Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Goethe's "bildhafte Sprache"

The 3 Fates, by Hans Vischer, ca. 1530
I was reading through Über Kunst und Altertum and discovered (vol. 5, no. 1) the following in the opening of the section "Einzelnes." It is succinct, as in required with aphorisms, but I was struck anew by Goethe's employment of a structure of imagery, drawn from nature but also, as here, from mythology, in the process embedding human life and activity in a larger context:

Indem ich mich zeither mit der Lebensgeschichte wenig und viel bedeutender Menschen anhaltender beschäftigte, kam ich auf den Gedanken: es möchten sich wohl die einen in dem Weltgewebe als Zettel, die andern als Einschlag betrachen lassen; jene gäben eigentlich die Breite des Gewebes an, diese dessen Halt, Festigkeit, vielleicht auch mit Zuthat irgend eines Gebildes. Die Scheere der Parze hingegen bestimmt die Länge, dem sich denn das Übrige alles zusammen unterwerfen muß. Weiter wollen wir das Gleichniß nicht verfolgen.

By reference to the Fates, Goethe also suggests the role of chance in the success or failure of human activity, which accords with his belief that Nature is amoral: "Die Natur versteht gar keinen Spaß, sie ist immer wahr ... sie hat immer Recht, und die Fehler und Irrtümer sind immer des Menschen." Nature does not play favorites: that is a thought that sounds like the rationalizing of a man whom life has bitterly disappointed, although in Goethe's case one might think that he was mightily fortunate.

The "weighing of the heart" from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
This is one of those times when I sense what seems like a chink of glass in Goethe's heart. But maybe it is I who has the blind spot. I much prefer the notion contained in this Egyptian image, in which one's actions are being evaluated posthumously.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"es wird sich auch kristallisiern!"

Charlotte von Kalb by Johann Heinrich Schmidt
Herewith another nice anecdote from Biedermann's Goethes Gespräche. It is from the pen of Charlotte von Kalb (1761–1843), describing a social gathering in 1788 in Weimar:

Einen Tag verlebten wir bei Frau v. Stein zu einer Kollation. Goethe stand am Fenster, hatte eine Glasscheibe in der Hand und einen Bogen, zeigte, wie bei jeder Bewegung des Bogens der Sand auf dem Glase verschiedene Figuren bildete. Das Geringste war ihm bedeutend, was zum Gesetz der Ordnung gehörte, und so interessierte ihn dies wunderbare Spiel lebhaft; und wie unzerstörbar die geheimnisvolle Ordung der Natur, konnte wohl auch dies Experiment beweisen; die Winde zerstreuen den feinen Sand, doch der leise Strich des Bogens zwingt die Körnchen zu bestimmten schönen Formen. Es beschäftigten uns seine Versuche in lebendig angeregter Teilnahme mit ihm ... Goethes prägnanter Ausdruck bezeichnete zuweilen wie vorausschreitend und voraussagend: es wird sich auch kristallisiern! –– O wohl uns, wenn wir einst nur schöne Strahlen darin zu erkennen vermögen.

The recollection is evidence of the way Goethe dominated such social gatherings. I imagine by this time, however, that Frau von Stein found little interest in Goethe's Glasscheibe and his esoteric experimenting –– although isn't it the case that she was greatly responsible for transforming him from a person who dominated by a sparkling personality (as pre-Weimar accounts inform us) into this "frosty" presence?

Charlotte von Kalb's ironic tone is of interest, indicating perhaps that she did not take Goethe as seriously as he took himself. A New York Times article from 1883 describes her as a person who was warmly admired by men ("she fascinated nearly all the men she ever knew"), less so by women! Of her relationship with Schiller, the article goes on: "She loved Schiller and although he ultimately persuaded himself that she had not exercised a wholesome influence over him, there can be doubt that for several years he had as strong a passion for her as she for him." For more on that relationship, go here, a tale written in 1850.

The article also mentions that she excited "the passionate enthusiasm of the unfortunate poet Hölderlin." Her husband killed himself in 1806.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Against World Literature"

Collage by Maureen Mullarkey
I am finishing up my essay on Fritz Strich –– oh, how bedeviling are the footnotes! I find myself in opposition to almost every scholarly approach to world literature since it has become such a scholarly industry –– since Strich's Goethe und die Weltliteratur, first published in 1946. The term was of course in circulation already in Goethe's lifetime, as it first appeared in 1827 in volume 6, no. 1 of Ueber Kunst und Altertum. Peter Goßens' study (discussed here by me) has detailed the afterlife of the concept in the period immediately after Goethe's death. For instance, its political and ethical ramifications were seized on by Karl August Varnhagen and other Goethe admirers in Varnhagen’s Berlin circle, among whom the ideas of the followers of Saint-Simon had taken root. Goßens quotes Cyrus Hamlin on Varnhagen’s reading of the Wanderjahre as “Gebrauchsanweisung für die zukünftige soziale Ordnung Europas in 19. Jahrhundert,” thereby forming, in Goßens’ words, “der Grundstein einer sozialistischen Goethedeutung.”

Marx and Engels blew that interpretation out of the water, and after 1848 "world literature" came more and more to be identified with comparative literature, which began to establish itself as a scholarly discipline. Not that everyone agreed with that conflation, and in the decades before the appearance of Goethe und die Weltliteratur there occasionally appeared an essay or a book that sought to rescue the concept from the comparatists.

Since at least the 1980s, the concept of "Eurocentrism" has been intimately linked to the world literature industry. It is true that Europe and its offshoots have dominated the rest of the world in economic terms, to the extent of producing inequalities in respect of “marginalized peripheries.” (That's from Samir Amin, the guy who invented the term "Eurocentrism.") And in a burst of 19th-century overreach, they sought to "export" their institutions to non-Europe, with not such great results. In my essay on Strich, however, I seek to distinguish "Europe" as an economic product from "European" literature. The former is in about "progress," which means rejecting what was loved only yesterday. In non-material terms, this has given rise to one of the most characteristic features of Western life of the past several centuries, namely, the rejection of the intellectual and cultural authority of the past (the Battle of Ancients and Moderns marking an early milestone in this rejection).

"Using Literature to Teach Global Citizenship"
The provocative title of this post is also that of a new book by NYU professor of French Emily Apter. The TLS reviewed the book, providing a clear summary of Apter's critique: world literature, according to Apter (but in the words of the reviewer), is "the handmaiden to a late-capitalist moment that transforms all cultural idioms into easily digestible products for an expanded global marketplace." I agree with this sentiment. One only has to consider those ghastly anthologies of world literature foisted off on high school and college students. Not to mention the cloying, dumbed-down multicultural programs. Apter's fight "against" world literature seems to concern the issue of "untranslatability" (as per her subtitle). I say "seems," for frankly it is hard to know what she is talking about. The following is exemplary of her terrible writing:

"[I]n translation studies, the limits of sayability and expressibility are increasingly a focus, conjugating logic and philology, with the latter understood in Werner Hamacher's ascription as an 'inclination' (or disinclination) to that which is 'said and not said.'"

Why the weird use of "conjugate" and "ascription" here? And how does the second half of the sentence follow on the first? And why are the writings of full professors so offputting?

Proudhon and His Children by Gustave Courbet (1853)
It strikes me that Apter is a 21st-century version of the proto-socialist enthusiasts of Goethe's day. Her wish, like those proto-socialists, is the formation of non-national, emancipated, cosmopolitan literary communities. But that is exactly what the market creates. One only has to read a contemporary English-language novel coming out of India or Pakistan or an African country to understand that the writers of these novels are repeating the experience of Europe, namely, rejecting their own traditions, literary and otherwise, and becoming "cosmopolitan." Such has been the arc of the novel in the West, namely, to portray individuals contending with a non-traditional world, one in which the old sureties have been destroyed in the name of "progress."

I am beginning to find something weird about the world literature movement. Besides the endless numbers of conferences, I just came across an announcement for a "Four-Day Vacation School" on the topic of "World Literature: Theories, Practice, Pegagogy." Held in September at the University of Warwick, it was sponsored by "the Connecting Cultures Grp." Need I say more?

Picture credit: Vamos a leer; Encyclopedia Britannica

Goethe in Silesia 1820

Stamps commemorating the pilgrimage site at Wartha
It is quite amazing how many people had something to say about Goethe. I was looking through the first volume (1749–1805) of Goethes Gespräche by Flodoard Freiherrn von Biedermann, in which I found the following from a letter written by Carl August to his mother, dated August 15, 1820:

Beschwerliche Soupers, böses Steinpflaster, häßliche Weiber, weitläufige Verlegung derer Truppen und vieler Staub sind unsere angenehmsten Zugaben. Goethe isset und trinket stark, bloß seinetwegen steigt die Teuerung in hiesiger Gegend. Er wird ehstens ins Glatzer Gebirge reisen.

Goethe somewhat unwillingly –– he had recently returned from Venice –– joined Carl August and his troops in Breslau. Nicholas Boyle mentions (vol. 2, p. 78) that Goethe's tour of Silesia is underdocumented, but that he spent the week "under canvas"; thus, the duke's complaint about food and other travel trials. Festivities were going on in Breslau. The Prussian king was there, as August 17 was the fourth anniversary of his succession. It was apparently very hot that summer (thus, the dust). Boyle speaks of Goethe's discomfort in the "crowded, ill-drained, riverside town," especially in "close proximity to the Duke of Brunswick, who had never been well disposed toward him" (p. 82).

Wartha (Bardo)
Goethe took his leave from Carl August on the 26th and set off for the county of Glatz, which was annexed by the Prussians during the Silesian wars. His destination was the mountain known in German as "Heuscheuer" (Table Mountain in English). Thus, he left unvisited, according to Boyle, the pilgrimage center of Wartha (Bardo), with "its miraculous image of the Virgin and replicas of the holy places in Jerusalem." As Boyle writes, "Goethe was certainly on the Heuscheuer on either the 28th or the 29th, and it seems likely that once again he had chosen to mark his birthday by an act that lifted him, both really and symbolically, above the confusion and frustration of his ordinary existence" (p. 83)

Picture credits: Swistak.pl; Fryderyk Bernard Wernher