Friday, February 27, 2009

Capitalism Works!

It was one of those mild winter days in New York, and Rick and I biked uptown yesterday to the George Washington Bridge, stopping at the "Little Red Lighthouse." The lighthouse has always been a beckoning sight in summer when I was out on the river kayaking, so I was happy to get up close.

Rick is constitutionally unable to pass a supermarket or a greengrocer without stopping, and Fairway, ("like no other market") at 125th on the river, operates like a magnet on him. "There's no room in the refrigerator or freezer," I said. "We only needed tea and cream," he countered. We parked our bikes outside, just across from this outdoor display.

Fairway is huge, though not like the supermarkets I grew up with in the heartland. Saturday afternoon shopping at Fairway is torture, with people descending from near and far to shop, and the narrow aisles clogged with shopping carts. Mid-afternoon on Thursday it almost seems empty. Fairway uptown has an ingenious way of keeping cold all the products that require refrigeration. In place of freezers, there is a large "cold room," and everything from cold cuts to milk and orange juice are simply displayed on wire racks.

As soon as I enter the cold room I am always taken aback not only at the sheer abundance of the displays but also at the variety, the "choice." I used to say to Rick whenever we went into the cold room, "Whatever were they thinking back in the Soviet Union?" Meaning, why did the communist bureaucrats ever think they could produce such variety with their five-year plans?

I work at home, so it is seldom that I am outdoors early in the morning, but there was a time when I taught early and had to be on the road before it was light. What always struck me back then were the numbers of people who were already up and working, the bus drivers and transit workers of course but, for the most part, small-store owners and employees. The Koreans and Guatemalans at the greengrocery, the Arabs at the bodegas and newsstands, and plenty of other Americans at the dry cleaners and the bakeries. They were up and working because people like me wanted to have their coffee and bagels and newspaper, drop off their shoes for repair, buy their lotto tickets, and so on. Plumbers were starting their rounds. When at about 9 or so the really big stores open and the "government" offices began their operations, many, many Americans had been long at work. In fact, manual laborers had been working so many hours already that they were having their morning break at a diner. At Fairway, they had never stopped working. There were all those boxes of good from all over the world that had to be unloaded so that we would have our choice of olives or bottled water.

All this is a preface to the current problems with the economy. Yesterday when we entered the cold room of Fairway I said to Rick, "Does President Obama have any idea how all these things get on the shelves?" I suspect he does not, for the simple reason that he has never had the kinds of jobs that employ most Americans. He has never stocked a shelf, filled an order, made a payroll. Ross Perot made a comment about Bill Clinton when he was running for president; he said the Arkansas governor should spend six months running a candy store. In other words, in order to learn how money is made -- not how to spend it. As one who has grown up with the Boomer generation, I know well that our tendency is to spend and that we have lost sight of how the many choices we enjoy are produced.

By the way, we did not stop with tea and cream; we got out of Fairway after spending $42.00. That's how the economy works.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Goethe's report of the Roman Carnival festivities (Das Römische Carneval) ends with a section entitled "Ash Wednesday," a meditation ("Betrachtung") on the events he had witnessed in Rome in 1787 and 1788: "Since life, like the Roman Carnival as a whole is ungraspable, unenjoyable, even questionable [unübersehlich, ungenießbar, ja bedenklich], we wish that each [reader] be reminded of the importance of every momentary, often even seemingly insignificant enjoyment that life offers." Goethe was not referring to the religious significance of the Lenten and Easter mysteries ushered in by Carnival. As usual, Goethe brackets that out.

He wasn't comfortable with the bacchanalia or the chaos, much of which played out on the Corso, directly below the windows of Casa Moscatelli, the quarters he shared with Tischbein and two German artists. In Italian Journey (February 20, 1787), he writes: "One has to have seen the Carnival in Rome, in order fully to rid oneself of the wish to see it again." Friederike Brun, writing in Roman Diary (1801), was also unnerved by the crowds on the Corso. Unlike modern tourists, neither she nor Goethe had gone to Rome to get to know Italians or Italian life.

It was during the second Carnival, in 1788, that Goethe began to see the artistic possibilities of the event. Thus, he writes (Bericht, February 1788) that he became reconciled to the turmoil (Getümmel) and looked on it as "another meaningful product of nature and a national event; it was in this sense that I became interested in it, noticed accurately the course of foolishness (Torheiten) and the way in which it all followed a certain form and appropriateness." He thus made notes of the individual events in the order in which they took place, which he then made use of when he wrote what he calls "the essay" that was published by Bertuch in Weimar in 1789 as Das Römische Carneval. The colored drawings in the first edition (of 250 copies) were by Johann Georg Schütz, a Frankfurt artist who also lived in the same house with Goethe and Tischbein.

I have a reprint of the edition with Schütz's beautiful drawings (as in the illustration at the top), which I always like looking at, but the text itself is cold and distant, representing a series of tableaux. Nicholas Boyle has written that, within "this exquisite physical framework," Goethe makes no attempt "to incorporate an account of normal Roman life: the subject is exclusively the saturnalian behaviour of the masked and costumed citizenry and the brief culmination of the day's excitement in the horse-race down the Corso. ... The narrator himself has no individual part in the events, except as a typical and anonymous body in the throng: he merely observes this world and reports it for an alien audience to whom everything he says is strange."

Goethe does not do tourist reporting. Instead, he dutifully forced his way through the masked crowd, which, "despite all artistic intent often makes a repulsive, frightening impression" (welche denn trotz aller künstlerischen Ansicht oft einen widerwärtigen unheimlichen Eindruck machte). The reason for this alienation has everything to do with why Goethe was in Rome in the first place: not to experience the contemporary life of the city but rather the ancient world as it could be disinterred from the ruins. Thus, "the spirit," accustomed to the worthy objects with which one had occupied oneself the entire year in Rome, seemed to become once more aware that he was not really at home  (Der Geist, an die würdigen Gegenstände gewöhnt, mit denen man das ganze Jahr in Rom sich beschäftigte, schien immer einmal gewahr zu werden, daß er nicht recht an seinem Platze sei).

This reaction reveals again the gap between 21st-century expectations about travel and those of Goethe's time. The 18th-century reactions to mountains offers a comparable difference. Indeed, in the 17th century already, writers can be seen attempting to come to terms with what were considered frightful natural phenomena. Here is the reaction of the English critic John Dennis (1657-1734), for instance, at seeing the Alps of Switzerland: "We walk'd upon the very brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction. One Stumble and both Life and Carcass had been at once destroy'd. ... The sense of all this produc'd different emotions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas'd, I trembled." Dennis's reaction is an instance of what 18th-century writers described as an encounter with "the Sublime." Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, Kant, Herder, Moses Mendelssohn, and Schiller are a few of the writers who addressed this phenomenon.

By now, of course, mountains have become tamed, even for mountain climbers, lost any sense they might have had of sacredness or terror. In the same way, the Carneval, which once marked the beginning of a period of mystery, both in pre-Christian and Christian life. The image of the running of the horses on the Corso (courtesy of Goethezeitportal) in an advertisement for Liebig "meat extract," from 1897, exemplifies the way the once-sacred was increasingly familiarized.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Give me glamour!

Okay, I did not watch the Academy Awards this year. We don't have a TV, but I had planned to watch with my neighbor. Hugh Jackman was hosting, and that was a reason to tune in. He is a real star, and I liked my stars to be glamorous and not mouthpieces for political causes. Whenever a star tears away the veil between them and us and let us see how their mind works, it is generally not a pretty picture. Please, stars, stay beautiful and distant.

I grew up in white bread America. The Oscars and the Miss America pageant were the height of all that was glamorous for me. My favorite actress was Esther Williams. I was delighted to discover that "Mare Radio" (of Radio Bremen), in a series on beauty, devoted a recent podcast to her ("die badende Venus"). When I got older, I moved on to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In recent years, I have practically stopped watching new movies. Whenever I read the capsule reviews in the newspapers, the movies promise dysfunction, depression, crime -- unpleasantness. Come on! Entertainment is about escape. Remember: "Spieltrieb!"

I saw Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman last December in Australia. What an epic: "Gone with the Wind Down Under." Kidman has always seemed very brittle to me, but her brittleness paid off in the movie, and Jackman was just incredibly dishy. It was Hugh that made me decide to watch the Oscars this year, but we ended up going to Connecticut instead for dinner with friends. Just conversation and good food and drink. Rick was happy to get out of the kitchen for the evening.

This morning I went through the various sites with pictures of the Oscar festivities. Herewith my Oscar choices. You can match up my awards with the pictures: Coolest Male Glamour (Brad Pitt, hands down); Coolest Female Glamour (Penelope Cruz; I love this gal); Best Dress (Beyonce, also a cool gal); Most Germanic Looking (Heidi Klum); Best Necklace (Amy Adams, an up-and-comer); Most Glamorous Couple (Josh Brolin and Diane Lane).

Then, there were some odd types: Weirdest-Looking Actress (Tilda Swinson; any argument here?); Weirdest-Looking Couple (Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick; and, by the way, am I the only sick of seeing SJP? What's the big deal about this woman, anyway?); Funkiest Couple (Philip Seymour Hoffman and his bride).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On this day in history

This is a cute link, though they missed Goethe's departure from Rome on this day in 1787, for Naples and points further south with Tischbein.

Aging Lovers

The Cleveland Museum of Art has a spectacular, 23-foot handscroll entitled Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor and His Consorts. I have not been able to find an image of the entire scroll, but it begins at the top right with the portrait here of the emperor in his youth (he ascended the throne in 1736), followed on his left by portraits of the empress and the second highest consort. Below them, in order of rank, are eleven additional consorts. The emperor had forty-one, but these were apparently his favorites.

I happened across an essay by a Taiwanese art historian that discusses the dating of the scroll and of the individual portraits, many of which were executed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who became a court painter of the emperor and introduced Western painting techniques into Chinese art.  When the portraits were arranged in the handscroll by the emperor at a later date, many had already died, and thus the individual portraits in the scroll are based on models executed earlier, beginning in the 1750s, perhaps commemorating a promotion in rank.

The author of the essay suggests that the scroll was executed after 1776, when the emperor was sixty-six sui, by which time only 22 of his 41 consorts still survived. Indeed, the empress and the second consort had died already in 1745 and 1748.

According to the author, the death of close family members must have been unbearable for the emperor; the poems he wrote in this period reflects his grief. She writes: "It must have been difficult for him to confront the death and decay approaching his family members and himself."
In his old age (here we see him in court dress late in his reign) he particularly favored three consorts who were over 30 years younger and who had entered the imperial harem later than the other women portrayed in the scroll. The images of these three were rendered  in an artistic style more Chinese than that represented by Castiglione and his assistants.

The scroll thus represents the memory, for this once-powerful emperor, of "days gone by, when he and his beloved consorts were young, when, perhaps the most exciting moments in their lives were the times they were granted unusual honor, status and power, such as his inauguration as emperor and each lady's promotion to a new and higher rank. As seen in the handscroll, all of the sitters' faces radiate joy and satisfaction. Altogether these faces form a beautiful picture, which not only served as a source of consolation for the emperor in private but also represented a document testifying to the Confucian virtue of exemplary family life."

This commemoration by the emperor reminds me of Goethe, titan of German letters, who at the age of 74, fell in love with the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, while visiting the rejuvenating spas of Karlsbad in August 1823. Goethe went so far as to have Duke Carl August approach Ulrike's mother and make an offer of marriage on Goethe's behalf for her daughter. There seems to have been no outright refusal; the acquaintance with the family simply tapered off.

Goethe left Karlsbad on September 5, and literally in the coach on the return to Weimar began composing the poems that comprise the "Trilogie der Leidenschaft." Stefan Zweig wrote a memorable essay on the composition: "Goethe zwischen Karlsbad und Weimar, 5. September 1823" (in Sternstunden der Menschheit).

The love as expressed in the trilogy (again, the Poem Hunter offers lovely translations) is of a more profound nature from Goethe's earlier poetic passions: at 74 he was nearing the end of his life, and his feelings for Ulrike reminded him of all that was now past: his youth, his achievements, all that he had been granted in his life. The first poem, "An Werther," calls up this ancient ghost ("Noch einmal wagst du, vielbeweinter Schatten,/ Hervor dich an das Tageslicht"). The second, "Elegie," begins with lines from his drama Tasso that remind us of Goethe's ability to turn feeling into poetry: "Und wenn der Mensch in seiner Qual verstummet/ Gab mir ein Gott zu sagen, was ich leide." The third, "Aussöhnung" (reconciliation), reminds us that life goes on, even if diminished: "Und so das Herz erleichtert merkt behend,/ Daß es noch lebet und schlägt und möchte schlagen." Goethe was approaching his death, something he did not like to be reminded of, but in the meantime he was still alive. In the next years he turned to finishing works that had occupied him for decades: Wilhelm Meister and Faust. At the end of Faust, it is a young woman who intercedes for his soul.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Goethe in Love 4

I promise this is the last time (for a while, anyway) that I will post on this subject, but I wanted to bring together a couple of things that, superficially, might seem to have nothing to do with one another. First, Goethe in love.

Yesterday while working in the Wertheim Room at the New York Public Library, I took off some time to read another chapter in Heinrich Meyer's book on Goethe, Das Leben im Werk, which always offers interesting insights. On the chapter on Goethe in Leipzig, Meyer makes the same point of my last three postings, about the ideal nature of Goethe and love. Here is what Meyer has to say, in my less than elegant translation:

If Goethe had not constructed (aufgebaut) new passions, year in and year out, mostly with older, already engaged, otherwise not attainable women, even with women unknown to him or even with already married women, then we would perhaps believe his old biographers, namely, that he was really a great lover. But in reality he always loved most passionately when he had created the entire relationship himself and established it, as it were,  in his imagination.

Looking back [in his autobiography] he spoke about this as "moral sensuousness" [sittliche Sinnlichkeit], that is, in Goethe's terminology ... a spiritual [geistige], intellectual sensuousness appropriate to the imagination, thus a one-sided, not really physical sensuousness. This is indeed especially characteristic of poets.

In the next paragraph Meyer also made the troubador comparison:

Jaufre Raudel, the Provencal troubador, fell in love with a princess from Tripoli whom he had never seen, just as Goethe had never seen Gustchen Stolberg, to whom he sent love letters and opened his heart. Petrarch had his Laura, Dante his Beatrice.

Though it is very difficult to get into the mind of people from the 18th century, Goethe's poetic allegiances again reveal something about him and about the "moral" (sittliche) milieu in which he lived, one much different from ours.

The two pictures from Pakistan touched me, showing as they do people venturing out of traditional ways to make a living or to love. They are from Big Picture, and they appeared on the site the same day that the government of Pakistan announced it would accept Islamic sharia law to be implemented in its Swat Valley region. This was part of a truce (i.e., capitulation) with local Taliban leaders, who had been burning scores of girl's schools and banning many forms of entertainment. 

The balloon seller in Islamabad is trying to make a little money by taking advantage of an undoubtedly small market niche. Valentine's Day in Pakistan! Who would have guessed? Of course, this is one livelihood the Taliban will try to do away with and, no doubt, do away with love as well.

(There was a period in my childhood when my family fell on hard times and my father worked as a salesman. He was temperamentally unsuited to the work, but he did it anyway, because it had to be done. Thus I have always had a spot in my heart for small-scale businessmen, whom you can see, if you look around you, even here in Manhattan. They all seem to be middle-aged and have an incipient pot belly and are doing this unforgiving work because there is someone at home with whom they once fell in love and vowed to love and cherish for the rest of their lives.)

The other picture, according to the caption on Big Picture, is of Pervez Chachar and his wife, Humera Kambo, in a makeshift room in police HQ in Karachi: "After falling in love and marrying without their families' permission, the newlyweds (from rival tribes) dare not venture out of the police station as they fear their families will hunt them down and kill them to preserve the families' honor."

The image of Jaufre Raudel is from a site called "Andaluz Cabizbajo." Link to it for some cool music!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Goethe in Love 3

In the past two postings I have discussed the connection between Goethe's love poetry and his love for certain women. There was not one woman who served as Goethe's inspiration, as in the case of Callimachus, Petrarch, Shakespeare, who devoted large numbers of poems to a single woman. I also indicated that the love or passion felt for those women was of an idealized sort. The troubadors and trouveres of France and the German Minnesingers made a profession of expressing unrequited love. Such wonderful names the Provencal poets had: Marcabru, Jaufré Rudel, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertran de Born, Thibaut de Champagne. And of course the supreme German: Walter von der Vogelweide (pictured here from Codex Manesse).

Back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the German Minnesang poet Heinrich von Morungen (d. 1220), whose lyrics have an almost modern complexity. Here are a few lines from the poem I love best:

Mirst geschên als eime kindelîne,
daz sîn schônez bilde in eime glase ersach
unde grief dar nâch sîn selbes schîne
sô vil biz daz ez den spiegel gar zerbrch.
dô wart al sîn wünne ein leitlich ungemach.
alsô dâchte ich iemer frô ze sîne,
dô'ch gesach die lieben frouwen mîne,
von der mir bî liebe leides vil geschah.

(Here is the translation by Fred Goldin, with whom I had the good fortune to study medieval literature: "It has gone with me as with a child/ that saw its beautiful image in a mirror/ and reached for its own reflection so/ often till it broke the mirror to pieces;/ then its contentment turned into a great unrest./ So I, once, thought I would live in continual joy/ when I set my eyes on my beloved lady,/ through whom, besides some pleasure, I have felt much pain."

All this is a preface to talking about Goethe in love and distinguishing him from us moderns. His love poetry is an indication of his indebtedness to an earlier philosophic and poetic inheritance. Love was a many-sided phenomenon, as Diotima (here in the self-presentation of the Polish poet Jadwiga Luszczewska, 1834-1908) informed us, moving from romantic, physical love to intellectual longing and including several stages in between.  The dignity once given to the subject is indicated by Greek terminology: eros, philia, agape. I like very much what Steven Marx has written about an aspect of Diotima's discourse: "the succeeding generations we procreate are like the recurrent memories of a real experience lost to time. Each generates the future in hopes of recapturing the past. Remembering, we approach, but also recede from what is remembered. We, our parents, and our offspring -- lost relatives in search of the absolute." How ideal can you get, anyway?

In severing reproduction from passion, love has been deconstructed for us moderns. Thus we also want it to be deconstructed for writers of the past like Goethe. We want him to be a man like ourselves. Thus, all that foraging around in his letters to ferret out sentences that might reveal homosexuality or incest. But what do we have when we have learned the details? I ask this because of my current work on V.S. Naipaul and world literature.

I am currently reading Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, and have come to the part describing Naipaul's relationship with Margaret Murray Gooding, a married Argentinian woman (with three children).  In an interview with French, Naipaul reported of his reaction to her at their first meeting (this was on the balcony of a 10th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires): "I was completely dazzled. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all."

So, immediately, Naipaul's thoughts are of sexual seduction. Their first sexual encounter, however, was "a calamity": "They slept together, he had a quick orgasm." Did you really want to know that? Things obviously got better in this respect, because she became his mistress (he also had a spouse, back in England) for the next 20 years.

As his mistress, however, Margaret does not appear to have had an appreciable effect on his writing. Had she been instead his muse, a woman he desired but who remained unobtainable, a dimension might have been added to Naipaul's work that all agree is missing: "love" for others.

Frankly, I think Naipaul's work stands on its own and will hold up because it is really great writing (as I am coming to appreciate, as I go back through it, from the beginning). Still, thinking about Goethe in love has offered me reflections about the absence of "love" in Naipaul's writing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Goethe in Love 2

In 1814 Goethe was given a copy of a collection of poems entitled, in German translation, "Der Diwan des Mohammed Schemseddin Hafis." It was a period of  great work in linguistics, in both European and non-European languages, and one of the fruits of this work was translations from the literary works of India and Persia. Goethe was personally acquainted with the Hafis' translator, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall.

Within a few weeks Goethe was writing the first poems in what would become West-östlicher Divan. Indeed, his encounter with the poetry of the Persian master, who had lived 500 years earlier, led not only to a poetic rejuvenation. One of the first poems he composed under the inspiration of Hafis' poetry has these lines:

So sollst du, munter Greis,/ Dich nicht betrüben,/ Sind gleich die Haare weiß / Doch wirst du lieben.

(In my clunky translation: "Don't let yourself be distressed, lively old man; even if the hair is white, you will still be in love.")

Yesterday I mentioned that Marianne von Willemer, whom Goethe first met in 1814, played an important role in the genesis of West-East Divan. On his return visit to the Willemers in 1815, when he was working industriously on the Divan poems, Goethe stayed at the "Gerbermühle," the summer home of the Willemers on the Main left bank.

This happy and productive time was even memorialized by Goethe in this view of Frankfurt from the Gerbermühle (Goethe Museum, Frankfurt). In the evenings he read the poems he had written during the day, and Marianne would sing his songs. They engaged in what has been called a poetic dialogue, reflected later in the Hatem-Suleika poems in the Divan. Their mutual passion is reflected in these poems: for instance, "Nicht Gelegenheit macht Diebe" by Goethe, "Hochbeglückt in Deiner Liebe" by Marianne.

They last saw each other on September 27, 1815. That evening Goethe wrote one of the most famous Divan poems, "Gingko Biloba," which he sent to Marianne with the small leaves attached. It is reproduced above (click to enlarge); the original is in the Goethe-Museum in Düsseldorf. Three of Marianne's poems were included (with Goethe's slight revisions) in the Divan when it was published in 1819. Two were set to music by Schubert: "Was bedeutet die Bewegung" (D720, Opus 14) and "Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (D717, Opus 31).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Goethe in Love

Goethe wrote many beautiful love poems: "Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke"; the cycle West-östlicher Divan; the so-called "Trilogie der Leidenschaft." As with the greatest poets of love, passion played a large role in his compositions. Nevertheless, though Goethe is in some ways a "modern"-- you might say he "subjectivized" his passions -- the relationships with the women with whom he fell in love (with the obvious exception of Christiane) were not consummated sexually. Passion, eroticism, yes, feeling was everything, but when he had got the feeling down in words he was free of it. Among recent scholars I am familiar with only one, Waltraud Naumann-Beyer, who contends that the long relationship between Goethe and Charlotte von Stein was a physical one. In Goethe-Handbuch (4/2), she is even quite specific about when it began: March 1781.

Without Marianne von Willemer there would be no West-East Divan. Goethe was 65 when they first met, in 1814, Marianne 30.  Despite her "theatrical" background, Marianne had moved up in the world with her marriage to the older Willemer, a Goethe admirer. A year later the three of them celebrated Goethe's 66th birthday at the "Gerbermühle" on the Willemer estate near Frankfurt. Jürgen Behrens calls this summer "the summer of Hatem and Suleika," referring to the lovers in the Divan, who exchange poems with one another. Indeed, Marianne also composed poems that appeared in the published cycle in 1819. When they parted in September of 1815, it was not "farewell," but they never saw each other again. Probably Goethe could not recreate the feeling. They continued to correspond, however, and Marianne even sent artichokes, chestnuts, honey, jams, and other delicacies of the Main region for his table in Weimar.

Goethe's ambivalence about love is evident in one of his earliest poems, "Die Nacht," written in 1768 during his "Anacreontic" period. Here is the first verse:

"Gern verlass' ich diese Hütte,
Meiner Schönen Aufenthalt,
Und durchstreich mit leisem Tritte
Diesen ausgestorbnen Wald."

"Gern" -- in the first position in the poem at that! Leaving the cottage of his beloved "gladly"?With relief perhaps? Yes, Goethe always seemed happiest when he was departing from an intense situation with a woman. When the first edition of his works was published in 1789, he made some changes to the poem, and the first line now appeared as "Nun verlass' ich diese Hütte." Interesting? He seems to have been aware of the ambivalence. Here is an English version of the first four lines, following the revision:

Now I leave this cottage lowly,
Where my love hath made her home,
And with silent footsteps slowly
Through the darksome forest roam.

I have written in another connection of Goethe's fondness for the literary form known as the pastoral or idyll. The pastoral typically has shepherds (in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream), whereas the idyll can take place in a quasi-modern setting (as in Oliver Goldsmith's novel The Vicar of Wakefield). This literary form is expressive of contentment, and love is at its center. (Eric Rohmer plays with the form in his delightful Les Amours d'Astrée et Céladon. The above painting is by the pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt.) Whenever there is an idyll in a work by Goethe, it is either destroyed or in great danger. The best example is probably The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther first encounters Lotte, engaged in happy domesticity, cutting bread for her many siblings. He then falls in love with her while dancing, one of the most characteristic activities of pastoral shepherds. In the end he destroys the happiness that is at the center of his literary form. Another example of a domestic idyll is Goethe's small epic Hermann and Dorothea. Here the contentment is threatened by historical forces, in this case the French Revolution. And, in the final scenes of Faust, the idyll of Philomen and Baucis is destroyed because their lowly cottage blocks Faust's view.

Friday, February 13, 2009

World Trade Center, 8 Years On

"Do we really want to give a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to the guys who haven't managed to fill in this hole in the ground after eight years?" Such was Rick's wise question as we looked down at the site of the former World Trade Center. Lots of equipment and a few men working. As Rick likes to say on many an occasion: the government has a reverse Midas touch.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (50% each state) owns the WTC site. Like the MTA or the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, it was set up like a corporation, but the government owns all the stock. Technically known as public operating authorities, these agencies were supposed to avoid the problems of inefficient bureaucracy associated with government administration. Thus, they float their own bonds and are supposed to take care of their own financing through fees, fares, bridge tolls, and the like.  The WTC was built with the idea that the PA could use the buildings for their own office while renting out the bulk of it, which it did until 9/11.

Whatever their efficiencies might have been in the 1920s, when these agencies were established, they now operate in sclerotic government fashion. Over the years, they have become heavily dependent on the public till because the costs of operations are unacceptably high. Who would pay $5.00 to ride the subway? Thus politicians have meddled in the workings of these agencies, whether to provide jobs in their immediate neighborhoods, to grandstand over transit fares, or to exercise similar antics. Larry Silverstein, who signed a 99-year lease on the entire WTC complex  shortly before the towers were destroyed on 9/11, would be the obvious person to redevelop the site, but there has been so much  meddling by politician who want to satisfy everyone that, after eight years, there remains that gaping hole in the ground. Michael Bloomberg might have been president today if he had shown himself able to manage these competing interests. (He would be president if he could solve New York City's traffic problems.) Instead, he has spent his time grandstanding about trans fats and smoking and turning the town into a nanny state.

The situation is different at the nearby World Financial Center, which also took quite a hit on September 11, 2001. It was a glorious, unseasonably warm day in the city this week when we biked down to the Battery and stopped at the Winter Garden. It is now restored to its pre-9/11 splendor, with its huge palms (uprooted from the Mojave Desert) and the wide arc of rose granite steps ascending up to the platform from where we looked down at the WTC construction site. It's a readymade advertisement for "Come to New York and work and play in a wonderful environment." It also seemed to be serving as "Babysitter Central."

A group called BQE Project was warming up in preparation for a 5 p.m. concert. New York and America, too, is a great place. If I had to get an office job, I'd certainly want to work downtown!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The first thing that caught my eye in Goethe Yearbook 15 was the section devoted to "Goethe and 20th-Century Theory," edited with Angus Nicholls. An essay in that section by Katrin Kohl is entitled "No Escape? Goethe's Strategies of Self-Projection and Their Role in German Literary Historiography." The question in the title refers to the dominant role played by the personality and work of Goethe in giving shape to German literary history. After all, whether we speak of "Weimar Classicism," "Goethe period," "Romanticism," "Storm and Stress," and so on, Goethe turns out to be not only "central to the history," as Kohl writes, but also throws all who follow him into the shade.

Such was his intention, according to Kohl, who quotes from an unpublished text from 1832 -- "Noch ein Wort für junge Dichter" -- in which Goethe speaks of himself as a liberator ("Befreyer"), insofar as young poets became aware, through his example, that "Der Künstler von innen heraus wirken müsse; indem er, gebärde er sich wie er will, immer nur sein Individuum zu Tage fördern wird," to which he adds, "nur auf diese Art ist es möglich Original zu seyn." In terms of German literary history, this view of himself as originator (expanded in his autobiography) has become a founding myth of German literary history. Before Goethe, all was darkness, when poets were unaware of the need for what Kohl calls an "individual creative impulse"; afterward, Goethe emerged "as the unique and enduring embodiment of German culture," meeting the requirements, as Kohl suggests, "of a nascent German nation that needed to construct a coherent cultural identity."

The appearance of the word "Original" in a late text surprised me, for it seemed to show, as late as the year of his death, of the persistence of a concept that I had thought was restricted to the "Genius" period, when that movement in German literature known as "Sturm und Drang" rejected the authority of poetic predecessors and instead invoked the creative power of individual subjectivity. And indeed Kohl begins her essay with a look at that period, for a look at the "origin" of Goethe's views on art, nature, and creativity.

In 1774, in a well-known letter to Fritz Jacobi, Goethe employed the metaphor of "reproduction" to describe writing:  "Sieh lieber, was doch alles schreibens anfang und Ende ist die Reproduckion der Welt um mich, durch die innre Welt die alles packet, verbindent, neuschafft, knetet und in eigner Form, Manier, wieder hinstellt ..."

The metaphor of reproduction, according to Kohl, indicates that Goethe was responding to the debate about poetic imitation in the 18th century and moving away from the neoclassical position of poetry as imitation of the best models. Instead, it is the "inner world" from which the poet "is capable of originating, fashioning, and controlling a work of art equivalent to the external world created by God and unique to the poet." In this connection, Kohl refers to a biblical passage, Job speaking to Yahweh ("Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay!/ Will you then bring me down to dust again?"), which she juxtaposes with the fashioning by Prometheus of man from earth and water. Goethe's "Prometheus" ode, from 1773/74, in which the mythological figure emancipates himself from Jove and fashions a man in his own image, "could be understood," writes Kohl, "as a confident assertion of independence by the modern artist."

A couple of points. First, what kind of "world," really, is inside a person, be he poet or otherwise? A poet, like everyone else, has feelings, imagination, fantasy, rationality, sensibility, memory, experience, and so on, but how are these materialized into form except by words that the poet has inherited from people who spoke these words before him?

Second, the poet may have a world within that he would like to express, but creating art from himself cannot be compared to divine creation. God (in the "orthodox" view) did not create man from himself, but stood outside of his Creation. Thus, the painting by Michelangelo (who did not consider himself an "original") conveys the sense that God created a being that is separate from its creator, with an independent existence. Originals, however, drawing only on their own inner world, would only be able to "re-create" themselves. This suggests narcissism.

My point here is not to take issue with Kohl, whose analysis I find excellent. Her essay has merely allowed me to engage with the issue of "originality," a bête noire of mine.

Let me return to the "orthodox" view of Creation, according to which God created both man and woman. From them descended generations of humans and with them the products of human hand and intelligence, including art. The cultural inheritance traditionally had something biological about it, replicating the characteristics of previous generations in its transmission. For this reason, we can recognize works of art, for instance, distinguish painters by schools and trace their antecedents. I read many German writers of the "Anacreontic" persuasion when I was writing a chapter on Goethe's early poetry for my dissertation. The poems of Friedrich von Hagedorn (Des Herrn Friedrich von Hagedorns sämmtliche poetische Werke, 1775) actually include footnotes citing the poem that he is imitating in a particular instance. In other words, poets felt "legitimacy" as poets in being able to identify their poetic progenitors.

I use these biological metaphors advisedly, to draw attention to the rhetorical strategy of the 18th century "originals," a word radically at odds with its etymology. Originals, "re-producing" their inner world, have no origin, are self-created. While the literary originals assert their artistic independence and their lack of reverence for literary progenitors, this gesture mirrors a transformation going on in the social order in the 18th century, when men  (and it was men in this instance) began to be emancipated from the ties that bind.

As I have written earlier (Goethe Yearbook 10), in connection with Goethe's poem "Der Wanderer," originality or self-creation encapsulates the 21st-century terminus of a long process, during which the legitimacy of truly originating attachments -- family, the work, required to care for future generations, and so on -- has been gradually eroded. That this process was still in its infancy in the 18th century can be seen in Goethe's poem. The role of the nursing woman in that poem, in reproduction, creation, and indeed the process by which cultural products are passed on generationally, is in competition with the man, the "Wanderer," who is able to go out and create an independent existence for himself. Note the majestic gesture of independence in the painting by Caspar David Friedrich, from the year 1818. The creation of the modern world required independent souls, and artists were the first to give voice to this need.

Kohl opens her article with a quote from Harold Bloom who contends, in The Western Canon (1994), that "every Goethe text, however, divergent from the others, bears the mark of his unique and overwhelming personality, which cannot be evaded or deconstructed." Bloom also had something to say about Goethe that is relevant to the issue of originality: "Goethe, like Milton, absorbed precursors with gusto, evidently excluding anxiety." I would contend that the opposite is the case, that Goethe had "issues" with his literary forebears, and even the construction of his works often reflects his attempt to suppress or destroy them. Indeed, Arnd Bohm in his recent study of the European epic makes this point. In addressing Goethe's failure to write an epic, Bohm responds by saying that "Goethe did compose an epic poem, which has been hidden in plain view" (my italics), namely, Faust. (I love Bohm's subtitle, also relevant here: "Forgetting the Future.") Thus, the importance for Goethe of the concept of "Original," an instance of what Kohl calls Goethe's "self-projection throughout his career ... predicated on an internal, natural creative force that is independent of teachers and examples." By now, originality has become "naturalized," but it does have a history. Can its historiography be far behind?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Goethe Yearbook 15

The newest volume of the Goethe Yearbook, published by the Goethe Society of North America, arrived in the mail on Saturday. (Note the handsome logo of the Society on the cover of the Yearbook.) There are some familiar names among the contributors -- Judith Ryan on the aphorisms in Die Wahlverwandtschaften and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre and Ellis Dye on the concept of "Sorge" in Heidegger and in Faust -- but also many new contributors. I am even represented with three book reviews.

In the next week or so I plan to comment on articles of interest to me, starting (tomorrow) with the one by Katrin Kohl on "Goethe's strategies of self-projection." Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


"We never would have gone to Sesenheim at all, if it had not been for Rhodora."

Who could resist a story that opens like one by Ford Madox Ford, recalling the visit of proper English and American gentlefolks at "Nauheim" in The Good Soldier? This opening, however, is from "Sesenheim," by an American named Bliss Perry, which appeared in the May 1889 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I came across it the other day while looking up something on Goethe. Perry (1860-1954) was an American scholar who edited, among others, the works of Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also wrote a study of the works of Thomas Carlyle. He taught at Harvard and was also Harvard lecturer at the University of Paris, in 1909-1910.

"Sesenheim" as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly, is told by a first-person narrator who calls himself "the Scribe." He has been accompanying his friend John who "was inspecting the chemical laboratories of Germany universities." Rhodora, John's wife, is an American woman familiar from much fiction, with decided opinions. According to the Scribe she is a "delicate, sensitive, highly organized American woman." (Indeed, the name Rhodora sounds like "Leonora" in The Good Soldier, which, however, was not published until 1915.)
While the three of them are sightseeing in Strassburg, Rhodora notices the name of the owner on a bricabrac shop: "Brion": "'Brion,' she repeated. 'Brion? It must be a French name. ... Why, of course!' exclaimed Rhodora. 'Friederike Brion, Goethe's Friederike! John, Sesenheim must be near by, and I've always wanted to go here. It's so hot and dirty here; let's go to spend the Sunday at Sesenheim.'" And that, says the Scribe, is the reason the three happened to make a pilgrimage to the quiet Alsatian village, "whose sole claim to notice is that it was once the scene of a love episode more idyllic and more tenderly told than perhaps any other that ever won its gentle way into the world's literature."

The Scribe is dispatched -- it is Saturday afternoon -- "in search of a cheap edition of Dichtung und Wahrheit," which Rhodora claims to have read in her school days. Moreover, he also finds a tiny book on Friederike by "Pastor Lucius of Sesenheim." On the train the Scribe, with Dichtung und Wahrheit in one hand and the pastor's book in the other, is "deputed to read the important passages from the pastor's loving chronicle."

There follows a long passage rendering the events of the "Sesenheim idyll" (as recounted in books 9-11 of Goethe's autobiography): the ride of the brilliant, lovable 21-year-old student to Sesenheim in the autumn of 1770; the slender, light-haired daughter of the village pastor; the bright, tender, and infinitely winning letters; the verses with all the lyric passion of the "young Goethe"; the restiveness of genius; the departure without explanation; the final letter to her and her gentle answer, which "tore his heart." And then, years later, while journeying southward with the Duke of Weimar, Goethe stops at the parsonage, "to find all its inmates unchanged toward him, and Friederike calm and affectionate as of old, so that the next morning, at sunrise, he rode away from Sesenheim 'in peace,' as he wrote Frau von Stein." In sum, Goethe rose "steadily upon his splendid and solitary path, and Friedericke Brion, spinster, growing old and dying in 1813 at her brother's house in the tiny village of Meissenheim, having lived a life of such unselfish ministration and such sweetness that an old woman who has survived into our own day tells us that when as a child she heard about angels, she 'always thought of Aunty Brion in a white dress' and that 'the sick, and children, and old people' loved her." Sounds like the shade of Otillie in Elective Affinities.

Of interest in Bliss Perry's story are descriptions of a century ago -- 1899 -- which are much closer to the Sesenheim of Goethe's day than our own, which are so much obscured by features of modern life. 

For instance, this is the scene the Scribe sees from the window of the train: "To the left were the Vosges, in a retreating blue distance, while as we rolled northward, all along on the right, beyond the Rhine, were the wooded summits of of the Black Forest, misty yet and shadow-barred in the morning sunlight. It was Trinity Sunday, and the peasant in holiday costume thronged the station platform, intent upon excursions to neighboring villages." And then, indicating a misunderstanding of the German, the Scribe writes: "After an hour, we passed Drusenheim. It was the place where Goethe changed horses, and the next village was Sesenheim." True, Goethe did change horses at the inn in Drusenheim, but, more important, he was able to exchange clothes with the son of the innkeeper, in order to rid himself of his earlier "Verkleidung."

I made a trip to Sesenheim back in 1999. It is a well-preserved town in the best European welfare state fashion, but still retaining many of the sights described the Scribe. There were the reddish-gray roof tiles and the eight-sided tower of Pastor Brion's church, although I did not see the girl "busily at work draping a white cloth about a temporary roadside shrine of the Virgin, in honor of the feast day."
Like the travelers from 1899 I also went to an inn near the church. The present incarnation of the Gasthaus zum Anker they visited is "Au Boeuf," where I enjoyed one of the best meals of my own trip through the Vosges region.

They too had an Alsatian country dinner, during which Rhodora and John got in a heated argument about Goethe's abandonment of Friedericke. John didn't believe "any man of genius [had] the right to break the heart of a girl like Friederike."

After lunch they went to the church at which a funeral service was being conducted, for an old woman, "born in the very year that Friederike Brion died." In the aisle was a tombstone, with the inscription half effaced, bearing the date of 1557, "over which the young Goethe's feet one stepped so lightly; and there was the pastor's pew, in which, by the side of Friederike, he found her father's sermon 'none too long.'" The seats were filled with peasant women, "in dark, immobile rows." Their dress consisted of a black alpaca gown edged with velvet ribbon and a brocaded silk cloth, and they wore on their heads, "a queer little quilted black cap, with wide stiff bows of ribbon that stood out from the head like the wings of a butterfly."
I didn't see anything like that in 1999, but perhaps they resembled the headdress in this charming illustration from a book on Alsace-Lorraine from 1918.

Emerging from the church they encountered a dozen boys ranged along the wall of the churchyard. "Just as if it were a New England country meeting house!" exclaimed John. They proceeded to visit "the historic barn," and John reached his long arm over the fence and plucked a blossom "from the famous jasmine bush." They encountered the new "rosy-cheeked" pastor who explained why the old parsonage had been torn down. Here is Goethe's description of the parsonage, which suggests the fairytale state in which the Sesenheim idyll hovered: "Haus und Scheune und Stall befanden sich in dem Zustande des Verfalls gerade auf dem Punkte, wo man unschlüssig, zwischen Erhalten und Neuaufrichten zweifelhaft, das eine unterläßt, ohne zu dem andern gelangen zu können."

The parson tells them he had to read Dichtung und Wahrheit in order to answer all the questions of visitors, then invites them to his library to see one of Friederike's letters, the sight of which -- "a yellowed old letter" framed and hung -- makes them conscious that antiquarianism and curiosity had breathed a spirit of prose upon their hitherto unspoiled Sesenheim idyll.
Nowadays there is a charming museum at "Au Boeuf," where one can wander free of charge and inspect Sesenheim memorabilia and even some authentic documents.

Toward the end of the afternoon they find the hillock "where Friederike passed many an hour in that favorite arbor of which Goethe himself had much to say." Some Goethe lovers had bought the hillock and erected a new arbor with the inscription "Friederiken Ruh. 1770-1880." Arriving at this "reinlicher Platz mit Bänken, von deren jeder man eine hübsche Aussicht in die Gegend gewann," Goethe wrote that it did not occur to him that he had come to disturb its peace: "denn eine aufkeimende Leidenschaft hat das Schöne, daß, wie sie sich ihres Ursprungs unbewußt ist, sie auch keinen Gedanken eines Endes haben kann, und wie sie sich froh und heiter fühlt, nicht ahnden kann, daß sie wohl auch Unheil stifen dürfte."

It was perhaps with something of this disturbance in mind that the Scribe and his companions retired to an adjacent meadow, where they lay under a great ash and watched the clouds drift across the heaven and "pile themselves into a huge glistening mass above the Black Forest." Their talk drifted constantly back to Goethe. At sundown they turned their steps toward the train station, and Rhodora could be seen bending in the dusk above one of the bushes near the arbor, then returning with some white primroses in her hand. The primroses of course remind us of the Primrose family in The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, on which Goethe consciously modeled his narration of the Sesenheim idyll. Rhodora gives each of the men one and sticks a third through the buttonhole of her jacket. John takes the final one and fastens it to the lattice of Friederike's arbor. "'Why, of course, John!' said Rhodora, softly. 'The poor girl!'"

The photos of contemporary Sesenheim are by the German photographer Ivo Schweikhart, who includes many more of interest on his website, along with quotations from Dichtung und Wahrheit.