Sunday, January 27, 2013

Goethe and capital punishment

In connection with the paper I will be giving in September on the origins of utopian thinking in the 18th century, I am rereading Franco Venuri's Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. I wrote a couple of posts on this book earlier, which is what has led to my appearance at the conference in September. This book might be better entitled "Utopia versus Reform," because Venturi is showing the setbacks to government reform in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the rise of utopian visions, namely, the desire to wipe the slate clean, to toss tradition overboard, and to create a society unburdened with inequalities. In Weimar, at least in Goethe's experience in government, the emphasis was on reform.

Though Venturi gives principal weight to France, because of the culmination there of the Revolution, his book is masterful in portraying the interplay of intellectual activity on the continent, especially in Holland, the Italian republics, and England. For instance, a book published in France in 1755, entitled Code de la nature ou le véritable esprit des lois, was being read and discussed in Italy already the following year. This book, by Morelly, contained "the first expression of 18th-century communism." As Venturi writes: "In every group of philosophes, there was at least one who had a secret sympathy for a world in which the fatal distinction between mine and thine either never exited or had been abolished."

But what about the problem of bad people: were they bad by nature, or had society made them bad? If the former, the burning question among the philosophes was how to punish such people "reasonably," in a utilitarian manner. Thus, another much discussed book, from 1764, was by an Italian, Cesare BeccariaDei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments). Beccaria condemned torture, a favorite method of gaining confessions, as well as the death penalty. He believed that punishment should conform to rational principles. If society was the problem, however, society itself had to be reorganized in order to expunge invidious distinctions. In a society of free and equal men, after all, there would be no crime, because everyone shared all goods. Right?

I am struck in reading Venturi how small a role he attributes to Germany in this intellectual concourse. True, Pufendorf is mentioned, and no doubt there were men in the German lands who were familiar with the philosophes. Goethe was most familiar with Diderot. On the question of punishment, Venturi writes of Diderot: "In the end, Diderot had given up all hope of saving those who had embarked on a life of crime." Which does not mean that Diderot was not a utopian: indeed, like many philosophes, he came to distrust "partial reforms." Goethe, however, seems not to have been of the opinion that "only a complete and integral transformation of society" was required. Indeed, he seemed not to have been troubled by the death penalty. He voted with his fellow ministers to carry out the execution of a woman, Johanna Höhn, a maidservant who had murdered her infant child. She was duly beheaded in the Weimar marketplace in November 1783.

The two cover designs above, by Robert Schumann for Rotbuch Verlag, were prepared for the novel  Goethes Hinrichtung  (Goethe's Execution) by Viktor Glass. I have not read it.

Picture credits: Face Out Books

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Goethe, utopia, and world literature

Most recently I have been listening to Thomas More's Utopia on my iPod, along with Plato's Republic, both of which are considered Urtexte in utopian theorizing. I am trying to ignore the cringe-worthy aspects of these proposals for social amity and, instead, to focus on why utopian thinking continues to attract, even as the past several centuries have amply demonstrated that one-size-fits-all solutions to governance have been disastrous.

Plato was pure philosopher, but I was struck to find so many similarities between Thomas More's career and Goethe's. According to Karl Kautsky, More was appointed "Under Sheriff" in 1509, "in which position he had sufficient opportunity to gain an insight into the economic life of the people." In 1515 Parliament appointed More a "Commissioner for Sewers." He became Treasurer and, in 1523, Speaker in the Commons," positions (according to Kautsky) that presupposed experience in financial maters. And then, shortly afterward, he became Chancellor to the king.  Goethe's many duties in Weimar governance were similarly wide-reaching, including his close relationship with the sovereign, Carl August. (I recommend the Goethe Handbuch entry, vol. 4/1, pp.35-46, on Goethe's "Amtliche Tätigkeit.") Some of his duties concerned finances.

Thomas More had more diplomatic experience than Goethe. For instance, he went to Bruges in 1515 as a member of a group conducting commercial negotiations. Another mission, to Calais, in 1517, concerned commercial disputes between English and French merchants. He went to Bruges again in 1520 to settle disputes between English merchants and the Hansa.

More's Utopia reflects the contemporary interest in travel and concourse among nations and in the customs and governance of other nations. More was writing at the very beginning of the period when the European countries began the oversees trade that would bring such wealth to England and Holland. Goethe was formulating his ideas about world literature at the moment when that trade had made the lives of Europeans similar in material respects. By the 1820s Goethe was quite a gourmand (see my post on this subject), and the table at his home on the Frauenplan in Weimar was supplied with the products of foreign trade. His household accounts show outlays for delicacies that were not produced in Weimar: chestnuts, fermented mustard, foie gras, mussels, Spanish raisins, caviar. This appreciation for fine food among the middle class was a phenomenon of commerce, and, today, we can see that people all over the world either enjoy or aspire to enjoy similar material comforts. Thus, though Goethe lacked overseas experience, he was aware of the equalizing effects of commerce and trade. World literature  is commerce on an intellectual or spiritual level, one, so Goethe hoped, that would produce amity among diverse peoples.

Photo credit: Coin Talk

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Werther's Lotte

This is a total sidebar. My friend Maureen sent me this link to the artist-writer Windsor Joe Innis who lives on the Korean island of Jeju. He has apparently written a novel entitled Secrets of Young Lotte. Goethe turns up in the strangest places. I have not read the novel and do not know whether it is available stateside.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Goethe and utopia

Old Economy Village
As I continue my research on utopias, past and present, I am also keeping Goethe in mind. Thus, last evening I read an article by Karl J.R. Arndt on the "Auswandererbund" in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. It seems that Goethe was very conversant with the experiments of George Rapp, the Pietist from Württenberg who founded the original communal settlement of Harmony, Indiana, and with Robert Owen, the Scots factory owner who purchased Harmony from Rapp when the latter moved with his followers to Pennsylvania. Goethe was aware that the religious ties of the members of Rapp group contributed to its success, but he was not very sympathetic to religion as the binding element. Owen's secular experiment, "New Harmony," however, failed within a few years precisely because of a lack of common purpose.

George Rapp
Owen, taking a leaf from the Founding Fathers, advocated the pursuit of happiness. He envisioned giant habitations in which all the needs of the denizens wold be met, with superior products made on the basis of need rather than profit, along with the sharing of all resources. Owen imported a "boatload of scholars," as it was known, which was to bring enlightenment to the Midwest. As Donald Pitzer has written, however, Owen, who did not believe in mixing the classes, discovered hat he could not create in Indiana a community of equality that imposed "the cultural and living standards of eastern seaboard reformers, educators, and scientists of the 'better sort.'"

Goethe seemed to have taken a lesson from this failure, at least for his novel. Thus, there are no humanists, writers, or painters among the emigres. The "Auswandererstaat" is composed of men prepared to pursue useful trades, thus a colony modeled after George Rapp's Harmonists, united in this case by artisanal skills.

Picture credits: Old Economy Village; City Profile

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Goethe, utopia, and world literature

Bird's eye view of Robert Owen's never-completed utopia in New Harmony, Indiana
Some time back I did some postings on intellectuals and power, in which I discussed the book Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment by the Italian historian Franco Venturi. I distinguished Goethe from the French philosophes: Goethe actually worked in government and tried political reform. I quoted Nicholas Boyle, from his biography of Goethe, who suggested that Goethe saw in his position in the Weimar administration "the possibility of doing something -- perhaps even useful for his fellow men ... certainly of fulfilling the ambitions that his father had had perforce to renounce when the door closed on his own political career." I wrote that "the experiment failed."

It was not correct to say that it failed, because Goethe continued to have much influence over matters civil and public: at the university at Jena, in particular. No doubt, he experienced much frustration, e.g., in the Ilmenau mine venture, yet it must be said that Goethe never succumbed to millennial or visionary scenarios that began to absorb thinkers in the early 19th century. In other words, perhaps because he understood from experience how difficult reform is, he never fell into the trap of thinking that the human condition could be perfected.

It was through my postings on Venturi, on intellectuals and power, and on utopian thinking that I have been invited to participate in a conference entitled "Culture Shock! Utopian Dreams, Hard Realities," which takes place in Sointula on Malcolm Island this coming September. Sointula, which means "Place of Harmony" in Finnish, was the site of a utopian community founded in the late 19th century by Finnish immigrants. Other speakers include Charles LeWarne, who has written extensively on Washington state and on communitarian settlements, and anthropologist Edward Dutton, who first conceptualized the term "culture shock."

I will be speaking on the 18th-century background of 19th-century utopian experiments, and will post here as my research proceeds. Since I started with Goethe, with his real-world experience in political administration, let me mention another way in which Goethe can be distinguished from the 18th-century thinkers who had such an influence on 19th-century utopian planners like Robert Owen. The difference, I would like to suggest, can be found in Goethe's concept of world literature. Goethe, too, was aware of the problems besetting the modern world, and Goethe hoped that the growth of a world literary market and of literary commerce among writers and nations would lead to a kind of amity among peoples. He never envisioned, as did Fourier or Owen that the world would be joined into some kind of community in which all differences between people would be effaced. As he wrote in Über Kunst und Altertum (1828) on the effect of world literature: "Let us repeat: we are not saying that the nations should think alike, only that they should become aware of one another; and, if there is no mutual love among them, that they at least learn to tolerate one another." Goethe probably thought that was the best that could be hoped for in the modern world, in contrast to those utopian thinkers who imagined that heaven could be produced on earth. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Goethe in Rome

I found this charming drawing while going through my iPhoto library. Unfortunately I can no longer recall which book I took the photo from. It would seem to represent the scene in no. 5 of the Roman Elegies and even to be from Goethe's pen. Perhaps someone can enlighten me here?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Goethe and grief

I dreamed of Goethe last night, which was a first. I will spare you the contents of the dream, but the dream prompted me to start posting again. Since I last posted, I have continued to receive queries from people––lots of students, even an eighth-grader––about Goethe. Moreover, there have been an additional 40,000 hits on the blog. Among the categories most visited was a post on Goethe and grief. This interest made me sit up a bit, for if there is any subject on which Goethe is pretty silent it is grief. There is, however, one aspect of Goethe's reaction to grief that inadvertently has helped me since the death of Rick at Thanksgiving 2012.

First off, I should say that grief does not go away. Probably the most annoying comment that I have heard over the past year is that "time heals." From my own experience, it does no such thing. Indeed, after a year I still cry on an almost daily basis. I suppose I am fortunate, however, in not being a natural depressive. As hard as things have been, I get up every morning and go through the motions.

And in this aspect I suppose Goethe and I have something in common, and it is something that gets you through the grief: work. Goethe seems not to have let an hour go by without some activity––and it has been documented! Without comparing myself with him, I have managed to complete a major article on Bodmer and the sublime, which has been accepted for publication, along with several book reviews and short essays. The book that I wished to complete is not yet finished, though not for not trying. A book takes more concentrated effort than the other writing, and the amount of work that I have had to do and that still remains to do in connection with Rick and our life together is immense. Among other things, I have to sell a house. Goethe was more fortunate in having servants and other factotums (or should that be factota?) to take care of such mundane matters. In our democratic age, most of it falls on me.

In my work compulsion I have also learned to cook this year, documented in another blog. Rick was the cook in the family, and now I am trying to eat in the manner to which he accustomed me. It is amazing what one can learn on the internet! But cooking reminds me every day of what an amazing person he was, devoted and good, and how fortunate I was.

What I have learned from all of this activity is the importance for me of the mental, intellectual life. It is primarily in the use of my mind, in my ongoing intellectual projects, that I still find myself excited about life. That, I think, is the lesson of Goethe in the matter of grief.