Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midcult and the Intellectuals

The name of this blog (i.e., the "Etc." in the name) indicates that it is not solely restricted to discussions of Goethe. I have ranged pretty wide in some of the subjects I have treated, but the majority does focus on the milieu of the "Goethe period," which for me is what we in the discipline call the "long 18th century." It is the century in which the rise of the Enlightenment takes place and in which occur the incipient beginnings of Romanticism, often regarded as a reaction to the sterility and rationalism of the Enlightenment.

I have not yet discovered a specific connection between Goethe and my recent work and publication on the history of freedom of speech in the 18th century. That work was in a sense a detour for me, carried out in my role as chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. Still, my research on the subject certainly expanded my knowledge of the 18th century generally. In a negative way, the absence of reflection on Goethe's part concerning the rise of "the public" and of democratic institutions, all of which are essential to the development of freedom of speech, is evidence that Goethe is not quite the "modern" that, say, Benjamin Constant is. (See the chapter by Helena Rosenblatt on Constant in my book.) Still, Goethe had met Constant in Weimar and may have been aware of the trends that Constant so presciently discerned.

On this blog I also swing into current cultural issues, which in truth have their roots in 18th-century preoccupations. As I wrote in the conclusion of the free speech volume, all of the anxieties we have today concerning speech can be found in the writings of the great thinkers of the 18th century. While those great minds -- Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, etc. -- were in favor of freedom of expression, if was for freedom for men like themselves. They considered the mass of people too stupid to have any sensible or valid opinions.

But it was in the 18th century that ordinary men and women began to participate in spheres of activity formerly reserved for the high and the mighty. This was the effect of the growth of commerce, which emancipated people from the bonds of tradition. Even in the arts, which continued to enjoy aristocratic patronage, writers and painters began to emerge who sold their wares as best they could. Goethe was one of these. In the non-artistic realm, others were quick to see the possibilities of transforming the new scientific discoveries into profitable and necessary inventions and manufactures.

As boundaries fell, so did the old standards. It was the beginning of "taste." People became more interested in goods, less in the Good. That process has simply rolled along, encompassing more and more people. It is not powered by ideas so much as by the progress of capitalism, which allows people to sell their labor, turn a profit, and live the life they prefer to lead. Some of them even aspire to the life of the mind. That is the class that Rick and I came from. We were privileged, only in the sense that we came of age in the U.S. on the cusp of the greatest prosperity the world has ever known, in the 1950s, enabling us to go to college and to follow intellectual pursuits. We were not out of the ordinary, as there were and still are lots of such ordinary Americans.

A habit I picked up in high school was listening to the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio, not so much to the opera itself, beyond perhaps the overtures to ones like La Traviata. While kids my age in the New York suburbs were wandering to Washington Square Park to hear the Beats, I timed my ironing for the coming week to the Opera's intermission program. I knew that Americans could be "cultured": Van Cliburn's success had proved that. And panelists on "What's My Lines?" were certainly witty, as were Jack Paar and his guests. But my love of talk began here -- not with the Free Speech movement -- with the Opera's witty and cultured panelists, who could actually speak, extemporaneously it seemed, in full sentences on musical and literary subjects. Those programs were the start of an attempt to fit my own life within some large -- and less immediately personal -- conception of things.

In this connection, I was interested to read the recent review in The New Republic by Franklin Foer of the reissue of a book of essays by Dwight Macdonald. The most famous of these essays, published in 1960, was "Masscult and Midcult," which denigrated the marriage of commerce and high culture that was such an inspiration for people like myself. According to the reviewer, Franklin Foer, Macdonald thereby imported "one of the ugliest tropes of the politics of the time into the analysis of culture, ... the enemy within, ... a pernicious new species of culture ... called midcult." The trope may have been new, but the diagnostician could have been Voltaire or Condorcet.

Foer writes that it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when "you could look down your nose" at the Museum of Modern Art as a gateway to rampant philistinism: "We should have such philistines"! He concludes that one cannot but be annoyed that "the greatest cultural critic of his era spent so much time and energy writing his hands about how the middle class was too eager to consume weightier forms of culture. ... What is so terrible, exactly, about broadcasting Don Giovanni into movie theaters around the country?"

Foer misses the larger point, however: Macdonald's destructive temperament was actually aimed at the temerity of the middle class for having aspirations at all, beyond their sphere. In this, he was like Rousseau, who was one of the few philosophes who seemed to recognize the future effects of commerce and the rise of democracy. Rousseau thus theorized a way to contain the masses with his "general will." Such vitriol as Macdonald's is alive and well today in liberal political and cultural opinion, which, in my view, is not liberal at all, but postmodern. Anyone who reads the editorial pages of The New York Times today cannot deny that the middle class remains under assault by the intellectual class, in the "overwhelmingly nullifying" manner of Macdonald. The assault is no longer on the grounds of culture, but rather on the resistance of ordinary people to the impositions of government and elite opinion.

This posting is in tribute to my darling husband. Anyone who has read this blog over time knows that Rick and I were both of a conservative bent, grateful for having grown up in America when we did. We realize its limitations, but, principally, its capacity for good. We have been most sorry to see what the destructiveness of "intellectuals" like Macdonald has done. May the country start to get its feed back on the ground in 2012.

Picture credit: Amazon UK

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Life before Goethe

Clearly no one is born to be a Goethe scholar, and there was little in my background to suggest that would be the case with me. My path toward studying German was the most accidental in the world, though I would also say serendipitous. In my final year of high school I was fortunate to have one of those teachers who are celebrated in fiction, Ruth Braeutigam. Much later, after I had become a teacher myself, what constantly struck me was the effect of small, seemingly inconsequential things on a student's intellectual growth, for it was not the subject of U.S. history for which she was my teacher that Ruth Braeutigam had an effect on me. From the start, what intrigued me about her class was the arrangement of the room, one that was already more adult than any I had encountered in school. Miss Braeutigam sat on a stool before a podium on which her notes were spread and to which she would occasionally refer, while the students' desk were set out in rows of half-circles around her. Obviously, unlike in other high school classes, the slow students could not hide in the back of the room.

Miss Braeutigam herself was the first spinster, aside from my maiden aunts, I knew close up. The Catholic sisters, strictly speaking, could not be counted among the spinsters: they, like the married, had a special calling. Though I had loved the sisters who had taught me as a child, I had not been attracted to joining a religious order.

Miss B. must have already been in her fifties when I was her student, and in terms of outward appearance she had probably never been the attractive feminine type of teacher who turns adolescent schoolgirls into acolytes. There was indeed something masculine about her, though, again, after I had become a teacher myself, I better understood her manner: one that gave a student room, that did not seek to ingratiate, that revealed enough of an individual personality -- what a booming laugh she had! -- without false or inappropriate confidences. After three years of being sunk in adolescent narcissism, I seemed to be jolted awake by her clear-eyed way of relating to the world and to the unencumbered life that she radiated.

One day I asked her about her name and learned of her German ancestry. "Braeutigam," as she informed me, meant "bridegroom." Not long afterward she gave me a copy of my first German grammar, a thin book in which all the German words appeared in the funny script known as "Fraktur." As a sign of my own eccentricity, I desired to known things that no one else in my milieu knew or even cared about. So it was that I spent more time deciphering those strange German letters and memorizing German words than on anything I had done in the previous three years of high school.

Such small influences, principally the use of my brain on something besides boys, prompted me to think about my future. My female role models (this was the early 1960s), mostly products of Hollywood, had "careers": Doris Day or Edith Head, dresser to the stars. With no one in my milieu offering guidance, I would have needed a lot more self-direction to chart such a remarkable course, and it was absolutely for lack of any alternative that I began to consider college, where, after all, I could study German. As I said, could there have been anything more accidental and more exotic -- considering my white bread background -- in my becoming a German scholar?

I was thinking of these things yesterday. I am spending the holidays with my sister and brother-in-law in Louisville. Until I went to college, my life had moved back and forth across the Ohio River, whether we lived in Louisville or in southern Indiana. The most memorable thing about the river for me was the huge Colgate-Palmolive clock that stood on the Indiana side of the river. Though I had crossed the Ohio back and forth for years, such was the lack of my parents' resources that I had never ridden a boat on the river. My appreciation for natural beauty was still in nuce, and my sense of the history of the region was undeveloped. I knew that Indian tries had once populated these shores -- Algonquian, Shawnee, and Cherokee -- because the Louisville city parks carried their resonant names.

Well, yesterday I learned more about this local history, especially of the Ohio River, than from living here for years. We went on an outing to Falls of the Ohio State Park. The exhibits at the park tell of the important role of the Falls area. For instance, George Rogers Clark established the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Northwest Territory on Corn Island and then founded the town of Clarksville, a town in which I had once lived (again, without taking note of this illustrious history). John James Audubon was a storekeeper in Louisville and began his career as an artist with his sketch of bird species in the Falls area.

A more interesting discovery, however, because of my later work on Goethe and geology, was that the Falls area had been covered by a shallow tropical sea about 387 million years ago. It turns out that the fossil record goes back to the Devonian (i.e., pre-Cambrian) period. (That's me standing in front of a re-creation of the ancient sea.) The impulse for this work was not purely scientific on my part. It seemed to me that Goethe's writing on scientific subjects sounded a lot like his writing on literary subjects. Thus, my theory was that Goethe's aesthetics influenced his approach to science. My work was enriched by the assistance of by my dear husband, who was a physics teacher for several decades. We used to take long walks along the Hudson River, where I would pick up stones. He would then explain what they were.

Well, that's the long and short of my life pre- and post-Goethe.

The historical postcard of the Falls and the link to Clarksville above are from the wonderful blog of Frances Hunter. Another blog, Louisville Fossils, describes fossil tours of the Falls park. The picture of Edith Head is from Robert J. Avrech's blog.

Monday, December 19, 2011


In connection with the Annunciation, the priest spoke yesterday on the theme of trust. He referenced this beautiful painting by Domenico Veneziano, saying that it departed from the canonical representation of the scene by focusing on Mary's reaction, which he described as "troubled, but trusting." I think this is one of the loveliest images of the Annunciation I have ever seen, but the priest must have been thinking of a different painting, as the painting is very canonical in its "mise en scène." The larger point, however, is correct: we trust, even though we may be troubled by what we are being asked to trust in.

Picture credit:

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I wish Goethe had written something like the following, but he did not.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Then that you should remember and be sad.

Christine Rossetti (1862)

Monday, December 12, 2011

"The Sob"

It is hard to know what to do with the grief one feels at times like these. Distraction helps, in lieu of tearing one's brain out. Today I went with a friend to MOMA to see the de Kooning retrospective. I was particularly struck by the very late paintings of the artist, from the 1980s when he was suffering from dementia. Rather lyrical and spare, with lovely colors, absent the clutter of structures and scaffolding. They were almost soothing, especially the corals.

Then we went wandering to another floor, looking for some comparisons, which is when I came across this painting by David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Goethe and Grief

Goethe is known to have felt a great sense of revulsion (Abwehr) when facing the death of loved ones. Thus, when Carl August died in 1828, ending a friendship that went back to the 1770s, Goethe fled to Dornburg in order to avoid attending the duke's funeral. Afterward, for distraction, he immersed himself in his scientific pursuits. His revulsion was probably the result of feeling too much, and in at least three instances Goethe revealed himself to be overcome with grief. The first occasion was at the death of his sister Cornelia in 1777. Goethe speaks of himself, in a letter to Charlotte von Stein, as being "speechless" in the face of her death: "I received a letter at 9 informing me that my sister was dead. At the moment I have nothing further to say." Some months later he wrote to his mother: "With [the death of] my sister a strong root that held me to the earth has been cut down; the branches above, which had their nourishment from this root, must perforce die."

The death of Schiller in 1805 also hit him very hard. He wrote to Zelter in 1806: "I thought myself lost and lose now a friend and with him the half of my existence" (Ich dachte mich selbst zu verlieren, und verliere nun einen Freund und in demselben die Hälfte meines Daseyns).

When his wife, Christiane, passed away in 1816, he first wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée that "his darling wife had "left them." Some days later he wrote him that he could not lie: his condition "bordered on despair."

Goethe of course had the gift of being able to transform grief into poetry. A beautiful example is found in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (book 4, ch. 11). In an earlier version Mignon had sung this song alone, but in the later novel it is presented as a duet between Mignon and the Harpist. The German begins by referring to "longing" or "yearning" (Sehnsucht), though an English translation I found translates this as "grief":

My grief no mortals know
Except the yearning!
Alone, a prey to woe,
All pleasure spurning.

Up towards the sky I throw
A gaze discerning.
He who my love can know
Seems ne'er returning.
With strange and fiery glow
My heart is burning.
My grief no mortals know,
Except the yearning!

At this time my favorite words by Goethe on the theme of grief are to be found in The Sorrow of Young Werther, from 1772: "Ich habe verloren, was meines Lebens einzige Wonne war, die heilige belebende Kraft, mit der ich Welten um mich schuf."

Picture credit: Folsompastor

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My darling is gone

Du kamst, du gingst mit leiser Spur, ein flüchtiger Gast im Erdenland.
Woher? Wohin? Wir wissen nur: Aus Gottes Hand in Gottes Hand.

(Ludwig Uhland)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Goethe on sacred art

How do so many magazines pile up unread beside the bed? Today I'm trying to go through them quickly and toss them out. As always, there is at least one article or essay that I linger over, thus not getting through the stack at all. Today it was an article on Christ's genitalia by Dianne Phillips in the December issue of First Things. Entitled "Leo Steinberg's Artistic Vision," it reviews the somewhat radical publication on this subject, in 1983, by Steinberg. "Radical" in the sense that no art historian had ever written on it, despite the fact that there are a number of Renaissance paintings in which Christ's genitalia are depicted. Thus, the title of Steinberg's book: The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion.

According to Phillips, Steinberg (a Jew, but very sympathetic to Catholic theology as "probably the greatest, most coherent, most elaborate, most wildly imaginative system for the human mind") not only drew attention to an under-explored topic, but also attempted to re-theologize our understanding of Renaissance art. As Phillips writes, Steinberg was interested in the positive theological meaning that could be conveyed by a virile Christ." Though I was raised Catholic and imbibed a great deal of religious art, most of my experience has been in museums, not in churches. Indeed, that is the experience of most Americans, which facilitates, Phillips writes, the "aestheticization" of medieval and Renaissance art and makes us incapable of understanding them "as religious objects with precise theological meaning."

How does Goethe fit in here? Phillips writes that Goethe plays a major role in such aestheticization. It was a review by Goethe of a book on Leonardo's The Last Supper by the very learned Giuseppi Bossi that "established the modern interpretation" of that painting: "the sacramental significance of the meal was deemed incidental" to it.Here is a link to that review. Because the review is by Goethe, it comes off as incredibly pedantic, and in truth it could have been written by any art history student today. Goethe begins with Bossi's background and his suitability as restorer. He then tells us about Leonardo and his genius. We also learn that Leonardo's abilities were bestowed on him "by nature" and that his penetrating mind

soon began to be aware that behind the outside of objects, which he succeeded so well in copying, there still lay concealed many a secret, the knowledge of which it would be worth his utmost efforts to attain. He, therefore, set about enquiring into the laws of organick formation, the ground of proportion, the rules of perspective, the composition and colouring of his objects, the effect of light and shade in a given space.

When Goethe finally arrives at a discussion of the painting, it is to discuss the setting: "The place where the picture was painted is first to be considered." This is the Dominican refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Goethe's description makes it sound as if the painting was part interior decoration.

Opposite to the entrance, at the bottom, on the narrow side of the room, stood the Prior's table on both sides of it, along the walls, the tables of the monks, raised, like the Prior's, a step above the ground; and now, when the stranger, that might enter the room, turned himself about, he saw, on the fourth wall, over the door, not very high, a fourth table, painted, at which Christ and his Disciples were seated, as if they formed part of the company. It must, at the hour of the meal have been an interesting sight, to view the tables of the Prior and of Christ, thus facing each other ...

And so it goes, with analyses of the gestures of the hands and heads, of the postures of the disciples, and so on. It is thorough, but it leaves out of consideration any sacred meaning that even Leonardo surely intended.

Thus, Steinberg addresses, according to Phillips, such sacred meanings, in this case the theological paradox represented by the representation of the genitalia: namely, Christ's dual nature, both human and divine. Phillips ends by saying that Christian conversion has often been said to mean "falling in love with Christ." Thus, Catholicism (unlike the iconoclast Protestants) always recognized that "beautiful pictures and sculptures of Christ can be both a prompt and a magnet for the lover's gaze." At the same time, the eros that leads us to the divine "requires purification and healing to fully realize its telos." While the Renaissance imagery relates to concupiscence, it is concupiscence that is purified because "the innocent naked baby is vulnerable." The same can be said of images of the dead Christ that show traces of the genitals. Herewith a couple of paintings by Mantegna on this subject.

Now that I have said something about Goethe's all too familiar aversion to much Catholic art, what remains to be explored are the sources of this aversion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freedom of speech

Anyone who has followed this blog knows of my interest in the above topic. My book on the history of the subject is due out any day now. One of the events that precipitated the book was the so-called Mohammed cartoons protests. Today I came across the following article, "Nausea in Paris," on the interesting "Signandsight" website. The magazine Charlie Hebdo, one of the few publications to publish the cartoons when they first cause such a furor, has been attacked, this time for a special issue on "sharia law." (The picture above shows the publisher of Charlie Hebdo.) Read and take note of the pusillanimous reaction of Western reporters, especially Time's Paris correspondent Bruce Crumley. Pretty sad stuff.

I am not familiar with the author of the signandsight posting, Frederik Stjernfelt, but his point is well taken. It's not very brave for Western "intellectuals" to get in such a lather about protests by Catholics at some work of art of which they disapprove. When it comes to Muslims, however, the same intellectuals cannot disgrace themselves enough with their chatter about "cultural sensitivities."

Photo credit:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Victor Klemperer on world literature

In off moments I liked to dip into a wonderful volume of essays by Clive James. An Australian by birth, he has lived in England since the 1960s. The volume is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. James' cultural reach is extensive, and the volume includes essays on quite a few German writers. This morning I read the one on Ernst Jünger, who, as James writes, "was incomparably the most gifted writer to remain on the scene," meaning in Germany, during the course of World War II. The Nazi impact on German society was in every way disastrous, no more or less so than on the learned professions. Those who could got out, including Erich Auerbach who secured a post at a university in Ankara.

James writes that had Victor Klemperer, professor of Romance languages in Dresden, secured such a post, rather than being forced to remain in Dresden, where, as a Jew, he was denied access to pen, paper, newspapers, and radio broadcasts, it was unlikely that he would have produced Mimesis. "Fated to stay where he was," writes James, "he was granted the dubious reward of experiencing from close up what the Nazis did to the German language." James is referring here to Klemperer's book LTI, or Lingua tertii imperii, which documents the "officialese of slaughter." For those who can, I recommend reading it in German, but here is a link to selections from it in English. (Of late, Klemperer belatedly became known for the diaries he managed to keep during World War II.)

Actually Klemperer might have written an important study of world literature had he not been denied access to libraries during the Nazi era. In my research on the "prehistory" of Fritz Strich's groundbreaking Goethe und die Weltliteratur, I have come across an article written by Klemperer on this subject from 1929, during the very decade when Strich was first grappling with Goethe's concept. Unlike Strich, who is notorious for not footnoting, Klemperer does indicate the sources of his thinking on the concept of world literature.

As a note to James's essay and the posting of Auerbach to Ankara, several years ago -- at a conference at the Graduate Center on Erich Auerbach -- Jane O. Newman gave me a small article she had written concerning Fritz Strich's March 26, 1928, letter to the chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on behalf of Walter Benjamin, who was hoping for a posting there. Strich was the author of an essay in 1917 on German Baroque poetry, which Benjamin had cited repeatedly (according to Professor Newman) in his own study of German Baroque theater.

So many connections.

Picture credits: Sigmar Polke; Maira Kalman

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Goethe and world literature

I have not stopped blogging, but matters close to home have kept me otherwise occupied. God willing and the creeks not rising, however, I will travel to Chicago this coming Thursday to attend the triennual conference of the Goethe Society of North America, where I will be chairing a panel on the above subject. My thoughts are also turning to my long-delayed essay on Fritz Strich and the "prehistory" of his study of world literature. For today, let me note two things concerning this prehistory.

First, though Strich's study (Goethe und die Weltliteratur) appeared in 1946, he had begun reflecting on the subject much earlier, as can be seen in an essay that appeared in 1927. The essay emerged from a lecture he gave in London in 1926, in which he addressed Germany's place among the nations. Many of us are familiar with the voices after World War II who sought the answer to this question: how did the nation that produced Bach, Goethe, and Beethoven unleash such barbarism on the world? (One might consider that those eminent figures were produced when Germany was not yet a nation and that a "qualification" for serious nationhood used to be an imperial war. But that is another matter.) Fritz Strich had already sought an answer to this question after World War I. Simply expressed, his answer was that the world had not yet taken cognizance of the healing message of conciliation and toleration among the nations as expressed in Goethe's concept of world literature.

Strich was drawing here on some of Goethe's pronouncements, which suggested that the nations of the world -- more specifically, of Europe -- were getting to know each other in a new way. Literary criticism, periodicals, travel, and so one were making us more familiar with the cultural products of other lands and, what was more, revealing a new appreciation for these products.

Second, the foundation of Strich's views on world literature rests on something that is the case: from the time they began writing in the vernacular (which coincides to a great extent with developing national consciousness) the countries of western Europe were constantly engaged in intellectual and artistic exchange, during which one country or the other originated a cultural product that was then assimilated by the others. For instance, the sonnet began in Italy but rapidly made its way through all the lands of western Europe. While such receptivity indicates a universal human tendency (according to Strich), the expression of what is borrowed is specific to each country. Thus, the Petrarchan sonnet is not that of Shakespeare, and the French Gothic is different from the Flemish and so on.

The differences are what interested Goethe. In a letter to his friend Zelter (May 1828), for instance, he mentions different performances of "Helena," in Edinburgh, Paris, and Moscow. (Apparently the episode from act 3 of Faust II, published in 1826 as "Phantasmagorie," had been staged in these three cities.) It is, Goethe writes, "very instructive in this way to get to know three different ways of thinking" (drey verschiedene Denkweisen).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What I Saw in D.C.

I go to Washington, D.C. whenever I need a few days of R&R. Very good and long-time friends live in or near the District. They even have things like back yards, and we drive to restaurants. It's a great change from Manhattan, which seems to be getting louder and more crowded every day. Those of you familiar with Monet will recognize that the picture at the left is not from D.C. It was a present from my friend Suzanne Langsdorf, with whom I stayed during my visit. She calls it "Glorious Giverny." (Click on image to enlarge.) She colorized the photo, which she took last year on a trip to France, with colored pencils and printed it on an Epson color printer. The result gave me much to think about in connection with my recent posts on Goethe's ideas on art and nature.

Suzanne likes to get up very close to interesting patterns and snap. Then she goes home and gets down to work. Here she is at the Phillips Collection. The detail below is what she was interested in.

We also saw a cool series of photos at the Phillips by Allan deSouza, who, emulating The Migration Series of Jacob Lawrence (also on display at the Phillips), has created "The World Series." It has nothing to do with baseball, but deals, as per the Phillips brochure, "with the phenomenological aspects of reality expressed through sense experience and revealing the uncertainty of the historicizing process itself." Got that?

DeSouza mixes images of airport terminals, runways, waiting rooms, street signs, etc., depicting transit. People, however, are generally absent. Irony is not in absence, as can be seen in the above.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Weltpoesie" and "Weltliteratur"

I am trying out some ideas here concerning Goethe's notions concerning the above subjects; if anyone notices errors or misleading judgments, please let me know.

The art instinct, in particular poetry (Dichtung), is common to all people. This instinct is innate. One might say a natural endowment, and its products, in their most archaic or original form, are not those of the educated or elite class, but derive from the common experience of people. All men have similar dispositions, needs, etc., the expression or fulfillment of which is modified or enriched according to the environment, in the widest sense of that term. The Volksdichtung (folk poetry) of various peoples will be diverse in the reflection of ethnic peculiarities -- Herder spoke of "Stimmen der Völker" -- but will manifest a common existential content: love, war, pieties, and so on, as experienced within the archaic or primitive milieu.

World literature is an expression of advancing civilization, but it is also concerned with what Fritz Strich (in his study of Goethe's concept of world literature) refers to as "geistige Genossenschaft" (intellectual comradery), not in the universalist way of "Weltpoesie," but between and among modern classes of people. Goethe's concept sounds Eurocentric to 21st-century ears, but Goethe could hardly have envisioned in the early 19th century that non-European peoples would take their place among the moderns. His interest in non-European literature was as an expression of Weltpoesie. He certainly recognized that Persian and Chinese poetry were not instances of folk poetry, the purest form of Weltpoesie, but of advanced civilizations. They emerged (I am extrapolating here) from a different source from the literatures of Europe. The source of the latter, for Goethe, was classical literature. He also acknowledged that "the Orient" (Old Testament and New Testament) was part of this European foundation.

Goethe's animus against the German Romantics had much to do with what he saw as their undermining of this foundation. According to Ernst Behler, Goethe believed they were too attracted to emotion, subjectivity, formlessness, dilettantism, fantasy, false piety (Frömmelei), and antiquarianism and nativism (Altertümelei und Vaterländelei). Though Brentano and Arnim, for instance, were talented, what they wrote was without form and character. As Goethe wrote (in a letter to Zelter in 1808) concerning the poetry of this younger generation, they fail to understand that the highest and unique operation of nature is that of endowing with form: "Gestaltung." Form must in turn be "specific," not vague or amorphous, as he thought the case with Romantic poetry.

Picture credits: Inner Mongolia News; BigFoto

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Goethe and the Greeks

The title is a bit too specific for what follows, but let me go ahead anyway. My work on the free speech volume is over, since the book will be appearing by the end of October (according to the publisher). Thus, after a long break, I am finally turning back to Goethe, looking at his "aesthetic writings." His literary criticism, in particular, seems unsystematic, but there is a method behind his judgments.

First off, Goethe disliked "rules." This prejudice was instilled in him and the Sturm und Drang writers early on by Herder. He nevertheless came to theorize -- yes, Goethe did have a theory, though he would not have called it such -- about something called "Eigengesetzlichkeit": the individual lawfulness of things. The Greeks or the classical inheritance was the model for Eigengesetzlichkeit. The Greeks were not to be imitated, however, but to be emulated. Our estimation of a literary work proceeds from its success in representing the nature of man, for which the Greeks gave us the model. "Jeder sei auf seine Art ein Grieche. Aber er sei's." So Goethe wrote in 1818 in the essay Antik und modern.

Art is not imitation of nature, but its highest expressions, like Nature's phenomena, nevertheless follow laws. A work of art represents a world, imposing unity on phenomena. Though he rejected naturalism -- "Nur-Wirklichkeit" -- the work of art must not be such as simply to titillate the imagination. It must be "plastisch" in its representation, falling between naturalism and fantasy. "Plastische Dichtung" (three-dimensional literature) -- Homer was a preeminent exemplar of this type -- has a definite and finite form that nevertheless allows the imagination to perceive the eternal nature of things. Romantic poetry, in contrast, tempts the imagination into uncharted regions. Goethe was very much opposed, because it meant that poetry was abandoning the "Urgrund" (the source) of European culture.

Goethe speaks very little about formal qualities in literary works. Indeed, for the most part his conception of the literary work ignores its constructedness, its facture. Because of this absence -- and Goethe is partly guilty here -- it is common to say that Goethe wrote "from experience." And, indeed, there is much in these aesthetic writings that assert that the artist must proceed from his experience: "der Künstler [muss] von innen heraus wirken ..., indem er, gebärde er sich wie er will, immer nur sein Individuum zutage fördern wird" (Ein Wort fur junge Dichter). In other words, the artist must bring to light or reveal his own "individual." This sounds a bit like Romanticism, doesn't it? Next time I would like to go into this area a bit more.

Picture credit:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

And now for something different

The weather and the water conditions (note how brown the water is in the above shot of Yours Truly) have been lousy this summer, the worst in my memory since I began kayaking seven years ago. I had despaired of getting out for a long trip on the Hudson before the end of the season, but meteorological and water conditions conspired to make this a great weekend. We went out yesterday and today at 10, which meant we were paddling against a building current. Today, after two hours we still had not reached the George Washington Bridge.

If it weren't for the darn cigarette boats, it would have been a perfect day. At one point we were buzzed by about dozen of them.

Photo credit: T.H. Williams

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Man of Fifty Years

I saw an object at the Metropolitan Museum the other day that prompted me to think about the above-mentioned tale by Goethe. It is the beautiful toiletry case above.

As the title telegraphs, a man of fifty, known only as "the Major," learns that his beautiful niece is in love with him. At first he finds this preposterous, but the flattery inherent in such a situation soon has him thinking it not so preposterous at all. At the same time, he is suddenly aware of his advancing years.

Previously he had been perfectly happy with both his person and his servant; now, standing before the mirror, he did not like what he saw. He was no longer able to ignore the grey hairs, and even a few wrinkles suddenly seemed to have appeared. He brushed and powdered more than usual, but in the end he had to leave things as they were. Even the cleanliness of his clothes was no longer satisfactory, as he suddenly noticed lint on his coat and dust on his boots.

His general well-being is really disturbed, however, when a friend comes to visit. This friend, though 10 years older, actually looks younger. An actor who had made his reputation in playing youthful roles, he has continued to maintain his youthful appearance. He criticizes the Major for neglecting his appearance:

It is irresponsible that your temples are already grey, that here and there your wrinkles are beginning to join up and that the crown of your head is threatening to grow bald.

We learn that the secret of his youthful looks is contained in the toiletry case (Toilettenkästchen) that he carries with him at all times, a secret he would be happy to share with the Major if they only had two weeks to spend together. Unfortunately, the friend is leaving the next day. As a compromise he leaves his valet behind, who has been initiated in all the secrets of the art of rejuvenation. The valet procures containers -- Schächtelchen, Büchschen und Gläser -- into which some of the friend's magic potions (Tinkturen, Pomaden und Balsamen) will be kept.

As can be imagined, the make-over is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Already before the Major goes to bed he must put with the valet's ministrations. And then one can't go down to breakfast without a couple of hours of preparation. In the end, the ridiculousness of trying to deny his age becomes apparent when the Major loses a tooth.

The beautiful toilet set here, from 1874, was made in England by the firm of Jenner & Knewstub. It is part of a small display at the Met entitled Thinking Outside the Box: European Cabinets, Caskets, and Cases from the Permanent Collection (1500-1900).

Translation credit: Hesperus Press

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Portraits again

Some months ago I did a couple of posts on portraiture, inspired by a new book by the philosopher Cynthia Freeland. Last evening I read an article about the portraits of the painter Lucian Freud, which made me think about this subject again. The author of the article, Ian Marcus Corbin, writing in the current issue of First Things, traces the "gruesome sort of candor" of Freud's style to the 19th-century French realist Gustave Courbet. A major difference between the portraits by Courbet and those by Freud is that the latter's subjects generally have their eyes closed. These closed eyes refuse to reveal the inner life of their subject, and indeed that may be Freud's point. The article is entitled "The Heavy Eyelids of Lucian Freud."

Corbin stresses Freud's relentless focus on the physical, biological body. And, while Freud was "in theory at least, deeply committed to capturing the flesh of his subjects, where flesh meets consciousness, he stepped lightly, if at all." Corbin traces this approach to Freud's profound anti-metaphysical attitudes, which the artist shared with many of his contemporaries. Thus, he is "commended for his courageous willingness to look grim reality, again and again, in the cheeck, navel, and nipple. His mature work is a modern memento more, a hard-eyed stare at the way of all flesh."

I have never cared for Freud's work and quickly passed by the recent homage now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His attitude toward his subjects was too unsparing for me, as if they were being attacked by the very brushwork Freud wielded. But, to return to portraits and especially to Freeman's ruminations in her book: we are drawn to portraits because of what they reveal of the person. As Corbin writes, Freud failed to answer the question: what is the particular point of painting humans? His decision to paint his subjects with their eyes closed was "philosophically weighty, because, for a portraitist, the eyes are not just one organ among many. They are where the psyche, or soul, can seem most visible." Ultimately, Corbin gives Freud credit for avoiding a "homogenized fantasy world," even if his work is plagued by the "postmodern taste for what Saul Bellow called 'the harshest or most niggardly explanation' of human phenomena."

In describing Goethe, his contemporaries frequently alluded to his eyes. His fellow student Heinrich Stilling in Strassburg, in 1771, spoke of Goethe as an excellent man with "big bright eyes, splendid forehead and fine build" who, moreover, dominated the company he was in. (By the way, Stilling's autobiographical novel, Heinrich Stillings Leben, is a precious and revealing document of this period.) Heinrich Christian Boie, who met Goethe in Frankfurt in 1774, spoke of "a heart as great and noble as his mind," and of the intelligence revealed by his "bright brown eyes." In Karlsbad in 1785 Goethe was said to stand out at the spa because of his beautiful eyes.

Picture credit: Art History Archive; Recherche

Saturday, September 24, 2011

World lit versus global lit

What prompts me to a digression on the above subject is a novel I just finished reading, Seven Years (Sieben Jahre) by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm. (Michael Hofmann provides an impeccable English translation.) It has echoes of Albert Camus, absent the worldly heft that gave weight to the novels of Camus and even of Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus and Sartre, after all, had lived through a world war and French colonialism, whereas the characters in Seven Years have lived through times of plenty, until the end, when they encounter the economic downturn of 2008. But before that happens, during their architectural studies in Munich, their travels to Marseilles, the success of their business, they are plagued by existential anomie.

The subject of Stamm's novel, as can be guessed from the title, concerns a marriage. Besides the echoes of Camus and Sartre (particularly in the pared-down narrative style), I also thought of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Again, Bergman made a movie about individuals who were rooted in a historical place and time. History -- in particular war, during which the civilized nations of the world had turned their vast arsenal of "progress" on each other -- had let people down, so to speak, and their anomie was, to an extent, understandable. (Wonderful portrait here of this state of the soul by Richard Cronborg.) The dissatisfaction felt by Mariane and Johan, with their marriage and their lives, related to the disparity between the ideals with which they had been raised and the compromises of everyday reality. The couple in Stamm's novel, Alex and Sonia, are similarly suffering from this disparity, though neither one has a deep historical consciousness. The novel takes place in contemporary time -- the fall of the Wall is mentioned -- but no one has much interest in what that fall represents, aside from the opportunity to make money in the East.

What does Stamm's novel have to do with world literature? Goethe thought of world literature, particularly the work of translators, as a way of allowing us to understand other cultures and peoples and, if not to love or even like them, to appreciate the differences. Goethe lived in a time in which, materially, people in the advancing West were becoming more alike, but Goethe thought that national differences would remain. Goethe's love for the literature of other lands certainly speaks to appreciation of "difference." Yet the fact is that the worldwide commerce that was making people's material lives similar in his time has also led to the uniformity of their moral life. The people in Stamm's novel might be Americans.

This point is made by Tim Parks in his write-up on Stamm in the New York Review of Books: "If you didn't know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish." As Parks writes: "Stamm is one of a growing group of writers ... who, whether consciously or otherwise, have evolved a style to suit the requirements of a global literary market. None of these authors writes exclusively or even first and foremost for the country they live in. ... What we are seeing, then, is the development of styles of writing that are no longer to be understood in relation to the literary tradition the author grew up in, but to the new world of international fiction, books translated no sooner written into a dozen languages." I would only add that Stamm's stories and novels of what Parks calls "ordinary emptiness," of "lives without coherence or direction," is a Western phenomenon, again the result of the spread of material affluence with which the West was beginning to be rewarded in the early 19th century.

Picture credits: The Criterion Collection; Richard Cronborg

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Goethe and the Beloved

The subject of my dissertation so many years ago concerned Goethe's "escape from the idyll," by which I was referring to his abandonment of one of the literary forms he most loved in his youth, namely, the poetic idyll. Traditionally the idyll was inhabited by shepherds; thus, this form is also often called a pastoral. Goethe wrote many idylls, sometimes seeming to shed the pastoral element, though I contended in my dissertation and later in an article that the pastoral did not really go missing but was instead represented as endangered. For instance, the character of Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther represents a pastoral shepherd. After all, the chief occupation of poetic shepherds is falling in love, and one of their chief activities is dancing. And where does Werther meet Lotte and fall in love with her? At a dance. His pining for her is also characteristic of poetic shepherds.

As in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's idylls are always shadowed by something dark. Though lovers in pastorals often fade away in love, they don't commit suicide, as does Werther. My argument concerning this short novel was that the idyll represented for Goethe a poetic suicide and that, to free himself and become the giant of German letters, he had to free himself from this poetic form, something that Werther failed at. Nevertheless, Goethe did not quite abandon his fondness for the poetic inspiration of his youth; instead, his works feature many idylls in which, however, it ends up being destroyed. One only has to think of one of the final scenes of Faust II, when the idyll of Philomen and Baucis is destroyed.

Love, as said, represents the chief occupation of poetic shepherds, and love is, I dare say, the most prominent theme of Goethe's literary works. Yet rather than the wholehearted poetic-shepherd embrace of the experience, the lover in Goethe's poetry seems more enamored of the recollection of love, from a distance. For instance, a very early poem entitled "The Night." The first two lines in its original version, from 1768, are as follows: "Gern verlass' ich diese Hütte,/ Meiner Schönen Aufenthalt." This is of course a paradox: he is happy to leave the abode of the beloved? Goethe seemed to recognize this paradox, for when he published the collection Neue Lieder in 1789 he changed the first line to read: "Nun [now] verlass' ich diese Hütte."

Love in absentia also characterizes a later and very beautiful poem, "Nähe des Geliebten," from 1795. As has been noted, Goethe wrote this poem after reading a similar one by Friederike Brun, entitled "Ich denke dein." In Brun's poem one has the feeling that the person being remembered has died, which is not the case in Goethe's poem. Here is a translation (from 1844) by William Edmonstoune Aytoun:

I think of thee when'er the sun is glowing
Upon the lake;
Of thee, when in the crystal fountain flowing
The moonbeams shake.

I see thee when the wanton wind is busy,

And dust-clouds rise;
In the deep night, when o'er the bridge so dizzy
The wanderer hies.

I hear thee when the waves, with hollow roaring,
Gush forth their fill;
Often along the heath I go exploring,
When all is still.

I am with thee! Though far thou art and darkling,
Yet art thou near.
The sun goes down, the stars will soon be sparkling
Oh, wert thou here.

Interestingly, Aytoun did not translate the title as per Goethe's title -- "Nearness of the Beloved" -- but as "Separation." The poet feels the nearness when the beloved is elsewhere. Of course, it should be added that the poetic voice in this case is feminine, as in Brun's poem.

Picture credit: Bonza Sheila

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on catastrophe

Ten years ago the U.S. homeland was attacked by Islamic terrorists. The Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. were the targets of airliners, while a fourth plane failed in its target and went down in a field in Pennsylvania. I went through photos yesterday, looking for something different for this blog, and discovered the one above highlighting another NYC icon, the Statue of Liberty. No matter how many times I am downtown, and sometimes I am even on the Hudson River in a kayak, my eyes always seek out the statue.

To signal this tenth anniversary of the attacks, I will not dwell on my response, which I recorded at the time and sent to friends. Maybe on the 20th anniversary, I will dig it out and look at it. There is a lot of controversy concerning the U.S. response to the attacks, and I feel that it is still a bit soon to be able to properly assess them. I want to talk here about another catastrophe, not of men's making, but a natural one, namely, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Goethe wrote about it over half a century after the event, in his autobiography Poetry and Truth.

It seems to me that the advanced thinkers of the 18th century would have had little difficulty in responding to the attacks of 9/11. Clearly, these were attacks of war, similar to Pearl Harbor, if not backed up by the military resources of any particular nation. It is a different kind of army that is waging this war, but the 18th-century thinkers had given lots of thought to war. Mostly they thought that religious conflicts were behind wars, though even in the case of 9/11 it is not only religion that propels the terrorists. The 9/11 terrorists, after all, were not products of madrasas but of Western education. Nevertheless, for 18th-century thinkers, a military response to an attack like 9/11 (as in the invasion of Afghanistan) would not have been considered intelligent or rational. War was bad.

The memory of the Thirty Years' War was still fresh in the early decades of the 18th century, when Bodmer began his literary career. In his Critical Observations of 1741, he talks about the effects of certain phenomena on the emotions, the first two of which are beauty and grandeur. Both of these are "natural" phenomena and can be said to be universal in their operations: as humans, we all respond to beauty and to grand objects like the starry skies above. He included a third group, however, which turns out to fit oddly with these two phenomena, namely, the effects of what he calls "das Ungestueme" (or violent). Among these are violent storms, plagues, shipwrecks, and so on, in a sense "natural" phenomena but ones that cast us down rather than elevate our emotions. He also mentions in this category wars and the operations of "Pulver" or weaponry.

This last, however, cannot be considered natural in the same way as a tsunami, but Bodmer was not engaging in philosophical reflections here. He was writing about the effects of the representation of these phenomena in poetry. Thus, his examples of the category of "das Ungestueme" are all taken from literature. For instance, he begins by discussing the shipwrecks in the Odyssey and the Aneid. On the effects of the representation of war he introduces his favorite poet, Martin Opitz, who was alive during the Thirty Years' War. I haven't looked at his work in years, but Opitz did, in a sense, poeticize about contemporary events (for instance, the marriage of his princely patron), perhaps even about the battles that plagued Germany before 1648. (Although I think Opitz may have spent many of the years in Holland.) But even Opitz drew his literary inspiration from earlier poets, and his treatment of contemporary battles was saturated with earlier literary representation.

By the time Goethe wrote his observations on the Lisbon earthquake, however, even poets were reflecting on natural phenomena and trying to give voice to their reaction to them, stripped of mediated literary garb. In doing a little research for this post, I was surprised to discover that Kant had written three texts on earthquakes, inspired by the one in Lisbon. Earthquakes, of course, were a subject of reflection on the sublime, but Kant seems to have been interested in the geology. Goethe's response to the earthquake, like that of many in the 18th century, was to question the supposed providential design of the world. Here is a portion of the reaction of his six-year-old self. (Goethe was born in 1749.):

God-fearing persons were moved to wise observations, philosophers offered consoling arguments, and clergymen preached fiery sermons. ... [T]he demon of terror has perhaps at no other time spread its chill over the world as quickly and powerfully.

Having to hear all of this repeatedly, I was more than a little disconcerted by it in my boyish mind. God, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, who had been presented to me as so very wise and merciful in the explanation of the first article of the Creed, had shown Himself by no means fatherly when He abandoned both the just and the unjust to the same destruction (transl. Robert R. Heitner).

Goethe is here documenting the contemporary philosophical and theological reflection concerning the causes of the Lisbon earthquake. As Theodor Adorno wrote concerning Voltaire, the earthquake caused him to abandon his Leibnizian theodicy. Goethe's response is slightly different, accusing God of having been wrathful. The latter response, however, seems normal or usual; people are always inclined to think things might have been different had they only acted differently and to consider bad things a judgment on them. I am not so sure we should get over our feeling of connectedness, even if we don't really influence the course of natural phenomena.

I notice, however, that the occurrence of catastrophic natural events -- tsunamis, etc. -- always brings out the skeptics and cynics who make fun of people who do believe a divine hand is at work. These cynics introduce the theodicy argument: why would a benevolent God allow such bad things to happen, to the just and unjust alike, as Goethe wrote? These skeptics have a point, but I notice that when the catastrophic event is not natural, but is rather mad-made, as in the case of 9/11, the skeptics are the first to say we should not start casting blame. As with violent natural phenomena, there must be an explanation. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment, when we began to understand the workings of the natural world and even to have some control over them. I can't help thinking that the current fears about global warming tap into our belief that we might have some control over nature, if we just change our bad ways.