Friday, July 23, 2021

Goethe and the literary inheritance

Francis Daniel Pastorius
This post is an expansion of the previous one.

There is current among literary scholars to interpret earlier writers in terms of what their writings telegraph, so to speak, about current preoccupations. This current of scholarship “reads forward.” If we go back to the 18th century, we will of course discover that some writers shared certain modern preoccupations, for instance, concerning colonialism, racism, imperialism, feminism, and so on. But even when we find that an earlier writer was an outspoken opponent of slavery, it usually turns out that the writer came to the subject from a different perspective. For instance, the majority of abolitionists were deeply religious people and did not necessarily share such modern values as equality, a value that has been legally institutionalized in the West. The idea of such civil rights were in nuce back in the 18th century, and codifying them has simply “naturalized” them. That is fine, but in the process we tend to imagine that we are smarter than our forefathers and foremothers.

For myself, I do look for ways in which Goethe telegraphs “modernity,” but whenever I look at portraits (such as those in those in the previous post) of men from the Republic of Letters (and they were for the most part men), from law, religion, philosophy, natural science, and literature, I cannot but feel the difference of the world in which Goethe came of age and wrote his most important works. Still, the late 18th century was an age of transition, from traditional ways of living and organizing life, handed down over generations, to what Goethe himself characterized (in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) as the “veloziferic” era.

My desire is to ferret out what Goethe knew from living in the world in which he lived. All the annotations that Strack notes of Goethe’s indebtedness to precursors is simply the way that earlier poets acknowledged their legitimacy within an evolving tradition.  It strikes me that Goethe’s “Ephemerides,” discussed in the previous post, is an early attempt at a commonplace book, in which he would compile matters of intellectual and literary interest.

Commonplace books are the subject of a chapter in a new book (recently reviewed in the London Review of Books) by Anthony Grafton entitled Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe. It is a series of portraits of scholars from the 16th to the 18th century who sought to compile and transmit the centuries of knowledge written down in medieval manuscripts. This knowledge of the past, as the reviewer writes, “was gained only through hard graft and expertise.” One learns that these scholars created special equipment for the backbreaking, hand-wrenching work: rotating bookwheels for unwieldy large medieval volumes, along with spinning chairs and hooks on which to hang thousands of piece of paper on which they wrote notes.

All this knowledge, excerpted on slips of paper, was organized into categories and written down in commonplace books. One of Grafton’s portraits of these “treasure seekers” was Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651–1720), whose commonplace books contained “not only excerpts from ancient texts but also jokes, stories, reflections, recipes …” It strikes me that Goethe’s “Ephemerides” is an early attempt at a commonplace book, in which he would compile matters of intellectual and literary interest. In fact, there are some jokes in the Ephemerides, including this one: Altum petit ut crepitus in balneo redditus. According to the commentary in Der junge Goethe, this was “ein derber, im 16. Jh. verbreiteter Witz.” Google Translate offers little enlightenment on the punchline. As Grafton writes of such witticisms: “You had to be there.”

However much Goethe criticized old-fashioned scholars — there are entries in the Ephemerides on this subject — reading itself remained for him what Grafton writes of Pastorius, “a deeply serious enterprise.” All of what he read became part of the identity he crafted for himself, which was founded in his polyglot reading and writing. In the Ephemerides he appears simply to be hunting and gathering, so to speak, which would eventually add up to a larger body of work. I am going out on a limb here, because the Maximen and Reflexonen, for instance, is not my area of expertise, but it strikes me that Goethe must have been storing up these apercus for years. He would later have the assistance of a number of secretaries in categorizing them. Someone reading this blog might fill me in on this aspect, which I will then pass on here.

Mephisto and Student by Julius Oldach

Pastorius was of course the founder of Germantown in Pennsylvania. As Wikipedia puts it: “ein deutscher Jurist. Er begründete die Deutsche Überseewanderung und war der einzige deutsche Schriftsteller des Barock in Amerika.” He came from a learned family. According to Grafton, his father, the jurist Melchior Adam Pastorius, was "a compiler on the grand scale and a versifier almost as obsessive as his son. In 1657 he issued a massive study of the election and coronation of the Holy Roman emperors.” His son, who had begun his studies in Altorf, wrote of the tedium of the traditional forms of learning at the university, criticizing the professors who pursued erudition for its own sake, which echoes Goethe’s own complaints about his studies in Leipzig: “Many professors waste their time on useless questions and clever trifling tricks, and while they detail the minds of the learners on empty questions they prevent them from aspiring to more solid matters.” Though learned himself, Pastorius wished to use “the records of the past to challenge what he saw as a sterile orthodoxy in his own day.” And to put it to practical effect, as, for instance, in his opposition to slavery, which existed even among the Quakers in Pennsylvania.  He compared Christian slavers to the Turks who enslaved Christians. With several other Germantown founders, he drafted in 1688 the first protest against slavery in America. Of note about Pastorius, is the lack of that head attire that distinguished the learned in the early 18th century. Unfortunately there seem to be no contemporary paintings of him, but we can take it from the drawing at the top of this post that he became a frontiersman.

I could go on — and will later do so — as I seek to uncover the influences that made Goethe into "Goethe."

Picture credits: Main Post; Science Photo; Kunstkopie

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The young Goethe reads



The pandemic and the resulting lockdown have led to Goethe Girl doing some intensive reading in connection with her earliest work on Goethe, namely, the pre-Weimar Goethe. My interest has always been “how Goethe became Goethe,” and it is in the period before 1775 that we see (so I contend) the seeds of this development. On my shelves are the five-volume set of Der junge Goethe, which I have again been making my way through, and I have also been able to profit from very early studies of Goethe’s life and literary output in the pre-Weimar period. In this lockdown situation, there was no need to go to libraries; these studies are available online. Among others, they include Elisabeth Mentzel’s (1909) study of Wolfgang and Cornelia’s childhood teachers (see previous post) and Julius Vogel’s Goethes Leipziger Studentenjahre (1923). Just the other day I was able to download Adolf Strack’s Goethes Leipziger Liederbuch (1893).

Both Mentzel and Vogel drew on archival sources, from contemporary Frankfurt and Leipzig, but Strack’s study exemplifies the immersion in detail that characterized the philological scholarship of 19th-century German scholars. Strack, for instance, subjects to minute analysis each line and verse of the 19 poems in The Leipziger Liederbuch of 1769, Goethe’s first “publication.” We learn that some of Goethe’s favorite poetic terms — heiter, munter — were common vocabulary among Anacreontic poets, while Goethe’s use of “Liebste” was uncommon among these predecessors. Strack goes on and on. Goethe was imitating, if not really copying, poetic conceits that were in circulation and that he adapted to his own particular use.

One of the most interesting sections of the first volume of Der junge Goethe is the thirty-four pages of “Ephemerides,” notes that Goethe wrote between January and March 1770, right before he left Frankfurt for his second course of legal study in Strassburg. They give insight into what Goethe was reading in the year and a half after his return from Leipzig in August 1768. The first entry concerns Paracelsus (1493–1541), described by Wikipedia as “a Swiss physician, alchemist, lay theologian, and philosopher of the German Renaissance.”

Many of the entries concern legal matters (the Code of Justinian), to which Goethe appears to have been directing his mind before going to Strassburg, and are written in Latin. Goethe was very competent in Latin, and it would be required for his doctoral dissertation. Strictly speaking, the Ephemerides contain little about literary matters, although one sees the influence (with the help of Strack) of Lessing and of Wieland, especially of the latter’s Idris and of his translation of Shakespeare’s plays. There are a number of entries from the Institutio Oratoria (again per Wikipedia), “a twelve-volume textbook on the theory and practice of rhetoric by Roman rhetorician Quintilian” from ca. 95 A.D.

Count Carl Gustav Tessin

It was these references to works of humanists of earlier centuries that brings home how much Goethe was steeped in another world. Even the image above of Paracelsus testifies to that. (Click on images to enlarge.) As does the more or less contemporary portrait of Carl Gustaf Tessin, a Swedish count and politician, whose bewigged representation recalls Goethe’s account of Gottsched. That there was a transition away from such accoutrements in the 1770s can be seen in another portrait of the count (below), by Jacques-André Aved. Of interest is that Goethe mentions in the Ephemerides reading “die Briefe des Grafen von Tessin,” although what Goethe writes of these letters does not quite accord with the youthful features of the count in these portraits: “ein liebenswürdiger, erfahrender Greiss blickt aus jeder Zeile.” It turns out that the count died in January 1770, which may situate Goethe’s reading of the letters.

The latter pages of the Ephemerides contain less Latin and more German, and in this connection my interest was caught by a translation of a passage from Act 4, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play King John. According to Adolf Schöll (Briefe und Aufsatze von Goethe aus den Jahren 1766 to 1786, publ. 1857), the translation is Wieland's, “mit Abweichungen.” Here is the English version.

I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor's news;
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and rank'd in Kent:
Another lean unwash'd artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur's death

The Gossiping Blacksmith
It turns out that there is a painting from the year 1769 of this very subject —  The Gossiping Blacksmith —  by the English artist Edward Penny. Would Goethe have known of this painting? In the Ephemerides he writes of an address given by Joshua Reynolds on the opening of the Royal Academy of Art on January 2, 1769. The Tate, where the Penny painting resides, does not offer a provenance for the work, so I can’t tell whether it was exhibited at that date. But as with the mention of Count Tessin, one might infer that Goethe had read “news” accounts of both matters.

Image credits: Science Photo Library; Swedish Furniture; The Tate