Thursday, March 31, 2011

America and the Enlightenment Project

I just received from my friend Ellis Shookman an offprint of an article, "Attitudes to North America in Wieland's Teutscher Merkur," which is appearing in Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (vol. 34 [2011], pp. 81-100). Ellis gave a talk on this subject a year or so ago, when I was still chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. Reading it today led to some reflections about attitudes among Europeans toward America, and in particular the U.S.

When I went to study in Germany as a very young woman (ages ago), Germans were very helpful and kind to me. Nevertheless, especially when among older people, I couldn't help noticing that they thought America somewhat backward. This was especially the case in the matter of "culture," which supposedly Americans had none of. I would not say that I was particularly resentful at their attitude. Like many Americans first facing a foreign culture, I felt my deficiencies, intellectual and otherwise, and was in any case trying to become "cultured." At the time, of course, I did not ask them why people as cultured as the Germans had started World War II -- though it did occur to me. To imagine that any nation or culture is superior to others is now considered in bad taste, so I will simply say: where do you prefer to live if you have a choice? Obviously, if we have a choice in the matter, we think we live in the best place on earth.I see from Ellis's article that, in the late 18th century, some Germans already had the attitude that America was a place without "culture." At least that is what can be discerned from his thorough investigation of issues of Der Teutscher Merkur (and later Neuer Teutscher Merkur) appearing between 1773 and 1810. This quarterly publication was one of the most important intellectual organs of the time. Goethe was not a regular contributor, though a few poems and reports by him did adorn its pages.

One of its subjects was the events of the American Revolution, both before and after, in which the German correspondents of the journal were very interested. The journal published some correct news as well as misinformation, often relying, for instance, on the reports of sailors. It was obviously difficult to follow events on the ground, especially after hostilities broke out, but there was an attempt to cover them. Whatever the outcome between the British and the colonists, Germans, like the rest of Europe, saw important implications for the balance of power on the continent. As Ellis writes, most of these articles "were largely non-committal accounts of political or military developments, ... conveyed their authors' knowledge that new of the events they related was not always reliable, their apparent distaste for war and preference for peace and their sympathy for both sides." They were even "nuanced and balanced"!

The reporting changed after the United States came into being. Clearly, some Europeans had utopian aspirations for the new republic. Well, these were men of the Enlightenment, and soon the articles began to decry "Americans' commercialism and lack of culture." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Ellis mentions several writers who struck this note. One was a baron, Gustav Anton von Seckendorff (1775-1823). The little information to be found on him on the internet (not even a picture) indicates a very cultured person. Therefore his comments, published in the Merkur in June 1797, that people in Philadelphia "were too busy making or spending money to write or read books. Acquiring and enjoying, he explained, were the two pivots around which all striving and urging of North Americans revolved." Interestingly, after returning to Europe, he came once more to America, dying in Louisiana "in poverty" (according to Wikipedia).

More interesting to me were the reports of Karl August Böttinger, who was a staple of Weimar society (and in fact took over the publication of the Merkur in 1807). In November 1793 he wrote an admiring article about the building of Washington, the "youthfully beautiful, emerging capital city." One can just tell from the title of the article -- "Neu-Rom in Amerika" -- that he would end up being disappointed with the U.S. By 1796 he was writing, according to Ellis, "that utopian conceptions of North America were exaggerated." In further articles, he warned against emigrating and considered the majority of Americans to be a "vile, money-making tribe."

As I said, Böttiger was a well-known Weimar notable. After receiving his "Dr. phil." in Wittenberg he came to Weimar in 1791, on Herder's prompting, and became director of the Weimar Gymnasium. He was a member of the "Friday Club" and among Goethe and Schiller's circle. He seems to have been very indiscreet, however, earning Goethe's eternal enmity. Böttinger is also the source of many rumors about goings-on in Weimar. Safranski in his book on the friendship of Goethe and Schiller says of Böttinger that he "had his ear in all places (überall seine Ohren hat). For instance, he reported that opinions were divided concerning Goethe's ballad "The Bride of Corinth." One side, according to Böttinger, called it "the most revolting of all bordello scenes [die ekelhafteste aller Bordellszenen] and are agitated by the profanation of Christendom; others call it the most perfect of all of Goethe's small works of art." And who do you think painted the portrait of him here? Tischbein, of course!

Picture credits: Griffith University; muttaQin

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Emotion recollected in tranquility"

The above quote is from Wordsworth, from the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). A fuller quote is that a poem, though a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," nevertheless "takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility." I was reminded of Wordsworth's words by a piece in the March 11 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, about the relationship between the critic Kenneth Tynan and C.S. Lewis, who had been Tynan's don at Oxford from 1945 until 1948. Though the two men shared very different sensibilities, Tynan had always esteemed Lewis, and, in the 1960s, when Tynan produced a television program on the arts, he seems to have induced Lewis to appear on a program entitled "Eros in the Arts." Footage of the interview of Lewis by Wayland Young (who had written a book entitled Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society, "which came to be seen as something of a manifesto for a permissive society") has not survived, but there is a transcript, a portion of which was reproduced in the TLS piece.

Wayland asked Lewis whether literature could not have as one of its "intentions" "the arousing of thoughts of lust." Quoting Lionel Trilling, Young asked whether one of literature's functions was "to arouse desire" and whether there could be any grounds "for saying sexual pleasure should not be among the objects of desire which literature presents to us along with heroism, virtue, peace, death, food, wisdom, God etc." Trilling's comment appeared in his own essay on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, originally published in Britain in 1958.

Lewis disagreed with Young "about stimulating other things," and went on to say that he didn't think literature was "operating as literature when it is simply and directly stimulating these emotions in a practical way." And, then, referring to Wordsworth's definition of poetry, he said that "there are some things which can't very well be recollected in tranquility." Later, speaking of pornographic writing, he criticized the "appalling solemnity" of descriptions of sexual acts. "The Greeks," he said, knew that the goddess of love was the laughter-loving goddess, and this is what seems to be entirely crushed out by, what I would call, our modern aphroditology, if I might coin this nasty word, the serious worship of Aphrodite." One is always impressed by Lewis' insights. Of course, he wrote the seminal work on mediveal love poetry, The Allegory of Love. (I couldn't find an image of Lewis as a young man; he is always portrayed in his don period. Thus, the lovely photograph at the top of a monument to Lewis, in Belfast.)

The interview also made me reflect a little bit more on Bodmer's ideas on poetry. One of the predominant aims of poetry is to delight with its imitations, which appeal to the imagination, indeed to the passions. Unlike historians, whose aim is to instruct us and who thus use rather prosaic language, Bodmer, influenced by Longinus' treatise on the sublime, thought that poets should make use of striking, bold imagery, thereby producing surprise and delight. Indeed, referring to Longinus -- "the design of the poetical image is enthrallment" (§15) -- he writes that poetry has as its purpose "to astonish and awe us."

Bodmer, however, is not recommending the stimulation of emotions for "practical" effect. If we are reading a thrilling battle scene, e.g., in Homer, we are not to go out and get in a fight or even join up for war. (The latter would be an aim of rhetoric, which is to "convince.") He doesn't use Wordsworth's phrase, but he is getting at the same thing. The powerful emotion we may feel from a poem or another piece of literature is only the basic stage of our reaction; it should be followed by reflection on the causes of our feeling and of the situation the poet is describing. In the end, the effect should be one of "edifying delight" (erbauliches Ergetzen).

Wordsworth was encouraging poets to lay aside conventional poetic and rhetorical language and to search their hearts for the right expression. Bodmer also thought that poets should write "from the heart" and from experience, but he his conception of experience was one mediated by the writings of the best poets. Thus, if you wanted to learn about the emotions, indeed, if you wanted to find out how you "should" feel about things, your best guide would be writers like Ovid or Homer. Feelings had not yet been "naturalized" this early in the 18th century. That ordinary people had feelings and that these should become subjects of artistic representation were new concepts, and a vocabulary had to be invented to write about them. Part of the process was the "dialogue" between individuals and the natural world, as numerous poets took walks (or imaginative ones) in the countryside and explored their reaction to nature. Poetry on sublime subjects (the starry skies above) expressed awe; graveyard poetry allowed one to feel melancholy; and so on.

Still, until Wordsworth (and indeed long after), most of this "experiential" poetry was heavily mediated by other poetry. A good example is to be found in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. When Werther falls in love with Lotte, his favorite reading material is Homer's Odyssey: his favorite scene is the return of the hero to hearth and home. (Tischbein, painter of the iconic portrait of Goethe, executed the above painting of that sentimental scene.) When he is depressed and becoming suicidal, he reads Ossian, in which the scenes of gloom and doom foreshadow his own end.

Picture credits: John Mooney; I Like Nice Life

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquakes and the Sublime

I had thought of posting on earthquakes after the one that took place in New Zealand in late February. Goethe relates an episode in his autobiography concerning the reaction in the 18th century to the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of the center of the city and also produced a tsunami. Maybe it was because the churches were crowded that morning for the All Saints Day mass that so many Enlightenment thinkers questioned why God would allow such a terrible catastrophe -- as if catastrophes hadn't been going on for millennia. Though Goethe was only six years old at the time, he later wrote of this feeling: "God, the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and hearth, whom the First Article of Faith had portrayed as so wise and merciful, had allowed the just to suffer the same as the unjust, thus in no way proving to fatherly.In vain the young mind sough to come to grips with such observations, but this was all the less possible because even sages and scholars could not agree on how to interpret the phenomenon" (Peter Boerner translation).

Let me turn to Bodmer. I don't know what his reactions to the 1755 quake were, but he did write about the effect of catastrophic events on human emotions. In 1741 he published his Critische Betrachtungen über die poetischen Gemälde der Dichter (Critical observations on the poetic "paintings" of poets). In it he analyzes the three sources of our reaction to events in the "material realm," meaning the world in which we live and have our existence. These sources are the beautiful (das Schöne), the great (das Große), and the violent (das Ungestüme). In the presence of the beautiful we feel delight. The great or grandeur in nature produces astonishment, followed by "a delightful Stillness and Amazement in the Soul." That last quote is from Joseph Addison, whom Bodmer is pretty much following here.

Bodmer seems to have rejected Addison's third source, Novelty. In fact, he says in Crit. Betr. that what is new or novel does not have its grounds in the material world but in our emotions. It is a combination of elements of which we have not heretofore taken notice but with which we are otherwise familiar. Instead, his third source is the violent, which represents danger and fills the soul with terror and fear. Bodmer was writing of the effects on our emotions of poetry and art, in particular of descriptions of war or of the storms that assailed Aneas as he made his way to Italy, and not of real life.

Addison also discussed the effects of poetry on the imagination, but he thought that nature had a stronger effect on us than did works of art. Thus, his initial examples come from the natural world, and the pleasures we derive from the observation of the Beautiful, the Great, or the New in nature are what he calls "primary." Those produced by art are the secondary pleasures of the imagination. Bodmer, however, despite living surrounded by the Alps his entire life, seems not to have factored them, or indeed any other natural phenomena, into his reflections on the Great in nature, even though he quotes Addison's description of Greatness, namely, that the "Mind of Man naturally hates every thing that looks like a Restraint upon it," and thus such prospects as "an open Chamian Country, a vast unculitvated Desart, ... a wide Expanse of Waters," and so on give an "Image of Liberty."

Longinus had described the feeling produced by the sublime as one almost of tyranny: one was overcome with powerful emotion in the presence of greatness. Bodmer's category of the violent suggests such a passivity of the person experiencing a crushing event, be it war or a natural disaster like the present earthquake in Japan. Unlike in the case of the Beautiful or the Great, one is not free in relation to violence. Bodmer seems to have straightened this confusion out in his last writing on the sublime, in 1746, in which he confined the sublime to the free acts of humans. Terrible catastrophes are not sublime. They are simply terrible or, if man-created, evil.

The scenes of Japan after this earthquake are ones of devastation, almost like the scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs fell on those cities. A similar event in our own time, also caused by the hand of men, are the attacks on 9/11. At the time the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen made the terrible remark that the attacks were "the greatest work of art ever." Stockhausen seemed not to understand the difference between art and life, which certainly Bodmer did. I was struck, however, by his succeeding comment, in reply to a journalist asking him if he was equating crime and art: "It is a crime," he said, "because the people were not agreed. They didn't go to the 'concert." That is clear. And no one gave them notice that they might pass away [draufgehen]." It is certainly the case that, when such events strike, that one has no freedom.

Since I lived in Japan for several years, I have been very absorbed by the news, which has led to these reflections on the sublime. It strikes me that the sublime is never a terrible catastrophe, certainly not the mass murder that took place on 9/11 (or, on a small scale but just as evil, the recent massacre of settlers in Israel). The sublime is all the processes, activities, and so on that make civilization possible, including the buildings that were destroyed on 9/11 as well as the tremendous material damage in Japan in recent days. One can't help but think how fragile existence is, yet, when the apocalypse has passed, most people pick up and build up their lives again. And, as in Lisbon in the 18th century, the "international community" has reached out to help the Japanese, including these dogs who came from Los Angeles with their handlers.

Picture credits: Hiroto Sekiguchi: dapd; Matt Dunham

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Goethe and the Moon

The current issue of The Weekly Standard has a review of what seems an intriguing book, Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, by James Attlee. I went to my local Barnes & Noble this afternoon, hoping to have a look, but it had not yet hit the shelves there. Am I wrong to think that modern interest in the moon began with Galileo's observations through his "spyglasses" (the term "telescopium" not yet having been invented)? The moon, the stars, the planets, and so on have been perennial poetic elements in the West, but the heavens took on a new aspect from the 17th century. Before Galileo the moon had been thought to be perfectly round and smooth -- the Earth being the only source of imperfection in the universe -- with the dark spots on its surface the result of the differing absorption of light. Probably books have been written on the changes in the treatment of the moon in poetry, but I will wait until I see Professor Attlee's book.

Goethe wrote several beautiful poems with the moon as subject. In one, "To the Rising Moon" ("Dem aufgehenden Vollmonde"), he addresses the moon directly:

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

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

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

Here is a link to the English translation; though the first line of the translation addresses the sense, what Goethe says is, "Do you want to leave me so soon?"

I especially like another poem by Goethe, "At Midnight," in which the moon features:

Um Mitternacht ging ich, nicht eben gerne,
Klein, kleiner Knabe, jenen Kirchhof hin
Zu Vaters Haus, des Pfarrers; Stern am Sterne,
Sie leuchteten doch alle gar zu schön;
Um Mitternacht.

Wenn ich dann ferner in des Lebens Weite
Zur Liebsten mußte, mußte, weil sie zog,
Gestirn und Nordschein über mir im Streite,
Ich gehend, kommend Seligkeiten sog;
Um Mitternacht.

Bis dann zuletzt des vollen Mondes Helle
So klar und deutlich mir ins Finstere drang,
Auch der Gedanke willig, sinnig, schnelle
Sich ums Vergangne wie ums Künftige schlang;
Um Mitternacht.

Again, here is a translation. For a really good translation, however, one must go to David Luke, who writes about "At Midnight": "Goethe stated in his diary, and again in a later essay, that this mysterious poem was one of which he was particularly fond, all the more so because, on the bright moonlit night of 13 February [1818], it had come into his mind unexpectedly and without explanation. ... It seems, however, to be an evocation of three successive stages of life and thus to be what Goethe calls a 'song of life (Lebenslied).' It may also be significant ... that all three stanzas are linked by an imagery of light, of brightness increasing from that of the stars to that of the full moon."

I particularly like the concrete imagery of the first stanza, the child walking home in the dark, a bit afraid, with only the stars guiding him. The poem also conveys the mood of many Romantic-period paintings, for instance, the two above by the English artist Samuel Palmer. The first, an etching in black ink, would seem even to portray the rural setting. I have been very fond of Palmer since encountering his work at an exhibition held by The Metropolitan Museum a few years back. Palmer seems to have been melancholic, which is appropriate for someone who painted so many moons.

The photo at the top of the post is of an Interstellar Light Collector from outside Tucson. According to The Weekly Standard review, it is a five-storey-high array of parabolic mirrors that, according to its builders, cure ailments by amplifying and directing moonlight at participants hoisted by a boom lift. For moonbeams closer to home, one might buy a moon jar.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Joanna Sebus"

I am continually being introduced to aspects of Goethe with which I was unfamiliar, in this case the above-named ballad. My husband is fond of music, so I perforce listen to a lot. The other evening the CD was "Die Berliner Sing-Akademie," featuring selections by Felix Mendelssohn-Barholdy, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, and Carl Friedrich Zelter. Goethe was acquainted with all three, and both Reichardt and Zelter composed music for works by Goethe. Zeller was one of his closest friends, even though he lived in Berlin, where he was director of the Sing-Akademie from 1800 until 1832.

There are two major phases of Goethe's interest in ballads. The first began in the Sturm und Drang period. Encouraged by Herder while he was a student in Strassburg, Goethe began collecting folk ballads. Among his own ballads in this folk vein are Der Fischer (1778) and Der Erlkönig (1782). Later, in 1797, he and Schiller entered into a ballad-writing competition. This competition occurred as the two were giving much thought to the "essence" of various literary genres, including the ballad. Among the ballads Goethe produced were Der Schatzgraber, Die Braut von Corinth, Der Gott und der Bajadere, and Der Totentanz (on which I posted some time ago). To my mind, they are very "thought out," removed from the seeming spontaneity of the earlier ballads. Still, on an intellectual level they are often pleasing.

Johanna Sebus concerned a real event, the heroic efforts of a young woman to save others after ice on the Rhein had broken and caused a dam to break, thereby flooding the village of Cleve in 1809. Reports circulated of her heroism and of her ultimate drowning. The reports were sent to Goethe by a friend who prompted him to write on the subject. After writing his ballad, Goethe sent it to Zelter, who sent the cantata to Goethe in early 1810. Schubert also attempted a composition, but it remains fragmentary. Obviously the heroism of Johanna, not to mention Goethe's memorial, led to many illustrations of the incident, including the "Romanticized" one at the top by Friedrich Bury (who also painted a portrait of Goethe, which I will post at another time).

In 1821, in Über Kunst und Altertum, Goethe compared the ballad form to "a living Ur-egg" that contains all poetic possibilities. The poet makes use of all three genres (Grundarten) in order to express what should stimulate the imagination as well as occupy the mind: "he can begin lyrically, epically, or dramatically and, as he wishes, continue by altering the form and rush to the conclusion or draw it out as long as he wishes. The refrain, the repetition of the same final sound, endows this poetic form [Dichtart] with its distinctive lyric character."

Picture credit: RP-Online

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Goethe in Portrait

I wanted to add a couple of my thoughts on portraits since my last posting. In the meantime I have also had an opportunity to look at Cynthia Freeland's book Portraits and Persons. In the second chapter, entitled "Contact," she discusses Roland Barthes' book on photography, Camera Lucida, which he was prompted to write after his mother's death. Reflecting on the past, he claims that photographs "preserve the past, bringing us into the direct presence of people who are long dead."

When looking at photographs of 19th-century people, especially ethnographic photographs like the one of Arapaho Indian men below, I have indeed felt that one "knows" them in a way that one doesn't know people from paintings, drawings, or any other earlier visual document. I have so often wished that photography had been invented a decade earlier; then, we might have had a photograph of Goethe.

Freeland mentions Barthes' discussion of the way a portrait captures a person's "air, which Barthes describes as follows:

The air is not a schematic, intellectual datum, the way a silhouette is. Nor is the air a simple analogy -- however extended -- as in "likeness." No, the air is that exorbitant thing which induces body from soul -- animula, little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another.

Got that? Actually, I would reverse Barthes' terms: not "induces body from soul," but "soul from body." And, indeed, Freeland goes on to say that there is something in great portraits from history "that holds our attention just because we do seem to see in them a person's essence, their 'air.'" Barthes himself goes on to say: "Perhaps the air is ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the face the reflection of a life value."

Freeland mentions a couple of paintings that, she claims, reveal this "air," in other words, "someone's essential nature or their character in a very deep sense." One was the portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Lucian Freud. Frankly I find it so ugly that I didn't want to put it on my blog. Another is Velazquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X, who "has the air of someone cunning and ruthless." I think she is onto something there.

The drawing at the top of Goethe, by Tischbein, sketched shortly after Goethe arrived in Rome in 1787, is not a portrait. It is obviously something like a candid snapshot. There is not the "engagement" between artist and subject that, for Freeland, characterizes the true portrait. At the same time, as Freeland mentioned (see my previous post), adult humans are self-enacting, presenting themselves to the world, most of the time. From Goethe's relaxed "pose" here, as he stares out the window onto the Roman scene below, one certainly glimpses the charming young man that so many were attracted to. One has the impression that Goethe is not aware he is being observed; Goethe, however, seemed able to withdraw into himself, even when he was observed, a quality that Tischbein captured in Goethe in the Campagna.

Picture credits: Recherche; First People