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