Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Jena anew: Novalis

The Blue Flower
My previous post was all over the place. As I wrote, the Jena circle and its influence is a complex story. The cast in the opening paragraph of the post includes people whose names are unfamiliar to most of us today, but whose works, as I wrote, had major influence on writers outside of Germany. Today, I want to draw attention to Novalis, whose real name, Friedrich von Hardenberg, shows his aristocratic background. Had he lived longer (he died at not even thirty years of age in 1801), he might have become a serious rival to Goethe in his influence. (Although he lived a longer life, the same might be said of Friedrich Hölderlin, who in 1806, at the age of thirty-six, succumbed to mental illness.) Among other things, Novalis is associated with the image of the "blue flower," and it is this image on which Penelope Fitzgerald drew in The Blue Flower, a novel about Novalis's life.

I won't go into the details here, but there is much about Novalis's work and life that would appeal to "young" people. The image below, for instance, apparently an album cover, is a perfect one for the inspiration felt by a German "romantic rock band" from Hamburg, who (according to Amazon) "specialized in taking romantic, atmospheric symphonic rock pieces and interspersing them with harder rocking material, dynamic keyboard flourishes, and harmonic guitar interplay."

But I have just come across a New York writer named Matthew Gasda who is inspired by another aspect of Novalis's legacy. I leave it to readers of this post to do their own research on Gadsa, but he seems to be well known among theater folks in New York. My interest here is his Substack, which goes by the title "Novalis." The contents of "Novalis" are what the Romantic writers called "fragments." The journal I mentioned in the earlier post, Atheneaum, published numerous fragments by Novalis who said, according to Andrea Wulf, that his "nature" consisted of "moments." It was (again per Wulf) Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel who elevated the fragment to a literary genre, and the Jena writers deployed them in order "to publish the greatest variety of ideas in a very few pages" -- and, moreover, in succinct and efficient form. Here is Novalis: "Friends, the soil is poor; we must scatter seed abundantly for even a modest harvest."

With that said, let me quote a few of Matthew Gasda's very pithy "fragments" from a recent entry on his Substack. In the second one, in particular, I hear echoes of Fichte:

Effectively, what people want out of supposedly transgressive downtown New York in 2024 is Disneyland for bored adults. Lights up early. Not much drinking or smoking, just stimulants. The vague possibility of sex and a lot of gossip and self-promotion.

The clout economy incentivizes laziness. You become an entrepreneur of the self rather than a committed artist, a craftsperson. The temptation is to produce one, maybe two things, get enough of a reputation (clout) and then produce memes and gossip and derivative products of the self associated with the original works.

Image credits: Das Goetheanum

Monday, May 13, 2024

Jena and the Invention of the Self

Jena 1779

The “story” — for it is a story that will be told — opens with a scene in the parlor of a house in the university town of Jena. The residents have gathered of an evening, after a day filled with poetic and other intellectual production, to discuss projects on which they have been working in seclusion in their rooms during the day. It is late in the year 1799, and on this evening tea, cheese, pickled herring, and potatoes are the fare, and Dante is on the agenda for discussion. Another evening might offer criticism of a long poem about Nature, or the progress on a translation of a play by Shakespeare. The participants include August Wilhelm Schlegel, his wife Caroline and his brother Friedrich, Friedrich’s lover Dorothea Veit (daughter of renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, and Friedrich Schelling. On other evenings Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother Alexander von Humboldt might make an appearance, not to forget Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Significantly missing is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who had been forced earlier in the year to resign his position at the university for a pamphlet he wrote that suggested he approved of atheism.

We are in Jena, as I said, a decade after the French Revolution, and the political events it unleashed had been prefaced by the works of philosophers, who celebrated the potential of individuals to conceptualize the world on their own. No more monarchs telling you what to think, nor husbands or fathers, no more marriage for that matter if you didn’t feel like it. Freedom of the individual and self-determination were now the plan going forward. In 1799, Napoleon was Consul, and all believed that the Revolution was over, and the ancient regime a thing of the past. “Time has been divided into a before and an after.” Those talking about Dante on that evening in Jena were living that new life.

The parlor scene described above opens a small book about which I wrote a short review back in 2022 for the TLS: Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits, by Peter Neumann. (It appeared in German as Jena 1800. Die Republik der freien Geister in 2018, and in English translation by Shelley Frisch in 2021.) It was hard to do the book complete justice in a short review, but the appearance in 2022 of another book that also focuses on the Jena set and its “free spirits” has led me to consider here both books in tandem. This is Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf. (Wulf is also the author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New World, concerning Humboldt's five-year journey to South America.). The publisher of Wulf's new bestseller (Penguin Random House) kindly sent me a copy to review on my Goethe blog.

Schiller and Goethe in Jena

After all, Goethe is also an important player in both books. He was living in Weimar at the time, with Christiane Vulpius, and he often mounted his horse and traveled to Jena, which was within the Saxe-Weimar principality. This was after getting to know Schiller better in 1794, when Goethe was at a low point in his literary production, and Schiller was also in a bit of slump. I am not sure whether Wulf was attempting to make the contrast, but the story of the friendship, lasting little more than a decade — Schiller died in 1804 — produced enduring works on the part of each and a profitable new direction in their lives. It was Schiller, whom Wulf calls “the unsung hero of the Jena set,” who brought the parlor residents together, first inviting August Wilhelm Schlegel to move to Jena and contribute to his literary journal Horen. Schlegel and Caroline took up lodging in Jena in 1796, and were soon followed by Friedrich, who, despite his vast literary knowledge and acumen, seems to have been unable to hold down a job.

While the authors of these two books cover the same period, from 1794 to 1806, their approaches are very different. Neumann is himself a poet and is “scenic” throughout: we learn, for instance, of bedbug infestations in the room that Fichte rents in Berlin after being forced to leave Jena. After such a chapter opening, Neumann then goes back and forth in time in the person's life before bringing us back to the present moment. Wulf proceeds chronologically, amassing an impressive amount of research. Both books end with the Battle of Jena in 1806 and the sight of a barefoot Hegel observing Napoleon’s march through the town: French troops have appropriated his shoes on their raids of Jena’s houses and cupboards. It is a very complicated story that Neumann and Wolf tell.

"Louche devotees of free love and free thinking"

Wulf says of the Jena set that it “changed our world.” Jena itself seems in some respects to have been a sleepy town: no public theater and opera performances there. And yet it was the “intellectual and cultural capital” of Germany in these years, because of the university: Schiller, August Schlegel, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel drew hundreds of students to their lectures, who, along with dueling and breaking the windows of the houses of professors they disapproved of, were reveling in the new age of freedom of thought. So, there are two stories here. One concerns a new philosophy, the beginnings of what has been called German Idealism, which had its roots in the university in Jena. (BTW, there were a couple of dozens universities at this time in Germany lands, and only two in England.) The other is about the luminaries in the Jena circle, the people who might be said to be living out, avant la lettre, the new philosophy. They were people who you might say knew God and the world. The caption on the above illustration of the luminaries comes from a New Yorker review of Wulf's book entitled “Ego Trip: The early Romantics and their troublesome legacy.”

“Flux” was the theme of my TLS review, a period in which all the old certainties were giving way. The immediate impulse for a radical change in thinking about those certainties was the French Revolution of 1789, but Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which appeared in 1781, had already prefaced the move away from traditional metaphysical explanations of God and the world. Two philosophers following in this “critical tradition” were Fichte and Schelling, both of whom are featured players in the two books. Fichte (“regarded as Immanuel Kant’s intellectual heir” per Neuman) came to the university in Jena in 1794. He was recommended for his academic position by none other than Goethe. Schelling didn’t arrive until 1798, but he was likewise Goethe’s beneficiary in receiving a position at the university.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Fichte is as impenetrable a thinker as is Kant, but what he formulated was an “idea” that would become a “reality.” According to Fichte, the “I” founds the external world. He thereby inaugurated the notion of self-consciousness, self-determination, and the self’s relationship to all the other selves in the surrounding world. Fichte was an “ideas” person, so he may not have been aware of what we now know, namely, that the growth of commerce and the rise of technology had begun already by the 19th century to free people from traditional paths of life. Men were the first not to have to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. Fichte himself, for instance, was the son of a village ribbon weaver, who through good fortune received an education that eventually led him to the university and his philosophical career. No longer bound by class identities, one's notion of one's “self” naturally changed. So it is that after two-plus centuries of material progress there are people today who envision liberation even from genetic restraints. We believe that we can be “self”-determined if we choose. It was the “starting point” from which the Jena set developed what became known as “Romanticism.”

Influenced by the new philosophy, the Schlegels and the Humboldts and others had a wide reach. August and Friedrich Schlegel published a journal, Athenaeum, which was outrightly provocative and disputatious, dedicated to freedom of thought and word. The political revolution in France may have failed, but now one had time to think about aesthetics and to practice self-determination. August Schlegel would go on to spend nearly a dozen years traveling with Madame de Stael, assisting her in the writing of her famous book Germany, which, in its English translation, disseminated the ideas of the Jena circle, in particular the concept of the “unity of humankind and nature, which was at the core of 'Romanticism.'” It would influence such writers as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. After Napoleon’s exile in 1814 and the continent began again to be peaceful, the English began their travels to Germany. Not mentioned in either book is George Eliot, who “lived openly” (another Jena refinement) as soulmate with George Lewis. They traveled to Germany together in 1854, and Lewis later produced his Life of Goethe (1875).

Napoleon before Jena, 1806, by Ernest Messonier

While reading Wulf’s account in particular, I could not help thinking of the kind of excitement of the Boomer generation (my own), which believed it had discovered the truth about the world and was wildly and excitedly transmitting it. Speech was heavily censored in the 18th and 19th centuries, because of which Fichte lost his position as professor in Jena, but free speech, the center of his philosophy, lives on. Wulf writes that Fichte did not intend for his ideas to be “a narcissistic celebration of the self.” Like the philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment and, later of “true socialism” (see my blog post on this subject), he believed that free individuals would be moral individuals and make the world better for everyone. But nothing stays the same. Strikingly, the Jena figures didn’t like free speech when it concerned criticism by others of their own work. But they welcomed the devastation of Jena in 1806, as Wulf writes, because it meant the “end of History.” Hegel asserted that Napoleon’s victories culminated in the end of “feudal system” and the emergence of democracy and universal right to freedom. So many Napoleon's since then, and we are still waiting for that great emancipation.

BTW, re the image of Goethe and Schiller walking across the Jena town square: Wulf writes that Goethe was no longer the slender youth of the writer of The Sorrows of Young Werther at the time of his visits to Jena. Indeed, he was quite corpulent, enjoying the home cooking of Christiane Vulpius. For Goethe at home in Weimar in 1799, see my review of Charles Lewinsky's hilarious novel Rauch und Schall, which appeared in a recent issue of TLS.

Image credits: History Today; History Wall Charts; Javi Aznarez;

Friday, March 29, 2024

Goethe in Copenhagen in 1932

Goethe was never actually in Copenhagen, certainly not in 1932, but it shows the extent of his reach and influence and the general knowledge of his works that a parody on his play Faust was performed in the city in 1932, and by some very smart people at that. It was the 100th anniversary of his death; this is my third post on the commemorations in that year.

Like many of my posts on this blog, the inspiration for this one comes from others, in this case from a new friend, who, learning of my work on Goethe, recommended a book he had liked: Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, written by Gino Segrè. Now that I have read the book (struggled through it: the subject is the development of quantum physics in the early 20th century) and done a little research, I see that Faust in Copenhagen was well received on its publication in 2007. It turns out that Copenhagen, through the efforts of Niels Bohr, became a center of theoretical physics in those years, drawing many British and continental physicists. From 1929 until the beginning of World War II,  an annual conference was held there. Copenhagen, it turns out, is widely used in connection with a concept called "The Copenhagen Interpretation." Which means? you might ask. According to the Wikipedia link, the term was invented by Werner Heisenberg, one of the featured players in Faust in Copenhagen, to describe the various features of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century.

Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg

Faust in Copenhagen is principally about seven leading players in the physics revolution of the early 20th century. Besides Bohr, they included Lise Meitner, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbrück, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Paul Ehrenfest, all of whom occupied the front row in the conference room in which the meetings were held. We learn of their backgrounds (several part-Jewish), their careers, their ideas, their after-careers. Meitner, the only female among these founding figures, was a major experimentalist ("one of those responsible for the discovery of the element protactinium and nuclear fission"). The 1932 conference ended with a "skit" that drew on Goethe's Faust with different physicists portraying characters from Goethe's play. Faust longed for knowledge of the workings of the universe, and made a pact with the devil, Mephistopho, to achieve it. Faust in Copenhagen portrays the search for understanding of the basic elements of matter and subtly brings out the dangers the discoveries have led to.

Already in 1932, of course, there were signs that Europe was traveling in a disturbing direction politically. The physicists at the 1932 Copenhagen conference seemed initially to have been gobsmacked less by the ominous rise of National Socialism than by an important transition in physics. In April 1932, before the  gathering, James Chadwick had published his discovery of the neutron ("the proton's neutral counterpart with the nucleus [of the atom]." The neutron, "loaded with mass" had applications that would move physics from theory to experiment, from coal and oil to the "birth of apocalyptic weapons." Thus, in hindsight, the relevance of the bargain Faust made to acquire knowledge of nature and its processes. As Segrè writes, with Chadwick's discovery "the pursuit of knowledge had uncovered a truth with implicit powers for both good and evil."

Okay, it took me three weeks of reading to be able to write the above. "Neutron" and "proton" I have heard of; I am aware that there is a "structure" to the atom. But how about neutrino ("tiny, subatomic particles, often called 'ghost particles,' because they barely react with anything else," but are at the same time "the most common particle in the universe")? That last little bit of the equation was the insight of Wolfgang Pauli.

Comments on Goethe and his play are threaded throughout this story of the work of theoretical physicists, and it is in the final chapters that Segrè devotes more attention to the skit drawn from Faust, in which the various physicists are apportioned roles. Pauli, a seemingly cantankerous character, should have been Mephisto, but he was traveling and was replaced by Leon Rosenfeld. Bohr was "the Lord." Ehrenfest performed the role of Faust. Ellen Tvede played Gretchen, representing Pauli's neutrion, and delivered the following lines to the tune of Schubert's "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel":

My Mass is zero/ My Charge is the same.
You are my hero,/ Neutrino's my name.
I am your fate/ And I'm your key.
Closed is the gate/ For lack of me.
Beta-rays throng/ With me to pair.
The N-spin's wrong/ If I'm not there.

Not all of the great physicists of the day were on board with the Copenhagen Interpretation. E.g., Schrödinger. The cartoon above, portraying him (left) and Heisenberg (right), suggests the different views of "reality." Likewise, Einstein: "I cannot seriously believe in it because the theory is incompatible with the principle that physics is to represent reality in space and time, without spookish long-distance effects." But Einstein clearly had to be incorporated into the Faust parody, and his role was derived from the scene in Auerbach's Cellar in which Mephisto amuses the drinkers with a song about a king who has a giant flee that no one is allowed to touch and which leads to the court's suffering (Faust I, 1880–87). In the Copenhagen skit, Einstein is portrayed as the king, "since his new theories are compared to fleas that torture the king's court." Part of the song Mephisto sings in Copenhagen is as follows:

Half-naked, fleas come pouring/ From Berlin's joy and pride,
Named by the unadoring:/ "Field Theories -- Unified."
 It appears that the idea for skits at the conferences was originated in 1931 by Soviet physicist George Gamow ("his theory explained the radioactive alpha particle decay of atomic nuclei"). In 1932, however, he could not leave Russia and the skit was written by Max Delbrück. The manuscript only came to light many years later, when Gamow published an English edition. The line drawings here are my photos of illustrations that appear in Faust in Copenhagen. It is to Gamow's memory that Segrè dedicated his book.

According to Segrè, the participants in the play in 1932 gathered in the Copenhagen institute's first-floor lecture hall for the performance. Three astrophysicists sitting at a lecture table in the front of the hall stood in for the three archangels in the Prologue of Goethe's Faust who "lauded the Lord for the creation of the heavens." Mephisto then appeared, "sarcastically jibing the Lord for his seriousness: "My pathos soon thy laughter would awake/ Hadst thou the laughing mood not long forsworn" (Faust, Prologue, 35–36).

Many other names in physics in the early half of the 20th century turn up in this account, as the book concerns more than the so-called Copenhagen mecca. Besides Copenhagen, young scholars in the early decades made a Grand Tour of Göttingen, Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, Zurich and Cambridge to consult and work with others in the field of theoretical physics. Enrico Fermi makes an appearance, and also Robert Oppenheimer, whose work in Europe led him to establish two institutes of theoretical physics in California, which in the 1930s "spread the doctrine of quantum mechanics' Copenhagen interpretation." All this shared work and communication among scholars led to what Segrè calls "Big Science." By 1933 it was first realized by Leo Szilard that the potential of chain reaction ("the neutron entering the nucleus to enter it and release two neutrons) would lead to the building of nuclear weapons.

I am afraid I am still unable to provide a picture of what the theory of quantum physics is all about. Maybe the above cartoon helps? I can't help wondering what Goethe would have made of all this. Heisenberg, like most of the scholars portrayed in Faust in Copenhagen, was familiar with Goethe's writings. At a 1967 meeting of the Goethe Society in Weimar he spoke about Goethe's understanding of nature, which arose first with sensory impression and observation of phenomena. Faust's journey begins with his assertion that he is tired of learning. As in many other respects, Goethe was ahead of his time in foreseeing the downside of material progress. In the final scenes of Faust Mephisto murders an aged couple (Philomen and Baucis) living on land that he wishes to clear for improvement. And he does so.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

What Goethe Saw, Anew

The previous post discussed Goethe's travels in the summer of 1774. It was still "Genius" time in 1774, but a year later things had changed, which is prefigured in the last paragraphs of Book 15 of his autobiography. His sister Cornelia had married, and he observed that his parents had their eyes on a young woman for him. At the end of the book he writes that he came upon his mother in the attic examining cradles, in one of which he had been rocked as an infant, and concludes with mysterious words concerning such "prognostics" (Vorboten) of renewed domestic activity, i.e.,  marriage. The following books of the autobiography concern the year 1775, when Goethe  became what he calls a "Bräutigam," a bridegroom. He was twenty-six, while she, Lili Schönemann, was sixteen. From all accounts (in particular the letters and poetry he wrote in that year) it was a serious love affair, if I can use that term, with all the propriety that had to be observed in the 18th century. It started in January of 1775, at an elegant party where he observed her playing the piano.

And yet the relationship was not unproblematic, and Dichtung und Wahrheit portrays the ups and downs of their attachment to one another. 1775 was an annus mirabilis  for Goethe. Not only did he fall in love, but he came into contact with Carl August, duke of Weimar, ultimately abandoning Lili and making a life-changing "career" choice. The five books of Part Four are indeed a long digression on why he did not marry. A large role is played by his decision to take time out and to travel in Switzerland. He needed time to figure things out for himself, right?

Marie zum Schnee chapel in Rigi

Although Goethe came from a socially well known family, he was bourgeois,  and also Lutheran, which most good Bürgers of Frankfurt were. He mentions frequently the difference in social registers between his family and the Schönemanns, who were a "Handelsfamilie," a prominent merchant family, who moreover were "Reformed," which was the Protestant affiliation of the Huguenots who had been chased out of France in the 17th century, many locating in German lands. Times were of course changing, people were moving up from the lower ranks to more prominent positions, but status differences remained for the most part second nature in the 18th century. Goethe was by now an attorney, with career prospects from which followed marriage and family. The Sorrows of Young Werther was the hit book of 1774, but it didn't earn enough to provide the elegance in which Lili had been raised. Besides -- and this is the larger story told in this final section of Dichtung und Wahrheit -- how would he follow his own star. Goethe was a fellow who frequently jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to jot down poems that rose up in his dreams. How would that fit in when he had a family to care for?

The first three parts of the autobiography, concerning the years of Goethe's life from his birth in 1749 until 1772, were published by 1814, but it was not until 1824 that Goethe began to plan this lengthy final part, dealing with this important year of 1775. The reason that Goethe did not write the history of the most important love experience of his life, and indeed of a turning point in his life, was because Lili Schönemann was still alive in 1814. A large part of the opening chapters of Part 4 is taken up by his jaunt to Switzerland.

 His companions on the journey from Frankfurt were the brothers Friedrich and Christian von Stolberg, a very merry pair whose extravagances in this "Genie" period are portrayed in a well-known scene in Book 20 of their skinny dipping in the rustling, refreshing streams of natural Swiss waters. The 1770s in Germany were, among a certain set of privileged young men, a kind of 1960s avant la lettre. And Goethe's Werther had inspired many of them.

On reaching Zurich, Goethe first visited his friend Lavater and was also introduced to Bodmer. I have done several blog posts on Bodmer, including this one. The man who was called a "patriarch" of German literature lived on a hill overlooking the old town, his house (left) providing a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains. (Go here for a lovely picture of the gardens of the Bodmer house and a bit more history of the house.) It was also in Zurich that Goethe met up with a Frankfurt friend who was living there, Jacob Ludwig Passavant, and abandoned the Stolbergs to undertake with him a hiking tour of Switzerland's beautiful mountains, valleys, lakes, and forests.

Einsiedeln Abbey

One of the first places they visited, following in the wake of a line of singing and praying Catholic pilgrims who were heading there, was Saint Mary's Hermitage (Marie Einsiedeln). You would not know from Goethe's description how large the hermitage is, and he does not remark at all on the magnificent Baroque interior of the church, but he does write that he was impressed with a copperplate engraving by Martin Schongauer (below) depicting the death of Mary (and which he later acquired a copy of).

They continued on what Goethe describes as a toilsome journey, often springing from ledge to ledge and climbing down steep valleys. They were filled with awe at the immense valleys and towering mountains. They climbed the Rigi, where they came upon the chapel pictured above: "Marie zum Schnee." At such heights they often found themselves in the clouds, which opened up now and then to reveal, photo-like changing scenes. They made it to Altdorf, where Tell shot the apple from his son's head.

 Reaching the pass that led south to Italy, Passavant suggested they traveled southward, but Goethe refrained. As he writes, his existence at that point still centered on Lili, and so they began their descent by the path with which they came. Goethe writes that his friend was disappointed, and for a while kept his distance,  until the sight of a glorious waterfall made them pause and admire it, which brought them back together again. See my earlier post on this important moment on the Gotthard Pass and on Goethe's later trip there with the Duke Carl August a few years later.

J.M.W. Turner, The Devil's Bridge

 Image credits: Quagga Illustrations; The Curious Historian

Thursday, February 15, 2024

What Goethe Saw

Sometimes it is necessary to lift your eyes from the written words and try to see what Goethe saw. Goethe has been characterized as an "Augenmensch." As Richie Robertson has written: "The German language distinguishes Augenmenschen (eye-people) and Ohrenmenschen (ear-people). Although Goethe appreciated music, and was a competent pianist, he was emphatically an Augenmensch. He was also from an early age familiar with painters."

So it was that, as I was rereading Book 14 of Goethe's autobiography, I checked out a couple of the places he mentions visiting on his travels in the summer of 1774. It was a lively summer for him. Although his legal studies were behind him and he was now "Doktor Goethe" and occupied with legal work with his father, he made a Rhine-Lahn journey with Lavater and Basedow and also made the acquaintance that summer with Friedrich Jacobi. Lavater and Jacobi in particular were important influences on him

The illustration at the top of the post is of Bad Ems, which is currently "one of the most popular spas in Europe" (so Google) and was also quite popular in Goethe's time. I tried to find an image that showed it as it might have looked before trains drew people there. The other three images here include a painting of the Jabach family, a contemporary image of Bensberg Castle as Goethe might have approached it, and a painting by Jan Weenix of which Goethe wrote very enthusiastically in Book 14.

What Goethe saw in Cologne was the actual Jabach family house, as it was ca. 1695, which Charles Lebrun had painted ca. 1661 (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art). As Goethe wrote: "Man führte mich in Jabachs Wohnung, wo mir das, was ich sonst nur innerlich zu bilden pflegte, wirklich und sinnlich entgegentrat. Diese Familie mochte längst ausgestorben sein, aber in dem Untergeschoß ... fanden wir nichts verändert." (I was led into the Jabach home, where I was confronted with the real and the sensuous, things that formerly I had only imagined. This family may have long since died out, but we found nothing changed in the lower floor.) More details on this visit to Cologne and on Jabach can be found in an earlier post of mine.

It was in Bensberg Castle that Goethe saw and praised the skill of the painter Jan Weenix, who made a reputation with scenes of animals "after the hunt." Goethe was impressed by the talent by which Weenix was able "jene entlebten Geschopfe zu beleben ..." (to revivify those dead creatures).

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Goethe Year 1932 in Argentina

As I wrote in my previous post, 1932 marked the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s death, with commemorations organized worldwide. Another such commemoration has been documented by my Goethe Society colleague, Robert Kelz, in an article in volume 29 of the Goethe Yearbook. Professor Kelz has also documented the 1949 festivities in Buenos Aires in volume 28. Both occasions were darkened, of course, by National Socialism and by the German losses in two world wars. Besides being full of details unfamiliar to most of us in the English-speaking world, the articles also show the intercultural connections between South America and Europe, as well as the cultural reach of Goethe and his works.

I was of course aware that many German Nazis had fled to South American countries after the World War II. Who could forget the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad in 1960? But before that, since the 19th century, Germans had a history of settlement in Argentina.

As I have learned from a book mentioned by Professor Kelz in his bibliography, German Buenos Aires, 1900–1933: Social Change and Cultural Crisis, by Ronald C. Newton, there was a flow of Western European immigrants to Argentina in the 19th century, primarily Italians, but French, English, and Germans also left the Old World behind and started new lives. This was also the case of immigration to the U.S. But not quite. A major difference was that the U.S. was a land that swallowed up the ethnic and national identities of emigres and then turned them into “Americans.” Not so, it turns out, Argentina.

Argentina in the 19th century was tied to overseas trade, with Buenos Aires funneling “the bulk of the Pampa’s foodstuffs and fibers in one direction, and of Europe’s manufactures, capital, technology, and surplus labor power in the other” (Newton). Those emigrés who stood atop the social hierarchy in Buenos Aires, the money people (bankers, traders, manufacturers), formed communal associations familiar from their homelands. There were German schools and hospitals and aid societies, and German scientists seems to have played a big role in academic life in Argentina. (I also learned that Chile benefited from German military training.) The Germans were more or less part of a cosmopolitan culture that existed in Buenos Aires, in particular, among other Western European emigrés, but they still felt themselves “German.”

Esteban Echeverría
Professor Kelz writes that “the organized study of German literature” had begun already in 1847, five years after Goethe’s death with the establishment of the Salon Literaria in Buenos Aires. A leading figure in the salon was the author Esteban Echeverría, who wrote a novel inspired by The Sorrows of Young Werther. Echeverría was a Romantic poet in a true sense, and since the salon’s meetings included discussion of democratic politics, it was banned in short order by the government. By the 1920s, German literature was established as an academic subject at the University of Buenos Aires, but Goethe always figured as a major figure among literati and intellectuals. Some of the writers mentioned by Kelz include the Mexican writer and philosopher Alfonso Reyes, who served as diplomat in Argentina from 1927 to 1930 and again in 1936–37 and who later wrote a book on Goethe entitled Path to Goethe. A book by Ardoino Martini, The Personality of Goethe, appearing in 1933, “asserted that Goethe proved the existence of a universal culture counter to dogmatic ideology in art, religion, and politics.” In the background of this interwar period was clearly the wish for avoiding the threats that were soon to disturb the world.

What follows highlights some of the activities described in Professor Kelz’s article on the 1932 Goethe Year, entitled “Fleeting Hopes in Foreboding Times.” The commemorations included such festivities as a series of talks by the leading German Romantic scholar Karl Vossler, sponsored by the German Foreign Office, in which Vossler  spoke of “Goethe’s spiritual and intellectual connection to the Latin world.” There was an exhibit of editions and translations of Goethe’s works, of which, by that year, over 150 translations existed in Spanish. Magazines and newspapers featured articles by eminent German scholars on Goethe, for instance, Julius Petersen. The celebrations were rounded off by a gala sponsored by the Argentine-German Cultural Institute, whose honorary chairman was the authoritarian, antidemocratic Argentine president Augustín Justo.

As in all the activities during this year of celebration, there were “disparate political agendas” on view. At the gala, the president of the AGCI gave what Kelz calls a “blatantly nationalistic, fascist speech,” saying that “Goethe’s fame was Germany’s glory”; now a universal figure he had nevertheless emerged from “a specific nationality.” Vossler’s own speech was a rebuttal, in which he asserted that Goethe was defined by “an absence of strong patriotic feeling” (Ausbleiben starker patriotischer Empfindungen). This “inclusive, intercultural event,” as Kelz calls it, was  thus “a volatile mixing zone for disparate political agendas,” which presaged the coming conflicts “in Europe and South America alike.”

By the 1949 Goethe Year, lots of Nazis had fled to South America, including Adolf Eichmann, who arrived in Argentina in 1950. 

Image credits: Martin Kramer;

Monday, December 4, 2023

Goethe as a "True" Socialist

A “true” socialist, I have learned, is a humanist. And a humanist, per 19th-century German socialist writer Karl Grün, was Goethe. Or so he tried to make Goethe out to be in a biography that appeared in 1846 entitled Über Goethe vom menschlichen Standpunkte (On Goethe from the Human Standpoint). Friedrich Engels took umbrage at this portrait and critiqued it in five installments in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. (It turns out that a lot of German communists were holing up in Brussels in that year.)

As I have mentioned in several posts, Goethe appears in the most varied contexts, and so it was that I came across just last week something of interest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, besides the mammoth Manet/Degas exhibition, is also hosting a smaller exhibition entitled “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s.” Among the exhibits was a display of copies of the journal New Masses, including the September 1932 issue, with “Engels on Goethe” featured on the cover. Engels was no longer around in 1932, but 1932 being the year of celebration of Goethe’s centenary (“in Russia as well as in Germany, and by the working class as well as by intellectuals”), New Masses offered excerpts from the 1847 critique.

I managed to download the New Masses piece, but as with many subjects that catch my interest and seem appropriate for a blog post, I found it necessary to plunge into research. In order not to make this piece longer than necessary, let me introduce the authorities that I have made use of. These include, besides the excerpt from Engels in New Masses, two scholarly articles, both of which appeared in a journal entitled Science and Society. The first, by Auguste Cornu on German utopianism, of which “true” socialism was a part, appeared in 1948 (vol. 12, no. 1); the second is by Renate Bridenthal, which appeared in 1971 (vol. 35, no. 1), and has Grün as its subject. Had I not read the two scholarly articles, I would have been in the dark about the subject of “true” socialism, which seems to have been the name by which the movement went. Truth is an ideal category, after all, which reflects the idealistic character of the movement. It reflects the world of human thought.

True socialism was a phenomenon in Germany among Hegel-influenced intellectuals, at a time when the communist movement had not yet become revolutionary in the sense of being proletariat-based, in favor of abolishing private property and substituting common ownership, and acknowledging that only a violent, democratic revolution was the means of accomplishing these goals. True socialists like Grün were not revolutionaries in that sense. Although Grün used the word revolution freely, he meant a revolution in thought. For him, the goal of history was “the achievement of human self-consciousness,” and the real battleground was the mind. Thus, the need for education, which “could bring out the true nature of man and fulfill its potential.” As Bridenthal writes: “The idea that political, economic, and social institutions could be forcibly overthrown and a free society established before humanity as a whole had achieved consciousness was flatly contradictory to his metaphysical conception of history.”

What bothered Engels in particular about Grün’s biography was its attempt to champion Goethe as the first humanist in the “true” socialist sense. Since I don't have Grün’s book, I am relying on Bridenthal for his claim that Goethe “had recognized recognized 'true' human nature, socialist man, and had portrayed man’s historic struggle to achieve existence in his writings. Goethe's notorious lack of interest in the politics of his day resulted from his having seen beyond what these politics hoped to accomplish and his impatience with their limited goals. He had fought out the conflicts of humanity within himself and had achieved inner peace.” Further, “Grün saw in Goethe's works the chronicles of his inner battle and of human history in its striving for self-consciousness. He had been a hundred years ahead of his time.”

Engels was having none of this and ridiculed Grün: 

“Herr Grün lifts him onto his untiring shoulders and carries him through the mud; in fact, he charges all the mud to the account of true socialism, just to keep Goethe's boots clean.”

Here is Engels’ judgment on Goethe in the New Masses

“It is not only single sides of German life that Goethe accepts, as opposed to others that are repugnant to him. More commonly it is the various moods in which he find himself; it is the persistent struggle in himself between the poet of genius, disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings, and the Frankfurt alderman’s cautious child, the privy-counselor of Weimar, who sees himself forced to make a truce with it and to get used to it. Thus Goethe is now colossal, now petty; now a defiant, ironical, world-scorching genius, now a calculating, complacent, narrow philistine. Even Goethe was unable to overcome the wretchedness of German life; on the contrary, it overcame him, and this victory over the greatest German is the best proof that it cannot be conquered by the individual.”

As the New Masses editor writes, Engels’ chief point was that “even so great a genius as Goethe could not overcome the weakness of his class, and that the artist, as artist, was affected by his compromise with bourgeois society.”

Bridenthal cites the full critique by Engels in her bibliography, although anyone interested in interpretations of Goethe’s political thought might also want to look at the shorter version in New Masses.

Since I have worked on utopian themes myself, I found Cornu’s article very illuminating. For instance, “Feuerbach's critique of idealism and Hess' critique of alienation as the basic phenomenon of society were the starting point of Engels' and Marx's evolution from idealism to historical and dialectical materialism, and from liberalism to communism.” Marx and Engels were liberated, so to speak, from idealism by their stays in “the most advanced capitalist countries,” where they “attained a new conception of historical development and communism.” Hess and Feuerbach were still expressing the social and economic situation of “backward Germany.” Interestingly, according to Cornu, it was the revolt of the Silesian weavers in 1844 that occasioned the "true" socialism movement and also led to a vast bourgeois philanthropic current — which Marx and Engels would call “liberalism.” While Grün is practically unknown today, Bridenthal remarks that the section on “true” socialism in the Communist Manifesto was aimed primarily at him (according to Engels’ notes of 1890 to that document), while the bulk of Part 3 of The German Ideology also contains of a critical analysis of Grün’s book Soziale Bewegung in Frankreich und Belgien, written in 1846.

Briedenthal also has a interesting take on Grün going forward. As she writes, the ethos of his brand of socialism “may have a familiar ring to us today.” She introduces three popular figures of the 1960s and 1970s, whose whole way of thinking was like Grün’s: “he felt the pain of capital accumulation, not its historical mission; he saw misery, but not class formation and class struggle."

The first figure is Paul Goodman, whose vision for a “modernized anarchism” was purely aesthetic, one of life style. The second is Herbert Marcuse, who, like Goodman, found “the highest form of human expression to be aesthetic: the play impulse could replace the impulse to dominate in shaping the world. Under liberated conditions, work itself becomes invested with eroticism and provides instinctual gratification.”

The last is Charles Reich, working in “the optimistic, success-oriented American tradition” in his best- seller The Greening of America. Appropriately, she calls his vision “the Grüning of America”: “Once again we hear that personal institutions hold us spellbound, that there are no classes, only generations, in opposition to one another, that a consumer revolution is all that is necessary, that an emotionally and intellectually satisfying life is only a thought or two away.” You have to love it.

Image credits: All Riot