Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Sublime, Again

In an essay written in 1746 Johann Jakob Bodmer distinguished between the sublime and our ordinary enjoyment of or delight in works of nature. Examples of the latter might be flowers or a rainbow or a running brook. One does not feel astonishment or marvel at such natural phenomena, writes Bodmer, although a reflective mind, aware of the beauty, greatness, and multiplicity of nature, is conscious of "the power and wisdom of their maker." The Creator, he continues, did not intend for us to live in a state of continuous enchantment or astonishment, however, but created nature to please and to instruct us. Of course, we all know folks (mostly in literature, I suspect) who exist in a state of rapture. Goethe's Werther lived on that plane, but Goethe himself came to reject Werther. As for works of art, they are of a lower order than nature's wonders. What is wondrous about them comes from being copies, the orginals of which (the Urbilder) are to be found in nature, and are valuable insofar as they resemble these.

If we look about the world, however, we discover works of nature and of man whose purpose does not seem to be to instruct or to delight, but that, instead, produce shock, terror, pity, and so on. Bodmer refers not simply to the usual sublime objects of 18th-century wonderment -- the Alps, the immensity of the starry skies above, the oceans -- but also certain great acts of humans. Most men, however, according to Bodmer, are not extraordinary and cannot be either good or evil in the highest degree. Every now and then, of course, one encounters people who depart from the ordinary rules and follow their own star, and one is amazed at their achievements.

I took notes on this treatise about a week ago, and, then, in the past two days, encountered two things, in the real world, that made me think about Bodmer's remarks.

The first was a very interesting documentary Rick and I watched, The Botany of Desire, based on a book by Michael Pollan. The film is about the relationship of humans to four "everyday plants": apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. The idea is to link the natural history of the plant to human desires and to show the reciprocal relationship of plants and humans. The apple, for instance, originated in Kazakhstan, but has traveled around the world, playing an important role in the colonization of North America. Despite the efforts of Johnny Appleseed, very few of us get our apples straight from the orchard anymore or even from a local grower. Agro-business is the name of the game, and the result is what Pollan calls "monocultures": once there were dozens, maybe hundreds of varieties of apples, but nowadays the average American knows only two or three. Moreover, we can't really control nature only for our own purposes; for instance, overcultivated plants tend to fall prey to disease. Then, pesticides have to be introduced. Etc., etc.

Pollan's intention is to make people more aware of the things we take for granted, the ordinary beauties of nature of which Bodmer wrote. The subject has become much more complicated since the 18th century, but Pollan presents the subject in a very agreeable manner, not beating up on the giant conglomerates that bring flowers to our markets and French fries to our hungry mouths. The scenes of the motorized carts speeding through warehouses after the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, sending out millions of flowers from Holland into the world daily, are truly impressive. (Dare I say that there is something "sublime" about this modern achievement?) Likewise, the Idaho farmers Pollan features in his vignette on potatoes are a normal American family, with kids, parents, and a grandfather, the kind of people who might have once run a farm that provided for people 100 miles around but now run an operation that feeds the world: their potatoes go into French fries in Bangkok and Caracas. So, Pollan's documentary was reminding us about what we have lost, the ordinary wonders of the natural world that were "second nature" to people of Bodmer's era.

Yes, the business of feeding people around the world, raising standards of living and health everywhere have at the same time led to a disenchantment of the world. The Times Literary Supplement of January 15 reviews a collection of short stories by Xiaolu Guo, Lovers in the Age of Indifference. They are about people who live "alone or lonely in tower blocks, council estates and gated communities, ... resigned to lives encircled by a 'concrete horizon' and among 'obedient trees.'" No doubt only a few years before they couldn't wait to get out of the rice paddies, to leave villages where they toiled day in day out and yet could barely fill their stomaches, and to go to the city.

The new place is not the one of enchantment and wonder they imagined. Even worse, at least as Xiaolu Guo writes, there is not even any of the ordinary beauty in Beijing that one could, at least, come to take for granted. As a person whose subject is "world literature," I don't know enough about this Chinese writer to know whether she is writing from her own experience, or whether she is simply imitating Western thematic conventions, of which the deep sense of fatigue with modern life is a big one.

Michael Pollan feels that same fatigue, but he still has a sense of wonder about the world and has sought to make us feel it, too. If you want to see real fatigue among some very privileged people, it's worth watching the "Special Features" that accompanies the movie The Botany of Desire. It features a panel discussion with Pollan and four bloviating West Coast academic types, who don't know how good their lives are. It's always amusing to watch a tenured professor drone on about the downside of "consumer culture."

Now, to my second experience, this time with the sublime. I was walking through Central Park this afternoon. On my iPod, Bryn Terfel was singing from his album Simple Gifts. This man is a genius of a singer, really beyond the achievements of ordinary mortals. One of his songs was truly expressive of the feeling of the sublime described by 18th-century writers. Here are the words:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee: "How great thou art, how great thou art."

Some classical music reviewers have called Terfel's rendition "sentimental," even "campy," a judgment that speaks volumes for our modern loss of a belief in the greatness of, well, not only God but just about anything. So, as I wrote in an earlier post, we are reduced to finding a chocolate mousse "sublime."

Picture credits: Cheese Web; Royal Mandarin;

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rights and all that stuff

I can't recall a single thing Goethe ever said about the concept of human rights. His political inclinations cannot be divorced from the time in which he lived, but it was also the time of Tom Paine and even the more moderate Founding Fathers. Goethe did have some interest in America, though not as a nation of new political experiment. Until the end of his life he was more interested in the fortunes of European lands, for instance, the fate of the Greek independence movement, which he followed quite closely.

W. Daniel Wilson, in his book Das Goethe-Tabu: Protest und Menschenrechte im klassischen Weimar (1999), provoked considerable controversy by claiming that Goethe had a bad record on human rights. Scrutinizing Goethe's activities as a government minister, Wilson found that Goethe did not conform to the "constitutional and liberal tendencies of the early 19th century" and that he was alienated from the intellectuals of Germany who did display such tendencies. (For one of my postings on Goethe and politics, see this entry from last year.)

In some ways I think Goethe must have felt, especially in the last decade of his life, that he and all that he cared for had been left behind by the "velociferic tendencies" of the modern age. It's pretty hard in any case, at any time, to know where things are heading, politically.

One of the most fascinating movements of the present time, for me any way, are the ongoing protests in Iran. People are not marching for health care or against global warming. The protesters are "anti-government," which means they are protesting for "rights," most important of which being the right to assemble, the right to speak out against government, the freedom of the press. The Iranian protesters are showing us that, if people want rights, they have to fight for them. Former president George W. Bush may have been correct in saying that everyone desires to be free, but, as a wise person once said, "God does not wash windows." People have to make things happen for themselves. We did that in the West; our problem is that we have so internalized our rights and our freedoms that we believe they are universal and can be legislated by some kind of international charter.

The protesters certainly can't expect any assistance, indeed not even any signs of encouragement, from the present administration in Washington, D.C. During the Cold War, there were lots of intellectuals who spoke out on behalf of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No more. Intellectuals are instead bogged down in ideological battles with ordinary folks in this country, about health care, about global warming, and so on. The fight for freedom goes on. The mass protests of the Iranians, however, are a bit too reminiscent of youthful and not so youthful Westerners making havoc, years ago in Vietnam and these days at climate or economic conferences. I have no idea what the strategy must be in Iran, but I wonder if the powers that be in Iran are really frightened by even tens of thousands of young men marching and waving the "V" sign. A few dozen policemen seem to have no difficulty beating them back. Women may be the key to making a difference in the Islamic countries. They may have to put themselves on the line.

Picture credits: Big Picture; RightPundits

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Goethe and the Sublime

What do we mean when we say that something is "sublime"? For instance, a slice of cheesecake or chocolate mousse? Or a hairdo or a dress? I suspect in both cases there is an intense feeling of something very delicious to our sense of taste and also very much out of the ordinary run of things. This contemporary use of the word is an attenuated descendent of a rather important aesthetic category in the 18th century, when the measure of the sublime was not food or dress but something much larger, say, mountain massifs or the the extent of the oceans. At the same time, there was a correspondence between the outsized, out-of-the-ordinary object of admiration and the feeling it evoked in us. Thus, the object was sublime, but a person had to feel it to be so. As Kant wrote, in The Critique of Pure Reason (1788), "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within" (tr. Paul Guyer).

Not too be overly immodest, but just about everything Goethe wrote about the sublime can be found in my article in the Goethe Yearbook. By the time he occupied himself with the subject, in the early 1770s, he was the beneficiary of almost a century of European discussions on the role of the sublime in aesthetic theory. Kant in turn made the aesthetic sense the basis of his moral philosophy.

It all began with the translation of the treatise On the Sublime into French by the critic and poet Nicolas Boileau, which appeared in 1674 and introduced the ancient rhetorician Longinus to the European literary world. Europe was ready for a change in its way of thinking about art. Before the 18th century theorists on art agreed with Aristotle that art was a particularly good way of transmitting universal and objective truths in graspable form. And since there were objective truths, it was also agreed that there were objective criteria for producing works of art.

By the 18th century in western Europe, however, there was a move toward more subjective criteria for judging art. This is where Longinus and his treatise on the sublime come in. Longinus, who had lived in the time of Marcus Aurelius (indeed, according to Boileau it was Marcus who ordered Longinus' execution), went beyond the conventional resources of the rhetorical tradition for achieving elevated effects and conveying powerful emotions. He suggested that nobility of soul and powerful and inspired emotions -- innate qualities in a person -- were more essential than in the traditional discipline of art.

One's inner state is occasionally the site of calm and docile emotions, but just as likely one of powerful, chaotic forces. There was nothing cute or nice about the sublime, and thus it was drafted to suggest the more powerful emotions of the soul. The sublime had its correspondence in the outer world -- be it God or infinity or some otherwise uncalculable natural phenomenon, like the massive, irregular, and chaotic geological formations of Switzerland -- while the sublime experience was the response of a person to the grandeur of the sublime object.

I have lately been working on the sublime, in particular the early transmission of this aesthetic idea into German literature in the 18th century. My focus has been Johann Jacob Bodmer (1698-1783), the learned Swiss man of letters who also introduced John Milton, in particular Paradise Lost, to German readers. Milton was for Bodmer the poet with the most noble mind and soul who likewise produced an epic on the most noble and sublime subject. Not much attention has been paid to the effect of the Swiss mountains on Bodmer's thinking. I like very much the paintings of Swiss mountains by Caspar Wolf, for instance, the above one, which shows visitors admiring the splendid ragged formations, which in effect indicates the taming of the sublime. Wolf was a predecessor of the Romantic-period painter Caspar David Friedrich in the portrayal of awesome natural subjects. By Friedrich's time, however, the awe felt in the face of powerful nature seems almost sentimentalized, as can be seen in the painting Wanderer in the Sea of Fog, at the top of this post, from 1814. Wolf seems to have been a much more modest figure, to show by this self-portrait.

Already by 1712, when Addison wrote his Spectator essays, these mountains (which Addison had seen on his trip to Italy) were a conventional trope in connection with the sublime. (They also figure prominently in Edmund Burke's 1757 essay on the beautiful and the sublime.) For Bodmer, it was Addison's emphasis on the quality of "great imagination" that drew him to John Milton. This subjective quality went on to play a huge role in the development of German literature in the 18th century, for instance, in the notion of "Genius."

It also played a role in Goethe's early oeuvre, in the so-called Storm and Drang period of the early 1770s. An expression of the sublime style and the expression of sublime emotion is on view in Goethe's essay on German architecture (1772), in which he rhapsodizes about the Gothic cathedral in Strassburg and its inspired architect, whom he compares to a second creator. Like God, such artists look down on their works and exclaim, "It is good!"

Later, Goethe abandoned this enthusiastic response in connection with sublime subjects. He became a "classicist," subsuming himself to the "edle Einfalt und stille Größe" (noble simplicity and quiet grandeur), which Winckelmann believed characterized ancient Greek art. I think Goethe's immersion in his scientific pursuits, beginning in the late 1770s, also distanced him -- made him more objective? -- vis à vis nature's more powerful and chaotic phenomena. He also was reacting against the kind of sentimental self-aggrandisement that is suggested by the Friedrich painting and that the discourse on the sublime had done so much to introduce to the European consciousness. Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, has something interesting to say about this secularization of emotion in The Ideology of the Aesthetic. He writes of the "production of an entirely new kind of human subject [in the 18th century] -- one which, like the work of art itself, discovers the law in the depths of its own free identity, rather than in some oppressive eternal law. The liberated subject is the one who has appropriated the law as the very principle of its own autonomy, broken the forbidden tablets of the law in which that law was originally inscribed in order to rewrite it on the heart of flesh."

Picture credit: Alpenverein

Friday, January 8, 2010

Goethe and Maria Antonia von Branconi

Kurt Eissler's psychoanalytic biography of Goethe has an illuminating chapter on the famous poem "Über allen Gipfeln," which he finds nothing short of a miracle. Here is the poem in German (an English translation can be found here):

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

Eissler contends the poem could have been written by anyone who had mastered German and was strongly under the influence of nature. It represents, he writes, both the highest art (Kunst) and total artlessness. At the same time, such poems are seldom written. "The creation of the poem did not demand so much a poetic gift as the coincidence of both definite outer conditions and a specific mood." Eissler then sets out to identify these.

The quietness of the scene in the poem is one we have all experienced in a natural setting, at the end of a day, when the earth seems totally still. In the 18th century (and earlier) the experience must have been much more intense, though it was also likewise a daily happening. For us moderns -- I speak for myself in any case -- this quiescence of nature is very soothing, though we are likely to experience it with some background noise. Like many scholars, Eissler finds that the quiescence is about death. For myself, I think the mood could also suggest simply the quieting of the heart when it has been gripped by an intense feeling. The way that nature seems to rest, so naturally one might say, was once a reflection of the rhythms of human and natural life. Not for us moderns anymore. Now it is an aesthetic moment, yet still perhaps a moment of profound feeling.

For Eissler it is a specific kind of death, that of eros. He brings the poem into connection with Maria von Branconi, a German-Italian woman said to have been the most beautiful woman in Germany in her time. She and Goethe first met when he was in Zurich in 1779. He wrote to Charlotte von Stein about his impression. "In the evening I went to visit Madame Branconi. She is so beautiful and pleasant that I quietly asked myself several times in her presence whether it were true that she could be so beautiful. And such a spirit [Geist]! life [Leben]! openness! that one did not know what one was about."

(Interesting, one might think, that he confided in one woman about the beauty of another woman. Oh, well, back to the interpretation of "Über allen Gipfeln.")

Mme Branconi next visited Goethe in Weimar, on August 26 and 27, 1780. Within a week, on September 5, Goethe began an inspection tour of Thuringia with Carl August, spending the first two days by himself on the highest mountain of the area, the so-called Kickelhahn, lodging in the hunter's cabin. What we know about the genesis of the poem again derives from a letter to Charlotte von Stein, dated September 6. He mentions that the sky is clear and that he will go out to enjoy the sunset: "The view if great, but simple" (Die Aussicht ist gross aber einfach). After his return he continues the letter:

"The sun has set. It is the same area of which I once made a drawing for you, the one of shifting haze; now it is so pure and quiet, and as uninteresting as a great, beautiful soul when it feels itself most content. Were it not for some vapors here and there from the charcoal burners the entire scene would be unmoving." Such was the effect on Goethe at that moment.

It was very common for Goethe to start a letter, then continue it later. Thus, he begins anew, apparently after taking a nap: "After 8 p.m." While he was sleeping he received the "provisions" he expected from Ilmenau, which did not include a letter from Charlotte. But, he writes, "a letter from the beautiful woman arrived, to awaken me from my sleep."

Later on the night of September 6 he apparently wrote the famous poem on the wooden wall of the hunter's hut (pictured here is the "Goethehäuschen" on the Kickelhahn); the poem was still be seen there in the late 19th century).

According to Eissler the landscape Goethe described in the letter describes a woman's body, one that he associated with a "schöne Seele," a woman who -- like Charlotte von Stein -- while having a passionate nature, nevertheless subordinated it to higher ethical and social purposes. That is what Goethe saw while viewing the sunset. But, later, the letter from Madame Branconi provoked feelings of desire, which, if he was to be successful with his work in Weimar, he had to suppress, somewhat like "die schöne Seele."

Clearly Goethe was attracted to Madame Branconi. Eissler quotes from his letter of September 20, 1780, to Lavater, who had inquired about her visit in Weimar. Goethe referred to her as "die Schöne" and then continued:

"I behaved toward her as I would toward a princess or a saint. Even if this is an illusion, I would not like to besmear such an image with any transient desire. And God preserve me from a more serious liaison, in which she would unwind my soul from my limbs [mir die Seele aus den Gliedern winden würde]. The daily portion [of work] that has been assigned to me, which becomes both lighter and heavier, demands my presence waking and sleeping; this duty become daily more dear, and in this I wish to behave like the greatest of men, and greater in nothing else."

Thus, if Goethe were to function in Weimar, he had to kill great passion in himself and let himself be led instead by Charlotte. Eissler is of the opinion that the poem expresses "indirect hostility to her," whom he may love but cannot possess sexually. Considering that it was September in Germany, the above photo may accurately represent the "deadness" of the scene.

Goethe made two visits to Madame Branconi's estate in Langenstein in 1783 and 1784, during his famous Harz journeys. The 1783 visit in particular forms the centerpiece of Bernd Wolff's novel Im Labyrinth der Täler, about which I have already posted. (My review of those novels will appear in the next issue of Goethe Yearbook.) Wolff portrays Goethe as very attracted by Madame Branconi who, until 1777, had been the mistress of Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick, one of the most important German princes. Wolff makes much of her unhappiness. The daughter of a German father and Italian mother, she grew up in Naples. Married off at the age of 12 to the 20-years-old Signor Branconi, she was a widow at 20 and mother of a son and a daughter already. A month later she met the Brunswick crown prince and, after their separation, became mistress of several properties in Germany, including the estate at Langenstein.

Photo credit: Rudolf Henckel

Sunday, January 3, 2010


The three holy kings with their star's bright ray,
They eat and they drink, but had rather not pay;
They like to eat and drink away,
They eat and drink, but had rather not pay.

The three holy kings have all come here,
In number not four, but three they appear;
And if a fourth join'd the other three,
Increased by one their number would be.

The first am I, the fair and the white,
I ought to be seen when the sun shines bright!
But alas! with all my spices and myrrh,
No girl now likes me, I please not her.

The next am I, the brown and the long,
Known well to women, known well to song.
Instead of spices, 'tis gold I bear,
And so I'm welcome everywhere.

The last am I, the black and small,
And fain would be right merry withal.
I like to eat and to drink full measure,
I eat and drink, and give thanks with pleasure.

The three holy kings are friendly and mild,
They seek the Mother and seek the Child;
The pious Joseph is sitting by,
The ox and the ass on their litter lie.

We're bringing gold, we're bringing myrrh,
The women incense always prefer;
And if we have wine of a worthy growth,
We three to drink like six are not loth.

As here we see fair lads and lasses,
But not a sign of oxen or asses,
We know that we have gone astray
And so go further on our way.

This poem by Goethe was written in 1781 for a Epiphany celebration in Weimar. The singer Corona Schröter played the first king. According to the Hamburg edition of Goethe's works (I, 534), the opening of the poem is taken from a folk song sung by young boys on January 6, when they dress up as the three kings. Above is a picture of a contemporary portrayal in Cologne. The beautiful illustration at the top of the post is from an Armenian manuscript of the 13th century, now in the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.