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

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

World Literature and "Universal Language"

Arashi Beach, Aruba
Minae Mizumura, in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, makes the argument that if one is to enter the world of learning, one must be able to read the “universal language,” for it is only, as she writes, “in the single universal language … that knowledge is best pursued.” (Italics in the original.) In the West, that language was for a time Latin, to which Greek was added during the Renaissance, but the overwhelming importance of Latin as the language of learning is indicated by the fact that all learned men wrote in it. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, all lived in different regions of Europe, and their work traveled from one region to another over two centuries, thanks solely to Latin, the language in which they wrote. Something similar happened in the humanities: Erasmus, though born in Holland, traveled all over Europe. Others who wrote in Latin include Thomas More, Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and Leibniz. It turned out to be “economical” to write in a universal language.

These writings in Latin and Greek constituted "universal libraries." For a while the two classical libraries remained at the top in prestige; they possessed, after all, in quantity and quality, the greatest accumulation of knowledge. In time, texts in the classical languages were “steadily transferred to local libraries,” to vernacular languages, which eventually caught up and surpassed the classics in the accumulation of “universally applicable knowledge.”

If it is more “economical” to write in a single universal language, how is it possible, asks Mizumura, to pursue knowledge in disparate languages, as happened in Europe beginning in the 18th century, when national languages came into their own? Major writers of the Enlightenment — John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Kant, to name a few — wrote their most important works, after all, in their own languages. She finds that Europeans were able to “ to purse knowledge efficiently even when national languages replaced Latin as a tool for learning.” The reason: the pursuit of knowledge in Europe was carried out by people who shared a common cultural and religious history, not to forget that they were also strongly influenced by the abstract concepts of Latin and Greek learning. I would only add that it is not paradoxical that they wrote in a national language, and still gave birth to “universal” concepts and values.

Intellectuals did not only read books written in their own language. They “frequented” other national libraries, and many continued to have personal interactions across Europe. National languages thus functioned as universal languages and as national languages in their regions. In time, however, three languages — French, English, and German — became the main media of exchange, with works of “less major” languages translated into these three and thereby receiving a wider audience. She cites the example of Kierkegaard, who could have written in German, but he chose Danish in which to write his critique of Hegelian philosophy. It was, later, through posthumously published German translations, that his work became more widely known.

Something of the crucial importance of French, English, and German as “universal languages” in the distribution of knowledge can be see in The Magic Mountain. As I mentioned in my previous post, I am reading the novel during my stay in Aruba. In the chapter “Research,” Hans Castorp, to while away the hours shivering on his balcony under his camel-hair blankets, has purchased a number of books on anatomy, physiology, and biology. They are written, as Mann notes, in German, French, and English.

As Mizumura writes (thus alluding to the title of her book), this “tripolar system” fell apart in the course of the  20th century. Increasingly, “the world” was no longer represented by the West. Non-Western intellectuals began to enter the world of learning, and if their works were to attain wide distribution, to enter into “the universal library,” then they, too, had to write in the universal language, namely, English,  “the language that circulates most widely.”

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Goethe Girl in Aruba

Street art by Fio Silva in San Nicholas, Aruba
This is my third February visit to what is called "one happy island." I rented a cottage at the northern part of the island and hope to spend a productive month, while also indulging in my favorite sports of swimming and paddle boarding. My friend Judy is joining me from Arizona for five days, and later Barbara will fly down from New York for a week.

The work I plan to do here concerns an essay on Fritz Strich and world literature. My fun reading is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I have not read since graduate school. Mann has some good observations about the effects of stepping out of one's daily routine and entering a new environment. Although I don't expect that my days here will be "swollen with silent, private experiences" (John E. Wood's translation), I find it true that "there is something odd about settling in somewhere new -- about the laborious process of getting used to new surroundings and fitting in, a task we undertake almost for its own sake and with the definite intention of abandoning the place again as soon as it is accomplished or shortly thereafter, and returning to our previous state."

Mann ascribes the desire for such "a refreshing, revitalizing exercise of the organism" to "our very sense of time itself -- which, if it flows with uninterrupted regularity, threatens to elude us and which is so closely related to and bound up with our sense of life." (By the way, Denis Scheck conducts a lovely interview with John Woods on a recent Druckfrisch program, in which Woods discusses his translation of Arno Schmidt's Zettels Traum.)

Yesterday Judy and I ventured down to the southern tip of Aruba and visited the small town of San Nicholas, where the Aruba Art Fair, held last year, featured the work of "street artists" from all over the world. Pictured above is Goethe Girl before the work of one such artist, Fio Silva, from Argentina.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Gothic Goethe

Frederick Lee Bridell, The Coliseum at Rome by Moonlight (1858)
I have been making my way through Goethe's Italian Journey, which also gives me an opportunity to post on Goethe's Twitter account short comments on his stay in Rome. Today's entry in Italian Journey, February 2, 1787, however, should be quoted in full:

Unless a person has walked through Rome in the light of the full moon he cannot imagine the beauty of it. All individual details are swallowed up in the great masses of light and shadow, and only the largest, most general images present themselves to the eye. For three days we have been thoroughly enjoying the brightest and most splendid nights. The Coliseum offers a particularly beautiful sight. It is closed at night, a hermit lives there in his tiny little church [Kirchelchen], and beggars nest in the dilapidated archways. They have laid a fire on the ground, and a quiet breeze drove the smoke first toward the arena, so that the lower part of the ruins was covered and the huge walls above jutted out over it darkly. We stood at the grating and watched the phenomenon, while the moon stood high and clear in the sky. Gradually the smoke drifted through the walls, holes, and openings, looking like fog in the moonlight. It was an exquisite sight. This is how one must see the Pantheon, the Capitol, the forecourts of St. Peter’s, and other great streets and squares illuminated. And so the sun and the moon, just like the human spirit, are quite differently employed here than in other places, here, where their gaze meets huge and yet refined masses.

The translation is by Robert R. Heitner.

Picture credit: Southampton City Art Gallery

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Red versus Blue

I thought I was finished with colors, but I came across something interesting today in a book by Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I am reading in connection with an article I am writing on Goethe's concept of world literature. In the third chapter, she discusses the rise of Western vernacular languages in the early modern period. Each of these became a "print language" representing a "library" of accumulated knowledge, which was in turn shared among readers of the various vernaculars -- English, French, German, Danish, Italian, etc., etc. Whatever hostilities may have been felt among the various nations, scholarship and scientific discovery did not stop at the borders. Even if they wrote in different languages, the elites of the various nations were "culturally and linguistically kindred." As Mizumura writes, the knowledge shared across borders was "mutually translatable with minimal loss of meaning." This is most evident in modern science, the achievements of which have been a combined undertaking.

At the same time, as she writes, it cannot be denied that, for instance, "bread" in English feels different from the French pain. Still, the difference between bread and pain is nothing to the difference between English "rice" and the Japanese word ine, "the latter having been lyricized and mythicized for well over a millennium in Japanese culture." As she writes, "Japanese emperors still go through the ceremony of planting rice and harvesting it, a tradition said to have begun in the sixth century." Thus, Japan is a world apart from the nations that make up "the West," societies that are "culturally and linguistically kindred." And then she goes on to say, "To put it in terms of colors, if the Japanese language were red, then all European languages would be some shade of blue."

She gives no reason for choosing these color referents, but, to return for a moment to Michel Pastoureau's books on the history of color, red and blue can be regarded as bookends. Red, as Pastoureau writes is “the first color,” the most primordial and symbolic, for thousands of years in the West “the only color worthy of that name.” It is the basic color of all ancient peoples (and still the color preferred by children the world over). It appears in the earliest artistic representations, the cave paintings of hunter-gatherers 30,000–plus years ago. Blood and fire (the domestication of the latter constituting an important human achievement) were always and everywhere represented by the color red. Both were felt to be sources of magical power, and both played a role in human communication with gods via bloody sacrifices. Humans also painted their bodies red, and shells and bones painted red are found in abundance in burials from 15,000 years ago.

Red is not placid: thus, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Army Faction, but today the legacy of ancient social codes is restricted to denoting things forbidden or dangerous. “Red warns, prescribes, prohibits, and punishes”: firefighters and red stop lights, while fire extinguishers are often the only red objects in office buildings.

As I wrote in a previous post, blue began to offer competition to red starting in the 12th century, to the point that it now outdistances red in everyday life and private space. The reversal of red and blue in prestige from the Paleolithic era to the present suggests a pacification of Western sensibilities. Blue has become associated with peace and tolerance (as in the flag of the U.N. and its peacekeeping forces). In Pastoureau’s telling, blue is the color of consensus, of moderation and centrism. It does not shock, offend, disgust, or make waves; even stating a preference for black, red, or green is a declaration of some sort. Blue invites reverie, but it anaesthetizes thinking. Even white has more symbolic potential.

What a shock the U.S. electoral map was to blue sensibilities on the morning of November 9, 2016. Judging from the red baseball caps of Donald Trump’s supporters, the unruly powers represented by the primordial color have not been subdued at all.

Image credit: Deviant Art

Friday, January 27, 2017

Goethe and green 2

Comment on doit chasser et prendre le loup (Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 616, f.55)
I am closing up the subject of Michel Pastoureau's wonderful volumes on the history of various colors (see previous posts), but would like to add a few more comments about Goethe and green, especially as Pastoureau refers frequently to Goethe throughout the volumes.

As I wrote in the last post, green was a color that was late in coming in social codes in the West, but, when it finally became prominent in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was a color associated with huntsmen and their valets. Pastoureau includes a wonderful image from an illuminated manuscript of the Livre de la chasse, ca. 1410, by Gaston Phoebus (Paris, BnF, ms. fr. 616). Pastoureau discusses the green knights of the Middle Ages, who participate in "disturbing nocturnal episodes in which the dead hunt side by side with the living, and infernal creatures with men who have committed grave sins or signed pacts with the Devil." The sources of these nocturnal hunts probably derives, he writes, from Germanic mythologies.

Goethe's poem "Der Erlkönig," writes Pastoureau, is an echo of these dreamlike hunts, which were accompanied by howling dogs. The appearance of the participants, dressed in black or green and hunting obscure game, "was terrifying and the din they caused unbearable." Indeed, it was the duty of the huntsman to make noise in the forest, make his dogs howl, his horses whinny, his hunting horn ring. As illustrated in Livre de la chasse, green is "a color simultaneously enticing and disturbing," qualities certainly evoked in Goethe's poem.

Pastoureau also notes the gradual ascendance of green among the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, which can be seen in Goethe's Treatise on Color. Pastoureau writes that Goethe associated each color with a social category, making green the color of the bourgeois and merchants, and notes that Goethe's treatise had an influence on dress and fashions in Germany "before being roundly rejected in the second half of the 19th century. Further, "Goethe sees green as a soothing color and recommends its use for decorating places of rest and conviviality. In his home in Weimar, his bedroom had dark green hangings." Pastoureau seems to be taken by what Dr. Vogel reported to be Goethe's last words -- "Mehr Licht!" -- although it has been pointed out that Vogel was not actually in the room when Goethe died.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Goethe and green

Mr. Knightly in blue Werther coat
In connection with my previous post on "the blue-green Goethe," I came across a short book by Angelika Overath, Das andere Blau: Zur Poetik einer Farbe im modernen Gedicht. The first chapter concerns "The Symbolism of Blue circa 1800," in which Overath discusses the representation of blue in Goethe's Dornburg poem beginning "Früh, wenn Tal, Gebirg und Garten/ Nebelschleiern sich enthüllen." I wrote about Goethe's Dornburg poems ages ago (go here), and Overath's discussion reminded me anew of how the poem, written in 1829, replicates the syntax of Werther's May 10 letter, written in the 1770s.

For Overath, the syntactic "dynamism" (the textual movement of the wenn/dann verse structuring) of the Dornburg poem reflects Goethe's view that colors are entities that the eye, so to speak, activates, brings into being: the one does not exist without the other. As Goethe writes in another connection:

Wär nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Die Sonne könnt' es nie erblicken;
Läg nicht in uns des Gottes eigne Kraft,
Wie könnt uns Göttliches entzücken?

(Were not the eye sunlike
It could never see the sun
Were not within us God's own force
How could we delight in anything divine?)

Even if The Sorrows of Young Werther contributed to the rage for blue in the late 18th century, Goethe found that the color, by itself, was cold. As he writes in Theory of Colors: "Blue gives an impression of coldness and also reminds us of shadows. We have already remarked on its affinity with black" (782). Further, "Rooms hung with pure blue appear to some degree larger, but are actually empty and cold" (783) and "Objects seen through a blue glass appear gloomy and melancholy" (784). These also seem to be "Romantic" associations with blue, as in Novalis's "blue flower."

Because of this coldness, Goethe thought that a bit of green (on the "plus" side of his color circle) would alleviate the "negative" aspects of blue. In particular: "Sea green is a rather pleasing [liebliche] color" (785).

Goethe's associations of blue with the sky and the sea with green are modern.

Michel Pastoureau, as I mentioned in my last post on his new book Red: The History of a Color, blue was a color that was seemingly absent in the consciousness of the earliest humans, with a meager presence in the ancient world, Egypt excepted, poorly adapted to transmitting ideas or evoking emotional or aesthetic responses. Blue was so unrepresented in Ancient Greek that even the sky and the sea were textually associated with other colors. The Latin terms, blavus and azureus, were imported from the Germanic languages and Arabic. It was only in the 12th century, with the creation of blue stained glass, that it began to achieve artistic existence. The Virgin, in earlier centuries portrayed in dark colors, became the first person in the West to be clothed in blue, if still in tones indicating mourning. The sky finally appeared as blue in illuminated manuscripts.

Something similar was the case with green, according to Pastoureau. Although ubiquitous in the plant world, a green pigment was made and mastered late and with difficulty. The Romans had a good word for it (viridis) — it was Nero’s favorite color (emeralds) — but it long remained a minor color, playing little role in social life, and its symbolic power was limited. Its rise accompanied that of blue in the Middle Ages, as the emblematic color of the plant world and the color of hope in life eternal among liturgical colors. (Since the 12th century, as Arabs distinguished themselves from Crusaders, green has been the sacred color of Islam.) It was the favorite color of “solitary walkers” in the late 18th century, associated with health and freedom. In the dark 19th century, urban dwellers longed for green spaces. In the 1880s, with the invention of artificial paints, available in tubes, artists left their studios for the outdoors, transforming landscape painting anew. In the new millennium green has replaced red as an ideological marker. It has become “the messianic color,” according to Pastoureau: “Long unnoticed, disliked, or rejected, now it is entrusted with the impossible mission of saving the planet.”

And, for many, Goethe has become a "Green."

Friday, January 6, 2017

The blue-green Goethe

M.s Sehnsuchtsbild by Guntram Erbe

Michel Pastoureau, French scholar of the Middle Ages, has produced some very lovely and also scholarly volumes on the history of colors, beginning with Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton UP, 2001). It was followed (in English translation) by Black (2008) and Green (2014), both subtitled "the history of a color" and also published by Princeton. I have just received Red (also Princeton UP; publication date is Valentine's Day), which I am reviewing for a national magazine. In preparation I have the pleasant task of going through the preceding volumes, beginning with Blue.

Not surprisingly, Blue includes a section on Goethe, both on his theory of colors as well as on the significance of Werther's blue-and-yellow outfit. According to Professor Pastoureau, Goethe gave his hero a blue coat because blue was in style in Germany in the 1770s. The novel, however, because of its popularity reinforced the fashion for blue, causing the color to leap from the realm of dress -- serving as the favored color of the French kings since the beginning of the 18th century and, in turn, of the nobility and the well-off bourgeoisie -- into the arts of painting, engraving, and porcelain.

Goethe's color circle
Pastoureau is very sympathetic to Goethe's color theory, even if he concedes that the discussion of physics and the chemistry of colors in the Farbenlehre is "flawed." As he writes: “Instead of creating a work based on his remarkable poetic intuition and his feeling that color always has an important anthropological dimension, he wished to write a learned treatise that would be recognized as such.” In his view,  the most original chapter of the didactic section of the Farbenlehre is the one on “physiological” colors, “in which Goethe argues forcefully for the subjective and cultural nature of perception, an idea that was almost completely novel at the time.” Challenging the Newtonians, Goethe was “the first to reintroduce the human being into the problems of color and to dare to declare that a color that no one sees is a color that does not exist.”

Since this is a book on blue, the Farbenlehre is of interest to Pastoureau because of the important place Goethe accords to that color, “which along with yellow is one of the poles of Goethe's color system. He saw in the juxtaposition (or the fusion) of these two colors the absolute form of chromatic harmony.” The lovely painting above by Guntram Erbe immediately made me think of Goethe's color preferences.

Blue Flower (Homage to Novalis) by H.H. Miyakawa (2011)
Alongside Goethe, Pastoreau cites Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen and the poet's search for the "little blue flower" as contributing to blue's status as "the world's most popular color," solidifying it as the color of love, melancholy, and dreams. (See my earlier post.) Yet, as can be gleaned from Blue, Goethe's embrace of blue has a long historical background.

It turns out that the rise of blue as a color preference was a very late emerging Western phenomenon. As Pastoreau writes in Blue, red, white, and black were the basic colors of all cultures from time immemorial, and all social codes and systems of representation were organized around these three. Blue, on the other hand, had no symbolic value, and it even seems that the ancients could not even "see" blue. In the ancient Greek language, for instance, blue was never used to describe the sky or the sea. The term glaukos, much used by Homer, could refer to gray, blue, and sometimes even yellow or brown. Eventually the Romans took their color terminology from Germanic and Arabic words: blavus and azureus. For the Romans blue appears to have had a negative value: it was associated with the underworld, while blue eyes were considered a deformity or a sign of bad character, not to forget that blue was the color of the eyes of the Germanic barbarians.

In the Carolingian period, the emperors and nobles followed the Roman custom, wearing red, white, and purple, while blue was worn only by those of low rank. A change occurred in the 12th century, with the creation of blue stained glass, but otherwise blue was essentially absent from Christian worship, with white being the supreme Christological color (innocence, purity) and black denoting abstinence, penance, and suffering. Red, of course, was the blood spilled by Christ, his passion, sacrifice, martyrdom, divine love. There developed by the 12th century a split between "chromophiles" and "chromophobes," represented, on the one hand, by the abbots of Cluny and, on the other, by the Cistercians. In the churches of the former blue and gold were united to evoke the splendor of God's creation, while the Cistercians were opposed to luxury in all forms, including color.

Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XV as 5-year-old (detail)
The rise of the cult of the Virgin in the 12th century and also the adoption by French kings of blue in their coat of arms lent prestige to blue, while progress in dyeing techniques also assisted its success. French and German cities (including in Thuringia) were sustained by their dyeing industries. Saint Louis and Henry III began wearing blue, a custom not known among earlier kings. Naturally, their entourages followed suit. Even King Arthur was depicted in blue.

And then came the Reformation, which was already preceded by moralizing trends. The Reformists sought to cleanse churches of color, especially of red, which stood not for Christ's blood and passion but for folly and, in Luther's eyes, the papacy. The polychromy on church statues suggested idolotry, and the vestments of priests and the rituals of the mass were "a theater of color" distracting from the more crucial purpose of saving one's soul. For the Reformers, good Christians should wear sober colors, thus the rise of black in art. Pastoreau mentions Rembrandt, from Calvinist Holland, whose "color asceticism [was] based on a limited palette of dark and discreet tones." Rome, with the Counter-Reformation, responded in kind: thus, the blazing glory of Baroque and Jesuit art.

Perhaps because of its long absence from historical and theoretical reflection, blue was not affected by the "chromoclasm" of the Reformers. Indeed, according to Pastoreau, it became "the only honest color worthy of a good Christian." Thus, the great Reformers were portrayed as austerely dressed in black, set against a bright blue background suggesting heaven, to which they all aspired. Among French landscapists influenced by Jansenism, brown and indigo wash drawings of the 17th century created dream-like distant backgrounds that seemed to reach to infinity.

Newton's spectrum experiment
In 1666 Newton discovered the spectrum, an order of color that contained neither black nor white, which (for an Anglican like Newton) confirmed Protestant moral practices. The spectrum unended the ancient and medieval color hierarchy, in which red had resided dominantly. The center was now occupied by blue and green, and "colormetry" began to invade the arts and sciences. In being mastered, however, color lost much of its mastery. Here is where Goethe enters the picture.

Pastoreau mentions that Goethe's "personal taste" distanced him from red, but by the mid 1770s blue had become the favorite color of European society. (Can we imagine Werther wearing a red vest?) By the 18th century, slavery in the Americas lowered the cost of indigo production, and a variety of dark and solid blues could be produced that were resistant to sunlight and soap. Chemistry also began to play a role: it was in the early 18th century that "Prussian blue" was discovered in Berlin, which aided painters in producing strong or translucent tones, and numerous learned societies sponsored competitions to find solutions for obtaining more vivid and less costly blues and greens than those achieved by indigo.

Here is Werther speaking about his blue coat: “It cost me much to part with the blue coat which I wore the first time I danced with Charlotte. But I could not possibly wear it any longer. But I have ordered a new one, precisely similar, even to the collar and sleeves, as well as a new waistcoat and pantaloons. But it does not produce the same effect upon me. I know not how it is, but I hope in time I shall like it better.”

Picture credit: Guntram Erbe; Hikaru H. Miyakawa; Colour Management