directed at the medieval period, the supposed “dark ages,” than at the mass hysteria of the 16th century.

In this moral climate, witchcraft was “the paradigmatic crime of the Little Ice Age,” with witches directly blamed for the cold weather, “for infertile soil and infertile women, and evidently also for  the ‘unnatural’ diseases that appeared in the wake of the crisis.” 1560–1660 were the high age of witch persecutions, beginning after the disastrous cooling of 1561, the summer storms of 1562, and subsequent harvest failures and epidemics. Thousands of witches were burned after the fruit harvest froze in 1626 in Bamberg, Würzburg, and Aschaffenburg — and “not only women from the lower classes, but city councillors and their families, sitting mayors and even an occasional nobleman or theologian.”

Witches Sabbath, from chronicle of Johann Jakob Wick
Every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches, who now assumed the role of scapegoat previously assigned to Jews (although Jews and witches became condensed in the term “witches’ sabbath”). In this connection, the pact with the devil was one of the favorite themes around 1600, while the first appearance of the Faust legend in print was in 1587. There were increasing numbers of reports of sexual commerce with the devil, sodomy, incest, bestiality, and rape. Poets seemed to devalue, to consciously belittle, the external goods of life, as can be seen, for instance, in Cervantes and in Shakespeare’s plays, while Andreas Gryphius seemed overcome by the distress of his age. As Behringer reminds us, this was a period when the Rhine and the Rhone repeatedly froze all the way down to their beds.

Europe was living under the sign of “the melancholy planet.” Rudolf II (r.1576–1612), was considered a melancholic, bewitched or insane. Behringer notes that mentally disturbed princes were a political risk, quoting Erik Midelfort to the effect that the roots of the 30 Years War lay not least in the madness of the rulers of the time, which itself was bound up with the psychological effects of the Little Ice Age: “If witchcraft was the crime of the Little Ice Age, melancholy was its symptomatic illness.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Climate change, historically viewed

Tourists view the growth of glaciers at Lower Grindelwald
Ages ago, in a post entitled “Forget the Age of Aquarius,” I discussed an essay by fellow German scholar Jason Groves on Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, which had just appeared in the Goethe Yearbook. At the time (this was in 2015) I quoted Jason on Goethe’s interest in erratics, namely, that this interest evinced "an openness to the planet’s inherent instability and thus to human vulnerability.” I opined then that the sense of human vulnerability might have been a case of deep human memory of the “earth’s eventfulness” (a term used by Nigel Clark). In the meantime, having read Wolfgang Behringer's Kulturgeschichte des Klimas, I can see that the memory of such events did not have to be millennially deep.

Here is a quotation from the English edition of Behringer's book concerning the advance of glaciers in the not-too-distant past, namely, during the Little Ice Age (see previous post):

"In 1601 the peasants of Chamonix turned in panic to the government of Savoy, because the glacier known as the Mer de glace was growing larger and larger, had already engulfed two villages and was about to destroy a third. Martin Zeiler (1589–1661) wrote in Matthäus Merian’s Topografia Helvetiae of the Grindelwald glacier near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland: ‘Not far from town there used to be a chapel to Saint Petronel, to which people made pilgrimage in times of old. Since then the mountain’s tendency to grow has covered the place. So the local people watch and notice that the mountain is growing hugely and driving the ground or earth before it, so that where there used to be a fine meadow of pasture it is disappearing and turning into raw, desolate mountainside. Indeed, in several places houses and huts along with the peasants living in them have had to move way because of its growth. Also growing out of it are big rough ice floes, as well as rocks and whole pieces of cliff, which thrust aside and upward the houses, trees and other things present there.’ … [T]he author ends by noting that the mountain’s growth is conjuring away ‘the peasant’s pasture, commons and houses. It is therefore a truly miraculous mountain.'"

The image at the top of this post, from Merian's Topografia Helvetiae (Frankfurt, 1654) appears as Figure 18 in the German edition of Behringer's book. The caption reads as follows: "Das Wachstum des Unteren Grindelwaldgletschers bedroht traditionelle Siedlungen und wird zur Sehenswürdigkeit für Touristen."

Thomas Fearnley's Romantic-period painting (1838) of Lower Grindelwald Glacier
By the time Goethe wrote The Years of Wandering (how apt is that participle in retrospect) the worst effects of the earth's cooling were in retreat. Had Goethe, however, read such chronicles, seen such pictures in Merian's volumes? What we know of his reading habits as a young man while living in Frankfurt indicates that he was well versed in earlier chronicles and histories. Moreover, because of his duties in Weimar in connection with the Ilmenau mine, he became very well read in writings on geology.

Picture source: SuperTopo

Friday, March 10, 2017


Goethe Girl is going to stick her neck out here.

The word "hysterizieren" (I am guessing that is the correct spelling) came up in an interview on German radio with the writer Joachim Lottman, who discussed his new novel, Alles Lüge (All a Lie). (See here for the publisher's English description.) The action of the novel takes place in 2016 during the "year of the refugee crisis." In the interview, Lottman used the term "hysterizieren" to characterize not simply the reaction to the crisis but the dominant psychological feature of our time. Listening to the interview, I thought that Lottman had invented the term. (He also said that "ISIS represents the only authentic youth movement of the present.")

Searching the internet, I discovered that the term is associated with Foucault, as in "the hysterization of women's bodies." That is not what Lottman was talking about. However, I did find a discussion of a "hystericized society" on a somewhat conspiratorially minded website, which discussed cycles of "society's hysterical condition." The author of the post, quoting the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Lobaczewski, asserts that this condition, producing despondency and confusion, is an affliction of "ostensibly happy times." According to Lobaczewski (as per Wikipedia), "During happy times, societies enjoy prosperity and suppress advanced psychological knowledge of psychopathological influence in the corridors of power." Lobaczewski's background -- he was a member of the Polish resistance during World War II -- probably contributed to his interest in regimes presided over by rulers with personality disorders. Hitler and Stalin no doubt fit the bill, but I am surprised that he would have considered the Soviet Union or even the Weimar Republic to have been happy times, ostensibly or otherwise.

And now here is where Goethe Girl sticks her neck out. We in the U.S. and in the West generally live in prosperous times. Even people whose daily life is dependent on government assistance live better than most of the world. Why otherwise would people from the Middle East risk their lives coming to Europe? There are probably many who would like to study, to work, to have a life like ordinary Westerners; but, if all else fails, there is government assistance. Who can blame them?

And, yet, happy we are not; we are decidedly "hysterical." No, I would go further and say that we are caught up in apocalyptic visions that, historically, have been associated with very bad times and that resulted in mass persecutions and a search for scapegoats. These visions presently concern the end of the world, which, it is claimed, are the result of our "eco-sins." Insight into this phenomenon can be found in a work by the German historian Wolfgang Behringer: Kulturgeschichte des Klimas: Von der Eiszeit bis zur globalen Erwarmung. (Cultural History of Climate: From the Ice Age to Global Warming. You can find it in English here.)

The Frozen Thames (1677), by Abraham Hondius (London Museum)
His chapters on the "Little Ice Age," which affected the earth from the 13th to the 19th century, are worth reading, because of the social unrest produced by global cooling. It was in this period that the glaciers of the Alps, Scandinavia, and North America advanced. While the climate's cooling produced irregular rainfall in those regions and thus agricultural loss, drought was a problem in parts of the Mediterranean. The climate zone in which agriculture could be pursued shrank. For instance, the Sahara desert moved several hundred kilometers south. Increased aridity meant, in Behringer's words, “Spain dried up.” Venetian officers reported long periods of drought between 1548 and 1648 on the island of Crete. Such was the effect on Europe: “In 25 percent of the years, not a drop of rain fell all winter or in spring. A fifth of all winters, on the other hand, were marked by exceptional falls of snow, protracted periods of abnormal cold, or rain so excessive that crops could not be sowed until late spring."

The worst years were from 1560 to 1660. In my next post I will discuss, relying on Behringer, the hysterization of society as a result of global cooling during these years, which included the rise in persecution of witches. The period also coincided with the invention of a new kind of landscape: the winter landscape.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Goethe Girl departs Aruba

This afternoon I return to the city where people honk their horns and fight for parking spaces.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Luther and Trump anew

I owe it to my friend and colleague Peter Schwartz that I return to the subject of my previous post. Peter is working on a project tentatively entitled "On the Political Mobilization of Irrationality in Epochs of Media Revolution," and in this connection he has emailed me a file containing writings by the German art historian and culture theorist Aby Warburg, which includes the 1920 article "Heidnisch-Antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten." (In its English-language incarnation: "Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther.")

It turns out that there were dueling horoscopes concerning Martin Luther. The counter-Luther forces based their chart on a birth year of 1483, while Philip Melanchthon, Luther's great Reformist confederate, sought to make Luther’s reforming mission contingent on the year 1484, a date representing "a great conjunction of planets, calculated generations in advance, ... expected to herald a new epoch in Oriental religion.” Melanchthon, “inclined toward drastic astrological intervention” in the controversy over Luther’s birthdate, went so far as to consult with Luther's mother.

Luther himself was averse to all astrology, a feeling “deeply rooted in his religious faith,” which led him into “forthright disagreement” with Melanchthon. As he wrote in a letter of August 1540: “No one will ever persuade me — neither Paul, nor an angel from Heaven, nor even Philipp — to believe in the predictions of astrology, which are so often mistaken that nothing is more uncertain. For if they forecast correctly even two or three times, they mark it; if they are wrong, they conceal it.” In the same connection he wrote of astrologers: "Es ist ein dreck mit irer kunst.”

The essay emerged from Warburg's preoccupation with astrology and superstition during World War I, especially as these two "pagan" inheritances influenced Allied "media coverage" of German atrocities. Apparently astrology still has cachet among the media, as can be seen in an article in Vanity Fair concerning predictions to be found in Donald Trump's horoscope. I have not yet read the piece, but it can be found here. I predict many dueling horoscopes going forward. By the way,  Trump was born on June 14, 1946, during an eclipse, certainly a propitious event, depending on your point of view.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Martin Luther and Donald Trump

Have I got your attention? You weren't expecting that, were you? No "Hitler and Trump"? No way I am going to get into that argument. As I mentioned in a post sometime ago, I refuse to engage in political discussions. I take seriously the advice of Uncle Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. (See below.) Every January I write my list of New Year's resolutions in my thick calendar (pictured left), transferring the ones from the previous year and adding a comment on my success rate. Number 8 is: "Do not discuss politics." My notation for the past year: "Continuing success." (As for number 1 -- "Stop Swearing" -- the notation reads: "Total failure.") I have to admit that number 8 was broken already on January 24. After attending a talk at Columbia University (on the most recondite subject, but inevitably laden with reference to "Hitler"), I went to dinner with several of the attendees. I won't describe what happened in the course of the after-dinner discussion; it is not pretty when Goethe Girl loses her Zen-like attitude. Well, it is now February, and so far I have been faithful to my resolution. Of course, it helps being in Aruba. Besides the lack of distractions that enable me to concentrate on my essay on world literature (due June 1!), I never encounter anyone who wants to talk about U.S. politics.

Yet, suddenly this morning the Luther–Trump pairing occurred to me. And here is how it came about. I have been reading, as I posted earlier, Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English. In the third chapter, “People Around the World Writing in External Languages,” she provides a historical overview of how how we have reached the point where English is “a formidable universal language above and beyond all others.” Mizumera’s major point is that texts written in a universal language represent knowledge that is accumulated in what she calls a “library,” not so much a physical place, but, rather, “the collectivity of accumulated writings.” For a long time, extending into the 16th century, Europe had a very good universal language in which the most important knowledge was expressed: Latin.

Latin proved itself serviceable for expressing the knowledge considered most important by elites, the ones who read and wrote in the universal language. It also showed itself flexible enough to express the new science. As late as Newton, scientific discoveries were written in Latin: the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo traveled from region to region, accessible to all who read Latin. These men, one might say, belonged to the same universal culture, even if in everyday life they spoke in their mother tongue. The same could be said for humanists: Erasmus, Thomas More, Martin Luther. Spinoza, for goodness sake, wrote in Latin. Their ideas, set down in books, traveled, too. As Mizumera writes, it was “economical” to write in a universal language.

The Whore of Babylon Wearing the Papal Crown
Writing in Latin began to decline in the early modern period, and "national" languages took shape (a process that I will not attempt to summarize here). Luther, a humanist who had written most of his major anti-papal texts in Latin — not to forget the 95 theses —in the sacred language that elites had kept from ordinary people, now turned to the people themselves and wrote in German, inaugurating its development as a national language. To further his Reformist cause he began his translation of the Bible, but he also let loose a flood of scurrilous anti-papal writings, also in German. His argument with the Church became personal.

Luther's opponents portrayed as animals
Anyone who visited the Morgan Library for the recent Martin Luther's Reformation exhibition (see my post) will know what I mean. Calling Pope Leo X the "Anti-Christ" was one of Luther's milder insults. Ultimately, fhe effect of Luther's Reformation were "YUGE." All are permitted at this point to make their own comparisons.

Come to think of it, I am surprised that the comparison between Trump and Luther has not yet been made.

Picture credit: F1 Online