Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Goethe, Voltaire, and Friedrich the Great

Frederick Strolls with Voltaire at San Souci
 Yesterday I picked up a small volume entitled Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire. Its opening sounded almost like that of a novel:  “I was weary of the idle, noisy life of Paris, with all its fops and coxcombs; tired of the dreadful books published with royal approval, the cabals of writers, the low tricks and highway robberies committed by those wretches who dishonored literature.” The year was 1733, and Voltaire had gone to live with Mme de Chȃtelet at her chateau on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, where they lived an idyll, studying Leibniz and Newton, one result of which was the translation by the brilliant lady of Newton’s Principia. In 1740 they traveled to Brussels to settle a de Chȃtelet family lawsuit. It was while they were there that King Friedrich William of Prussia died, and his son became Frederick II.

And so begins the true subject of The Memoirs, Voltaire’s relationship with Friedrich II. Andrew Brown, the translator, notes that The Memoirs were probably written in 1758-59, at the same time as Candide, but not published in Voltaire’s lifetime. It has been ages since I have read anything that offered such a glimpse of the malignant society of the ancien regime. It was a time when literally everyone except the king was on the make, jockeying for position, for favor, for wealth, all the while using their wits to destroy rivals. Voltaire fell under the spell of power, in the person of Frederick. As Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in his own essay on Frederick, Voltaire became “one of the most illustrious inmates” at the court in Potsdam, … the most remarkable of all who entered the enchanted garden in the inebriation of delight, and quitted it in agonies of rage and shame.” Macaulay goes one to say that “Never had there met two persons so exquisitely fitted to plague each other.”

Macaulay’s essay throws some light on Frederick’s disdain for German literature. “He had German enough to scold his servants or to give the word of command to his grenadiers; but his grammar and pronunciation were extremely bad. He found it difficult to make out the meaning even of the simplest German poetry.” The monarchs of Europe spoke French, and so, too, Frederick. And, as “a young man devoted to literature, and acquainted only with the literature of France,” it was not surprising that “he should have looked with  profound veneration on the genius of Voltaire.” It seems that Frederick apparently had no Latin or Greek, had never read Homer or Virgil or Tasso, and thus was unable to discern the inferiority of Voltaire’s Henriade in comparison. Macaulay quotes Calderon: “A man who has never seen the sun cannot be blamed for thinking that no glory can exceed that of the moon. A man who has seen neither moon nor sun, cannot be blamed for talking of the unrivaled brightness of the morning star.”

It is interesting to read Goethe’s comments on Frederick in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The first appear in Book 2, with the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1763, when factional differences divided families in Frankfurt, including Goethe’s own. On one side was his grandfather, who was on the side of the empress Maria Theresa, from whom he had received a pendant containing her portrait during the coronation of Francis I. On the other was his father, whose sympathies were Prussian. The young Goethe became a “Fritzian” — “what did we care about Prussia?” Book 3 relates the billeting of the French count Thoranc in the family home from 1759 and the agitation this produced in his father. The presence of the French lieutenant in his house meant that Goethe saw some of the important military figures of the war, including the Prince de Soubise and Marshal de Broglie. And in Easter week of 1759, French troops marched in great numbers through Frankfurt on their way to Berlin.

In Book 7, Goethe is now a student in Leipzig and beginning to doubt the authority of all the individuals he had formerly admired. And these included Frederick, under whom Leipzig had suffered massively in the war: 

Frederick II, in my estimation, still outranked all the prominent men of the century, and therefore I found it very perplexing when my praise of him turned out to be just as unacceptable to the inhabitants of Leipzig as it had been in my grandfather’s house. … They agreed that he was certainly a remarkable man, but by no means a great one. They said it did not take much skill to accomplish something if one had great resources, and if one spared neither lands, nor money, nor blood, then one’s project could eventually be carried out. … In proclaiming these sentiments they had endless details to cite that I could not gainsay, and gradually I felt that the implicit respect I had paid this remarkable sovereign from childhood was cooling off.

Voltaire in his Memoirs also finds that Frederick had a pernicious effect on the destiny of Europe, beginning with his invasion of Silesia in 1740, while the invasion of Saxony, at the beginning of the Seven Years War, “changed the whole system of Europe single-handedly.” Macaulay says of this 18th-century world war: “On the head of Frederick is all the blood which was shed in a war which raged during many years and in every quarter of the globe … The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and, in order that he might rob a neighbor who he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.”

Contemporary painting of the battle of Roßbach
To complete the circle and to return to Goethe: Macaulay also claims that this war, especially after Frederick’s victory at Roßbach in 1757, began to free Germany from French taste, from “the foreign yoke. … in the act of vanquishing Soubise, he was, unintentionally, rousing the spirit which soon began to question the literary precedence of Boileau and Voltaire. … A prince who read only French, who wrote only French, who aspired to rank as a French classic, became, quite unconsciously, the means of liberating half the Continent from the dominion of that criticism of which he was himself, to the end of his life, a slave.”

One of the case studies in Albrecht Schöne’s new book on Goethe as a letter writer (Der Briefschreiber Goethe) is a letter addressed to Carl August, dated September 9–10, 1779, regarding action to take in response to a letter from Prussian cousin Frederick (amounting to a “diplomatisch höfliche Androhung der Okkupation”) demanding that Weimar contribute soldiers for his ongoing quarrel with Austria. As Macaulay writes, Frederick’s army at the end of the Seven Years War had been depleted: “Some great generals, and a crowd of excellent officers had fallen, and it had been impossible to supply their place. The difficulty of finding recruits had, towards the close of the war, been so great, that selection and rejection were impossible. Whole battalions were composed of deserters or prisoners. It was hardly to be hoped that thirty years of repose and industry would repair the ruin produced by seven years of havoc.”

According to Schöne, Goethe’s response (“der 7seitige, in gleichmäßig-sorgfältiger Handschrift gehaltene Text”), written within a day of Carl August’s request for advice, was “ein meisterliches Lehrstück strategischen Denkens.” Schöne calls it “ein Paradenbeispiel politischer Beratung überhaupt,” and indeed, we must gather, an example of why the duke prized Goethe:

So gründlich durchdacht und auf den Punkt genau formuliert, von solcher Stringenz nicht nur seiner kritischen Darstellung der Ausgangslage, sondern auch der vorausgreifenden Gedankenzüge, wie sich das gewiß nicht aus dem Stegreif aufs Papier bringen ließ.”

To end this overly long post, let me mention that a new biography of Frederick has appeared, written by Tim Blanning, a scholar who has written much on German history. The reviewer in the Spectator, Peter Mansel, notes that Frederick “could be more radical than most leaders today.” He is referring of course to Frederick’s atheism and homosexuality. Blanning, however, seems to consider that Frederick’s reign, in the long term, was “a poisoned chalice.” Here is meant, among other things, the effect of the elevation of the Prussian army and the inculcation of military spirit in the population as well as Frederick's contempt for Poles and Russians. “Annexed in 1871 without the presence of consultation, Alsace-Lorraine became another source of wars and tension— the Silesia of the late 19th century.”

Images: The Spectator; Total War Center

Friday, December 25, 2015

“Ein Held solle geboren werden”

 Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, ca. 565

It’s hard to write about Goethe and Christmas. One has the feeling that he seldom celebrated it, certainly not as a religious feast. But there is one lovely discussion (in Kunst und Altherum) of the origins of the story of the Three Wise Men (WA 41,1). It is from that piece that the above post title comes. The essay describes a Latin ms. from the 15th century of Historia trium regum, ca. 1390, by Johannes von Hildesheim.

 Goethe seems fascinated with the long-standing astronomical prophecies in the East concerning the hero to be born and the star that will appear. He writes factually, as if summarizing a historical account. The world awaits the birth of the "hero." Finally the time arrives. God has mercy on the sinful world. “Die Fülle der Zeit erscheint; ein Gebot des römischen Kaisers geht aus; Joseph und Maria kommen in Bethlehem an; eine zur Stallung benutzte Höhle nimmt sie kümmerlich auf … Christus wird geboren und den Hirten verkündigt.”

The star has also appeared in the East, competing in splendor during the day with the sun. It is accompanied by other strange phenomena. Without knowledge of one another, three kings make plans for departure. One, Kaspar, is even English. A path is cleared for them: “Berg und Thal, Sumpf und Wüste gleichen sich vor ihen aus; ohne Speis’ und Trank kommen sie und die Ihrigen in dreizehn Tagen nach Judäa.” The star leads them through Bethelehem, “eine lange bazarähnliche Straße hin,” and comes to rest over the inn. The splendor of the star increases, permeates the darkness with glorious phophoresence. “Die Höhle gleicht einem glühenden Ofen.”

They present their fabulous gifts. They are, after all, carrying nothing less than Alexander’s entire treasure. Warned in a dream to avoid Herod, they depart for their own countries by a different route. The return journey takes two years, during which time the great wonder that they had seen is announced to the entire world.

It is a lovely story, and one understands Goethe’s fascination with it.

The pictures with the lovely star-like ornaments were sent to me by friends this Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Der Dichterfürst

I have got to know some new (to me, that is) Goethe scholars recently, not in the actual sense, but in a documentary on Bavarian TV, Goethe, oder das Glück ist immer anderswo, by Meinhard Prill. It opens with a scene in the very state-of-the-art archives of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, in which Katharina Krügler, curator of the sculpture collection of the KSW, unveils a life mask of Goethe from 1807. As the narrator says: "Wirklich fröhlich blickt er nicht."

Other scholars active in Goethe research include Gisela Maul, curator of the science collection, and archivist Ursula Müller-Harang. Wearing white gloves, the latter reads aloud from Goethe's accounts book for July 14, 1789, from which we learn of payments for, among other things, the ironing of four shirts.

After viewing this program, I would not mind an entire documentary on the KSW. I wonder if I will get to visit it in this lifetime.

Goethe's spying on Jena students is discussed, as is the 1783 death sentence of Johanna Catharina Höhn. We get to see the original document with Goethe's recommendation and signature. According to historian Katja Deinhardt, Carl August asked his advisors to consider the options in her case, and it was apparently believed that the death sentence was preferable to lifelong imprisonment as well as enduring public pillorying ("vor dem Pranger ausgesetzt") on feast days.

Rejuvenated Faust and Gretchen with Mephisto
The title of the documentary corresponds to an approach that concentrates on the meaning of Faust and on Goethe as a prognosticator. Rüdiger Safranski, for instance, stresses Goethes "Verbindung mit vielen Epochen. ... Die Eisenbahn war schon ein Gespräch." Indeed, Goethe had a small model of a train in his home. For Safranski, Goethe had in Faust foreseen, "mit gespenstiger Klarheit," where the future was heading.

Emil Jannings as Mephisto
Michael Jaeger (interviewed against a modern Berlin background in which an elevator constantly travels up and down) spoke on the same theme of "Geschwindigkeit," of the permanent devaluation of the present. Philomen and Baucis, at the end of Faust, decline Fausts offer of what Jaeger calls a "Neubauwohnung," satisfied as they are with their unchanging circumstances.   There is wonderful footage from Murnau's 1926 film version of Faust. "D i e deutsche Liebesgeschichte," intones the narrator, "und sie endet übel."

The documentary also features early historical film footage of a religious procession in Rome. There is nothing Downton Abbey-like about the scenes. There is no self-consciousness about the participants in the procession, no attempt by anyone to be what he is not. The priests are a motley bunch. Everyone is firmly planted in the world they occupy. They don't imagine they are being judged. It is very different from most non-Western places nowadays, where the "natives" have lost the complete sense of rootedness in a traditional order of life.

Image credit: Listal

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Goethe ascends the Brocken

Goethe, Brocken im Mondlicht
At the end of November 1777 Goethe undertook his 500 km Harz journey, traveling on foot and on horseback. He had been in Weimar two years by then, and was uncertain whether he should stay or leave. What was his life supposed to be about, anyway? He was in his superstitious phase and was looking for “a sign.” Even though it was winter, and even though everyone advised against attempting to climb the mountain, he believed that a successful ascent of the Brocken would be such a sign.

So it transpired that on this day in 1777 Goethe became the first person to climb the Brocken in winter. As he wrote in his diary: “d. 10. früh nach dem Torfhause in tiefem Schnee. 1 viertel nach 10 aufgebrochen von da auf den Brocken. Schnee eine Elle tief, der aber trug.” In his travel diary for Charlotte von Stein he wrote (in N. Boyle’s translation): “The goal of my longing has been reached, it hangs by many threads and many hang from it; you know how symbolical my existence is.” He interpreted his success as confirmation of his new existence in Weimar.

As Boyle writes, “the biblical tone and language that permeate G’s account of this day in his diary, and in his letters to Charlotte von Stein, show the religious significance that the ascent had acquired for him and had indeed always been intended to have.”

Hexenexperiment auf dem Brocken, 1932
The black and white photo depicts an experiment atop the Brocken on Goethe’s birthday in 1932, conducted by a British ghost hunter named Harry Price. The goal was to transform a goat into a young man, to be accomplished by the invocation of maiden. Unsuccessful, Price claimed that he was only seeking to prove “the fallacy of transcendental magic.”

Georg Melchior Kraus, Hexenaltar
The winter ascent of the Brocken occurred on what is called the first Harz journey, during which Goethe also visited several mines, indeed even descending into one. See an earlier post on this subject. Goethe climbed the mountain again, twice, first, with Heinrich von Trebra and Fritz von Stein in September 1783, then with Georg Melchior Kraus in September 1784. Both journeys were devoted to "geology."  As Goethe wrote to Herder at the time: “Krause ist also mit mir alleine, und wir sind den ganzen Tag unter freiem Himmel, hämmern und zeichnen.” The trip inspired his essay “Über den Granit."

The Goethezeitportal offers an account of all three of Goethe's Brocken ascents, with illustrations.