|Francis Daniel Pastorius|
There is current among literary scholars to interpret earlier writers in terms of what their writings telegraph, so to speak, about current preoccupations. This current of scholarship “reads forward.” If we go back to the 18th century, we will of course discover that some writers shared certain modern preoccupations, for instance, concerning colonialism, racism, imperialism, feminism, and so on. But even when we find that an earlier writer was an outspoken opponent of slavery, it usually turns out that the writer came to the subject from a different perspective. For instance, the majority of abolitionists were deeply religious people and did not necessarily share such modern values as equality, a value that has been legally institutionalized in the West. The idea of such civil rights were in nuce back in the 18th century, and codifying them has simply “naturalized” them. That is fine, but in the process we tend to imagine that we are smarter than our forefathers and foremothers.
For myself, I do look for ways in which Goethe telegraphs “modernity,” but whenever I look at portraits (such as those in those in the previous post) of men from the Republic of Letters (and they were for the most part men), from law, religion, philosophy, natural science, and literature, I cannot but feel the difference of the world in which Goethe came of age and wrote his most important works. Still, the late 18th century was an age of transition, from traditional ways of living and organizing life, handed down over generations, to what Goethe himself characterized (in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) as the “veloziferic” era.
My desire is to ferret out what Goethe knew from living in the world in which he lived. All the annotations that Strack notes of Goethe’s indebtedness to precursors is simply the way that earlier poets acknowledged their legitimacy within an evolving tradition. It strikes me that Goethe’s “Ephemerides,” discussed in the previous post, is an early attempt at a commonplace book, in which he would compile matters of intellectual and literary interest.
Commonplace books are the subject of a chapter in a new book (recently reviewed in the London Review of Books) by Anthony Grafton entitled Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe. It is a series of portraits of scholars from the 16th to the 18th century who sought to compile and transmit the centuries of knowledge written down in medieval manuscripts. This knowledge of the past, as the reviewer writes, “was gained only through hard graft and expertise.” One learns that these scholars created special equipment for the backbreaking, hand-wrenching work: rotating bookwheels for unwieldy large medieval volumes, along with spinning chairs and hooks on which to hang thousands of piece of paper on which they wrote notes.
All this knowledge, excerpted on slips of paper, was organized into categories and written down in commonplace books. One of Grafton’s portraits of these “treasure seekers” was Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651–1720), whose commonplace books contained “not only excerpts from ancient texts but also jokes, stories, reflections, recipes …” It strikes me that Goethe’s “Ephemerides” is an early attempt at a commonplace book, in which he would compile matters of intellectual and literary interest. In fact, there are some jokes in the Ephemerides, including this one: Altum petit ut crepitus in balneo redditus. According to the commentary in Der junge Goethe, this was “ein derber, im 16. Jh. verbreiteter Witz.” Google Translate offers little enlightenment on the punchline. As Grafton writes of such witticisms: “You had to be there.”
However much Goethe criticized old-fashioned scholars — there are entries in the Ephemerides on this subject — reading itself remained for him what Grafton writes of Pastorius, “a deeply serious enterprise.” All of what he read became part of the identity he crafted for himself, which was founded in his polyglot reading and writing. In the Ephemerides he appears simply to be hunting and gathering, so to speak, which would eventually add up to a larger body of work. I am going out on a limb here, because the Maximen and Reflexonen, for instance, is not my area of expertise, but it strikes me that Goethe must have been storing up these apercus for years. He would later have the assistance of a number of secretaries in categorizing them. Someone reading this blog might fill me in on this aspect, which I will then pass on here.
|Mephisto and Student by Julius Oldach|
Pastorius was of course the founder of Germantown in Pennsylvania. As Wikipedia puts it: “ein deutscher Jurist. Er begründete die Deutsche Überseewanderung und war der einzige deutsche Schriftsteller des Barock in Amerika.” He came from a learned family. According to Grafton, his father, the jurist Melchior Adam Pastorius, was "a compiler on the grand scale and a versifier almost as obsessive as his son. In 1657 he issued a massive study of the election and coronation of the Holy Roman emperors.” His son, who had begun his studies in Altorf, wrote of the tedium of the traditional forms of learning at the university, criticizing the professors who pursued erudition for its own sake, which echoes Goethe’s own complaints about his studies in Leipzig: “Many professors waste their time on useless questions and clever trifling tricks, and while they detail the minds of the learners on empty questions they prevent them from aspiring to more solid matters.” Though learned himself, Pastorius wished to use “the records of the past to challenge what he saw as a sterile orthodoxy in his own day.” And to put it to practical effect, as, for instance, in his opposition to slavery, which existed even among the Quakers in Pennsylvania. He compared Christian slavers to the Turks who enslaved Christians. With several other Germantown founders, he drafted in 1688 the first protest against slavery in America. Of note about Pastorius, is the lack of that head attire that distinguished the learned in the early 18th century. Unfortunately there seem to be no contemporary paintings of him, but we can take it from the drawing at the top of this post that he became a frontiersman.
I could go on — and will later do so — as I seek to uncover the influences that made Goethe into "Goethe."