Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nathan the Wise

John Christopher Jones and F. Murray Abraham (photo: Richard Termine)
Last evening I went downtown to the Classic Stage Company to join my friend and fellow 18th-century scholar Vivian Gruder for a performance of Lessing's Nathan the Wise. Truth be told, I would have preferred to see Emilia Galotti, as Nathan had always seemed to me to be dramatically indigestible. But a surprise was in store, what with the new translation by English director Edward Kemp, which complemented the clever staging: the characters' faith identified solely by the script on the robes that they wore, and a spare setting indicated by several large Oriental rugs.

The Parable of the Three Rings, by Boccaccio (in Polish?) (illustrator: Joana Rusinek)
I was impressed anew with the way a new staging can offer profound insights into familiar plays, especially canonical ones. The past two years I have attended all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn (presented in conjunction with the English company, Donmar Warehouse). I will never again be able to read Mark Antony's speech without being struck by its self-serving manipulative power, somewhat in the manner of modern politicians and celebrities. Although perhaps I am being unfair to public figures: it concerns the power of oratory generally, which can occur in any setting.

Shakespeare's plays can of course be shortened, but most directors don't fudge on the language, and the St. Anne's productions truly brought home the brilliance of Shakespeare. But Lessing in translation can of course be "updated" and thereby avoid the ponderosities of the play's text. And "the message" comes through very clearly, which is no doubt what Lessing intended: war is terrible, but worse when motivated by religious differences. (The huge backdrop alternated between an Arabic text –– the Koran? –– and a contemporary photo of a bombed Jerusalem street.)

Lessing may have intended to present the common humanity of people of all faiths, but this production presented us not with "Menschen" in the abstract, Enlightenment sense, but with real "Menschen" in the Yiddish sense, especially in the performances of F. Murray Abraham as Nathan and Austin Durant as Saladin. Perhaps this aspect could only be pulled off in New York City. If you find yourself not quite crediting the platitudinous sentiments expressed in the original play, so, too, the characters on the stage at CSC. The translation goes for humor. I wonder if German productions could take similar liberties and work so well.

And while I sat dreading the moment when the Templar discovered his true relationship with Rachel, I found the transformation from lover to brother convincing. But what, I ask myself, was Lessing thinking with this last-moment turn of events? Edward Kemp has a very nice discussion of Lessing on his website.

Picture credits: Richard Termine; Striped Dot Studio

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Goethe on the food of Italy

I mentioned in my last post that many readers of this blog have written to me over the years. In February I was contacted by Josephine Wennerholm, an ex-pat who has been living in Frascati, the Castelli Romani area, since 1992. She was responding to a post of mine from 2009 on “Goethe as Gourmand,” in which I mentioned Goethe's failure to comment on the food in Italy during his stay there. She wrote, quoting an Italian site, that Goethe did mention cheese being sprinkled over pasta while he was sojourning in Naples. She has kindly supplied me with the translation.

“Already back in the 1700s, pasta tended to be served with simply just some cheese sprinkled upon it in many parts of Italy (Belpaese) and in his Travels in Italy, Goethe, describing the cuisine of Naples, mentions ‘the maccheroni are cooked in plain water and some cheese is then grated on top of them, thus providing both a fat content and a condiment.’”

For those interested in reading the original please go to the link above. The photo at the top of this post is from Josephine's blog Frascati Cooking. The dish, as she writes, is “the venerable vegetable stew known as Vignarola,” and it comes with recipe and step-by-step pictures.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Goethe and Mormonism

Joseph Smith
This blog was inaugurated in August 2008 and is now approaching 250,000 visitors. I would not claim that it is solely my stellar posts that have drawn so many here. Clearly, Goethe attracts a lot of people, and internet searchers go where they can to find him. Since 2008 I have corresponded with many readers who have very little to do with Goethe scholarship per se (high school students doing research), with amateur scholars, and even with a few academics who have inquired about the source of some of my quotes (e.g., on Goethe and beggars). Most of the time readers are responding not to immediate posts, but to earlier ones. Thus, not long ago I had a query concerning a post of mine from January 2009 on Goethe and religion. This was the reader's comment on that post:

“I wonder what Goethe would have made of Mormon doctrine. The LDS church radically reinterpret the story of genesis as progressive and not a fall. The doctrine of original sin is rejected as part of the restoration. It sounds as though Goethe would have approved based on this post.”

Right off the top of my head, I had to admit that I had no idea what Goethe would have made of Mormon doctrine. Today, however, I began doing a little online research and came across a very interesting review of Walter W. Arndt's Norton Critical Edition translation of Goethe's Faust. It appeared in The Mormon Review in 2009 and was written by Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. The review is entitled “The Redemption of Eve: Joseph Smith and Goethe's Faust.”

Before quoting what Professor Givens has to say, allow me to introduce here what I have learned (on Wikipedia, where else?) about Eve in LSD doctrine:

“Unlike some Christians, Latter-day Saints generally do not see the fall of Adam and Eve as a serious sin or as an overwhelmingly negative event. Rather, the fall is viewed as ‘a necessary step in the plan of life and a great blessing to all of us. Because of the Fall, we are blessed with physical bodies, the right to choose between good and evil, and the opportunity to gain eternal life. None of these privileges would have been ours had Adam and Eve remained in the garden.’”

So, already one can see, as my reader notes, that Goethe might have approved of LSD doctrine on this issue. Professor Givens fills out the picture. I particularly liked his comparison of Eve and Faust:

“Faust is just a middle-aged Eve, with a long life in the garden and a few diplomas to show for it. … Faust has acquired all the learning his garden has to offer. He knows every tree, shrub, and garden path. Like Eve, he has seen the same sun rise over the same grassy hillock on countless winter morns and summer daybreaks, while listening to the same dutiful companion (Faust has his Wagner) recite the same litany of another day’s chores under the same cloudless skies. Like Eve, Faust faces the same two sets of alternatives. Soul-starvation, or God-alienation. Or put in positive terms: Knowledge, wisdom, and the soul’s unfettered ascent, or a different kind of assent—to God’s dictates.”

And Goethe's “Herr” is definitely not the Old Testament creator, as Givens notes:

“But this Faust labors in a mortal sphere presided over by a God who is most emphatically not the God of Genesis. Devoid of jealousy, incapable of gratuitous tyranny, this God fully acknowledges the impossibility of Faust’s dilemma.”

And finally:

“Goethe’s Faust, like Joseph Smith’s Eve, breaks free of theology, because the imagination behind their creation is more artistic than priestly.”

Thanks again to my readers!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Banquet of the Omnivores"

Kant dines with friends (by Emile Doerling)
Every now and then I indulge myself by reading about food and food culture. The title of this post comes from a small book that I recently came across by the French writer and philosopher Michel Onfray entitled Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food, first published in France in 1989, but appearing in English in 2015. The philosophers in question range from the Cynical alimentary nihilist Diogenes to the Futurist culinary revolutionary Martinetti, with stops in between with Rousseau, Kant, Fourier, Nietzsche, and Sartre. They are connected by their preoccupation with what Onfray calls “Dietet(h)ics.”

The philosophers here do not come off looking good, which was probably Onfray’s aim. (According to Wikipedia, Onfray promotes hedonism, atheism, and anarchism, and is the highly prolific author, “having written more than 80 books.”)  But perhaps the peccadilloes on view here are only more systematized variants of  contemporary gastronomic obsessions. I was naturally interested in Kant.

Although Kant is known in the popular imagination as a man of regular, even abstemious, habits, in turns out that he was quite intemperate in his younger days. In the 1760s, for instance, he was known to have often been inebriated: he played billiards and cards in a cafe and often drank so much that, according to Onfray, “he could not find his way back to his home on the Magistergasse in K├Ânigsberg.” He “pulled himself together,” however, and went on to create a theory of drunkenness from his experience.  The anecdotes in Onfray’s account of Kant’s dining and drinking preferences are drawn from contemporaries of the philosopher (Reinhold Bernhard Jachmann, E.A.C. Wasianski, and Louis Ernest Borowski), which appear in a book in French entitled Kant intime. I do not know what role these accounts play in biographies of Kant by modern-day scholars, but apparently Kant’s contemporaries were intrigued by them, including the English writer Thomas de Quincy, whose 1827 essay The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is (according to J.E.H. Smith) “a massively long quotation, in English translation, of Ehregott Andreas Wasinski’s 1804 work, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren.”

A curious French video on this work by de Quincy can be found here.

Charles Fourier's Table of the Passions
In any case, Kant did write about food and drink, although not so much in connection with the actual substances as in our moral reactions to these. For instance, in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, he defined drunkenness as “the unnatural condition or inability to order one’s sense representations according to laws of experience, provided that the condition is the effect of an excessive consumption of drink.” Drunkenness does excite the imagination, however, and allows the self to escape a world that is too harsh, “to forget the burden that seems to lie, originally, in life generally.” Kant describes “the taciturn drunkenness” of brandy, the withdrawal caused by beer drinking, the stimulation of wine. As might be expected, his concern is the way that drunkenness leads to failure in one’s duties to society and oneself.

Onfray mentions another work, The Conflict of the Faculties (1797), in which Kant devotes a chapter (“On the Power of the Human Mind”) to hypochondria. Kant confessed his own disposition to that condition, caused by a “ flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in the early years this disposition made me almost weary of life. But by reflecting that, if the cause of this oppression of the heart was purely mechanical, nothing could be done about it, I soon came to pay no attention to it.” That sounds like a good piece of practical philosophy. And, indeed, in The Conflict of the Faculties, he recommended the Stoic way of life because it unites “the doctrine of virtue” with “the science of medicine”: “Medical science is philosophical when the sheer power of man’s reason to master his sensuous feelings by a self-imposed principle determines his manner of feeling.”

Kant's Taxonomy of Mental Disorder
I was struck by how pessimistic Kant could sound. For instance:  “The art of prolonging human life leads to this: that in the end one is tolerated among the living only because of the animal functions one performs — not a particularly amusing situation.” Nevertheless, after his youthful years, Kant did not like dining alone and invited friends for his midday meal. According to Onfray, he sent out invites in the morning, and his cook prepared meals planned the previous evening. Quoting Jachmann: "Kant was so attentive to his guests that he took careful note of their preferences and had those dishes prepared for them." The household was set up for six people, and he adhered to Chesterton's principle: "never invite more than nine guests -- the number of the Muses."

I was led to an article by Patrick Frierson entitled “Kant on Mental Disorder,” which concerns Kant’s “anthropology.” Frierson notes that “much of Kant’s preoccupation with hypochondria throughout his life – and arguably his concern with mental disorder in general – can be traced to his efforts to combat this looming mental disorder of his own.” The article discusses the nature of Kant’s “pragmatic anthropology” contained in several writings, including his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (published 1798), which reflects the lectures he taught from 1772 until 1796. Apparently mental disorder was a popular philosophical subject in the late 18th-century, but Kant's writings were a kind of  “philosopher’s guide to help ordinary people with self-treatment,” especially with what “he elsewhere connects with ‘the power of the mind to master its morbid feelings by sheer resolution.’” Kant’s tone throughout is playful and informal, not technical or medical, and he does not speculate on the physiological origins of mental disorders.  Again, the emphasis is on pragmatism. The editors of the English edition of Anthropology state that its focus is what the human being “as a free-acting being makes of himself or can and should make of himself.”

As Frierson writes: “He provides an entertaining guide for diagnosing and dealing with peculiarities that arise in society, not a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for professionals.” An example of Kant's playful tone and his avoidance of extreme cases is shown by “offering examples that would be intuitive and available to his audience, such as that ‘the person who falls in love is inevitably blind to the faults of the beloved object, though the latter person will usually regain his sight eight days after the wedding.’”

A final note: Kant’s schema of mental disorders has to my mind an uncanny resemblance to the categorizing of emotions articulated by the French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. I have written on Fourier earlier (see this post), in connection with my work on utopia, but allow me here only to illustrate,  by way of the two diagrams above, the hairsplitting that reason inevitably leads to.

Picture credit: Patrick Frierson (table of mental disorder); The Maverick Philosopher