Thursday, December 31, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Go Green?

Friedrich Schiller in his first play was concerned with the problem of good and evil. It's a problem that has been relativized out of existence. I notice that young people, the ones I used to teach, hardly discuss such big questions anymore, not because they are uninterested in these questions, but because limits have been enforced on their thinking. In a world of postmodern relativism, however, they do cling to certain sureties. I always noticed, when I still taught, that no matter how bad the spelling, grammar, organization of their papers were, students never made the mistake of using the male pronoun. They always wrote, very correctly, "he or she." Similarly, they have all become environmentalists. If I had expressed skepticism about the influence of men (or, rather, humans) on global warming (or, now, climate change), they would have been very uncomfortable, because for nearly a dozen years they had been taught the opposite. I might as well have expressed doubt that the earth was round.

Reusable bags are everywhere, and Con Edison, when I receive my monthly bill for electricity consumed, reminds me to be "environmental." So does capitalism, as Marx observed, move in tandem with the reigning ideology.

Christmas lights thanks to "Queens Crap"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Christtag früh"

As a young man Goethe did express some enthusiasm about Christmas, as can be seen in a letter to Johann Christian Kestner, written on Christmas day, 1772. He begins the letter vividly, locating himself in a specific time and place, up in his famous attic room:

Early Christmas day. It is still night, dear Kestner, and I have got up early in order to write again by the light of early morning, which recalls pleasant memories of earlier days; I had coffee made to honor the feast and plan to keep writing until morning breaks. The crier has already announced his song; I woke up on account of it. Praise to you, Jesus Christ. I love this time of year, the songs one sings; and the sudden cold makes me feel completely cheerful.

This was at the height of the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen phase, the so-called Sturm und Drang era, when Herder, Merck, and Goethe formed a literary circle. His letters are of a piece with the poetry and other literary writings. He sketches in this longish letter his changing mood as day dawns and reflects on his days with Lotte and Kestner. He mentions the previous evening:

We had a beautiful evening yesterday, like people on whom fortune has bestowed a great gift, and I fell asleep grateful to the holy ones in heaven for wanting o bless us with childlike joy for Christmas. When I walked through the market and saw the many lights and the toys I thought of you and my boys ...

Soon day arrives: "The first sign of day [das erste Grau!] has arrived above my neighbor's house, and the bells call together a Christian congregation." Yes, some enthusiasm on Goethe's part for Christmas, though it must be remembered that the protagonist of The Sorrows of Young Werther killed himself at Christmas time. Kestner of course was the fiance of Lotte Buff, the inspiration for Werther's love interest.

The pictures accompanying this post are totally unrelated to Goethe. They are from an old advertisement featuring a watercolor by the artist Charles E. Burchfield, an American artist with whom I have recently become acquainted via my friend, the artist Maureen Mullarkey. A good cheer to all at Christmas! I will be reading tomorrow, as every year, Charles Dickens' Christmas tales.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

Since this is the longest day of the year, it means that the daylight will be increasing every day from here on out, a minute or so a day at first, until by March it will be as much as six minutes a day. And, then, one fine day in April I will be able to join the folks on the Delaware River for the first kayak outing of the season!

Some of you may wonder what it is like to kayak here in New York City. Here is a link to a teaser for a new movie on that very subject, featuring the Downtown Boathouse (where Rick and I are volunteers) and many of the folks we work with there: Mike, Jeremey, Tim, and so on.

Here is more information on the movie.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Goethe and the Rebirth of the Sun

Last year about this time I started looking for Christmas material to post on this blog, only to discover that Goethe wrote very little in the way of poetry about this Christian feast. In the meantime I came across a small book at the Goethe Institute here in Manhattan: "Christmas with Goethe" (Weihnachten mit Goethe). Anyone hoping to find Goethe expressing heartfelt joy at Christmas, however, will be sorely disappointed. The longest entries in an otherwise slender book (137 pages of large-print text in a 5x7 inch volume) are literary selections, from the Wilhelm Meister novels (e.g., "The Second Flight into Egypt"), or are vaguely anthropological ("Christmas in Naples," in Italian Journey).

Apparently Christmas did not go uncelebrated in Weimar. In a letter dated 20 December 1816, Marianne von Willemer informs August von Goethe that she has sent a package to Weimar that includes the kinds of sweets that Goethe père likes, including gingerbread cookies, as well as hams and sausages for August. Moreover, wrapped up with a pair of slippers for August is a "Christkindchen." I am not sure whether this is a figure for the Nativity manger, or whether it is another baked good in the shape of the infant Jesus. I think it must be the latter, because she writes that it is a gift for August and is an "allegorical allusion to their childhood." (She and August, who are about the same age, had got to know each other earlier in Frankfurt when he was visiting with his mother there.)

Marianne goes on: "You are, true, grown up now, but I am and remain small [i.e., a child]; and if the rest of the year I am large [i.e., an adult], every Christmas I become a child again." Goethe apparently liked the sweets that were profuse at Christmas, but not the sentiments that accompany the occasion. Still to be researched is whether Goethe wrote or said so little about Christmas because he disliked its Christian associations or because Christmas fell in the depths of winter. A clue is this report from Eckermann, dated Sunday, 21 December 1823:

Goethe's good mood was radiant again today. We have reached the shortest day, and the hope of seeing the days becoming significantly longer every week seems to exert the most favorable influence on his mood. "Today we are celebrating the rebirth of the sun!" he hailed me as I came in this morning. I hear that every year he spends the weeks before the shortest day in a depressed mood and goes around sighing.

As we approach the shortest day, the East Coast has become decked in snow. The snowfall began last evening.

I can't resist adding this rather weird image of the Flight into Egypt by Caravaggio. What would we do without Christian art!

Photo credit: McCutheon

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art and Morals

I have not posted for a while. I wanted to write something about Goethe's essay on Winckelmann, but that led me back to Winckelmann's own essays as well, and then it was necessary to read some of Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder, too. For about a week now I have been trying to wrap my mind around the literary criticism of "Classical Weimar," i.e., the writings of Schiller and Goethe.

I "get" Gottsched, Lessing, and Herder: they were men of the Enlightenment who believed that critics could help form the tastes of the reading and theater-going public. In other words, tell people why they liked what they liked, or why they should like it. And, conversely, why they should dislike a work of art or literature. "Taste" is about subjective pleasure and displeasure. There is no arguing with taste, as someone said. At the same time, we all want to feel that there is some basis for our subjective evaluation. Thus the job of critics, contemporary or in the 18th century: they tell us what to think about aesthetic objects. People read the book or movie reviews, and decide on the basis of what the critic says whether to read the book or see the movie. No doubt reviews even allow people to talk about books as if they had read them. A year or so ago some French psychiatrist wrote a book on how to talk about things one hadn't read at, say, cocktail parties or other sociable occasions.

The Classical Weimar literary criticism is different. Schiller and Goethe basically gave up on trying to form public taste. Schiller, in a number of essays and reviews, laments what might be called the lack of "ideological uniformity" of modern society. Like many Germans, he looked back to ancient Greece as the ideal of social unity where citizens, from high to low, were of "one mind" regarding the spiritual or non-material side of life. I guess you could say the same thing about, say, American Indians four centuries ago. Thus, they all shared the same religion, artists produced for all the people, etc.

Schiller would like for all members of a nation to share the same way of feeling about these essential things of life. In the modern world, however, with changes in labor, society has become fragmented and more differentiated, with a variety of tastes, most of which (according to Schiller) are bad: people like to be entertained, and not by the "highest" art. Schiller approved of attaining pleasure from art, but not the kind of pleasure that merely fulfills the sensual side of our nature.

The true "aesthetic condition" could only be fulfilled by art that restores the "unity of human nature," a unity disturbed by the contemporary laboring life. Obviously, someone working on a production line would prefer, after a day of work, some easy relaxation of his faculties. Schiller, however, made high demands on artists and on the reception of art. Both he and Goethe believed that a literary and artistic market that catered to the public was bad for art and for the intellectual culture of the nation.

The above was on my mind as I visited the Bauhaus exhibition at MOMA. The occasion was the visit of our friend Philippe (pictured above), who travels from Germany at this time of year to stay with his aunt (my friend Gigi) in Connecticut. After Thanksgiving, he comes to New York. He was greatly interested in the Bauhaus, because his brother is an architect.

The Bauhaus experiment is in a long line of prescriptions for restoring that "lost unity" that Schiller imagined existed in ancient Greece. The Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, for instance, issued a call for artists in all media (according to the wall label) "to rally around a new constructive purpose, at once aesthetic and social. 'The arts have become isolated in the modern age,' he wrote in 1919, and the school must forge a 'new unity.'" Later László Moholy-Nagy called for "the creation of a new vision for the modern age."
A prospectus for a series of books begins: "Proceeding from the recognition that all branches for the fashioning of life [Gestaltungsgebiete] are connected with one another, the Bauhaus is publishing a series of book that will occupy itself with the problems of contemporary life."

It is interesting how many artists and artistic types, especially since we live at a time of comfort produced by the division of labor lamented by Schiller, are in favor of fashioning a society in which everyone is on the same page. I think this is a European tendency, the inheritance of an intellectual tradition reaching back to the Enlightenment.

It was the crucial innovation of Swiss-born Benjamin Constant to argue that it was not the role of government or elites to mold opinion through education or "to direct, improve, or enlighten" the lives of citizens. Rousseau, unhappy with dissent and diversity, advocated for the General Will, which was to emerge from "the voice of duty," not from the opinions of individuals. Constant argued for a collision of opinions. The U.S. seems to have been founded on the basis of Constant's insights.

The Old World seems to be continuing in the same path of enforcing uniformity, through the instruments of the E.U. Just two recent examples. The former Beatle Paul McCartney spoke before the E.U. advocating "meat-free Mondays" to save the planet. In a similar vein, a Canadian journalist has advocated a Chinese-like policy of one child per couple -- even though she has two children herself. There is a great discomfort, mostly among people of talent and even genius, with the messy differences of individuals. And I wonder if McCartney or the Canadian journalist have gone so far in their thinking as to calculate the bureaucratic costs or the unintended consequences of their ideas. Probably not, since they are not "thinking," but responding aesthetically to the world.

The worst part of such high-mindedness is the power it cedes to functionaries to control all aspects of our lives. Aesthetic criticism is implicitly moral advice, not simply about what one should think of a movie or a novel but about how one should live. And this advice is "regulative": if we don't follow it we are an uncouth person or worse. The Nazis had the same idea, as did the Soviets. The Europeans seem on the path of asserting a softer despotism, but a despotism nevertheless.

Despite the above, I enjoyed many aspects of the Bauhaus exhibit, especially among the early generation, for instance, this playful color grid by Josef Albers. I also understand the desire of intellectuals and artists to be "relevant" to the society in which they live, but I have learned to live with the fact that most people are not interested in Goethe. "Most people," however, also produce the things that make my life easier and more comfortable, unlike myself, who works for my own pleasure and profit.

Picture credits: Alvise Cosma; Civitas '99; Ecorazzi;