Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Erich Auerbach on Goethe and realism

My messy living room
 Edward Mendelson, in the first of his three talks at Columbia University on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, mentioned  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis chapter on Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse. I took a look at that chapter, which is entitled “The Brown Stocking” (“Der braune Strumpf” in the German version). As is typical with Auerbach, it is an astonishing close reading of a small episode in Woolf’s novel. There is what Auerbach calls an “exterior occurrence,” which he calls “entirely insignificant” in itself — Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a sock on her son James who will not stand still — while the rest of the episode is devoted almost entirely to “inner processes,” movements in the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay. If you have read Woolf’s novels, you will know about the role that such parentheses play in Woolf’s storytelling, which don’t move the story “forward” much -- action is not the point -- but instead paint the world through a series of changing impressions, all rendered via a point of view. “The Brown Stocking” is the last chapter in Mimesis.

The English-language copy of Mimesis that I own has been in my possession since I was in graduate school at the University of Texas eons ago. Back when I bought the book, I was not so wrapped up with Goethe and noted that the only German text treated by Auerbach was  Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe. After reading the chapter on To the Lighthouse, however, I consulted the index and discovered that Auerbach had some comments on Goethe in two long sections of earlier chapters. One is in the chapter on Shakespeare and deals with the mixing of styles in Germany in the 18th century; the other is in the Schiller chapter. What he said about Goethe interested me so much that when I went to hear Edward Mendelson last evening I stopped at the Columbia library and checked out the German version for comparison.

Felicitas Hoppe on red sofa
Auerbach’s subject, as per the subtitle, is the representation of reality in Western literature (in German: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der Abendländischen Literatur). It begins with the famous chapter entitled “The Scar of Odysseus” (Die Narbe des Odysseus), although the true focus is the superiority of the Biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the representation of earthly reality. In the Schiller chapter, Auerbach elucidates why Germany in the 18th century, despite its overthrowing of French normative poetics, especially as expressed in the earthy depictions of domestic life by Sturm und Drang dramatists, did not evolve a full-fledged realism showing the interaction of the dynamic forces of history with the lives of individuals. Such an interaction was the subject of Schiller’s drama, but Schiller, especially in depicting his villains as out-and-out scoundrels, depriving them of “their inner essence” (ihres inneren Wesens beraubt), resulted not in a realist drama, but melodrama — and propaganda (sehr wohl geeignet, eine starke, gefühlsmäßige politische Wirkung auszulösen). And that was basically where realism in the depiction of contemporary subjects ended.

Goethe, Auerbach contends, endowed as he was with “so much natural talent for grasping the sensory and real” (weil kein anderer Schriftsteller so viel natürliche Anlage zum Ergreifen des Sinnlichen und Wirklichen mitbrachte)— as seen in his early works — might have led the way, but such realism as exists in his later works was applied in a very narrow domain, e.g., in portions of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The “contemporary shuffling of social strata” finds no expression in Goethe. Auerbach writes: Goethe, "the burgher’s son in a class-conscious social order” (der Bürgerssohn aus der ständischen Gesllschaftsordnung) was instead “irresistibly inclined toward harmonious development of his own nature. … He, too, like Wilhelm Meister, sought his own particular way out of his bourgeois class, without concerning himself with whether and how the constitution of society might one day change.” Despite his father’s mistrust, he went to Weimar, where, “within the narrowest frame, [he] created for himself a universal position which was perfectly suited to him.” (For German, see p. 396 of the original.)

These comments helped me in my understanding of Elective Affinities. The “immobility of the social background” in this novel is even stronger than in the Wilhelm Meister novel. In a sense, it might be said that the characters resemble the Homeric ones treated in the first chapter of Mimesis, who, in Auerbach’s memorable phrasing, “wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” Change was something that Goethe came to dislike, especially violent, disorderly change, and he simply turned his back on it. A passage in the appendix to his translation of Cellini indicates that Goethe believed that it was only in the flowering of aristocratic cultures that significant individuals could develop unimpeded. The result: “We are left with the conclusion that Goethe never represented the reality of contemporary life dynamically, as the germ of developments in process and in the future.” (Als Ergebnis bleibt, daß Goethe die Wirlichkeit des ihm zeitgenössischen gesellschaftlichen Lebens niemals dynamisch, niemals als Keim werdender und zukünftiger Gestaltungen dargestellt hat.)

(Re the photos here: for some reason Google is not allowing me to import pictures from the internet, even from the Goethezeitportal. Thus, the ones here show the present reality of my life.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Beauty is in the details

My friend Philippe is visiting from Germany and was in town yesterday, so we went to the Metropolitan Museum (where else?). The 19th-century European painting galleries held lots of surprises for me, in the sense that the Met constantly changes out paintings from its vast storage facilities. Yesterday, there was a whole room of paintings by Pissaro that I had never encountered and, with a larger number of works to consider, offered new insights into this period.

Lately I find myself consumed by the details in works of art. Herewith some examples from yesterday's tour. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Luca Signorelli, Head of a Man in Profile (1490s)

Hubert Robert, Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (1757)

Claude Lorrain, Perseus & the Origin of Coral (1671)

Circle of A. Mantegna, Descent into Limbo (1465)

Henri-Joseph Harpignies, View of Moulins (1850-60)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The River (ca. 1864)
 This last detail is from a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose paintings are exhibited in the long hall in which the Met's ample supply of Rodin sculptures is located. Like Pisarro, his work is also one I had often passed by without looking closely, but the beauty is certainly in the details.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The River (ca. 1864)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Panoramas in the Goethezeit

Vance Byrd, professor in the German department at Grinnell College, was at the recent Atkins Conference of the GSNA. Vance and I were on a panel together at the previous conference three years ago, at which he gave a talk entitled "A Domestic Spectacle: Breysig's German Panorama and Bertuch's Modejournal." Breysig referred to the painter Johann Adam Breysig, who considered himself to be the inaugurator of the medium of panoramic views. Friedrich Justin Bertuch was the successful Weimar publisher and entrepreneur whose Journal des Luxus und der Moden brought panoramas -- and much else that was of consumer interest -- to the attention of the German reading public in the 1780s and 1790s.

The panel three years ago was the first act of Vance's project, which has now reached completion in a book entitled A Pedagogy of Observation: Nineteenth-Century Panoramas, German Literature, and Reading Culture (Bucknell UP, 2017), which is now available from Amazon. The cover is a detail from a painting of 1830 entitled The Panorama by the painter C.G.H. Geißler.

Vance kindly sent me some images of the oldest extant cyclorama, representing the town of Thun and the mountains of the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, which was created in the years 1800-1814 by Marquard Wochar. According to the website of the Thun Kunstmuseum, the panorama (280 square meters) has undergone two restorations, the most recent by Michael Fischer, son of the first restorer in 1899. (Go to the museum's website for more pictures and documentation.) In the 1960s a rotunda was built for observing the panorama. In the photo above, you can see the illusionistic effect provided by the platform. (As usual, click on images to enlarge.)

Detail of Thun panorama
Vance's argument is that most people did not have the opportunity to view these magnificent paintings, but instead received their knowledge of them from publications like that of Bertuch. As Vance writes, "By reading about what editors, newspaper correspondents, and writers referred to as 'panoramas,' curious Germans learned about a new representational medium and a new way to organize and produce knowledge about the scenes on display, even if they had never seen these marvels in person." In this way, they were led to witness, if at second hand, industrial transformations, urban development, scientific exploration, and so on.

Picture credit: Kunstmuseum Thun Depositum Gottfried Keller-Stiftung

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gingko everywhere

The weather has turned to freezing overnight, and when I went out for a walk this morning there were fields of gingko. (Click on photos to enlarge.) Herewith a translation (from Wikipedia) of Goethe's poem "Ginkgo biloba":

This tree’s leaf, that from the East,
Has been entrusted to my garden,
Gives to savor secret sense,
As pleasing the initiate.

Is it one living creature,
Which separated in itself?
Are they two, who choose themselves,
To be recognized as one?

Such query to reciprocate,
I surely found the proper use,
Do not you feel it in my songs,
That I am one and double?

Even my begonias in the outside planter faded overnight.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Goethe pops up everywhere

I returned two days ago from Pittsburgh State University in eastern Pennsylvania, the site of the Atkins Conference of the Goethe Society of North America. There were two days of panels on the subject of "reorientations of Goethe." In this connection I did a presentation on my activities as a Goethe blogger, offering statistics about viewership. Since Goethe comes up in all sorts of contexts, the posts on this blog have been far-reaching. I provided a handout at the presentation that listed the titles of some of the posts with the highest viewership. If anyone is interested, contact me, and I will send you the list.

But, to return to the appearance of Goethe in all kinds of contexts, last evening I went to a performance by the Brentano String Quartet of Haydn's Opus 64, no. 2, and of Mozart's "Dissonance" quartet. The evening was billed as one of "superb musicianship" and "conversation." The latter concerned the introduction by Professor Scott Burnham, who began his comments by saying that, according to Goethe, a string quartet was a conversation among friends. So, there you have it. Goethe again. Burnham also mentioned that Mozart and Haydn had played quartets together, sharing the first and second viola. One can only imagine. All that was missing was the presence of Goethe.

The Brentano String Quartet, by the way, takes its name from Antonie Brentano, who, according to the program, is believed to be the intended recipient of his famous love confession, "Immortal Beloved."

Picture credits: Rocca Calascio; Music Practice & Theory

Friday, October 27, 2017

Reviews of English translation of Safranski's Goethe biography

My review of the above bio appeared in volume 23 (2016) of the Goethe Yearbook. While reading Safranski's volume, I also devoted several posts on this blog to it, e.g., on Goethe's relations with Corona Schröter, on Goethe and war, Goethe and Friedrich Jacobi. I also did a post on the first review I came across, this past June, of the English translation of Safranski's work -- Goethe: Life as a Work of Art -- in the Literary Review. Since then, two more reviews have appeared, and they could not be more different in their assessment. The New York Times review by Michael Hofmann, with whose translations from German many of us are familiar, was exceedingly negative. That by Daniel Johnson in the New Criterion was full of praise.

Hofmann begins by characterizing the biographies of literary figures by Anglo-American biographers, in particular praising Nicholas Boyle. He was on board with Boyle when he learned that the cost of pineapples in Goethe's time was about the price of a horse, or and the time it took to send a letter from London to Edinburgh was a week. Safranski in contrast, Hofmann complains, "doesn't feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. ... Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader's eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation." Hofmann is of the opinion that the book is aimed "squared at a German readership of Bildungsbürger ..." As I wrote in my review, however, the book is really for Goethe aficionados. Do educated Germans today have any idea who Bertuch is, not to mention Goertz, Rochlitz, Kanzler Müller, Falk, Riemer, men introduced by their last name by Safranski and in most cases not even specifically identified?

Basically, Hofmann faults Safranski for what he does not do, complaining, for instance, that Life as a Work of Art does not bring out Goethe's English connections. I also mentioned such absences in my review, indeed, the absence of the larger European context. But Safranski's focus was the inner life, especially the difficulty Goethe had in conforming his innate character to the demands of life, love, work. It was a lifelong task; thus, Kunstwerk des Lebens. For me, what was striking and illuminating about Safranski's biography is his portrayal of Goethe's emotional volatility and grandiosity. In literary terms, these were channeled in the works of the Sturm und Drang epoch. And as Goethe aged out of Sturm und Drang, he went on to channel these emotional tendencies into an immense variety of projects.

Daniel Johnson begins by corralling Goethe into the company of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and so on and relates his importance to Carlyle, Arnold, Eliot, Mann. Johnson apparently attended a German Gymnasium in 1974, when Goethe "was still at the heart of the curriculum." No more, not even one assumes for the children of so-called Bildungsbürger. As Johnson points out, today most Germans today have only a vague idea of who Goethe was and when he lived. While he contends that a "highly cultivated bourgeoisie" still exists, it never fully recovered from the destruction of German Jews. This brings us back to Goethe's importance to Western civ, addressed at the beginning of the review. Goethe may not have been a philosemite, bu "the history of Goethe scholarship was largely a Jewish affair until the 1930s," with an emphasis on Goethe's universality and cosmopolitanism. Recent European history, especially the migrant crisis, illustrates the problematic status of these. Perhaps, Johnson writes, this is "a good moment ... to rediscover Goethe."

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London)
Johnson gives a nice round-up of the English biographer's interest in Goethe and Goethezeit: John Williams and T.J. Reed recently, "not to mention studies by the doyen of classical Weimar, W.H. Buford." He does not ignore Boyle's achievement (we learn that two more volumes are projected). All of these, however, are in debt to Goethe's first biographer in English, George Henry Lewes. (It is odd that  Hofmann does not mention Lewes in his opening paragraph, nor anywhere else in his review.) Lewes did not overlook Goethe's faults ("At times the clamorous agitation of rebellious passions misled him, for he was very human, often erring," he wrote), but through "naked vigour of resolution, ... produced a self-mastery of the highest kind." Boyle, too, emphasizes this theme of "renunciation," and Safranski, too, writes that Goethe "is the great example of how far you can go when you accept the lifelong task of becoming who you are." Safranski's method, however, is very different. Although his  biography includes secondary sources, he dispenses with scholarly footnotes and paraphernalia. It is based solely on primary sources: "Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher, Gespräche, Aufzeichnungen von Zeitgenossen."

As I wrote in my own review of the German edition, Safranski's approach yields insights concerning the transition from Goethe's youth, when his grandiosity, depressiveness, and his charisma were on view. Take this comment by a friend from his Strassburg days: "Dieser Goethe, von dem und von dem allein ich ... stammeln und singen und dithyrambisieren möchte. .... Noch nie hätt ich das Gefühl der Jünger von Emmaus im Evangelio so gut ... mitempfinden können ... Machen wir ihn immer zu unserm Herrn Christus, und lassen Sie mich den letzten seiner Jünger sein!" It was after an initial raucous initial period in Weimar that his outer affect became more serious and that the stiffness noted by friends like Merck and Wieland began to emerge.

Photo credit: Peter Michaelis

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blogging Goethe: a Question for Readers

I will be traveling to Pennsylvania State University in a few weeks to take part in the triennial Atkins Conference of the Goethe Society of America. As always at these gatherings, there will be lots of panels and lots of interesting subjects. The title of this year's program is "Re-Orientations Around Goethe," Goethe Girl will participate on the panel "Afterlives: Goethe and Community" on the subject of "reorienting Goethe in the digital age." In other words, I will speaking about my blogging experience.

The blog has been in business since 2008 and has attracted almost half a million visitors. When I began I thought of the site as a place to post about my own work on Goethe. I discovered that  a blog is something that must be tended to and that invites opinion. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to approach the large subject “Goethe,” and I would often simply write about what was going on in my life. Since I live in New York, there were always plenty of interesting things to report on, especially art openings or street sights. It took me a while to get my bearings, but I think it was the GSNA conference in Pittsburgh in November 2008 that set me on the right path. After that I started posting regularly on Goethe, reporting on my own work or research, but also connecting Goethe to things going on around me or to something I was reading. In fact, since I have been blogging, I have become aware of how often and in how many unexpected context Goethe crops. Moreover, in the absence of any other online “fan” forums devoted to Goethe, even in Germany, it turns out that a lot of people “stumble” across goethetc.blogspot.com.

When I look at the stats concerning visitors to the blog, I have come across something that strikes me as an anomaly, and I would like to know if anyone out there who is reading this post can help me clear up my perplexity. Since early this year the number of page views from Russia has increased way beyond any other country. In a week, for instance, there may be over 1,000 page views from Russia, with only a few hundred from Germany or the U.S. in the same time. I would be interested to know how these page views are being generated. Mark me suspicious, but is there really so much interest in Goethe in Russia? Or the Ukraine, from which I have also had lots of visitors lately. There was even a blip in page views from Saudi Arabia during the summer, but those have now stopped.

Picture credit: Hoover.com

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Goethe im Rheingau

First there was one
 We all hear of free-range poultry and meat, but in Sointula one sees “free range” concretized. The daily experience of all these cows grazing in my back yard, roaming from their homestead further up the road, has put me in mind of Goethe. Cows in yards and on public ways was probably a common sight in the small town of Weimar, if not on the meadows of the ducal residence,  perhaps along the Ilm, where Goethe had his cottage.

Then there were two

And three
As I mentioned in an earlier post, a couple of weeks ago I traveled in the Rheingau with friends. We stopped at the Brentano House in Winkel, which was once part of the large estate of Franz and Antonia Brentano. Franz, a wealthy Frankfurt merchant, was the half-brother of Clemens and Bettina Brentano. Goethe spent the first eight days of September of 1814 at their estate, which allowed him also to visit other Rheingau points of interest. Antonia Brentano wrote later of this visit:

Als Goethe bei uns zu Besuche wohnte, veranstaltete er immer selbst die Landparteien, die Mittags vorgenommen werden sollten. Er sagte z.B. "Heute Nachmittag anspannen und nach Johannisgrund fahren," denn zum Gehen bequemte er sich nicht gerne. Oder bestellte er eine Nachenfahrt.

Don't forget me!
Along with his interest in the Rochus Chapel, Goethe noted the following in his diary of Septmber 6:  “Spaziergang erst allein, dann mit Mad. Brentano und Dlle Serviere. Frl. v. Güngerode Leben und Tod. Ort ihres Selbstmordes. Kurz vorhergehend.”

He visited the vineyards of Vollrat Castle as well as those of Johannisberg. As he would write at the time to his son, he got to know the region well.

Sointula pastoral
Hier bin ich sehr gut, schön und bequem, man thut mir alles zu Lieb und Lust. Ohne die Aufmercksame Gefälligkeit dieser Familie, hätte ich die Gegend im ganzen Umfang nicht kennen lernern, welche sehr der Mühe wert ist. Man kann lange in der Erinnerung dieser Bilder genießen.

One image he did not record, however, no doubt because it could scarcely be a memorable one, was that of livestock wandering around the countryside, even if by then much farm land would have been fenced. For those of us in the West today, the sight in my back yard is of course an unusual one, prompting me to thoughts about the prominence of the pastoral genre in earlier centuries.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Home again

A visitor in my back yard
I got back from Germany on Monday, so happy to be back on my small island and also back to work on my novel. Many of you will not know that Goethe Girl once published novels, back before Goethe came into her life in a big way. I am now returning to my literary persona and my days in Sointula, so full of peace and quiet, are conducive to novelistic labors.

Herewith follow a few scenes from my final days in Germany, spent in Marburg with my friends Eberhard and Uschi Leyendecker. Marburg was where I studied so many years ago and met up with my old friends from those days at the reunion in Mannheim. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Eberhard prepares an evening collation

Marburg was also home to a Romantic circle

The castle in Marburg
All over Germany there are Reformation exhibitions. Our group attended one in Mannheim on the papacy and its role in the "founding," to so speak, of Europe. The exhibition in the castle in Marburg laid emphasis on the role of education in the Reformation. Philipps-Universität in Marburg was the first protestant university founded after the Reformation, in 1527. Pictured below is its founder, Philipp I of Hessen (1504-1567).

Philipp I of Hessen

Friday, July 28, 2017

Goethe in Rheingau

Almost 213 years ago, on September 2, 1814, Goethe visited the Rheingau region. I learned this from a lovely exhibition catalogue I bought at the Goethe-Museum in Frankfurt on Tuesday: Goethes Zeitschrift Ueber Kunst und Alterthum: von den Rhein- und Mayn Gegenden zur Weltliteratur. The first chapter concerns "Im Rheingau Herbstages," with Goethe's visit at the country estate of the Brentano family in Winkel on the Rhine. And 213 years later, I visited the Brentano house with friends from the outing in Mannheim. Unfortunately, we had not checked to see if the house was open.It was not, and is very much in needs of patrons to rehabilitate it. We went next to the nearby Vollrads castle, which Goethe visited on September 2. It was very much open for a visit, at least the grounds. Here is what Goethe wrote about his visit to Vollrads:

Ohngefähr in der Mitte von Winkel biegt man aus nach der Höhe zu, um Vollrath zu  besuchen. Erst geht der Weg zwischen Weinbergen, denn erreicht man eine Wiesenfläche, sie is hier unerwartet, feucht und mit Weiden umgeben. Am Fuß des Gebirges, auf einem Hügel liegt das Schloß, rechts und links fruchtbare Felder und Weinberge, einen Bergwald von Buchen und Eichen im Rücken.

Schloß Johannisberg
 I will not repeat the entire account here (see KuA), suffice it to say that Goethe Girl was able to purchase a bottle of the Goethe wine at Schloß Vollrads. We also made a stop at Schloß Johannisberg. The next time I have a glass of Johannisberg Riesling, I will know from where it originates.

Near the Brentano house in Winkel