Friday, April 9, 2021

The young Goethe

Goethe by Lips

Yes, I have updated the image on the blog. Quite a lot of my scholarship has concerned Goethe's earliest literary productions, what I call the "pre-Weimar Goethe," as there occurred a slow transformation of  his poetic production after he settled in Weimar in 1775. He moved away from what initially made him Germany's most famous writer, the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Götz von Berlichingen. This was the Goethe about whom I wrote my dissertation, a study of the earliest influences on his writing. The last few years I was involved on the subject of world literature, which owes much to Goethe's own thoughts on that notion, beginning in the 1820s. For about a year now, I have been working on a project that takes me back to my earlier focus, and am rereading his earliest works again. In this connection, I am also rereading his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, which deals with that early period of his life, published in 1811, The above drawing of Goethe by Johann Heinrich Lips was done about the time of the Rhine journey Goethe undertook in 1774.

Today I was reading a passage in Book 15 of the autobiography, in which Goethe describes that trip, which include a visit to the Jabach home in Cologne, named after the man who built the house in the 17th century. I posted a few years ago on Goethe's visit (see here), in which he spoke of the effect on him of a family portrait of the Jabach family. I had just seen the painting myself, which has been recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today I looked up the work on the Met's website and learned that it had been sold already in 1792 to an English collector, after which it passed through various private hands before its acquisition by the Metropolitan in 2014. According to the commentary in the Hamburg edition of the autobiography, the Jabach house itself was destroyed by a bomb in 1943.

Gamepiece with Dead Heron (1695)

On this Rhine journey in which Goethe made lots of new acquaintances along the way, he also visited the hunting estate Bensberg Castle, which had a large collection of paintings of hunting scenes by the Netherlandic painter Jan Weenix. Goethe was very impressed by one of the paintings of dead game ("entlebten Geschöpfe") by Weenix. It's impossible to know which painting Goethe saw at Bensberg, but the image here shows one of Weenix's paintings that is also now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its provenance, however, is very different. According to the Met website, it was owned by Baron Mayer Rothschild of Vienna until 1905, when it passed to his nephew Alphonse. It was seized by the Nazis in 1932, then returned to Austria in 1948, and restituted to Clarice Baron Rothschild of New York in 1950. The dealers Rosenberg & Stiebel sold the painting to the Met in 1950.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

"zum ewigen Ruhme"

(Click to enlarge)

I have come across two recent books on the European Enlightenment. One is by Ritchie Robertson: The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790.  Robertson is a scholar of German literature who has already published a book on Lessing and the Enlightenment. The other is by Steffen Martus: Aufklärung: Das deutsche 18. Jahrhundert - Ein Epochenbild. Martus a scholar of German literature whose book focuses on Germany in the 18th century (basically the period 1680 to Kant’s 1784 essay “Was ist Aufklärung?”).  From its preface (gleaned from Amazon’s Kindle sample), Robertson is covering a larger swathe of territory, viewing the Enlightenment as a pan-European phenomenon (although “Europe” as such was not yet in existence). Martus, though a literary scholar, introduces German history as well, beginning with the Brandenburg elector princes and their quest for equal power status with Britain, France, the Hapsburgs, and Russia. I was fortunate to be able to check out the book by Martus from the NY Public Library, but have so far only skimmed it, paying more attention to the treatment of literary figures than on-the-ground history: it is, after all, like the volume by Robertson, 1,000 pages.

I sense, however, from what I have been able to glean, that both volumes are concentrating on the different “estates” and their “medial” influence on changing, more dynamic social and political circumstances. From what Robertson writes in the preface — and I don’t know whether it is his own opinion or if he is simply presenting the attitudes of the “Enlighteners” — they are a very self-satisfied, know-it-all lot, bent on exposing and expunging the prejudices of the past and on transforming the masses to their own (more enlightened, naturally) ways of thinking. Like Martus, however, Robertson highlights the “networking” and the “networks” that flourished in the 18th century, especially with the appearance of more and more periodicals.

It was interesting to see that Johann Christian Gottsched (1700-1766) is taken more seriously by Martus than one usually encounters him in studies of the Goethe era. Since I wrote my dissertation on the pre-Weimar Goethe, I read back then many of the poets and writers that preceded him in the eighteenth century, including Gottsched's Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen, mainly trying to figure out where Goethe was coming from in his earliest poetic productions. Martus's chapters on the philosopher Christian Wolff and Gottsched portray the intellectual “soil,” so to speak, in which Kantian philosophy incubated, a period I later covered in an essay on Bodmer and Breitinger.  Gottsched was in his own time a controversial figure, but Goethe’s portrayal of him in his autobiography has stamped him irrevocably.

Indeed, one can say that Goethe’s opinions had a lasting effect on the posthumous reputations of many 18th-century figures. Why else, for instance, would one remember today Count Thoranc, the French military man who occupied the Goethe family home during the French occupation of Frankfurt during the Seven Years’ War. For Goethe’s father, supporter of Prussia, it was an unhappy time and at one point there were maneuvers outside the city between the French and the Germans (Schlacht bei Bergen). Goethe’s father was so enraged by the outcome that he insulted the count to his face, whereupon the count demanded that the father be taken to the “Wache.” A friend of the family, who spoke French and had served the entire time as a mediator between the Goethe family and the count sought to have the count rescind this order. It is recounted in a lengthy scene in book 3 of the first part of Goethe's autobiography. It is a blow-by-blow exchange (in the most diplomatic terms, of course), and toward the conclusion the friend tries the following gambit on the count:

Ich habe Euch so oft über Eure Fassung bewundert, Herr Graf; gebt mir diesmal Gelegenheit, Euch anzubeten. Ein Krieger ist ehrwürdig, der sich selbst in Feindes Haus als einen Gastfreund betrachtet; hier ist kein Feind, nur ein Verirrter. Gewinnt es über Euch, und es wird Euch zu ewigem Ruhme gereichen!”

This appeal causes the count to weaken, to break out in a smile, whereupon the friend promises to tell the children of the family and Goethe's mother how much they owe the count, and that they will likewise henceforth recall the count’s magnaminous behavior to outsiders. And, as the friend promises, “eine Handlung dieser Art kann nicht untergehen!

And how true it is. Gottsched and the Count are immemoriably linked: indeed, zu ewigem Ruhme.