Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crossing the Delaware

Goethe Girl kayaked a 12-mile stretch of the Delaware River this past Saturday. Here are a few pictures from that exciting day, which marked another milestone in my kayaking career. The day started at 5 a.m., with loading boats onto cars, then traveling north of Manhattan island (see map) to the part of the Delaware River that flows between Pennsylvania and New York.

The day was very warm, so warm that when we launched at 10 a.m. I decided not to wear my long dry pants. The river temperature was 55 degrees, pretty cold if you fall in, but by noon, when we stopped for lunch, the surrounding temperature was close to 90. Lunch tasted pretty good after two hours of paddling. The current was in our favor, but there were tricky rapids to watch out for, so you had to pay attention throughout; otherwise, you could find yourself knocked out of your kayak by one of the large rocks in the shallow parts of the river. The last mile of the trip we had a wind from the southwest against us. It was tough paddling, and I was surprised at how much muscle memory I still retained, since I had not been on a challenging paddle since late last fall.

Loading boats at 5 a.m.



And below is a painting of a truly important Delaware crossing, that of George Washington prior to the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. The hazardous winter crossing allowed Washington to lead the main body of the Continental Army across the river and engage in battle with the Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton.  The victory of the Continental forces was important for the morale of the revolution. The painting is a famous one, by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868).

It is always good to be reminded of historical events that took place where our feet are treading today. Indeed, as I traveled there with kayak friend Caroline, looking out over the valleys and mountains of this region, I thought about how 18th-century travelers, particularly from Goethe's time, must have looked upon the wild American territory. The wide spaces must have made quite an impression on people from urbanized, thickly populated Europe. And, then, there were those Hessian soldiers. Friedrich Schiller's father had been a recruiting agent, and it was no doubt the terrible details of men being sold to the English to fight in America that Schiller incorporated in his drama Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Germany, then and now

I wrote recently about my student days in Marburg ("Spring Awakens," April 3), about the difficulty I had keeping my quarters warm throughout the cold German winter. Just yesterday something arrived that reminded me of those days as well. It was a series of photographs taken in 1990 by the West German photographer Karlheinz Jardner. Jardner had traveled that year to the East German island of Rügen, site of the cliffs made famous by Caspar David Friedrich, capturing a world, as he writes, "that would soon vanish forever." 

There was a photo of children (left) who had been out collecting coal, that recalcitrant medium of heat with which I sought to get the iron-bodied stove to heat my room. The photo that most touched me, however, was that of a woman in her living room (above), for it reminded me of the living room of my own landlady in Marburg. On the walls of that living room were photos of life from another time and place, Germany in the 1930s. One of the pictures showed an alpine setting with an angelic-looking girl who had succumbed to malnutrition and consumption in 1943. My landlady's surviving daughter was slightly feeble-minded, whether an effect of the war or an unnatural endowment I never discovered.

The living room was the gathering place, evenings at about 5:30, of a small group of lodgers from the large and ancient building in which I lived that year. An indication of the in-between state of the German economy in the late 1960s was that not all Germans owned a television set. What amazied an American like myself on the evenings I was present was the attentiveness with which my fellow lodgers sat through the solid thirty minutes of advertising that preceded the evening's TV programming -- there were no commercial breaks as yet -- thereby corroborating every cliché concerning the authority-consciousness of Germans.

I enjoyed sitting with my neighbors, less for the TV than for the firsthand stories I prodded them into telling me concerning the hardships they had endured in World War II. Having grown up in America, I could not get my fill of tales in which ordinary people showed themselves inventive and courageous in the face of adversity, reported with admirable stoicism and matter-of-factness. In contrast to me, everyone in that small TV-viewing group had been touched and after over twenty years, some still lived with the war's effects, for instance, the lodger who had lost her husband in Russia in 1941 when her son was four. 

That son, however, was now a grown man himself and belonged to the rising generation of German economic entrepreneurs. You always knew when he was on one of his visits from Frankfurt, already the major economic center of West Germany, because his large green Mercedes would be blocking the sidewalk outside. The narrow streets in the Old City of Marburg, much like this street in Rügen, were otherwise too narrow to allow such a big car to park.

Though the woman in Rügen was too young in 1990 to have experienced World War II, she appears to have followed the path of my landlady in Marburg, gathering around her as many of life's comforts as were possible, including a TV. Down to the cupboard with the dishes and other knickknacks, the wallpaper, the curtains, the barometer, and the small table with the both pastel cloth atop, this could have been the living room of my Marburg landlady.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Goethe and Doubting Thomas

Catholics don't grow up as Bible readers, so as a child I wasn't aware of what the expression "doubting Thomas" referred to. I liked the expression, however, and used to imagine that Thomas was like the boy who cried wolf too many times. In the meantime I have aged and read a lot more, including the passage from John 20:19-29, which was the Gospel reading at yesterday's mass. Thomas, according to the Biblical account, was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them "on the evening of that first day of the week." When they told Thomas, "called Didymus," of that appearance, he replied: "unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." In the painting by Caravaggio, at the end of this post, we see Thomas doing just that, though the account in John does not say that Thomas actually did so.

Goethe, as far as I can tell, does not refer to this Biblical account, but he does have an insightful interpretation of Thomas' hand gesture in the painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo. It occurs in an essay Goethe wrote in 1817 that appeared in Über Kunst und Altertum (WA 49, 1, 201-48). This is a very lengthy essay, assessing Leonardo's genius.The occasion for writing it was the acquisition by Carl August of a portfolio of copies made of Leonardo's works by Giuseppe Bossi (1777-1815), founder of the Museo Archeologico in Milan. Goethe had seen the Last Supper in May 1788, on his return toWeimar from Rome, and he now decided to study Leonardo's life and writings more closely.

As he later wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée, "These studies were of the greatest importance for me, requiring me to pursue once again all traces of this extraordinary artist and human being; whereby one is nevertheless frightened by the depth of possibilities that are to be revealed in a single individual." After he had finished his essay he had access to a copy of an edition of the Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270, the parent manuscript of Leonardo's projected treatise on painting, Trattato della Pittura.

The portion of Goethe's essay on the Last Supper situates the painting in the refectory for which it was created at the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. (At the left is a view of the refectory of "L'Abbaye de Port-Royal," ca. 1710, by the artist Louise Madeleine Cochin.) At one end of the dining hall is the table of the prior, on either side of which are the tables for the monks. Opposite them, on the "fourth wall," over the door, are painted Christ and his disciples, as if they were part of the same company. "At dinner it must have been a significant sight, when the tables of the prior and of Christ, two contrasting pictures, gazed at one another, and the monks at their tables found themselves enclosed between them." He goes on to remark that it would have been inappropriate for Leonardo to have depicted the dinner guests reclining (in the Roman or ancient Jewish manner at Passover): "No! the holy company had to be brought close to the present one. Christ was to take his Last Supper with the Dominicans."

He next describes the different poses, noting that only two of the disciples are rendered in full figure; of the other ten only the upper part is portrayed, since it is here that every moral expression inheres (Jeder sittliche Ausdruck gehört nur dem oberen Teil des Körpers an). For Goethe the pregnant moment is not the institution of the Eucharist, but the moment in which Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed by one of the disciples ("Einer ist unter euch, der mich verrät!"). It is to this revelation that the disciples are reacting. Goethe goes on to describe these reactions, starting with the three figures on the right of Jesus -- Peter, Judas, and John.

Thomas is among the group on the left, which includes Philipp and Jacob. Thomas, behind Jesus' shoulder, leans in close and lifts the index finger of his right hand to his forehead. (Click on image at top of post to enlarge.) Interestingly, Thomas is the only figure in the painting whose expression Goethe does not otherwise interpret. For instance, he puts these words into the mouth of Philip, the disciple at the right of this threesome, who has stood up and placed his hands on his chest: "Lord, it's not me! You know it's not me! You know my pure heart. It's not me!" (Herr, ich bin's nicht! Du weißt es! Du kennst mein reines Herz. Ich bin's nicht!

There has been some debate about Goethe's essay and about Thomas's gesture. The art historian Josef Strzygowsky thought that Goethe didn't know what to make of that pointing finger, which Strzygowksy interpreted as a threat: in other words, Thomas seems to be saying, "just wait until I find out who the betrayer is!" Paul Weizsäcker, however, writing in Goethe Jahrbuch in 1898, disagreed. It is clear what Thomas was indicating: "You must be out of your mind" (Du wirst doch gescheit sein), that is, an expression of total doubt about what he has just heard.

In another context Goethe did elaborate on the gesture: "Saint Thomas, head and right hand, his raised index finger is turned toward the forehead, to indicate reflection. This gesture, standing somewhere between suspicion and doubt, has been misjudged before, and an apprehensive disciple has been interpreted as threatening." Goethe recognized what Thomas was expressing, according to Weizsäcker, but did not go far enough. Thus, Weizsäcker extrapolates from Goethe's caution: Thomas is here an image of absolute disbelief: "Whatever are you thinking of? That can't be!" (Wo denkst du hin? Das kann ja gar nicht sein!) Thus, doubting Thomas, or "ungläubiger Thomas." I wonder if Goethe was cautious because he had not seen a painting like Caravaggio's, which so graphically conveys how Thomas' doubt was removed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Goethe's Color Theory and Modern Artists

There is currently an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1969. As the exhibition brochure has it, the exhibition "traces how Asian art, literature, and philosophy were transmitted and transformed within American cultural and intellectual currents, influencing the articulation of new visual and conceptual languages." (I love that word "articulation," which has found its way into postmodern conceptual vocabulary. Actually I use it a lot myself these days.)

Yesterday I had a little time, 45 minutes, which allowed me to pop in at the Guggenheim. (Am I lucky to live in Manhattan, or what?) A description of the works in the rotunda would be somewhat banal, so I recommend going to the Guggenheim's website and looking at the interactive show. It focuses on the happenings, performance art, and multimedia and interactive installations -- "process art." One is called "human carriage," by Ann Hamilton ("invited," so the brochure, by the museum to offer a site-specific installation). It is a mechanism composed of "book weights" made from thousands of cut-up books that ascend and descend the heights of the museum's rotunda via a pulley system, and a pair of Tibetan cymbals encased in a white silk "bell carriage" that cascades down the balustrade along the rotunda spiral. The effect? "Its purifying ring awakens visitors with random chimes."

Inevitably, exhibits in the "Buddhism and the Neo-Avant Garde" section -- featuring John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg -- look amateur by comparison. I am not being cynical. Installations like that by Hamilton are really lots of fun, and perhaps that is the purpose of art in an affluent age. The museum was packed.

I made my way up the rotunda to one of the side rooms. It contained works by the usual suspects -- James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt -- as well as by Arthur Dow and Georgia O'Keeffee. Yes, one sees the affinities these artists had with Japanese art. Clearly Cassatt learned a lot from Japanese printmakers.

My favorite in this room was by an artist I had not heard of before, Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973), cofounder in 1913 of what was called the Synchromist movement. The painting at the top of the post, called "Dragon Trail," is from the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

I think Goethe would have liked the idea (if not the resulting art) of the Synchromist movement: since color and sound are similar phenomena, the colors in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony. The idea was to paint in color scales, thereby evoking musical sensations. I have discovered that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a MacDonald-Wright painting, Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, from 1920 (at the right).

A few years earlier Wassily Kandinsky, in his small treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, had advanced similar ideas about the spiritual qualities of abstract art. When I was still teaching the "Great Books," I loved introducing students to this small book. The Guggenheim has a number of works by Kandinsky. Kandinsky was certainly correct about the spiritual effects of color. In any case, I have always been drawn me to his colorful canvases, which in turn drew me yesterday to MacDonald-Wright's painting.

According to the Wikipedia entry on MacDonald-Wright, he didn't get interested in Japanese art until after World War II, so it seems more the case that Synchromy emerged from the artistic milieu around Kandinsky. It is well known that J.M.W. Turner traveled with a copy of Goethe's Farbenlehre, but early-20th-century artists must also have known of Goethe's color theories. Undoubtedly this is a subject that has been well mined, and when I have time (!), I will look into it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Goethe and Rubens

I came late to appreciating Peter Paul Rubens, just a few years ago, in fact. One recognized that there was something special, but I felt overwhelmed by the huge historical and allegorical dramas that demanded interpretation. Clearly, they required study and attention, but I couldn't find a way in. Then, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition of Rubens drawings, many of which were studies for individual portions of the large canvases.

The show revealed the working method behind the achievement. Last summer I saw some wonderful portraits in Vienna, and now in New York the Frick has the beautiful painting of the women at Christ's tomb, appropriate for Easter, one of five works on loan from the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena.

It would be too much to expect that Goethe would have something specific to say about Easter, but looking through his writings on art I discovered that Rubens was a lifelong enthusiasm. He may have first seen paintings by Rubens in Dresden in 1768 and in Düsseldorf in 1774. His first mention of the artist is in connection with reflections on art in the very early (1775) writing called "Nach Falkonet und über Falkonet."

Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791) was an important French Rococo sculptor. Madame de Pompadour was his patron, and he created many works that might have been considered insipid for the Sturm und Drang generation, but Falconet also wrote, for instance, the chapter on "Sculpture" for the Encyclopédie. It was his Observations sur la statue de Marc-Aurèle (1771), considered to be his artistic program for his statue of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg, to which Goethe was responding in his essay.

Undoubtedly Goethe never saw The Holy Women at the Sepulchre (it was, e.g., created for a family in Antwerp in about 1611, went to the collection of Johann Rudolf, Count Czernin in Vienna in about 1804, was then in Salzburg, then London, from where the Norton Simon Foundation purchased it in 1972), but what Goethe says about Rubens in "Nach Falkonet" applies to the female figures here:

What the painter hasn't loved, doesn't love, he should not portray, cannot portray. You find Rubens' women too fleshy! I tell you, they were his women, and had he populated heaven and hell, the air, the earth, and the sea with ideal beings, then he would have been a bad husband, and powerful flesh would not have grown from his flesh nor [powerful] bone from his bone.

Let me give the German here, since it is so full of Goethe's own powerful writing style in the early 1770s, linking the natural talents of an artist like Rubens with "Genie," indeed with the creations of God, amplified in this passage by the Biblical echoes:

Was der Künstler nicht geliebt hat, nicht liebt, soll er nich schildern, kann er nicht schildern. Ihr findet Rubensens Weiber zu fleischig! Ich sage euch, es waren seine Weiber, und hätt' er Himmel und Hölle, Luft, Erd und Meer mit Idealen bevölkert, so wäre er ein schlechter Ehmann gewesen, und es wäre nie kräftiges Fleisch von seinem Fleisch und Bein von seinen Beine geworden.

As Goethe left his early enthusiastic language behind, he became more measured in later comments on Rubens, but his admiration did not lessen. In a draft for an essay on landscape painting, from 1818, he writes:

As a history painter it was not that he sought out what was significant [das Bedeutende] but that he knew how to endow every object with significance; for that reason his landscapes are unique. Whether it be on steep mountains, on limitless expanses, even on the quietest, simplest rural object, he knows how to endow it with its spirit [i.e., the spirit of significance] and, because of that, to render the most common thing important and charming. 

These are interesting observations, since Rubens (for me, anyway) is not primarily a landscape artist. I associate him with large works with impressive historical, mythological, religious drama, though it is true that many of the drawings I saw at the Met exhibit were of rural scenes. It cannot be denied that Rubens endows them with charm. Still, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked at the luscious women in the Easter painting, of Christiane Vulpius, who also represents a rather pulchritudinous beauty that might have attracted Goethe. What Goethe says in the "Falconet" essay, following the French artist's observations on marble, light, and color, applies to Rubens' work here. Goethe has clearly grasped the sculptural principle behind the figures Rubens created, an influence of his study of classical sculpture in Rome.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Goethe and China

Some day soon I want to post something about Goethe and Chinese literature, but for the next two weeks total focus on another subject is required. Last year, as chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, I held a series of talks on the historical origins of free speech in the 18th century. I have edited the papers of the participants in that series and am now writing the introduction to the proposed volume. Thus, the single-minded focus on a non-Goethe subject. "Goethetc," however, has become well known enough that it will soon be featured in the online Yareah magazine.

In lieu of a posting on Goethe and China, let me post some photos from our recent bike ride down to New York's Chinatown. Rick and I had planned to go to the Battery, but when we reached Canal Street he said, "let's go get some fish for dinner." There is a nice bike lane across Grand Street on which we traveled to Elizabeth Street, where Rick's favorite market is located.

He wanted to ride my bike.

Alligator legs

We finish our purchases

Rick helps move a car

The silver 10 Yuan Goethe coin at the top of the post was issued in 1992.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Fixing" the World

The internationalists are at it again. After his first summit, our president hailed agreements at the recent emergency meeting of world powers as a "turning point in our pursuit of global economic recovery." While cautioning that there were no guarantees, he nevertheless believed that the "unprecedented steps" taken (e.g., another trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money) would "restore growth and prevent a crisis like this from happening again."

The real focus of the gathering was the image created, though the Europeans, even with the celebrity of our leader, can hardly hold a candle to the kind of spectacle put on by Napoleon at the Congress of Erfurt in 1808. Seeking to awe the Russian emperor Alexander and all the other European eminences with the glory of France, Napoleon even brought along the Comédie Française, which presented sixteen French tragedies over the course of the Congress. Goethe, who went to Erfurt on September 29 at the request of Carl August, attended a performance every night that he was in Erfurt. No doubt, he would have appreciated Carla Bruni. She is real French "culture"!

Goethe was certainly much impressed with Napoleon, who he believed would ensure the security of Europe and guarantee peace. As if peace could be secured once and for all, for ever. A description of their meeting can be found at this site. Though I haven't read his account, Arthur Schopenhauer seems to have been rather cynical about the proceedings at the Congress. I am with Arthur.

Europe, as much as it has meant for my own self-formation, seems to have lost its way. Every time I read European newspapers, I can't help but feel that Europe's leaders are ignoring the problems of their own peoples and countries ("democracy deficit" anyone? demographics? unsustainable spending?). Instead, as during the Enlightenment and into the early 19th century, Europe imagines that, via international agreements and diplomacy, it can fix the world's problems, "once and for all." The catch, of course, is Europe's reliance on the U.S. to turn over barrels of our own citizens' hard-earned money to Europe's enlightened ends. Well, we have plenty of Europeanists in America for whom all problems can be solved if only enough money is thrown at them.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Awakens

How bright, how splendid
Is everything!
How the sun shines down,
How, the meadows sing!
Buds burst from every
Twig, and from all
The bushes a thousand
Voices call,

And all hearts pour forth
Their joy and delight
Oh the earth, oh nature,
Oh dear sunlight!

These are the opening lines of Goethe's "May Song" (Mailied, translation by David Luke). It is not May, of course, but, as I experienced myself as a student in Germany, May was when you had the first signs of what we know of as spring. For instance, the crocuses in my rather pathetic urban garden.

I went to Germany when I was a junior in college, still very young, not yet eighteen (I had skipped a year of school many years earlier). This was back in the days right before the German "economic miracle," when there was still plenty of rubble on the streets, reminders of World War II. Back then the exchange rate was 4 DM to the dollar, and so an American like myself could live quite well as a student in a town like Marburg for $100 a month. Wanting to live like a "real" German student, I rented a room in the "Altstadt" (old city), only a few minutes' walk from the main buildings of the university for the grand sum of DM40 -- $10 -- a month. My room, located in the lowest level of the house next to the storeroom that held the coal for the building, was reached only after I navigated an unlit, rickety flight of steps. The bed in the room sagged, the walls were covered with faded tapestries to hide the peeling wallpaper, and in one corner, concealed behind a likewise faded fabric curtain, was a small sink with running cold water, an item of comparative luxury.

Yet, it has to be said that when my room was warm, when orange peels, spread on the iron plate atop the coal stove, gave off their sweet fragrance, when I was sitting at the wobbly table that served as a desk, with a cup of tea within reach while reading a German novel and looking up words I didn't know (in the big Cassell's dictionary I kept close by) -- at those times, it was  a very charming room, and nothing could match my sense of contentment. If I had been a cat, I would have purred.

The major problem was that coal stove. The trick was to get a decent fire going and then lay on a supply of coal, with the air hole open just wide enough, so that the fire would not die. In that way, when I returned from my classes I only had to open the flue, prod the glowing ashes to life with the poker, add a few lumps of coal, and -- presto -- my room would soon be warm enough to be able to sit an my desk and read. My landlady could get a fire going in my stove with a few quick gestures, but a childhood spent in gadget-rich America, used to having only to flip a switch for light to read, to turn a faucet for warm water, meant the atrophy of many of those inner muscles that otherwise helped humans to survive through the millennia.

By the end of the winter, with lots of experimentation and helpful advice, I learned how to keep a fire going. The German winter inched forward, however, with pockets of warmth, and I awakened many a morning with my nose and ears cold. I would cautiously test the stove, but its iron body was resolutely cold and the heap of ashes held no spark that could be coaxed to life.

It was via that iron stove that a kind of pre-modern consciousness entered into my thinking. Getting a fire going certainly enlightened me to the peculiarities of much folk literature. It was no doubt the task of Cinderella -- emblematic of poor household servants through the centuries -- to keep a fire going for days on end, indeed the entire winter, over which her masters could warm their hands in the morning. If nothing else, my hardships, such as they were, led me to appreciate the joy a person felt who made it through a German winter in an age when coal was not mined and delivered to your house. When spring finally arrived I did indeed feel a visceral appreciation for the sentiments expressed in Goethe's "May Song," including the exclamation marks. Here the rest of the poem:

Oh love, more lovely
Than break of day
On those golden hills
Where the clouds play!
In a mist of blossoms
Your fields renew
Their fullness, your world
Is blessed with dew.

Oh dearest girl,
Oh I love you so!
And you love me too
As your bright eyes show!
As the lark loves singing
And soaring high
As the morning flowers
Love the breathing sky,

So I love you
With my heart's warm blood,
For you give me youth
And joy, and a mood
For new songs and dances.
Oh may you be
Ever happy, as ever
Your love for me!

Picture credit: Mike Allen (Marburg pic); Valentine Cameron Princep (Cinderella, 1899)