Friday, January 6, 2017

The blue-green Goethe

M.s Sehnsuchtsbild by Guntram Erbe

Michel Pastoureau, French scholar of the Middle Ages, has produced some very lovely and also scholarly volumes on the history of colors, beginning with Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton UP, 2001). It was followed (in English translation) by Black (2008) and Green (2014), both subtitled "the history of a color" and also published by Princeton. I have just received Red (also Princeton UP; publication date is Valentine's Day), which I am reviewing for a national magazine. In preparation I have the pleasant task of going through the preceding volumes, beginning with Blue.

Not surprisingly, Blue includes a section on Goethe, both on his theory of colors as well as on the significance of Werther's blue-and-yellow outfit. According to Professor Pastoureau, Goethe gave his hero a blue coat because blue was in style in Germany in the 1770s. The novel, however, because of its popularity reinforced the fashion for blue, causing the color to leap from the realm of dress -- serving as the favored color of the French kings since the beginning of the 18th century and, in turn, of the nobility and the well-off bourgeoisie -- into the arts of painting, engraving, and porcelain.

Goethe's color circle
Pastoureau is very sympathetic to Goethe's color theory, even if he concedes that the discussion of physics and the chemistry of colors in the Farbenlehre is "flawed." As he writes: “Instead of creating a work based on his remarkable poetic intuition and his feeling that color always has an important anthropological dimension, he wished to write a learned treatise that would be recognized as such.” In his view,  the most original chapter of the didactic section of the Farbenlehre is the one on “physiological” colors, “in which Goethe argues forcefully for the subjective and cultural nature of perception, an idea that was almost completely novel at the time.” Challenging the Newtonians, Goethe was “the first to reintroduce the human being into the problems of color and to dare to declare that a color that no one sees is a color that does not exist.”

Since this is a book on blue, the Farbenlehre is of interest to Pastoureau because of the important place Goethe accords to that color, “which along with yellow is one of the poles of Goethe's color system. He saw in the juxtaposition (or the fusion) of these two colors the absolute form of chromatic harmony.” The lovely painting above by Guntram Erbe immediately made me think of Goethe's color preferences.

Blue Flower (Homage to Novalis) by H.H. Miyakawa (2011)
Alongside Goethe, Pastoreau cites Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen and the poet's search for the "little blue flower" as contributing to blue's status as "the world's most popular color," solidifying it as the color of love, melancholy, and dreams. (See my earlier post.) Yet, as can be gleaned from Blue, Goethe's embrace of blue has a long historical background.

It turns out that the rise of blue as a color preference was a very late emerging Western phenomenon. As Pastoreau writes in Blue, red, white, and black were the basic colors of all cultures from time immemorial, and all social codes and systems of representation were organized around these three. Blue, on the other hand, had no symbolic value, and it even seems that the ancients could not even "see" blue. In the ancient Greek language, for instance, blue was never used to describe the sky or the sea. The term glaukos, much used by Homer, could refer to gray, blue, and sometimes even yellow or brown. Eventually the Romans took their color terminology from Germanic and Arabic words: blavus and azureus. For the Romans blue appears to have had a negative value: it was associated with the underworld, while blue eyes were considered a deformity or a sign of bad character, not to forget that blue was the color of the eyes of the Germanic barbarians.

In the Carolingian period, the emperors and nobles followed the Roman custom, wearing red, white, and purple, while blue was worn only by those of low rank. A change occurred in the 12th century, with the creation of blue stained glass, but otherwise blue was essentially absent from Christian worship, with white being the supreme Christological color (innocence, purity) and black denoting abstinence, penance, and suffering. Red, of course, was the blood spilled by Christ, his passion, sacrifice, martyrdom, divine love. There developed by the 12th century a split between "chromophiles" and "chromophobes," represented, on the one hand, by the abbots of Cluny and, on the other, by the Cistercians. In the churches of the former blue and gold were united to evoke the splendor of God's creation, while the Cistercians were opposed to luxury in all forms, including color.

Hyacinthe Rigaud: Portrait of Louis XV as 5-year-old (detail)
The rise of the cult of the Virgin in the 12th century and also the adoption by French kings of blue in their coat of arms lent prestige to blue, while progress in dyeing techniques also assisted its success. French and German cities (including in Thuringia) were sustained by their dyeing industries. Saint Louis and Henry III began wearing blue, a custom not known among earlier kings. Naturally, their entourages followed suit. Even King Arthur was depicted in blue.

And then came the Reformation, which was already preceded by moralizing trends. The Reformists sought to cleanse churches of color, especially of red, which stood not for Christ's blood and passion but for folly and, in Luther's eyes, the papacy. The polychromy on church statues suggested idolotry, and the vestments of priests and the rituals of the mass were "a theater of color" distracting from the more crucial purpose of saving one's soul. For the Reformers, good Christians should wear sober colors, thus the rise of black in art. Pastoreau mentions Rembrandt, from Calvinist Holland, whose "color asceticism [was] based on a limited palette of dark and discreet tones." Rome, with the Counter-Reformation, responded in kind: thus, the blazing glory of Baroque and Jesuit art.

Perhaps because of its long absence from historical and theoretical reflection, blue was not affected by the "chromoclasm" of the Reformers. Indeed, according to Pastoreau, it became "the only honest color worthy of a good Christian." Thus, the great Reformers were portrayed as austerely dressed in black, set against a bright blue background suggesting heaven, to which they all aspired. Among French landscapists influenced by Jansenism, brown and indigo wash drawings of the 17th century created dream-like distant backgrounds that seemed to reach to infinity.

Newton's spectrum experiment
In 1666 Newton discovered the spectrum, an order of color that contained neither black nor white, which (for an Anglican like Newton) confirmed Protestant moral practices. The spectrum unended the ancient and medieval color hierarchy, in which red had resided dominantly. The center was now occupied by blue and green, and "colormetry" began to invade the arts and sciences. In being mastered, however, color lost much of its mastery. Here is where Goethe enters the picture.

Pastoreau mentions that Goethe's "personal taste" distanced him from red, but by the mid 1770s blue had become the favorite color of European society. (Can we imagine Werther wearing a red vest?) By the 18th century, slavery in the Americas lowered the cost of indigo production, and a variety of dark and solid blues could be produced that were resistant to sunlight and soap. Chemistry also began to play a role: it was in the early 18th century that "Prussian blue" was discovered in Berlin, which aided painters in producing strong or translucent tones, and numerous learned societies sponsored competitions to find solutions for obtaining more vivid and less costly blues and greens than those achieved by indigo.

Here is Werther speaking about his blue coat: “It cost me much to part with the blue coat which I wore the first time I danced with Charlotte. But I could not possibly wear it any longer. But I have ordered a new one, precisely similar, even to the collar and sleeves, as well as a new waistcoat and pantaloons. But it does not produce the same effect upon me. I know not how it is, but I hope in time I shall like it better.”

Picture credit: Guntram Erbe; Hikaru H. Miyakawa; Colour Management

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Goethe in Gotha

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ and Mary, ca. 1516-20
This summer I wrote a review of Sigrid Damm's book on the above subject for the Goethe Yearbook. I was reminded of the book this afternoon on my visit to the Morgan Library for the exhibition Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan Library. Most of the objects in the exhibition come from collections formerly in "East Germany," which I guess is an example of the enlarging compass of the transversal world (see previous posts). Several of the most beautiful objects come from Schloss Friedenstein, including the above painting by Louis Cranach the Elder.  Goethe passed many happy hours at Friedenheim, according to Sigrid Damm's account. The exhibition at the Morgan is one of a number of exhibitions (see list here) in connection with Luther Year 2017. The focus is the "media revolution" that power the spread of the Reformation.

Damm's book is entitled Goethes Freunde in Gotha and opens by asking us to imagine what Goethe’s life might have been like had he gone to Gotha on his return from Italy, as was rumored he might do, rather than to Weimar. Goethe had been presented at the Gotha court during Carl August’s visit at Christmas 1775, apparently to satisfy curiosity about the Werther author, but the impression he made on that visit was summed up by the duke's brother, Prince August, in a letter written at the time: “Stolz und Mißgeschick macht Goethe wild und driest.” In the succeeding three and a half years, Charlotte von Stein’s remolding appears to have made Goethe “salonfähig,” and there occurred increasingly cordial relations between Goethe and Duke Ernst II (1745–1804) and Prince August (1774–1825), later Duke Friedrich IV. The Gotha Fourierbuch documents frequent visits, during which Goethe lodged at Friedenheim castle itself, in Suites 5 and 6. As Damm writes: Goethe was “ein gern gesehener und umworbener Gast und Gesprächspartner.”

Goethe and the duke shared scientific interests, for instance, a mutual interest in geology, and Ernst would be a shareholder in the Ilmenau mine. During research for his optical studies, Goethe also had the run of the laboratories and equipment in the astronomical observatory at Gotha, built under the aegis of Ernst. In the 1809–10 publication of the Farbenlehre Goethe expressed his gratitude for the support of the duke and the prince.

Seeberg Observatory in Gotha
Because of the observatory, Gotha had a reputation as a scientific center of European rank. In 1798, Ernst organized a congress of European luminaries in Gotha that included the doyen of astronomers, Joseph Jerome de Lalande, along with “Himmelskundler” from England, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The only exception was Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel, who was absent, due to the tensions between France and England. Damm asks whether the congress represented “der Keim einer europaischen “Gelehrtenrepublik.” Goethe's absence indicates that he would not be part of  this particular republic of letters. The congress in any case reflected the divide between his own scientific approach and the coming mathematization of science.

In August 1801 Goethe spent eight days in Gotha, residing with Prince August. Here is the prince’s account of Goethe’s birthday celebration: “Mein Bruder bat mich soeben, zu Ehren des Herrn Goethe und des Herrn [Heinrich] Meyer ein Mittagessen zu geben. Er nahm an diesem selbst teil, ebenso seine Exzellenz und Lady Fifry. Wir waren nur sechs Personen zu Tische. Der Abend verlief in derselben Weise.” Lady Fifry refers to Friederike von Frankenberg, wife of the privy councilor Sylvius Friedrich von Frankenberg. The day afterward, the same party was guests at lunch with Lady Frifry, after viewing the duke’s paintings in his quarters.

Lucas Cranach, The Young Luther (1520)
Damm does not give any indication of the range of paintings in the duke's collection and ventures only the following concerning the viewing: “Die Gesellschaft, die durch die Räume wandert. Bei welchen Gemälden mag sie länger verweilt haben?”

Indeed, which ones? Damm in uncharacteristiscally hesitant to speculate.

I wonder what Goethe would have thought of the dual portrait of Jesus and "Mary" (perhaps Mary Magdalene). The wall label at the Morgan calls it an "ambiguous" picture, and it does seem so, as far as the face of Jesus is concerned. The woman, however, seems more in the Cranach mode, as in the painting of the young Luther (Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony- Anhalt) portrayed by the younger Cranach.

"Western culture"

One really should read something new, something different every day. And my book shelves offer plenty of choice, often of books that I will never read again or have not ever read. Thus, they are ripe for de-accessioning, my unending task. A small pile grows that will go to the Salvation Army, but when I pull one off for the pile I first read a bit to see if there is anything that might inspire me. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore quickly went into the pile.

I will probably not keep Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, but one of the essays inspires this morning's post, which indirectly concerns the subject of world literature, especially the way in which modern cultural and material exchanges have created a kind of "one-world thinking" or a "traversal space" in the words of Aamir Mufti. (See previous post.)

Written in 1937, Camus's essay is entitled "The New Mediterranean Culture" and represents a talk he gave at the opening of La Maison de Culture in that year. Because of the subject of the essay, I am assuming that the house of culture is in Marseilles. I also assume it is partly in response to the rise of National Socialism.

Camus begins by wondering if the establishment of this cultural center is a gesture toward restoring an empty traditionalism and celebrating cultural superiority. To do that, however, would be a nationalistic gesture, and the Mediterranean is not a nation. It is a civilization that is not to be identified with a nation, but with the land itself, a sea basin linking about ten countries. What characterizes this "land" is the fact of the sun. Thus, according to Camus, "the men whose voices boom in the singing cafes of Spain, who wander in the port of Genoa, along the docks in Marseilles, the strange, strong race that lives along our coasts, all belong to the same family."

He mentions the feeling he has when traveling in Germany and Austria, of encountering people "who are always buttoned right up to the neck" and who, in his opinion, do not know how to relax. What a sigh of relief one breathes when one travels down to Provence, where you discover "casually dressed men," not weighed down by muffled anxiety. And here, in the south, one feel closer to citizens of Genoa than to those of Normandy. Something of the sun, of this "Mediterranean culture," probably drove Goethe to Italy, where, so it was imagined, life that could be lived more lightly than in the northern reaches of Europe.

Contemporary lodgings for tourists in the Gobi Desert
It strikes me that nowadays we all live, so to speak, in the sun, even if our home is in the northern latitudes. Our homes are built with central heating; if we venture outdoors in winter, our lightweight clothes keep us warm and, nowadays, are wonderfully lightweight. The tastes and smells of Mediterranean cuisine are available in New York, even perhaps in Calgary. Is this the goal of the West? To inhabit a Mediterranean-type culture?

Tourist travel since the 18th century has been toward the South. Explorers and adventurers may have gone to hard lands -- across the Gobi Desert, to the Arctic -- but these were generally people from lands that were also hard. How many Italians or Algerians have been to Antarctica? Of course, the modern history of exploration was initiated by the Portuguese, but their caravels also traveled south, and the lands they encountered offered riches that were easy picking.

Of course, today you can experience the Gobi Desert without becoming cold. Such is progress.

Friday, December 16, 2016

World literature and "Orientalism"

Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying (1878) (Louvre Abu Dhabi)
The title of this post is provoked by a book that I am now reading: Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literature by Aamir R. Mufti. Edward Said is an important presence in Forget English!, but Said's Orientalism and the claims made by Said in that study have been altered by Mufti. The issue here is not Said's claim of ideological prejudice on the part of scholars of Eastern languages or of artists presenting false views of Eastern subjects. Instead, in Mufti's view (if I understand the author correctly), Orientalism “consists of those Western knowledge practices of the modern era whose emergence made possible for the first time a notion of a single world as a space populated by distinct civilizational complexes, each in possession of its own tradition, the unique expression of its own forms of national ‘genius.’” And, ergo, world literature.

Mufti draws on various writings by Herder, for whom "humanity" was "an irreducible concert of peoples," each representing discrete national and ethnic characteristics. It was a time when "nation-thinking" was being elaborated, when societies were increasingly viewed in national-cultural terms. Herder was responding to the bloodless and relentless universalism of the philosophes with a defense of “particular, local, historically established, and communal ways of life, such as in the ancient Germanic world — organic ‘communities of brothers living beside one another.’” Scholarship on languages of the "East" -- Persia, India, the Arab lands, maybe China (Mufti doesn't mention it) -- resulted in the creation of such cultural categories. This version of “Orientalism” produced a conception of the world as “an assemblage of civilizational entities, each in possession of its own textual and/or expressive traditions.”

Yet, as Mufti writes, even if world literature is conceptualized as "one-world thinking," not all literatures or literary traditions occupy prime real estate, so to speak, in the space of the world, even as the “international geography of academic conferences, literature festivals, literary prize competitions, and other similar practice of contemporary literature surely facilitates such ‘beyond borders’ perceptions for those of us who participate in them in some way.”

There is much to agree with in Forget English!, but it is obsessed (as was Said) with “the asymmetries and inequalities of the institutions and practices of world literature.” In other words, we are back to Marxism again.

More later.

Picture credit: Khan Academy

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"China in the German Enlightenment"

Have I mentioned this before? Some of you know that I was chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture for seven years. During that time we had a wonderful variety of scholars speaking on many aspects of this subject. In the wake of the debates over freedom of speech during the year of protests over the "Mohammed cartoons," I organized a series of talks on freedom of speech in the 18th century. The results appeared in a volume published by Bucknell University Press.

I have recently been anointed co-chair of another Columbia seminar, Religion and Writing, with my term officially beginning in the academic year 2016-2017. This is a two-year gig, as one of the present co-chairs has accepted an EU fellowship. This Thursday, one of the most notable members of the Goethe Society of North America, and indeed the president of our organization, Daniel Purdy will be speaking on "Publishing over Preaching: Jesuit Missionaries and Chinese Print Culture in the Seventeenth Century." (If you would like to attend, please contact the Seminar's rapporteur, Deborah Shulevitz. Her email is on the Seminar's website.)

In preparation for my introduction of Daniel on Thursday, I have taken a look at a recently published volume that he edited: China in the German Enlightenment. Very many interesting subjects are contained in its pages, including the fascinating-sounding “Leibniz on the Existence of Philosophy in China,” by Franklin Perkins. However, the one that caught my eye in particular is the chapter by John K. Noyes entitled “Eradicating the Orientalists: Goethe’s Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten.” Unfortunately the Amazon preview only allowed me to see two pages, but in those two pages I noticed that John referred to the Wolfgang Schadewaldt essay that I discussed in a post recently on "reflections in a watery medium." I look forward to reading more.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Goethe's rainy days in 1816


Thomas Jefferson's temperature notes, 1810–1816
It was in the summer of rain of 1816 that Goethe mentioned in a letter to the classical scholar Heinrich Karl Eichstadt of his interest in Lord Byron, which was also the summer in which Byron and his friends were in residence on the shores off Lake Geneva, also rained in. As in previous years, Goethe planned a stay at a spa in the hopes of physical “Linderung.” E.g., from his rheumatoid “Übel.” which caused him on occasion to be bed ridden. Nevertheless, as he wrote to Zelter on June 8, the “cimmerian” summer was standing in his way. Since we know that Germany can be cold in summer, it must have been really cold. Like many learned people, he made notes in his diary about the weather, although perhaps not so consistently as did our third president.

The above account is from Wolfgang Berhringer's Tambora und das Jahr ohne Sommer. According to Behringer, Goethe planned to  to travel to Wiesbaden, then to Baden-Baden. Without being aware of it, he was planning to travel to the center of the European hunger crisis, caused by the massive amounts of material erupted into the atmosphere the year before and producing the worst harvest since the 1770s. He had not got far in his journey to Wiesbaden, however, when, on July 20, the wagon in which he was traveling broke an axle, and Meyer, his traveling companion, suffered a head injury. Since he was in  his own coach, he could not exchange it for another. He returned to Weimar, where he spent the night and had dinner with the physicist Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni. According to his diary they talked about meteors. Chladni was among the first to identify the phenomenon of meteors. (Wikipedia identifies Chladni as "physicist and musician." Was he hearing the "music of the spheres"?) Behringer assumes they also talked about the continuing unusual weather, which was then occupying the thoughts of scientists. Chladni would publish an article, in 1819, with his own theories: "Über die Ursachen der naßkalten Kälte des Jahres 1816."



On July 24, Goethe journeyed instead to the Tennstedt sulfur springs. It took eight hours to reach Tennstedt from Weimar, as he reported in a letter to Meyer, writing that he had never seen "soviel Noth und Qual auf einem Weg von acht Stunden." He ended up not being very happy with the conditions there: the spa was a barely tolerable place to be and he frequently mentions the terrible weather, not to mention that neither the guests nor the facilities could compare with Carlsbad or Baden-Baden. Even simple walks were impossible. On his return to Weimar he was sunk in what Behringer calls “winter blues.” Throughout December, e.g., he suffered from an evil “catarrh.” Not until the new year was he again on his feet.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was not until February 1817 that he read a report in Cotta’s Morgenblatt about the Tambora eruption. Yet he seems not to have made a connection between the cold summer temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad agricultural yields of 1816. At the same time, as minister he was responsible for the mines and for the natural sciences in general. Thus, it is not surprising that he would notice the weather, and not simply because of his desire to go to spas, or to engage in conversations with Döbereiner on the oxygen content of the atmosphere and on sun spots. He was also occupied with the local consequences of flooding because of the constant rain. His observation about “Gewitterwolken” on July 21 fit his interest in cloud theory; since December of 1815 he had been occupied with Luke Howard’s  essay on clouds. There was lots of weather collecting at the time, people knew that something irregular was going on, but they didn't have the physics, especially the idea of global circulation.


Byron’s Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva
So, the weather was just one of many things occupying Goethe in these crisis years. In fact, in April 1815, when Tambora started erupting, Napoleon was re-erupting, raising an army in Paris, but the Battle of Waterloo would soon follow. Afterward, the nations of Europe, struggling from the effects of so many years of continental warfare, were not in good shape to deal with the environmental crisis. There were the problems of reintegrating trade after the wars, getting people to work in peacetime, reorganizing international trade, high unemployment. And then, in 1816, the growing season was reduced, and there was snowfall in summer in central Europe. England did not have a subsistence crisis because of its maritime trade and its imports from America. Half a million barrels of flour arrived in the ports of Liverpool in 1818. In central Europe, with rudimentary transportation systems, it was difficult to get food.


Landscape and weather were the base of much poetry at the time: doing weather though the lens of the theory of the sublime.The English writers living in Geneva that summer could not go boating, so they sat inside and talked. They enjoy watching the thunderstorms over the lake: aesthetic spectacle. Byron’s “Darkness” emerge from this time, as did Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Goethe and the Year Without Summer

People eating grass in Switzerland in 1816
A few posts ago I mentioned Goethe's diary entries during the summer of 1816, when the climatic effects of the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora began to make themselves felt in Europe. I now have Wolfgang Behringer's new book about the eruption, which fills in a few things. Behringer mentions a poem written at the death of Christiane that connects Goethe's mood with the current weather:

Den 6. Juni 1816
Du versuchst, o Sonne vergebens,
Durch die düstren Wolken zu scheinen!
Der ganze Gewinn meines Lebens
Ist, ihren Verlust zu beweinen.

As Behringer writes, the "Tambora crisis," especially the devastating atmospheric effects on agriculture for several years running, occurred in a "modern, media environment," thus differentiating our understanding of these effects from that of all previous climatic or subsistence crises. At the beginning of the 19th century, as European global expansion was at its height, there were already "worldwide" newspapers and journals. And everywhere we encounter educated, curious administrators, truly competent ones, communicating about what was going on around them.

The first example, and the most proximate one, was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, governor of British Java, who immediately began commissioning reports from the local population about the eruption itself. During the first phase of the eruption, on April 5, 1815, the explosions were so intense that they could be heard throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They sounded like mortor fire, perhaps signs of a French sea invasion. Troops were called up in Yogjakarta to prevent a foreign attack. Raffles, however, recognized that it was an eruption. But, as Behringer writes, where was this volcano? By May of 1815 a circular had gone to all British who were residence in Indonesia with three questions.

The first concerned the chronology and the physical conditions. What day and at what hour was the ash rain noticeable, its duration, and its chemical composition?

The second question concerned the medical and economic consequences, in particular the effects on the health of humans and livestock and harvest.

The third question remained: where was the volcano?
Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa
 The worst phase of the eruption occurred on April 10. Besides the considerable amount of material that it released into the atmosphere, the eruption was so strong that it blew off the top part of the volcano, reducing its height from 4,200 to 2,850 meters and leaving a six-meter wide "caldera" with a lake in the middle. It wasn't until 1847 that the first European, the botanist Heinrich Zollinger, climbed the still smoking volcano and thus made the first report on the recovery of plant life.

As for Goethe, it was not until February 20, 1817, that he first read a report, in Cotta's Morgenblatt für die gebildeten Stände (note "gebildet" in the title of the Cotta publication, pointing to the media  culture noted by Behringer), about the eruption in Tambora. In his diary Goethe wrote: "Zeitungen. Morgenblatt gelesen. Geschichte eines neuentstandenen Vulcans auf Sumbawa." But, writes Behringer, like others among his contemporaries, he did not draw a connection between the cold temperatures, the constant rain, and the bad harvests of 1816.