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

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Goethe is everywhere

I am currently involved in de-cluttering my apartment. Many of you know the feeling: too many books! A book dealer came over and took fifty off of my hands, but I am putting many out on my stoop to allow neighbors to pick through. Many of these belonged to my late husband, who taught physics and whose books are on scientific subjects. Before consigning them to the garbage, I check the index to see if Goethe is mentioned. Actually, this is something I always do when I look at unfamiliar books, whether they be on history, science, philosophy, art.  It's amazing the places Goethe turns up. Anyway, today, it was the case with a book entitled Man on His Nature by Charles Sherrington, a British neurophysiologist who won the Novel Prize in 1932. If I have this right, for the most brilliant minds, Goethe was a known known.

Two of the references in Sherrington concern Goethe's interest in "natural philosophy," a world view that was not mechanistic (as in Descartes), but a dynamic, organic one. Sherrington writes of those in Goethe's time who imaged "certain ideal types toward which vast groups of individuals were, it was argued, striving, unconsciously on their part, as an aim of Nature. There was, so to say, a 'Universal' toward which the individual was an endeavour, an attempt. There was an imagined archetypal flowering plant. There was an archetypal vertebrate. The view intrigued Goethe and he contributed to it."

The second passage is similar. In it Sherrington discusses Aristotle who "possessed for his era an encyclopedic acquaintance with animal form, and drew from it profound and far-reaching inferences regarding nature." Aristotle divided form from its material manifestation. There are concrete, material things -- clothes, clouds, stones -- which are perennial, but underlying each manifestation was a prototype. This notion of prototype underlay, as Sherrington writes, "so-called Nature-philosophy which included, among its naturalists, Goethe."

Naturphilosophie is a subject I have shied away from in connection with Goethe. Make that a known unknown for me.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Goethe and the oral tradition of literature

Brad Pitt as Achilles

In the previous post, concerning the pastoral genre, I sought to convey how much Goethe drew on traditional poetic genres in his poetry and dramas, but which he "modified" in such a way as to create something new poetically. I have recently come across an illuminating account of the epic poetic transmission that throws light on Goethe's innovations. For instance, he wrote Hermann und Dorothea at the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, which, like the tales of the Trojan war in the Iliad, were a pretty brutal period in history. No one in the 1790s in Europe, however, wrote epic poems in the style of the Iliad about Napoleon's conquests. Novels, yes (War and Peace?), but the epic was passé as a genre. Hermann und Dorothea has been called an "epic poem," but there are no heroes in it, although Dorothea, among the refugees, can be called courageous. Hermann und Dorothea is more properly an idyll, in nine cantos of hexameters. So, Goethe has taken a traditional genre, epic, and a traditional theme, war, and come up with something new.

The account I mentioned is entitled The Mortal Hero, an introduction to Homer's Iliad by Seth Schein, who was a professor of mine in a comp lit class in graduate school. The "overwhelming fact for the heroes of the Iliad" is their mortality, unlike the immortal gods, as Seth Schein remarks in chapter 1. We have learned from studies of history that the ancient world was a battle-filled one, and tales of heroes and of mortality were evidently a "popular" subject of oral literature. The Iliad itself is the "end product of a poetic tradition that may have been as much as a thousand years old by the time the epic was composed," ca. the 8th century B.C. Lesser and greater singers gave expression to the Trojan War, representative of wars of the Late Bronze Age. And the memory of the events of the heroic age was kept alive by these singers, re-imagining the events, re-telling them over and over, and, as an aid to memory, using formulas of scenes, episodes, words, phrases, and so on. Homer's epics were the end products, so to speak, of this tradition, but also "equally the first in Greek literature," i.e. in writing.

Do these guys look like heroes?

When Goethe came of age there was also a strict classification of literary genres, inherited from the Greeks and Romans, each of which had its own subject matter and its own linguistic formulas. In an essay I published in 1996 in the Goethe Yearbook, I wrote about Goethe's five-act play Clavigo. Shakespeare, whose plays young Goethe was enthusiastic about, worked with a five-act structure in his tragedies. And a tragedy, according to Aristotle in the Poetics, is a genre about a noble hero who goes from good to bad fortune. Goethe imitated this pattern in Clavigo: ein Trauerspiel, but the problem is that Clavigo himself was not a heroic individual. He was a courtier who, in order to rise at court at the king of Spain, reneged on a promise to marry the sister of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. It's a very bourgeois situation. As I wrote in my an essay, however, the play received a certain "existential weight" by this generic contamination:  the introduction into a classicist play of a non-heroic (i.e., bourgeois) character literally altered the character’s self-conception.

Picture credits: Warner Bros.; New York Public Digital Library

Monday, September 18, 2023

Goethe in Love

I am back in New York City after three months on a small island adjacent to Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island. As I wrote in earlier posts, my intention was to read as much of "young Goethe" as possible this summer, and I managed it. Today's brief post is simply to note a few things that were on my mind as I flew high in the sky from Vancouver to New York.

Goethe grew up in a time when it was understood that poets imitated other poets, especially earlier ones. Whether writing about love or despair or whatever the emotion, poets employed the conventions of existing poetic forms and genres. Besides love and grief and so on, poets also wrote about events in the world, but these too were clothed in certain poetic conventions. An example from painters might make this clearer. Take Spanish painters of the golden age. Some are esteemed as "better" or "greater," but all of them painted the same subjects: e.g., the Crucifixion, the Nativity, shepherds, kings and queens, battles. Did Murillo, Zurbaran, Velasquez keep diaries? It's difficult to know what the painters' feelings were concerning the subjects of their work. So, too, the poets and dramatists in the period right before Goethe came of age. When they wrote about shepherds in love, did they also feel in love? Probably not. Did they even know any shepherds?

Goethe's earliest poetry collection has shepherds. In other words, he drew on this long-standing poetic genre. But he also used conventional forms to write of something personal. Goethe did not keep a diary in the way of famous personalities, but, unlike the private lives of earlier writers, we know a lot about his life, and he mediated his experience of jealousy in Die Laune des Verliebten, from 1767–68. It is a pastoral play, one of the most conventional genres of the mid-18th century, in which two shepherd couples learn some lessons in love. He wrote many letters at this time of writing this play, some of which are preserved, and several of which portray his youthful ardor for a young woman, an innkeeper's daughter, with whom a young man of his standing would not likely marry. The play details the curing of a jealous shepherd. The letters he wrote at the time document the bitter jealousy to which he was reduced in regard to this girl, to whom his earliest collection of poetry was addressed: Annette. The manuscript image at the top of this post is the poem "Die Liebhaber" (The Lovers) from that collection.

Photo credit: Charlotte Zilm

Thursday, August 31, 2023

"Stories of Love and Eros"

No, Goethe fans, this post will not be about Goethe's love life, although there is much to be said in that connection. As mentioned in an earlier post I have been reading this summer, among other writings, Goethe's Roman Elegies, and at some date I will do a post on the subject. In a few days I will be leaving this island on which I have spent the summer. This will be the last post before I am back in New York in early September. For this post, something new.

 Many of you know that I have published fiction in the past, including in my relative youth, two mystery novels. Over the years I have written a number of short stories on the above-titled theme, for which I am hoping to find an agent and publisher. Two of the stories have recently appeared as an eBook. For those interested in purchasing it, here is the Amazon link.

And now a description of the two stories:

Love and eros know no bounds, especially for Ching-mei and Laura, two women living in very different times and places.

“The Treasure of the Poet” tells of eroticism and creativity on the eve of the Mongol invasion of China in the 13th century. Ching-mei, who aspires to be a great calligrapher, has had the misfortune of dying too early in a previous life. Is her fortune about to change on meeting the poet Li, whose own dream is to travel to the City of Flowers, one dedicated to the highest ideals of art and poetry and music?

“The Perfect Lover” takes place on Axel Isle, a planet known for its beautiful women, especially the Companions, who are created for men according to their own specifications. So, too, Laura, who appears one day in the life of William Babilot. William discovers in Laura the perfect lover, but the poetry she writes presents complications on one of the best functioning planets in the universe

Monday, August 28, 2023

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

Yes, August 29 has rolled around again. And, again, another mention on this blog of Goethe's birthday. This year, however, it struck me that Goethe was a Virgo. And yesterday was the annual Virgo Party on this small island. Above some of the Virgos present, including myself, along with a few friends. The party, held at the end of August or beginning of September, marks the end of my stay out here, as I will be heading back to New York within the next couple of weeks. Above a photo of yesterday's party-goers, taken at Bere Point. As always, click to enlarge.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Goethe and plants

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I planned this summer to concentrate on Goethe’s pre-Weimar writings, having brought with me Karl Eibl’s two-volume edition of Der junge Goethe. (The five-volume Fischer-Lamberg edition was too much to carry.) But as often happens when following up one thing on Goethe, I become diverted. In any case, I never thought I would be making my way this summer through Goethe’s writings on the metamorphosis of plants. It was in particular the poem “Metamorphose der Pflanzen” from 1779 (nice translation here) that interested me initially because of the use of the diptych poetic form. And that was only because of a review I was writing of a translation by John Greening of several poems by Goethe that includes stanzas from the Roman Elegies. (See previous post.) So I led myself through a tutorial, so to speak, on the diptych, “the segmented structure of two lines and caesuras” (this is from Karen Schuler’s article on the form in the Goethe-Lexikon of Philosophical Concepts). Which led me to look at the MM poem, likewise written in that meter. Well, it was not as easy a read as the Roman Elegies, not by a long shot.

Lamb's quarters

Anyway, during this my annual summer visit to an island in the Northwest Pacific, with the beach right before my windows, I like to walk on the rocky shore when the tide is out. In connection with Goethe’s writings on plants, I turned my attention to studying the seaweed, which flourishes in what is called the intertidal zone. Goethe of course does not consider seaweed in his study of the development of plants, although he does mention underwater plants (“water buttercups”) in paragraph 24 of his metamorphosis essay. My Goethe Society colleague Heather Sullivan has written an article on this essay by Goethe, which appeared in the Goethe Yearbook in 2019. I was intrigued by her use of the term "Pflanzen-Ozean" (plant ocean) in connection with Goethe's vision of the earth as a vast landscape of green life.

Fortunately, the small museum in this small town offers for sale a pamphlet entitled A Field Guide to Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest by Dr. Bridgette Clarkson, which inaugurated my enlightenment concerning seaweed. Unlike the plants that Goethe describes, seaweed has no roots, flowers, or seeds. It does have a form of rootedness, which in the language of seaweed is called “holdfast.”

Sea lettuce
There are also three varieties: green, brown, red. Being a totally urban person, I will not risk trying to sound like I know anything more. The identifications on the images here were supplied by a friend who grew up in this part of the world. Annie has generously sent me the descriptions, which appear at the end of this post. As she mentions, there have been many changes in the nomenclature (the scientific names) that have likely occurred since she worked in the field. In contrast, as she says of the common names here, they are "a little more flexible and forgiving." Thanks, Annie! As always, click on the photos for a larger view.


Lamb’s quarters is a terrestrial plant you would have found in the upper tidal zone, generally just above the high tide line

Rockweed,  sometimes called bladder wrack. There are different varieties of rockweed — some with shorter and rounder bulbs and some more like this one, with sharper, longer bulbs. These bulbs are filled with carbon dioxide, which keeps the plant floating and closer to the sun — helps with photosynthesis!

Surfgrass (as opposed to eelgrass) is a terrestrial plant with roots — transitional, as it is found in a marine environment. It has a narrower blade than eelgrass and is likely attached to a rock and not embedded in sand. (Won't venture to identify the red seaweed that is around the surfgrass. Might be Cryptosiphonia or Prionitis, but I can't really tell)

Sea lettuce is  often found in the mid tidal zone. It is quite edible when cleaned and dried.

The two bottom ones are of bull kelp, likely washed up in the big northwesterly blows we've had these past few days. The top photo of the two shows the stipe and fronds, while the bottom one, as best I can tell from the photo, shows a closeup of the fronds. The off-color areas in the middle of the fronds contain reproductive spores that will disperse in the water and float around as phytoplankton before settling to the bottom and growing into new plants in the spring.