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