Thursday, March 30, 2017


Beast of the Apocalypse
Yesterday I journeyed by Long Island Railroad to Queens. I wanted to travel on the 1:46 p.m. train, so I left my apartment on the Upper West Side at 1, knowing that the subway runs regularly at that hour and would get me to Penn Station in plenty of time to buy a ticket and a sandwich to eat on the train. I was in no doubt that the train would leave at 1:46, which it did. I could plan my return trip to Manhattan similarly.

Yet, amid all this regularity, this rationalization of everyday structures of life, why were several people sitting on the dirty floors of the subway begging? Why indeed were the floors of the subway littered with newspapers? Why, with all the public money that is spent on welfare, on helping people to get enough to eat and to have a place to live, why, indeed, do so many people live so “unrationalized”?

Bloody signs in the sky, 1531
I ask these questions as a way of winding up these posts on climate hysteria. Back in the so-called Little Ice Age, heavy snowfall, avalanches, flooding, not to forget harvest failure, price increases, disease, and infertility were seen as signs from God foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution for sin. After 1560 every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches. The impetus for the persecution of witches came not from the institutions, but from “below.”

I started these posts on climate hysteria during the Little Ice Age as a way of situating our current apocalyptic thinking about climate change. According to Wolfgang Behringer, whom I have often cited in these posts, the 17th-century hysteria about climate cooling began to wane with the age of reason. Make that the Enlightenment. It began to be understood that the catastrophes resulting from the adverse weather conditions were a consequence of what we would now call “underdevelopment” and of ineffective — make that corrupt — political and social institutions that are still the norm for much of the world. “The public was no longer prepared to accept sermons about divine retribution, but pointed to the structural deficits and political omissions that hindered relief operations after crop failures. Why were the roads so bad that bread cereals could not be expeditiously imported? Why were the warehouses too small to supply the poor? … Why had royal officials not made adequate provision?”

The authorities were forced to act, and did so. In Holland, for instance, there was an agrarian revolution beginning in the late 16th century. With the introduction of dyke-based land reclamation, crop rotation, irrigation, sowing of new varieties of seeds, famine became a rarer occurrence. This happened after 1709 “in the space of a single generation.” In Holland, of course, witch hunting had long been abandoned: “even heretics and Jews had the possibility of a relatively good life.”

Also occurring in Europe was an artisanal revolution. Among the many instruments produced and sold in large quantities were barometers, thermometers, pumps, and prisms. Newspapers took to recording daily atmospheric pressure readings.
Ice skating in Weimar

The dark winter landscapes of Pieter Bruegel gave way to friendlier winter depictions, and winter sports became popular, e.g., ice skating, of which Goethe was so fond. Of course, the rigors of nature were not over, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Goethe sought to avoid visits to the court in Gotha during the winter. Versailles must have been a fearfully cold place, despite all the glitter and glamour, but there arose the “Sun King” construct, promising a better future. Not only Louis XIV but also HRE Leopold I stylized themselves as “heat-providing central stars.”

Of course, the rise in bureaucratic structures that facilitated improvements in land use and in recovery from catastrophe was accompanied by a growth in populations, which in turn has put pressure on the earth and its resources, as have the industries that keep people employed, diverted, entertained, comforted, and so on. These developments, in my opinion, are serious for our fellow non-human creatures, but I do not believe that they cause the earth to become warmer or colder. That is a function of processes beyond our planet. We are simply not that powerful, although the ideology of progress suggests that we should be able to contain these processes.

Nowadays, apocalyptic visions come from “above,” from the intellectual classes.  Thus, the concept of “eco-sin,” so redolent of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Behringer writes, in earlier times, a sin was an offense against God’s command that deserved to be punished, and it was the task of priests to point out violations of divine law.

Goethe Girl is really sticking her neck out here by quoting Behringer to the effect that civilization was a product of climate warming: “The Neolithic Revolution and the rise of ancient civilizations became possible in periods when it was somewhat warmer than it is today.” If the IPCC’s latest predictions are accurate, those levels will be reached again at some point in the twenty-first century. “Then the Alpine glaciers will melt, but not those of the Antarctic. We will save on heating costs and use less fossil energy. What will become of the deserts? Will they really spread? During the Atlantic period, more water circulated in the atmosphere and the Sahara was fertile.”

So, if the earth is becoming warmer, we must take measures to contain and reduce its effects, just as in the Enlightenment people began to apply “reason” to counteract the effects of extreme cold. It is not a time to reprise the role of Nostradamus.

Picture credit: Martin Joppen

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Goethe Essay Prizes

The Goethe Society of North America has announced two essay prizes for this year, including one for the best essay on Goethe and science. I am pasting the information below. The deadline for submission is April 15, so please pass on the announcement to anyone who may be working in this area.

The GSNA Essay Prize and the Richard Sussman Essay Prize The deadline for nominations or self-nominations for our annual prizes—is drawing near. Please submit a copy of the essay (electronic version preferred) by April 15, 2017 to the Society’s Vice-President, Catriona MacLeod. See the website of the organization for terms of award/ eligibility:

Picture credit: Ahram Online

Goethe at Paestum

I am not abandoning my continuing posts on "climate," but it turns out that Goethe, on this day in 1787, was in Paestum. I have been working my way through Italian Journey, and everyday I tweet something Goethe wrote on the day in question. His description on March 23 deserves more than 180 characters.

Through Tischbein Goethe had met the painter Christoph Heinrich Kniep, who is now renowned for the drawings Goethe hired him to execute on his Italian travels. On March 23 they traveled in a two-wheeled carriage, to Paestum, alternately taking the reins. Goethe was initially not pleased by what he saw. As he writes, he found himself in a thoroughly alien world. His eyes, he writes, his whole being, were accustomed to slender architectural forms, "so that these blunt, cone-shaped, dense columnar masses seemed annoying, indeed awful" ("so daß diese stumpfen, kegelförmigen, enggedrängten Säulenmassen lästig, ja furchtbar erschienen").  But, he adjusted his eyes, as can be seen in this nice translation posted by "Rome Art Lover":

I pulled myself together, remembered the history of art, thought of the age with which this architecture was in harmony, called up images in my mind of the austere style of sculpture -- and in less than an hour I found myself reconciled to them and even thanking my guardian angel for having allowed me to see these well-preserved remains with my own eyes.

 Picture credit: World Tour

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate hysteria, historically viewed

Burning witches in Derenburg, Germany, ca. 1560
 Among the effects of the Little Ice Age, on which I posted recently, were childlessness, livestock epidemics, repeated harvest failures, sudden deaths of children, late frosts, persistent rain, sudden hailstorms in summer. It was an apocalyptic age, as Wolfgang Behringer (Cultural History of Climate) writes: the  heavy snowfalls, avalanches, and flooding, but also harvest failures, price increases, diseases and other effects were all interpreted as signs from God, foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution.  It strikes me that the 18th-century attacks on superstition and backwardness were less directed at the medieval period, the supposed “dark ages,” than at the mass hysteria of the 16th century.

In this moral climate, witchcraft was “the paradigmatic crime of the Little Ice Age,” with witches directly blamed for the cold weather, “for infertile soil and infertile women, and evidently also for  the ‘unnatural’ diseases that appeared in the wake of the crisis.” 1560–1660 were the high age of witch persecutions, beginning after the disastrous cooling of 1561, the summer storms of 1562, and subsequent harvest failures and epidemics. Thousands of witches were burned after the fruit harvest froze in 1626 in Bamberg, Würzburg, and Aschaffenburg — and “not only women from the lower classes, but city councillors and their families, sitting mayors and even an occasional nobleman or theologian.”

Witches Sabbath, from chronicle of Johann Jakob Wick
Every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches, who now assumed the role of scapegoat previously assigned to Jews (although Jews and witches became condensed in the term “witches’ sabbath”). In this connection, the pact with the devil was one of the favorite themes around 1600, while the first appearance of the Faust legend in print was in 1587. There were increasing numbers of reports of sexual commerce with the devil, sodomy, incest, bestiality, and rape. Poets seemed to devalue, to consciously belittle, the external goods of life, as can be seen, for instance, in Cervantes and in Shakespeare’s plays, while Andreas Gryphius seemed overcome by the distress of his age. As Behringer reminds us, this was a period when the Rhine and the Rhone repeatedly froze all the way down to their beds.

Europe was living under the sign of “the melancholy planet.” Rudolf II (r.1576–1612), was considered a melancholic, bewitched or insane. Behringer notes that mentally disturbed princes were a political risk, quoting Erik Midelfort to the effect that the roots of the 30 Years War lay not least in the madness of the rulers of the time, which itself was bound up with the psychological effects of the Little Ice Age: “If witchcraft was the crime of the Little Ice Age, melancholy was its symptomatic illness.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Climate change, historically viewed

Tourists view the growth of glaciers at Lower Grindelwald
Ages ago, in a post entitled “Forget the Age of Aquarius,” I discussed an essay by fellow German scholar Jason Groves on Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, which had just appeared in the Goethe Yearbook. At the time (this was in 2015) I quoted Jason on Goethe’s interest in erratics, namely, that this interest evinced "an openness to the planet’s inherent instability and thus to human vulnerability.” I opined then that the sense of human vulnerability might have been a case of deep human memory of the “earth’s eventfulness” (a term used by Nigel Clark). In the meantime, having read Wolfgang Behringer's Kulturgeschichte des Klimas, I can see that the memory of such events did not have to be millennially deep.

Here is a quotation from the English edition of Behringer's book concerning the advance of glaciers in the not-too-distant past, namely, during the Little Ice Age (see previous post):

"In 1601 the peasants of Chamonix turned in panic to the government of Savoy, because the glacier known as the Mer de glace was growing larger and larger, had already engulfed two villages and was about to destroy a third. Martin Zeiler (1589–1661) wrote in Matthäus Merian’s Topografia Helvetiae of the Grindelwald glacier near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland: ‘Not far from town there used to be a chapel to Saint Petronel, to which people made pilgrimage in times of old. Since then the mountain’s tendency to grow has covered the place. So the local people watch and notice that the mountain is growing hugely and driving the ground or earth before it, so that where there used to be a fine meadow of pasture it is disappearing and turning into raw, desolate mountainside. Indeed, in several places houses and huts along with the peasants living in them have had to move way because of its growth. Also growing out of it are big rough ice floes, as well as rocks and whole pieces of cliff, which thrust aside and upward the houses, trees and other things present there.’ … [T]he author ends by noting that the mountain’s growth is conjuring away ‘the peasant’s pasture, commons and houses. It is therefore a truly miraculous mountain.'"

The image at the top of this post, from Merian's Topografia Helvetiae (Frankfurt, 1654) appears as Figure 18 in the German edition of Behringer's book. The caption reads as follows: "Das Wachstum des Unteren Grindelwaldgletschers bedroht traditionelle Siedlungen und wird zur Sehenswürdigkeit für Touristen."

Thomas Fearnley's Romantic-period painting (1838) of Lower Grindelwald Glacier
By the time Goethe wrote The Years of Wandering (how apt is that participle in retrospect) the worst effects of the earth's cooling were in retreat. Had Goethe, however, read such chronicles, seen such pictures in Merian's volumes? What we know of his reading habits as a young man while living in Frankfurt indicates that he was well versed in earlier chronicles and histories. Moreover, because of his duties in Weimar in connection with the Ilmenau mine, he became very well read in writings on geology.

Picture source: SuperTopo

Friday, March 10, 2017


Goethe Girl is going to stick her neck out here.

The word "hysterizieren" (I am guessing that is the correct spelling) came up in an interview on German radio with the writer Joachim Lottman, who discussed his new novel, Alles Lüge (All a Lie). (See here for the publisher's English description.) The action of the novel takes place in 2016 during the "year of the refugee crisis." In the interview, Lottman used the term "hysterizieren" to characterize not simply the reaction to the crisis but the dominant psychological feature of our time. Listening to the interview, I thought that Lottman had invented the term. (He also said that "ISIS represents the only authentic youth movement of the present.")

Searching the internet, I discovered that the term is associated with Foucault, as in "the hysterization of women's bodies." That is not what Lottman was talking about. However, I did find a discussion of a "hystericized society" on a somewhat conspiratorially minded website, which discussed cycles of "society's hysterical condition." The author of the post, quoting the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Lobaczewski, asserts that this condition, producing despondency and confusion, is an affliction of "ostensibly happy times." According to Lobaczewski (as per Wikipedia), "During happy times, societies enjoy prosperity and suppress advanced psychological knowledge of psychopathological influence in the corridors of power." Lobaczewski's background -- he was a member of the Polish resistance during World War II -- probably contributed to his interest in regimes presided over by rulers with personality disorders. Hitler and Stalin no doubt fit the bill, but I am surprised that he would have considered the Soviet Union or even the Weimar Republic to have been happy times, ostensibly or otherwise.

And now here is where Goethe Girl sticks her neck out. We in the U.S. and in the West generally live in prosperous times. Even people whose daily life is dependent on government assistance live better than most of the world. Why otherwise would people from the Middle East risk their lives coming to Europe? There are probably many who would like to study, to work, to have a life like ordinary Westerners; but, if all else fails, there is government assistance. Who can blame them?

And, yet, happy we are not; we are decidedly "hysterical." No, I would go further and say that we are caught up in apocalyptic visions that, historically, have been associated with very bad times and that resulted in mass persecutions and a search for scapegoats. These visions presently concern the end of the world, which, it is claimed, are the result of our "eco-sins." Insight into this phenomenon can be found in a work by the German historian Wolfgang Behringer: Kulturgeschichte des Klimas: Von der Eiszeit bis zur globalen Erwarmung. (Cultural History of Climate: From the Ice Age to Global Warming. You can find it in English here.)

The Frozen Thames (1677), by Abraham Hondius (London Museum)
His chapters on the "Little Ice Age," which affected the earth from the 13th to the 19th century, are worth reading, because of the social unrest produced by global cooling. It was in this period that the glaciers of the Alps, Scandinavia, and North America advanced. While the climate's cooling produced irregular rainfall in those regions and thus agricultural loss, drought was a problem in parts of the Mediterranean. The climate zone in which agriculture could be pursued shrank. For instance, the Sahara desert moved several hundred kilometers south. Increased aridity meant, in Behringer's words, “Spain dried up.” Venetian officers reported long periods of drought between 1548 and 1648 on the island of Crete. Such was the effect on Europe: “In 25 percent of the years, not a drop of rain fell all winter or in spring. A fifth of all winters, on the other hand, were marked by exceptional falls of snow, protracted periods of abnormal cold, or rain so excessive that crops could not be sowed until late spring."

The worst years were from 1560 to 1660. In my next post I will discuss, relying on Behringer, the hysterization of society as a result of global cooling during these years, which included the rise in persecution of witches. The period also coincided with the invention of a new kind of landscape: the winter landscape.