Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Writers at work

This photo of Goethe's study in Weimar, from about 1929, with its dramatic shadows, has a vaguely Last Year at Marienbad look about it.  One can see that Goethe was assisted in his immense productivity by the lack of any distractions -- no books, no art work in the room, unlike in this painting by Evan Jordan entitled simply "Writer at Work in His Study." Aside from the fireplace, it reminds me of my own working environment, especially the great numbers of books that one will never get around to reading.

Goethe was also assisted in his work by the quiet, unassuming presence of various "Schreiber" (stenographers). He discovered in Frankfurt already that he didn't like to write himself, that he preferred to dictate, and he also used the services of others to carry out the wearying work of copying manuscripts. Philipp Seidel, who had been Cornelia's teacher, functioned as a copyist for Goethe's father, a lawyer, and then for the young Goethe himself. He accompanied Goethe when the latter moved to Weimar and remained his most trusted servant, indeed confidant, until 1788. Aside from Carl August, Philipp Seidel was the only person in Weimar privy to Goethe's journey to Italy in 1786. On Goethe's return to Weimar, Christiana Vulpius replaced Seidel in more ways than one. In the following years Goethe's relationship with his stenographers and copyists was strictly professional, but he often assisted them in their social and professional advancement.

Here are some more writers' studies and even writers at work, beginning with one of my favorites, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Very neat, but here one sees the various accoutrements that seem to be essential to the working environment of modern writers. In STW's case, the music manuscript on the wall indicates her musicological pursuits. In 1917 she joined a committee that collected Tudor church music from all over England, eventually published in ten volumes. Many of her early short stories take place in villages to which she traveled in her collecting work. Lots of eccentric English characters and rural sights in them.

Edith Wharton looks as if she is attending to her social correspondence. 
And, then, there was Jane Austen. Could it be any better than this? Have we done any better with computers, with the possibility of endless revising and printing?

Photo credits: Julian Littlewood (Goethe's study); Yale University Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Edith Wharton); The Guardian (Jane Austen) 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kayaking Season Begins Soon!

On June 15, 1774, Goethe, with Lavater and some others, set out across the "Lake of Zurich" in order to replicate the occasion, 25 years earlier, of Klopstock's famous ode, "Der Zürchersee." Otherwise, I am not familiar with any works of Goethe inspired by boating.

I will look into the subject, because I have become an avid kayaker in recent years. There is (in my estimation) nothing like being out on the river on a sunny day in a kayak. My interest began several years back, when Rick and I became volunteers with the Downtown Boathouse here in New York. Since then, I am the more obsessed kayaker. During the winter, for instance, the DTBH has a program for keeping us in shape out of season. We practice every weekend in a large pool uptown at Riverbank State Park. It's now just a little under two months until the DTBH season begins, on May 15, the day on which, more or less, the temperature in the Hudson River is 55 degrees. At that temperature, if you fell in the water but got out quickly the risk of hypothermia would not be great, provided you got warm quickly. Those of us who are fanatics wear a wet suit or a dry suit for cold water temperatures.The preface to the season for me was the show put on by Jersey Paddler in (no fooling!) New Jersey. I rode out to the show yesterday with a couple of paddling pals.

Besides a lot to see at the show, there were mini-"seminars," featuring, for instance, Olympic medalist Greg Barton. And ways to test your paddling strength.

My favorite exhibitor was Qajak (pronounced "kayak"), a group that promotes and constructs Greenland-style kayaks. See the example at the top of this post. The materials the boats are made of are nylon, dacron, etc., but they looks just like animal skin. You have to be a better (and braver) paddler than I am, since the hatch is extremely narrow. Apparently, Greenlanders don't want to fall out when seal-hunting. 

But, then, they can probably roll pretty well, for which you need upper body strength. You could even try out your strength at the show with some Greenlandic-style aerobics, demonstrated here. This gal did a pretty good job.

Lots of other things to do and see and, of course, buy. I got away without spending much money; I purchased a spray skirt and a paddle float. This was not the year for me to purchase a kayak; maybe next year if the government doesn't make the economy worse. (Why do I think one shouldn't be too hopeful?) In the meantime, as a volunteer I get to use the kayaks at the DTBH.

Tomoko Yamamoto, a photographer, composer, and, as she says, "soprano," has a translation of Goethe's poem "Auf dem See" on her website, and also includes some lovely images that give an impression of the the pleasure of paddling a boat on the river. She seems fond of the poem for the Schubert setting.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Goethe and Art

One learns much about the strengths and limitations of Goethe's understanding of art from the "Heidelberg" chapter of Über Kunst und Altertum in den Rhein- and Maingegenden (publ. 1816). The chapter is the account of his viewing, in 1814 and 1815, of the collection of 200 "Old German" and "Old Netherlandic" paintings acquired by Sulpiz and Melchior Boisserée following the Napoleonic dispensation that led to the secularization of church holdings. By 1814 Goethe had already made clear his distance from the enthusiasms of Romantic writers, including Friedrich Schlegel, for the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Sulpiz, who had learned much from Schlegel, sought to win over Goethe by sending him his draft drawings for completion of the cathedral in Cologne. Goethe was impressed enough to invite Sulpiz to Weimar, and in 1814 he returned the favor by visiting the Rhineland.

In truth, Goethe was overwhelmed by what he saw, and his initial reaction (recorded by Johann Baptist Bertram, friend of the Boisserée brothers and Schlegel intimate) shows his ability to be honest with himself:

"For the sake of one's own continued existence, one laboriously closes oneself off in one's latter days from the youth that has arrived to overthrow old age; one has tried, in order to maintain one's equanimity, to preserve oneself from all impressions of a new and disturbing nature; when, at a stroke, a completely new and previously unknown world of colors and figures appeared before me, which forced me from the accustomed path of my ideas and feelings ... and if this or that hand would reach out from the picture in order to smack me in the face, I would have deserved it."

Nevertheless, the "old pagan king," as Boisserée called him in a letter of 23 October 1814, was not converted. By the time his reactions to the collection appeared in print, in Über Kunst und Altertum in den Rhein- und Maingegenden, Goethe had found a way of putting things back in their proper perspective. Thus, the newly discovered marvels of "Old German" art would not compromise the priority of ancient art based on classical -- Greek and Roman -- models. In the "Heidelberg" chapter Goethe puts the "Old German" works in an art historical schema, and attributes to them a privileged position for having preserved the continuity of classical art through the depredations of the Dark Ages and the decline of naturalism in the Middle Ages.

So, what are the strengths? Goethe saw something that was not at all apparent to me, namely, the continuity of Byzantine traditions in Western European art, even during the darkest times. He does not care much for Byzantine icons ("von der [byzantinische Schule] wir wenig Löbliches zu sagen wußten"); he sees, however, what Byzantine art has preserved, namely, the legacy of ancient art (in ihrem Innern noch für große Veredienste mit sich trug, die aus der hohen Erbschaft älterer griechischer und römischer Vorfahren kunstmäßig auf sie übergegangen, glidenmäßig aber in ihr erhalten worden), both in craft and in the portrayal of the body, which was then transmitted to Western Europe.

As I said, this connection was not something I would have noticed, not even on the example on which Goethe dwells, namely, the painting here of the Veronica cloth. Though Goethe could not have seen many works of Byzantine art -- much was carried off or destroyed during the 16th-century Iconoclasm, and surviving originals are relatively rare in northern Europe -- nevertheless medieval artists knew of them. 

The Latin emperors of Constantinople, who ruled from 1204 to 1261, were a dynasty from Flanders. There was economic exchange in the 14th and 15th centuries between Flanders and Crete. Byzantine icons were given as gifts to kings, popes, nobility, and important clergy. Crusaders brought back icons.
 The Serbian icon, the Holy Face of Laon, shown here at the right, was given by Pope Urban IV in 1249 to his sister Sybille, abbess of the Cistercian convent of Montreuil-en-Thiérache, France. The Vera Icon became one of the prevalent new types of painting in the West. Goethe, relying only on a work of reference, a history by Séroux d'Agincourt (containing what we today would certainly find to be inadequate plates), was able to trace this important link in the transmission.

And what about the limitations? Goethe would not have been able to appreciate such beautiful examples of medieval art as the page from the Lindisfarne Gospels at the top of this post. Aside from the fact it has no "classical" features, Goethe had no "feel" for the simple devotion and "childlike heart" (the phrase is that of E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art), and indeed the spirituality of the early Middle Ages. It is the surface Goethe admired, the building up of elements with almost scientific accuracy, the mastery of the human body, the attainment of outer harmony.

The highest task of the visual arts is to decorate [verzieren] a specific space or to place adornment [Zierde] within an indefinite space; from this requirement derives everything that we call correct [kunstgerechte] composition. In this the Greeks and after them the Romans were great masters.

Thus everything that speaks to us as adornment must be structured [gegliedert], actually in a higher sense, that it consist of parts that relate to one another alternately. For this it is required that it have a middle, an upper and lower part, a here and a there, from which, then, symmetry arises.

From the above passage, one would like to hear Goethe's reaction to this Celtic decoration, from the Book of Kells.

The key to Goethe's distance from the spirit of early medieval art can be found in "Heidelberg," in the survey of the role of the Church, from its earliest centuries, in preserving the legacy of classical art, even if this art was against its own ethos: the Church needed to keep all the many saints and martyrs as well as the many Israelite predecessors straight! Goethe's language in writing of the "personnel," so to speak, of the new religion (dieser neue Bund) is totally anthropological and historical, with every trace of what is mysterious about the Christian revelation bracketed out. Two of my favorite locutions are "ein wundersames Kleeblatt" for the Trinity and "die vier Annalenschreiber" for the four evangelists.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Annunciation

Nicht daß ein Engel eintrat (das erkenn),
erschreckte sie. Sowenig andre, wenn
ein Sonnenstrahl oder der Mond bei Nacht
in ihrem Zimmer sich zu schaffen macht,
auffahren --, pflegte sie an der Gestalt,
in der ein Engel ging, sich zu entrüsten;
sie ahnte kaum, daß dieser Aufenthalt
mühsam für Engel ist. (O wenn wir wüßten,
wie rein sie war. Hat eine Hirschkuh nicht,
die, liegend, einmal sie im Wald eräugte,
sich so in sie versehn, daß sich in ihr,
ganz ohne Paarigen, das Einhorn zeugte,
das Tier aus Licht, das reine Tier -).
Nicht, daß er eintrat, aber daß er dicht,
der Engel, eines Jünglings Angesicht
so zu ihr neigte; daß sein Blick und der,
mit dem sie aufsah, so zusammenschlugen
als wäre draußen plötzlich alles leer
und, was Millionen schauten, trieben, trugen
hineingedrängt in sie: nur sie und er;
Schaun und Geschautes, Aug und Augenweide
sonst nirgends als an dieser Stelle -: sieh,
dieses erschreckt. Und sie erschraken beide.

Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie.

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is a subject of much painting in the West and also of poetry, though Goethe never composed a poem about this mysterious event. Thus, I turn to Rainer Maria Rilke, who in 1912 wrote a cycle of poems on the life of Mary, including the above one on the Annunciation.

Mostly this feast day is an occasion to post some of my favorite pictures on this theme, in particular by modern artists. The above painting by the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner captures the numinous nature of the event and Mary's submission to an unwished-for destiny. It is a nice contrast to Orazio Gentileschi's gorgeous Baroque portrait.

Goethe was appreciative of many Renaissance artists, whose works he saw during his stay in Italy, but the "otherworldly" dimension of Christian art did not appeal to him, and he hated paintings showing gruesome scenes of martyrdom. Whenever he writes about Christian art, he distances himself from the subject of the work. More on that when I write about his visit to Heidelberg and the Boisserie brothers' collection of Netherlandic art.

The images below are by He QiJohn CollierCaroline Jariwala, and James B. Janknegt.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Der Totentanz"

The warder looks down at the mid hour of night,
On the tombs that lie scattered below;
The moon fills the place with her silvery light
And the churchyard like day seems to glow.
When see! first one grave, then another opens side,
And women and men stepping forth are descried,
In cerements snow whit and trailing.

This is the first verse, in English translation, of Goethe's poem "Der Totentanz."

I had thought of devoting this post to Goethe's own death, which occurred on this day, March 23, in 1832. Goethe in his own lifetime was known to be averse to dwelling on the deaths of those he knew and loved. In 1828, he fled to Dornburg, rather than stay in Weimar and attend the funeral of Duke Carl August. But rather than focusing on his own fear of death, I thought it would be more fun to look at "Der Totentanz," one of his lighter products on death.

On Good Friday of April 1813, Goethe traveled to the spa at Teplitz via Dresden and Leipzig. This was a moment in the Napoleonic wars, when the inhabitants of Weimar were looking at an occupation by either the French or the Russians. Goethe got out. His diary and his letters offer a good account of what he saw. Amazingly, for a time of war -- constant presence of soldiers, including Cossacks and Russian Asians with camels -- Goethe always enjoyed good lodgings and, moreover, good food. In an April 20 letter to Christiane, he mentioned the excellent carp in "Polish sauce" he had for breakfast. He wrote about the art he saw, for instance, at the cathedral in Naumburg, and about a terrible production in Dresden of Cosi fan tutte: "Nein! so ein Schreckniß ist mir niemals vorgekommen" (No! I have never before experienced such a horror).

In his letter of April 21 to Christiane Goethe mentions that, "for amusement" (zu unserer Lust) he had written down in rhyme the death dance legend that his son August had told them. He sent the finished poem to August on May 22, with this message: "This bit of fun [Diese Späße] has at the same time the important purpose of telling you to be happy and cheerful, whatever your immediate daily circumstances; for the disaster that is occurring in our vicinity -- which we observe, safe but still with fear, like someone observing the shipwreck of entire fleets from a cliff -- is limitless." Goethe, on his trip to Teplitz, was clearly following his own advice.

The theme of the dance of death can be traced back to at least the 14th century in Europe, as epidemics like the Black Death brought the universal sway of death, to rich and poor alike, to the imagination. Movement, whether a dance or a journey, seems to have been a later addition. German woodcarvers and engravers produced famous prints, including the glorious rendition by Michael Wolgemuth of "Tanz der Gerippe" above. The beautiful chasuble at the left, from the Benedictine abbey of Kremsmünster now on exhibition (until April 9) at the delightfully named Museum für Sepulkralkultur in the city of Kassel, exemplifies the constant awareness of death in the world before the advent of antibiotics.

In "Der Totentanz," Goethe might have identified with the figure of the warder:

Now waggles the leg, and now wriggles the thigh,
As the troop with strange gestures advance,
And a rattle and chatter anon rises high
As of one beating time to the dance.
The sight to the warder seems wondrously queer
When the villainous Tempter speaks thus in his ear:
"Seize one of the shrouds that lie yonder."

There is much one could say about the language of this ballad, but the pace of action is particularly thrilling. As the midnight hour passes, the dead gather their garments and climb back into their graves. But there remains the one whose shroud has been taken by the warder: "The shroud he soon scents in the air." He goes in pursuit of it ("The shroud he must have, and no rest will allow") and begins to climb the Gothic edifice of the tower, "like a long-legged spider" (Es ruckt sich von Schnörkel hinan,/ Langbeinigen Spinnen vergleichbar). The warder quakes, would like to get rid of the shroud, but when he throws it down it gets caught on one of the spikes. Fortunately for him, the churchyard becomes dark as the silvery light that had filled it is obscured ("With vanishing lustre the moon's race is run"), the bell in the tower thunders loudly, and the skeleton falls to earth and is crushed to atoms. Goethe too escaped death for another day.

Goethe's behavior amid death and destruction actually seems the right way. Contrast it with that of a contemporary Jeremiah, W.G. Sebald. If you have read On the Natural History of Destruction, concerning the firebombing of German cities during World War II, you will know that Sebald loved to dwell on the Revelations-like horrors. For instance, "After the rubble had cooled down, they found people still sitting at tables or up against walls where they had been overcome by monoxide gas. ... Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket." Pretty impressive stuff, what?

What really seemed to annoy Sebald, however, were instances of people, in the face of such destruction, attempting to go about their daily life. For instance, the cinema employee, a Frau Schrader, who, immediately after a bombing, commandeered a shovel and began clearing the rubble in front of the movie house so that people could get in for the 2 p.m. matinee. Or, as reported by the novelist Hans Erich Nossack, who wrote of walking in the suburbs of Hamburg shortly after the bombings of July 1943 and seeing residents of a building that had not suffered sitting on their balconies drinking coffee.

For a writer with a high moral point of view like Sebald, it was apparently difficult to imagine that people who, having seen their nearest and dearest incinerated (carried away in a laundry basket, for goodness' sake!), might wish to reclaim, however momentarily, a vestige of their humanity. No, for the pompous Sebald, such a scene exhibited "a lack of moral sensitivity bordering on inhumanity." Of course, his intent in The Natural History was to take Germans to task for their complacency after the war, their willingness to forget, to get back to coffee and cake in the afternoon, to rebuild their country. I prefer Goethe's attitude myself.

It was not until August 26-27 that the European armies clashed in Germany, in Dresden, then later in Leipzig, on October 16-18. For a comparative view, the Battle of York (seen above) was fought on April 27, 1813, the first important American victory on land during the War of 1812.

For an English translation of the full poem (and a wonderful accompanying illustration by the Czech artist Jiri Trnka), I am grateful to Ian Burkard's site (of August 3, 2007).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dornburg again

My interest in Goethe's stay in Dornburg came in this way: I was at the New York Public Library, taking a break from my work, wandering in the third-floor corridor, where there is currently an exhibition of the works of William James Bennett (1787-1844), an American artist who made a series of topographical prints celebrating the American landscape. Many of the works are rendered in aquatint, suggesting watercolors. His views of American cities are well known, but I particularly liked the views of less settled regions, for instance, the view below of West Point.

It is dated 1831, and I couldn't help thinking about what Germany was like, in particular Goethe's environment, at about the same time. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find many comparable works; the Internet can't read my mind. (Perhaps someone will let me know where to search.) GoethezeitPortal has some nice documentation of Dornburg, including the acquarelle below, showing the three castles. The artist was Walter Hartwig, who was born in 1874. For some reason I suspect that Dornburg had not changed much since Goethe stayed there.

The "agenda" at the top of this post is Goethe's own, for September 9, 1828, on which he was making preparations to leave Dornburg and return to Weimar. Quite a busy day. I found the illustration in the Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts for 1971. At the end of each edition of the annual journal, there is a report on the preceding year's acquisitions, and the institution's report on the agenda is quite droll. It begins with Goethe's excuse for avoiding Weimar at the time of the Duke's funeral: "With the painful state of my interior I had at least to protect my outer senses" (Bei dem schmerzlichen Zustand des Innern mußte ich wenigstens meine äußern Sinne schonen). The report then goes on to say that, if one reads the diaries of this period, one discovers that the painful loss affecting him did not, however, cause an interruption in his work. I have already mentioned some of his pursuits in Dornburg, but the agenda at the top (click on image to enlarge) indicates the methodical way in which Goethe went about filling his days. Note that "Carlyle" is not crossed through; still some work to do there.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dornburg Poems

Goethe left Weimar on July 7, in order to avoid the burial of Carl August, and traveled to Dornburg, where he stayed until September 11, 1828, in the "Renaissance castle," the southmost of the three Dornburg castles. All three stood on the edge of steep slopes overlooking the Saale valley.

The diary entry of his first morning: "Saw early at dawn the valley and its rising fog [or, perhaps, haze]" (Früh in der Morgendämmerung das Thal und dessen aufsteigende Nebel). While thinking about botany and reading many works by botanists, contemporary and past, he was often looking down at the valley below. There must have been a series of terraces like those pictured here (courtesy of Achim Lemweil), connecting the castles, because on July 10 he reports that he made a tour of all of them (Ich ging zum erstenmal die Terrassen durch)
I was reminded of his report, in Poetry and Truth, of climbing to the top of the cathedral at Strassburg on his first day in the Alsatian town, supposedly to cure himself of his fear of heights.

The terraces recur frequently in his diary during the stay at Dornburg (e.g., "Early morning walk on the terrace"), along with many entries about weather and barometric conditions. Here are a few, which surely played a role in the two Dornburg poems he would compose:

On the 12th of July: "At about 5 a.m. a universal, thick, widespread haze, extending high in the atmosphere" (Gegen fünf Uhr allgemeiner dichter, hoch in die Atmosphäre verbreiteter Nebel).

On July 26: "I walked on the terraces by light (leidlich) wind and alternating cloud cover until about 8 a.m., when cloud cover and wind increased."

 On July 27: "After midnight full moonlight, valley completely clear. Only over Colmsdorf a heavy, flat mass of fog directly below the moon" (Nach Mitternacht voller Mondenschein, ganz klares Thal. Nur über Colmsdorf eine starke, flach gezogene Nebelmasse unmittelbar unter dem Monde).

On August 17: "The barometer rose by seven points [Linien; I'm unsure which system he used] and put an end to the storms. Broken clouds were suspended in the sky, the blue shone through."

On August 18: "Rose before sunrise. The valley was completely clear. The poet's expression: 'holy dawn was experienced' [heilige Frühe, a play on 'heilige Ruhe,' the Lord's day of rest]. Now the play of haze began its activity in the valley [Nun fing das Nebelspiel im Thale seine Bewegung an], which, with the southwest wind, lasted perhaps an hour and, except for a few thin strips of cloud, dissolved into total clarity."

On August 25, he noted the rising and progress of the full moon: "Schöner Aufgang und Fortschritt des Vollmondes." It was on this day that he wrote the first of the two poems associated with Dornburg. John Williams (who has written a life of Goethe) calls "To the Full Moon Rising" a "nocturnal poem" forming "an intimate dialogue between self and moon":

Willst du mich sogleich verlassen?
Warst im Augenblick so nah!
Dich umfinstern Wolkenmassen
Und nun bist du gar nicht da.

Doch du fühlst, wie ich betrübt bin,
Blickt dein Rand herauf als Stern!
Zeugest mir, daß ich geliebt bin,
Sei das Liebchen noch so fern.

So hinan denn! hell und heller,
Reiner Bahn, in voller Pracht!
Schlägt mein Herz auch schmerzlich schneller,
Überselig ist die Nacht.

(A translation can be found at Poem Hunter.)

Williams calls the second poem, dated September 1828, a "diurnal poem," one based on "sharp optical observation of forms and colors, moving in unbroken (though obscurely constructed) syntax from start to finish." Both poems, I think, combine Goethe's "symbolic vision" of things with the observations of atmospheric phenomena, made throughout the day, as noted in his diary entries.

Früh, wenn Tal, Gebirg und Garten
Nebelschleiern sich enthüllen,
Und dem sehnlichsten Erwarten
Blumenkelche bunt sich füllen,

Wenn der Äther, Wolken tragend,
Mit dem klaren Tage streitet,
Und ein Ostwind, sie verjagend,
Blaue Sonnenbahn bereitet,

Dankst du dann, am Blick dich weidend,
Reiner Brust der Großen, Holden,
Wird die Sonne, rötlich scheidend,
Rings den Horizont vergolden.

Here follows Christopher Middleton's translation, which, however, does not replicate the original syntax, with its series of subordinate clauses, reminiscent of Werther's May 10 letter:

To veils of mist in morning light
Disclosed are garden, valley, hill,
And cups of flowers with colours bright
To the most ardent longing fill.

Ether, in the clouds it bears,
Quarrels with the candid day,
And east wind, for the sun, prepares
A blue path, chasing them away.

With pure heart thank the mild great one,
With moving gaze the scene behold,
Then will the reddish setting sun
Ring the horizon round with gold.

As John Williams has remarked in another context (Goethe Handbuch I, 498), both poems draw on a dense arsenal of motifs from Goethe's oeuvre, especially the symbolism of his late work -- sun/moon, day/night, light/darkness, clarity/haze or fog -- though light motifs (sun, moon, stars) are present in Goethe's earliest lyric imagery. Moonlight as an occasion for lovers to think of one another can be found in his letters to Charlotte von Stein. Goethe sent the first poem, on the full moon, to Marianne von Willemer in October 1828, thus reminding her of the evenings they had spent together in Frankfurt over a decade earlier. Still, the diary entries indicate that this affinity for natural phenomena was not merely a matter of poetic convention, but was one arising from life-long observation.

The above photo was taken at sunset over the Hudson River in Manhattan. Like Goethe, I am fond of cloud phenomena.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Goethe and America

I've been so busy lately that I haven't had an opportunity to continue my Dornburg postings. Maybe tomorrow.
Tonight Ellis Shookman, of the German department at Dartmouth, will be speaking at the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, of which I am chair. His topic: "Attitudes toward America in Christoph Martin Wieland's  Journal Der Teutsche Merkur in the Years 1775 to 1807." These were the years in which we were forming into a nation, and the Germans seem to have been very interested in what was going on here.  I tried to get Ellis to speak at the Seminar in October, in the month before the U.S. presidential election, but his teaching schedule didn't allow him to get to New York before now.

In Goethe's early drama Stella, Lucie says that her father died on a business trip to America. In truth, he abandoned his wife and daughter, but America was apparently deemed far enough to prevent people from inquiring more closely. In Poetry and Truth, Goethe wrote that America was "the El Dorado of those who found themselves discommoded by their immediate situation" (das Eldorado derjenigen, die in ihrer augenblicklichen Lage sich bedrängt fanden). (I couldn't help myself using that word "discommoded"; actually, bedrängt means "pressured.")

Goethe of course followed contemporary political events, as I indicated in an earlier post about his interest in the Greek wars of independence. America's war of independence presented an alternative to the events of the French Revolution, and in Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship Lothario plans social and political reforms that will lead to a nonviolent transition from feudalism. The Journeyman Years features an emigration to America to found a utopian colony. (The above map shows areas of highest 18th-century German emigration.) My recent essay in Arion on William Wetmore Story has much to say about Goethe and relations between the "Old" and "New" world.

Many Americans visited Goethe in Weimar, but one of the most important mediators of Goethe's influence in the U.S. was the phenomenal Margaret Fuller. She translated Eckermann's conversations and wrote many essays on Goethe (and also of German Romantic literature) for The Dial.

The image of Goethe on a park bench in not from the U.S., though it reminds me of many such contemporary urban sculptures. It is by Klaus Glutting and can be found in Ilmenau.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Goethe at Dornburg

"I continue, as in past weeks, to pacify my painfully turbulent inner state through industry and distraction" (Ich fahre fort, wie diese Wochen her, durch Fleiß und Zerstreuung ein schmerzlich bewegtes Innere zu beschwichtigen). The pain referred to in this letter of Goethe's to Friedrich von Müller on August 7, 1828, was the death of Duke Carl August in June. Goethe had escaped to Dornburg, and his diary entries reveal that he did indeed plunge into a variety of studies, principally botanical. The death of Carl August was not the only reason Goethe felt abandoned. For 50 years he had engaged in scientific pursuits, and for most of that time his work on science had been ignored by his scientific contemporaries. There was some interest in France, however, and while in Dornburg he began to prepare a French translation of Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen. He also wrote an essay on wine-growing and expanded an earlier essay concerning the genesis of his botanical studies.

For me the most interesting entries in Goethe's Dornburg diary are his observations on the begonia plant or, as he refers to it, Bignonia radicans. These begin on August 25: "Finished above-mentioned poem," that is, Byron's unfinished play Heaven and Earth, which he had been reading the day before. Then: "Reflected on the Bignonia radicans and its gland-like growths on the back of each node" (Reflectirte über die Bignonia radicans und über drüsenartige Auswüchse an der Rückseite jedes Knotens). The next day he seems to have begun thinking of writing on the purpose of these "gland-like growths," for, on September 2, he records: "I revisited again the remarkable suctorial organ [Saugorgan] of the Bignonia radicans." The next day, according to his diary, he finished writing an essay on the subject. It never appeared in his scientific writings, only in the Weimar edition (II, 6, 340-45).

In this essay he begins by mentioning the impression made on him by the begonias in the botanical gardens in Padua (as seen above) in September 1786: a wide, high wall was completely covered with an unspeakable abundance of the deep yellow, chalice-like crown-flowers (Kronen-Blüten). He then goes on to describe it as a creeping plant that seems to have the tendency to continue infinitely, lacking, however, the organs with which it would be able to nestle, cling, or hold on. Thus, he writes, we force the plant to climb with the help of lattices, but, as he has observed with a certain distaste, the stem then retreats behind the lattices. Because of this the blossoms are unable to hang down, thus denying the viewer the beautiful effect of the hanging blossoms. To figure out why this is the case he turns to the "gland-like growths," which in the essay he describes as resembling grapes. (These are evident in the illustrations here.) The essay elaborates on their function.

One notices Goethe's close observation of environment: on the stems of begonias climbing the sides of a building there is no trace of this organ; it appears only on plants growing in moist places without a lot of sunlight. He comes to the conclusion that the organ is brought forth by moisture, which it then transmits to the plant (das Organ wird durch die Feuchtigkeit hervorgerufen, die es der Pflanze mitteilen soll).

Thus, the begonia is a "creeping" (rankende), not an upward climbing (aufsteigende) plant. Rather it is a hanging (niederhängende) one, and we are mistaken in our handling of it when we force it to climb, since it is thereby deprived of its most essential nutrient. He differentiates the cultivation of begonias from the grape wine: since the latter can grab hold anywhere with its tentacles (Gabeln), we should let it creep and prevail, as it seems good and useful to do so (lasse man ranken und walten, wie es gut und nützlich zu sein scheint). But with such a strikingly beautiful plant as the Bignonia radicans, plant it above and let it hang down (pflanze man oben und lasse sie sich herabsenken). I wonder what Goethe would have thought of the Japanese practice of forcing plants into unusual shapes, as seen in this lovely painting by the Japanese artist Koson Ahara (1877-1945). It does seem that the upper branches of the begonia in this painting seem deprived of the organ Goethe describes.

This small essay indicates anew (as if we didn't know already!) Goethe's intense attention to the factness of the natural world. The essay is written in the precise, descriptive style that is characteristic of his late poetry. I suspect that this style -- somewhat like the genesis of the moisture glands on the back of the begonia flower -- was a product of his scientific writing that was then transferred to his literary works.

With thanks to "Never Yet Melted" for the Koson image.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Goethe and Modern Greek History

Duke Carl August died in June 1828. To avoid the obsequies ("Trauerfeierlichkeiten"), Goethe fled to Dornburg, the small town in the Saale valley near Jena. Of the three castles on the mountain, Goethe stayed for two months in the so-called Renaissance castle. I had thought today to write about the two "Dornburg" poems, but I will save them for next time. For, in reading through his diary of these months, I could not help but me struck by the sheer range of his intellectual preoccupations and activities. There were his scientific interests, including, as noted on July 17, "examination of several examples of Allium cepa, one of which I cut in half." Allium cepa? A garden onion? What on earth was Goethe thinking about? Perhaps it interested him for its medicinal qualities.

Right before that entry, he noted that he was reading Niebuhr's Roman history. Barthold Georg Niebuhr's history seems "ancient" itself to us now, but Niebuhr (d. 1831) was actually a contemporary of Goethe's and his work on Rome, published from his academic lectures in 1812, is considered to have laid the foundation for German historical scholarship.

What struck me, because so unfamiliar, were repeated references to Goethe's reading of Rizo Néroulos's history of Greece. Again, this was a very recent work, by a diplomat and scholar (like Niebuhr) named Jakovaky Rizo Néroulos (1778-1849). I have found a reference to a French title published in 1828, which I suspect is the version Goethe read: Histoire modern de la gre ce depuis la chute de l'empire d'orient. Rizo Néroulos had also given a course of lectures in modern Greek literature at the university in Geneva, of which Goethe had apparently heard since he made a note about them in his diary in March 1828. According to his diary of September 5, 1829, he began reading the lectures on modern Greek literature. So, not only was Goethe keeping up with Le Globe in France, Carlyle in England, and the battle between classicists and romantics in Italy, he was also informing himself about modern Greek literature.

But back to Néroulos's history of Greece. On July 15, after consecutive daily reading of the history, Goethe notes that he has finished it. The next day, however, he mentions rereading the chapter in Rizo "from Ypsilantis's appearance until his resignation" (In Rizo das Capitel von Ypsilantis Erscheinung bis zu dessen Abtritt nochmals durchgelesen).

Another now historical figure who was a contemporary of Goethe: Alexander Ypsilantis.
Born in 1792, he died in January 1828, thus the year in which Goethe was reading of his exploits. Ypsilantis was a prince of the Danubian Principalities and had been a senior officer of the Imperial Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. During the Battle of Dresden, on July 6, 1813, he lost his right arm to a shell. Attending the Congress of Vienna, he won the favor of Tsar Alexander I, who appointed him an aide-de-camp.

More interesting perhaps for Goethe was that Ypsilantis became in 1820 the leader of a secret organization that coordinated the beginning of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. His plan included revolts of Serbs and Montenegrins, followed by a revolt in Wallachia, then provoking of unrest in Istanbul through the use of agents. All over Greece, in Macedonia, Crete, and Cyprus, national uprisings were planned. The revolution in Greece was to start after his arrival in the Peloponnese. Ypsilantis was counting on the support of the Russians, whom he believed would come to the aid of their fellow Orthodox.

Things didn't quite work out as planned. The tsar did not come to his aid, and Ypsilantis' forces were defeated at the Battle of Dragasani on June 19, 1821, by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mahmud II. Ypsilantis retreated to the Austrian-ruled Transylvania, where he wrote a forged letter to his troops stating that the emperor of Austria, Francis I, had declared war on Turkey and had a Te Deum sung in the local church.

The Austrians had done nothing of the sort (not for nothing was the Holy Alliance known as reactionary). They even refused to give him asylum. He was kept in confinement until 1827, when he was released at the insistence of Nicholas I of Russia. He spent his last years in Vienna, impoverished. After his death, at his wish, his heart was cut out and sent back to Greece for burial. Quite a colorful figure.

Despite Ypsilantis's failure, Western powers began to take interest and to intervene in the Balkans after the death of Lord Byron at Messolongi in 1824. In October 1827, British, French, and Russian fleets destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino, which was decisive. In October 28, shortly after Goethe had left Dornburg and returned to Weimar, French troops landed in the Peloponnese to stop Ottoman atrocities. Greek nationalists were thus able to regroup, form a government, and begin to seize territory. It must have been very thrilling for Goethe to follow these events. In July 1832, a month before his death, Greece was recognized as an independent kingdom by the Treaty of Constantinople. How much there must have been much for Goethe to muse on, not least because of his relationship with Byron.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Goethe and Bellini

My neighbor Jan (the one with the TV) had tickets for the dress rehearsal of Bellini's La Sonnambula, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera on March 2. In the main roles were Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino. I had never heard Bellina's opera before and was also unfamiliar with the story. I arrived at Lincoln Center just in time to take my seat and was thus unable to read the program notes. Just as well. Each seat at the Met has (optional) digital subtitles, right below eye level, so I was able to follow the action to its thrilling and unexpected conclusion. In the end things are resolved, but I (without benefit of program notes) was really holding my breath.

Natalie Dessay, as I have heard from reports of opera lovers, is petite, under 5 feet, and one can well imagine that she could walk on air as pictured here.
Diego Flórez is the current tenor sensation, so I find myself quite fortunate in being able to see and hear these new stars.

The subject -- sleepwalking -- seems like a high Romantic one, something characteristic of E.T.A. Hoffmann or Ludwig Tieck, and indeed the opera is highly Romantic. Still, one can definitely imagine various characters in works by Goethe as sleepwalkers: Gretchen and Ottilie, for instance.

Though the opera was first performed in 1831, the year before Goethe's death, it contains prominent conventions from an earlier, popular poetic genre, namely, the pastoral. The main characters in Goethe's first surviving play, Die Laune des Verliebten, are named Amine and Eridon. (Goethe's letters from Leipzig, between 1767 and 1768, show his long struggle to bring this play to completion.) Moreover, the plot of Goethe's play revolves around the reestablishment of pastoral harmony, which has been disturbed by the unreasonable jealousy of Eridon. Eridon is so insanely jealous that he cannot bear to see Amine admired by other men. In the end, he is brought to his senses, and the village "Fest" takes place. In Bellini's opera, it is likewise the male character, Elvino, whose irrational jealousy threatens to destroy the idyllic happiness of the pair of lovers. The opera culminates in a wonderfully staged village wedding. The chorus at the Met, in appropriate Tyrolean dress, was excellent.

The curious similarities with Bellini's opera -- the names of the two lovers and the theme of jealousy that nearly wrecks their love -- are perhaps accidental, but it is of interest to note that Goethe's Singspiel Jery und Bätely, a "Swiss idyll," was very popular in France in the early 1820s, when various composers supplied music to French translations of Goethe's text. Bellini's La Sonnambula is set in a Swiss village, and the prolific French librettist Eugène Scribe, who was librettist for several of Bellini's operas, also wrote the most well known French version of Goethe's Jery und Bätely, entitled Le chalet (first performed in 1834). Jenny Lind, "the Swedish nightingale," whose favorite role was that of Amina in Bellini's opera, is pictured here in such a setting.