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."

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