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