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 (Hauptst├╝ck) 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

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