Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Goethe in Cologne

Le Brun, Everhard Jabach and His Family (MMA 2014.250)
Goethe seems to have visited Cologne only twice. The first time was in the summer of 1774, the last time in 1815, when he was visiting the Rheingau region, of which I reported in an earlier post. The first visit seems to have been personally more important. He traveled there with the poet J.J.W. Heinse and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. On the way to Cologne they stopped for dinner, during which, according to Nicholas Boyle, Goethe and Jacobi had their first "heartfelt conversation about Spinoza." Driving on to Cologne, they visited the art collection of the Jabach family and inspected what Boyle calls the family's "eerily uninhabited house." They then retired to an inn for the night, and later that evening Goethe and Fritz Jacobi had a moonlight, midnight conversation sealed with tears of friendship.

In a letter to Jacobi a month later, Goethe writes: "Offt wohn ich mit Jappachs Geist." He seems to have been very impressed with what he saw at the Jabach house, as can be seen from his recollection in book 14 of Poetry and Truth of his visit to the house and of the Le Brun portrait of the Jabach family. This painting, long thought to have disappeared, turned up in a storeroom outside London in 2013 and was quickly acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is now in the Charles Wrightsman collection of the European Paintings Galleries at the Met and has been given the title Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family. The Museum has just published a Bulletin discussing the painting and its conservation, and the opening essay by Stephan Wolohjian quotes Goethe's reaction, as recorded in his autobiography, to the Jabach house and the painting. Here is the quote from Poetry and Truth:

The former wealthy owner of this dwelling sat depicted there with his wife, surrounded by his children, all alive, fresh, and vivid, as if painted yesterday, indeed today, and yet they had all passed away. Even these fresh, round-cheeked children had grown old, and without this artistic representation not a memory of them would have remained. I find it difficult to describe my response to these impressions, so overwhelmed was I by them (translation from Robson-Scott, The Younger Goethe and the Visual Arts).

Everhard Jabach, from a very wealthy merchant family in Cologne, amassed a huge art collection, beginning his collecting activities as a young man traveling first in Flanders and the Netherlands and then in England, where he became acquainted with works by Leonardo, Raphael, Dürer, and Holbein. He was a friend of the artist Van Dyck, who executed two paintings of Jabach. After moving on to France, he continued to amass art while also embracing the world of commerce. In 1664, he was one of the first directors of the French East Indian Company and was installed by Colbert as director of the Aubusson tapestry workshop. Jabach also had a close relationship at this time with the painter Charles Le Brun.

Holbein the Younger, Study for Family Portrait of Thomas More
Attention has been drawn to the "Northern" quality of Le Brun's portrait of the family, of its "un-Frenchness." It seems that Jabach, in his youth in England, had been impressed by the works of Holbein, in particular a painting of Thomas More and his family that now survives only in a drawing (Kupferstichkabinett, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel). As Wolohijian writes: "The memory of [Holbein's] extraordinary painting of a family posing with their pets in a richly furnished room must have seared itself into Jabach's mind."

The effect on Goethe of the Jabach house had much to do with the meeting with Jacobi in Cologne. The best account is the letter addressed to Jacobi mentioned above, written on August 21, 1774, a month after the meeting in Cologne. It is full of the rapturous sentiments of that time. For instance, this famous utterance:

Sieh lieber, was doch alles schreibens anfang und Ende ist die Reproduktion der Welt um mich, durch die innere Welt die alles packet, verbindet, neuschafft, knetet und in eigner Form, Manier, weider hinstellt, das bleibt ewig Geheimniss Gott sey Dank, das ich auch nicht offenbaaren will den Gaffern u. Schwäzzern (Der junge Goethe, letter 262).

Decades later, in Poetry and Truth, he still seems to be in touch with the feelings of that time. As he writes, Cologne was a place where the past could have an "incalculable effect" on him. That included the ruins of the cathedral, awakening sentiments similar to those in Strassburg, but the sight of which in Cologne plunged him into sadness when he considered that "this building of world importance had been abandoned in the midst of construction." It was at such a moment that he connects his visit to the Jabach house.

This family had evidently died out long ago, but we found nothing altered in the ground level, which opened into a garden. ... Everything was typical of those earlier days, and there was nothing new or modern in the whole room except ourselves. Our feelings, already strangely stirred by these things, were immensely heightened and culminated when we saw the large family portrait over the fireplace (Robert Heitner translation).

This is followed by the description of the painting mentioned above that is quoted in the Met's Bulletin. According to Wolohojian, there is only one other recorded instance of the painting before its rediscovery in the 21st century. In 1789, the painting was still in the same spot in Cologne, when, three weeks after the fall of the Bastille, it was viewed by Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé, who found it a "très grand tableau." It apparently made no further impression on the count, but Goethe, as he writes in his autobiography, was moved, with the result that "every good and loving force in my inner self must have opened up and gushed forth, because from that moment on, without further investigation and deliberation, those excellent men [the Jacobi brothers and Heinse] gave me their trust and affection for life."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Blind spots

Volume 24 of the Goethe Yearbook  includes a special section on “The Poetics of Space in the Goethezeit.” The essay by Tove Holmes, “Blindspots as Projection Spaces in Die Wahlverwandtschaften,” also suggestively conjoins that novel with The Sorrows of Young Werther as well as Goethe’s Farbenlehre to discuss issues of vision, of seeing the world. The world includes the “real world” that exists outside of ourselves, as well as inner worlds that we imaginatively produce. The latter in particular can be a site of illusions and fancies, of “mis-visions,” of limited vision.
Mobile landscape viewing device
At the beginning of Elective Affinities, when Eduard visits the new summer house, Charlotte positions him in such a way that the prospect before him, viewed through windows and doors, appears “like a sequence of framed pictures.” The prospect, however, is not described. In the course of the novel, we glean that Eduard in any case only sees what he wants to see. Thus, the “blind spots” of Holmes’s title. As is well known to those familiar with the novel, reconfiguring the environs of the estate plays a large role in the activities of the four main characters. Again, however, Goethe does not describe what the characters actually see when they discuss their plans. As Holmes writes, “landscape viewing in the novel frequently turns the focus back to the subject, positioning her or him in relation to the scene.”

The English visitor at Charlotte and Eduard’s estate has created drawings during his travels using a camera obscura, a framing device used by artists to convey proper perspective. The drawings are never described. We learn only that Charlotte and Ottilie are much edified by “sights” of different parts of the world. Their perceptions are different. Charlotte is interested in historical details, while what Ottilie cares about is the regions in which Eduard had traveled.

The article is interesting for the conjunctions it introduces, for instance, Goethe’s transferring of his ideas on optics to the characters in Elective Affinities. If Werther withdraws into himself and finds a world, something similar goes on with Ottilie when the object of her affection — Eduard — is removed from view. Here is the passage from the novel:

Wenn sie sich Abend zur Ruhe gelegt … schien es ihr, als wenn sie in einen ganz hellen doch mild erleuchteten Raum hineinblickte. In diesem sah sie Eduarden ganz deutlich … jedesmal in einer anderen Stellung, sie aber vollkommen natürlich war und nichts Phantastisches an sich hatte: stehend gehend liegend, reitend. Die Gestalt bis aufs kleinste ausgemalt bewegte sich willing vor ihr, ohne daß sie das mindeste dazu tat, ohne daß sie wollte oder die Einbildungskraft anstrengte. Manchmal sah sie ihn auch umgeben, besonders von etwas Beweglichem, das dunkler war als der hellen Grund; aber sie unterschied kaum Schattenbilder, die ihr zuweilen als Menschen, als Pferde, als Bäume und Gebirge vorkommen konnten.

Viewing platform, Bonsecours, Belgium
In a review of 1824, Goethe takes what Holmes calls a “step away from outward stimuli as the cause of visual effects.” He refers there to the “activity of his eyes” as ‘productive,’ yielding a primary creation rather than a representation.” Thus, the last sentence in the above quote: "Sometime she saw him surrounded, especially by something in motion which was darker than the light background…"

In a similar vein, I just came across an article by Rosellen Brown in the recent issue of the journal New Letters. It is entitled “Offstage: Scenes You Will Not See, People You Will Never Meet.” Brown considers the practice of painters who hold up a hand in front of their drawings and paintings “to see what changed when they blotted out something.” This practice is a way of imposing “a kind of provisional silence.” She proceeds to discuss several literary works in which important things happen offstage. An example is the figure of Michael Furey whom the protagonist’s wife, Gretta, pines for in James Joyce’s story “The Dubliners.” We see Michael Furey, as Brown writes, “caught in time, standing beneath [Gretta’s] window, catching his death in cruel weather.” But the story is not actually about Michael, lying dead in a snowy graveyard, but about conflicts in the life of the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy. By moving the action offstage, the story acquires its poignancy.

Picture credit: Stephen Hugart; Serge Brison

Monday, September 4, 2017

Autobiography and novel in Goethe

A review by Thomas Keymer in the London Review of Books (August 7, 2017) of A History of English Autobiography by Adam Smyth has got me thinking about Goethe. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) certainly fulfills the definition of the genre offered by the French critic Philippe Lejeune, quoted by the reviewer: "A retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality."

That Goethe wrote an autobiography was in keeping with the interest in the genre by the early 19th century. Keymer notes that it was not only "great men" who were expected to write about their lives. The times were what Carlyle called "Autobiographical," and "memorabilia" were part of a democratic trend. What characterized these writings was their "self-consciousness." Thus, the outward circumstances of a life as lived was the soil in which the inner life of a distinctive individual was nourished or just as often stultified. As Keymer writes, "subjectivity" is central to these autobiographies. Despite the presence in Dichtung und Wahrheit of Goethe's assessment of his own personality, even of his subjective motivations for certain behavior, the work does not indulge in the self-lacerating confessions of many autobiographies, for instance, those of Augustine and of Rousseau.

I have not seen it discussed anywhere, but it strikes me that the autobiographical trend documented in Smyth's study was concurrent with the rise of the novel. Autobiography and the novel are both "Western" phenomena. Whatever purely literary criteria can be applied to characterize it, the novel, like autobiography, arose from circumstances that were unique to the nations of western Europe beginning in the early modern period. The capitalist marketplace began to erase traditional ways of life, and a  dominant theme of works by 19th-century novelists was the dilemmas that deracinated and alienated — even merely “exceptional” — individuals faced in a world in which all the old resources had become superannuated. The position of people in traditional societies was set out for them from even before their birth. There could be no personal development, except of a religious nature. It was only with the breakdown of traditional hierarchies that, for instance, a man (usually it was a man) could break out of such bonds and work his way up in life by his own "bootstraps."

The novel's rise marks this struggle, and the genre's identificatory possibilities made rich men of certain writers, Charles Dickens foremost among them. What makes a novel really successful is the possibility of empathizing with the struggles and triumphs of the individuals portrayed. For this reason, so many contemporary American novels, with their portrayals of dysfunction, are such a turn-off, even if the media continue to hype what are considered exemplary works of the genre, e.g., Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. "Romance," in contrast, sells. Prime exhibit: Jane Austen.

Brontë country
But to return to Goethe. Dichtung und Wahrheit as well as his other late novels reject the "subjective isolation" that characterizes, on the one hand, the confessions of Rousseau, and, on the other, the soul-wringing of the Brontës. As we know, The Sorrows of Young Werther is evidence that Goethe was able to write a Brontë-like novel (had Emily read Goethe?), yet he abandoned this path. For Goethe it was more important to portray the individual as coming to terms with the objective facts of life, what Klymer calls "social, political, and economic engagement." This somewhat bloodless characterization does not do justice to the engagement described in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novels. The Bildungsroman–style plot of those novels would seem to have greatly influenced the succeeding history of the German novel in the 19th century.

Eduard and Charlotte's country home
I recall that when I first read the opening pages of Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) so many years ago, I thought that Goethe was heading off on an English-novel path. And yet, despite the number of elements that situate that novel in the kind of country estate setting of Jane Austen, ultimately the demands of the heart -- and, in Eduard's case, excessive subjectivity -- are rejected. So even if Goethe claimed that his works constituted "fragments of a great confession" (HA 9, 283), that confession was always formally mediated, especially in his poetry. One could best identify if one respected the language in which the confession was composed.

Keymer notes in his review certain "fundamental questions raised by autobiographical writing: about the coherence of identity the play of memory, the gap between narrating and narrated selves ..." What, he asks, if "the self is not only relational, but also plural"? He cites examples discussed in Smyth's study, e.g., Katherine Mansfield's skepticism about "our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent." I would hazard to guess that Goethe believed in such a unitary self, thus, again, that comment about "fragments of a great confession." However fragmentary, his life and his work represented a coherence. I would only add here that the law does not yet recognize "plural selves." If you commit a crime, you are judged as a single entity. Goethe, as a lawyer, would have seen the matter that way. Like it or not, DNA and iris scanning also "presuppose absolute uniqueness," a singular self,  and a habitation in the body (these insights are from another LRB review, this one a book on the history of the body).

Picture credits: Plastic Mind; Alison Robinson; Life as Myth; Bernd W. Seiler