Ernest Beutler Essays Om Goethe

*Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von


Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

German, 1749–1832
Poet, playwright, novelist, aphorist, government official, and natural scientist: all apply to the polymath and essayist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s essayistic production spans his long and prolific life as a writer. A reflection of a multifaceted career, his essays display an astounding range, versatility, and interdisciplinarity. Like many of his other achievements, his work as essayist is preeminent, masterful, and exemplary. He was, moreover, a leading proponent of the form, albeit avant la lettre, as the German language and literature of the time did not yet have a single or specific label for the genre. Even so, his essays can be readily identified or classified as such according to subsequent definitions of the term.
While it is difficult to characterize something as protean and undefinable as the essay and equally difficult to distinguish among different types of essay, Goethe’s might be said to fall loosely into biographical, historical, critical, personal, general expository, and scientific categories. The subjects of his essays vary immensely and mirror his wideranging talents and activities. He accordingly penned essays on such topics as architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, aesthetics, the scientific (or experimental) method, botany, osteology, geology, and morphology. Though some of his prose expositions on literary and aesthetic themes have received considerable scholarly attention, his science essays remain mostly unappreciated and unfamiliar to many readers.
Goethe’s essays provide a showcase for his mastery of prose style. Many have long been prized as models of German prose writing, among them “Zum Shakespeares Tag” (1771; “For Shakespeare: A Tribute”), “Von deutscher Baukunst” (1772; “On German Architecture”), “Über den Granit” (1781, 1784; “On Granite”), and “Winckelmann” (1805), to name only a few. His essayistic writing flows with a seeming effortlessness, natural grace, and elegance. The metaphor Friedrich Schlegel chose to describe Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795–96) likewise typifies Goethe’s essayistic prose; it is a metaphor Goethe himself borrowed from Solomon’s Proverbs (25:11): “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, his essays reflect a concern for the well-wrought phrase, for excellence in manner of expression.
Characterized by clarity and facility as well as economy, they exemplify a form of simple eloquence. Neither too casual nor too erudite, they typically occupy a space somewhere between the so-called formal and familiar essays. Samuel Johnson’s description of Addison’s essayistic style in The Lives of the English Poets (1781)—“familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious”—could easily apply to Goethe’s as well.
Goethe’s essayistic writing is a rich, eclectic, and expert blend of styles, voices, modes, and forms. Mood and tone vary greatly depending on topic, authorial intent, even Goethe’s stage of life, and so convey in one instance the exuberance of youth and in another the equanimity of greater maturity. “On German Architecture,” for example, has a decidedly rhapsodic tenor, while “Myrons Kuh” (1818; “Myron’s Cow”) shows more detachment. Similarly, the contentious and polemical “Literarischer Sansculottismus” (1795; “Literary Sansculottism”) differs markedly from the amiable and genial “SanktRochus-Fest zu Bingen” (1814; “The St. Rochus Festival in Bingen”).
In addition (and such variations notwithstanding), Goethe’s essays characteristically manifest a didactic tendency which is defined by the complementary action of prodesse et delectare, by the reciprocation of instruction and entertainment, or as the 18th century would express it, of nützen und ergötzen.
Associative, combinative, and collective as well as asystematic, inexhaustive, and undogmatic, Goethe’s essays display the same plasticity and state of flux he admired and described in his essayistic tribute to Christoph Martin Wieland, “Zu brüderlichem Andenken Wielands. 1813” (“In Brotherly Remembrance of Wieland, 1813”). As employed by Goethe, the essay investigates the relation of balance to imbalance, the interplay of similarity and dissimilarity, even the possibility of harmony in disharmony.
Moreover, his essays embody the tension between the static and dynamic (Dauer im Wechsel) and between levitas and gravitas (Scherz und Ernst), those concepts so fundamental to Goethe’s way of thinking and writing.
Goethe takes full advantage of the essayistic potential for metalinguistic collage. In his service, the essay fulfills its promise as a generic hybrid, as a genre of genres, as an amalgam of lyric, dramatic, epic, and whatever other kinds of writing one could imagine or care to include. If one word could describe Goethe’s essayistic prose, it might well be experimental—and in every sense of the word. As their various structures and contours illustrate, Goethe’s essays explore the vast possibilities of short expository prose.
“Ruysdael als Dichter” (1816; “Ruysdael as Poet”), for example, has no internal division to speak of, while “Das römische Karneval” (1789; “The Roman Carnival”) consists of numerous subsections, each with its own heading. By turns monologic and dialogic, assertive and tentative, analytic and synthetic, Goethe’s essays represent a literary space where not only style and content, but also form and function converge.
Essayistic may well describe Goethe’s prose writing in general. Indeed, an essayistic style informs much if not all of his literary production. Consider, for example, the essayistic properties of his epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sufferings of Young Werther), his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–13;
Poetry and truth, translated as Memoirs of Goethe), his travel narrative Italienische Reise (wr. 1817; Travels in Italy), the stylistically complex and varied Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels), or his study in optics Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colours). The essay is in a sense epitomic of Goethe, as it embraces and displays his literary style, scientific method, and way of thinking all at once.
Although never explicitly formulated, Goethe’s notion of the essay coincides with his concept of the scientific method, and both mirror his general way of thinking and working per se. This correspondence is most clearly expressed in his essay on the experiment (or assay)—“Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt” (1792;
“The Experiment/Essay as Mediator Between Object and Subject”). There he gives an account of his scientific modus operandi, which implicitly and concurrently describes his essayistic modus scribendi. Like his concept of experimentation, Goethe’s essayistic prose attempts to take into account the many and varied particularities of a given topic, issue, or phenomenon. In the essay, he collects several different perspectives and perceptions which when taken together offer a generalized impression of the subject under consideration. His essayistic compositions in effect extrapolate wholeness from particularity, completeness from fragmentariness, generality from speciality (and perhaps vice versa as well). At the same time, such extrapolation always remains a mere approximation, since the essay never fully comprehends every aspect of the topic in question.
As plied by Goethe, the essay encircles its subject by collecting a number of various impressions, perspectives, perceptions, experiences, and observations, for example in “Der Sammler und die Seinigen” (1799; “The Collector and His Circle”). In doing so, the essay constructs and yields a composite, approximating a unified whole or, to borrow a concept from Max Weber, an ideal type. Goethe’s essays reflect the same fundamentally morphological, typological, or synthetic thinking as that which distinguishes his science.
His essayistic writing illustrates an attempt to obtain a synthesis of multiple, isolated, and disconnected experiences. With the essay, Goethe generates a unified construct in approximation of an otherwise elusive and inaccessible whole. As such a construct, one which comprises a number of fragmentary and limited points of view, the essay in a sense performs the same function as Goethe’s concept of the Urphänomen, the protoor pure phenomenon he posits, but which is actually nowhere present or attainable in empirical reality (e.g. “Erfahrung und Wissenschaft” [1798; “Experience and Science”]). While Goethe’s essays admit to the fragmented and fragmentary nature of his knowledge and perceptions, they simultaneously attempt to overcome such limitations with what might be called a holistic response to the all but insurmountable discrepancies and often unrelated singularities of which our experience of reality consists. A comment in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit illustrates the holistic propensity that also informs his essayism: “only humankind taken all together is the true human being.” Like his science of morphology, Goethe’s essayistic method of thinking and writing bridges the gaps between objective and subjective realities as well as between incomprehensible, inconceivable totalities and multiple, even irreconcilable particularities.
Along with Montaigne, whom he had read extensively, Goethe could also have declared “je suis moy-mesmes la matière de mon livre,” for like the great French essayist, he too was himself the subject or substance of his essays. Goethe’s famous reference in his autobiography to his literary creations as fragments of a great confession (“Bruchstiicke einer grossen Konfession”) bears witness as well to such an understanding of writing as self-study and self-disclosure, an activity to which the essay particularly lends itself.
Even though Goethe always wrote both about and for himself, he certainly had another audience in mind. The conversational and dialogic quality of his essays in effect implies and requires a reader. Goethe thus enlists and enables the active participation of his reader; he engages and includes the reader as interlocutor. His essays invite cooperation and the opportunity to share in his deliberations, to think along with him, to enter into the process of thought itself, and to be a partner in both reflection and invention. Goethe “the creative writer” desired and posited a “creative reader,” one who as Emerson wrote “must be an inventor to read well” (“American Scholar,” 1837). In this way, Goethe’s reader becomes not only a rebut also a co-producer of the essayistic text.
Besides the implied individual reader, Goethe’s essays assume and address the cosmopolitan, intellectual community at large. Whether about Laocoön or the intermaxillary bone, his essays are not written for a few scholarly specialists, but for any educated, informed, knowledgable reader, all peers in the republic of letters, citizens of literary society in general. As practiced by Goethe, the essay created and afforded a “virtual” literary salon, a communal space for a meeting of the minds. Goethe’s essays represent a place where author and reader come together not only to explore the coincidence of art and science, but also to experience the intersection and interaction of thinking, reading, and writing.

JAMES M.VAN DER LAAN
Biography
Born 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt-on-Main. Studied law at the University of Leipzig, 1765–68, and drawing with Adam Öser; became ill, 1768, and convalesced in Frankfurton- Main; studied at the University of Strasbourg, 1770–71, law degree, 1771. Practiced law in Frankfurt-on-Main, 1771–72, and Wetzlar, 1772. Invited to court of Weimar by Duke Karl August of Saxony-Weimar, 1775: entered civil service at ducal court, 1776, appointed Privy Counsel, 1779, and held various governmental posts and carried out diverse administrative duties, directing economic, political, social, and cultural affairs of state; ennobled, 1782. Visited Italy, 1786–88. Liaison with Christiane Vulpius, from 1788, marrying her, 1806 (died, 1816): one son. First met Friedrich von Schiller, 1788.
Director of the court theaters, 1791–1817. Accompanied Duke Karl August on a military campaign in France, 1792. Editor of various yearbooks and magazines, including Xenien (with Schiller), 1796–97, Die Propyläen (with J.H.Meyer), 1798–1800, Kunst und Altertum, 1816–32, and Zur Naturwissenschaft, 1817–24. Chancellor of the University of Jena. Died in Weimar, 22 March 1832.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Essays on Art, translated by Samuel Gray Ward, 1845
Briefe und Aufsätze von Goethe, aus den Jahren 1766 bis 1786, edited by A.Schöll, 1846
Italienische Reise, Aufsätze und Aussprüche über bildende Kunst, edited by C.Schuchardt, 2 vols., 1862–63
Aufsätze zur Kultur-, Theater- und Literatur-Geschichte: Maximen, Reflexionen, 2 vols., 1913–14
Literary Essays, edited by J.E.Spingarn, 1921
Botanical Writings, translated by Bertha Mueller, 1952
Schriften zur Literatur, 7 vols., 1970–82
Goethe on Art, edited and translated by John Gage, 1980
Essays on Art and Literature (vol. 3 of the Suhrkamp Collected Works), edited by John Gearey, translated by Ellen von Nardroff and Ernest H.von Nardroff, 1986
Maximen und Reflexionen (in English), edited and translated by R. H.Stephenson, 1986
Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of the Suhrkamp Collected Works), edited and translated by Douglas Miller, 1988
Other writings: four novels (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [The Sufferings of Young Werther], 1774; Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship], 1795– 96; Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities], 1809; Wilhelm Meisters
Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meister’s Travels], 1821), many plays (including Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand], 1773;
Faust I and II, 1808, 1832), poetry, travel sketches, scientific works, and autobiographical accounts.
Collected works editions: Werke (Weimar Edition), 143 vols., 1887–1919; Werke (Hamburg Edition), edited by Erich Trunz and others, 14 vols., 1948–64; Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, edited by Ernst Beutler, 27 vols., 1948–71; Collected Works (Suhrkamp Edition), edited by Victor Lange and others, translated by Michael
Hamburger and others, 12 vols., 1983–89; Sämtliche Werke (Munich Edition), edited by Karl Richter and others, 1986–(in progress).
Bibliographies
“Goethe-Bibliographie,” Goethe: Jahrbuch der Goethe Gesellschaft, beginning with 14/15 (1952/53); as Goethe-Jahrbuch, since 1972
Hermann, Helmut G., Goethe-Bibliographie, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1991
Pyritz, Hans, Goethe-Bibliographie, Heidelberg: Winter, 2 vols., 1965
Further Reading
Bennett, Benjamin, “Werther and Montaigne,” Goethe Yearbook 3 (1986):1–20
Blackall, Eric A., The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978
Bouillier, Victor, “Montaigne et Goethe,” Revue de Littérature Comparée 5 (1925):572– 93
Burgard, Peter J., “Adorno, Goethe, and the Politics of the Essay,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 66 (1992):160–91
Burgard, Peter J., Idioms of Uncertainty: Goethe and the Essay, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992
Damann, Günter, “Goethes ‘Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten’ als Essay über die Gattung der Prosaerzählung im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Der deutsche Roman der Spätaufklärung: Fiktion und Wirklichkeit, edited by Harro Zimmermann, Heidelberg: Winter, 1990:1–24
Dell’ Orto, Vincent, “Audience and the Tradition of the German Essay in the Eighteenth Century,” Germanic Review 50 (1975): 111–25
Eibl, Karl, “‘…mehr als Promctheus…’: Anmerkung zu Goethes ‘Baukunst’-Aufsatz,” Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schillergesellschaft 25 (1981):238–48
Fink, Karl J., and Max L.Baeumer, editors, Goethe as a Critic of Literature, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984
Haenelt, Karin, Studien zu Goethes literarischer Kritik: Ihre Voraussetzungen und Möglichkeiten, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1985
Krebs, Franz Joseph, “Goethes Aufsatz ‘Von deutscher Baukunst’ und Valerys Leonardo- Essay: Zwei Begegnungen mit dem Genius,” Französisch-Heute (September 1983):151–61
Küntzel, Heinrich, Essay und Aufklärung: Zum Ursprung einer originellen deutschen Prosa im 18. Jahrhundert, Munich: Fink, 1969
McCarthy, John A., Crossing Boundaries: A Theory and History of Essay Writing in German, 1680–1815, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989 van der Laan, James M., “The German Essay of the Eighteenth Century: Mirror of Its Age,” Lessing Yearbook 18 (1986): 179–96
van der Laan, James M., “Of Goethe, Essays, and Experiments,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 64 (1990):45–53
Wohlleben, Joachim, Goethe als Journalist und Essayist, Frankfurton-Main and Berne: Lang, 1981

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Goethe Conference keynote speakers

Jane Brown and Anne Bohnenkamp-Renken
As a finale of the 2014 Atkins Goethe Conference in Pittsburgh, we enjoyed dinner at the Andy Warhol Museum. Standing next to the serigraphs Warhol did of one of Europe's first celebrities are Jane Brown and Anne Bohnenkamp-Renken. A few hours previously Anne had given a keynote address on the work of the Freies Deutsches Hochstift, of which she is the director, and of the exhibition strategies of the Frankfurt Goethe-Museum (ditto director). It was an exciting and fast-paced presentation, one of those occasions when I feel so happy to be associated with such splendid scholars and, of course, with Goethe. Although there are many small and regional museums throughout Germany devoted to different Romantic personalities, the Hochstift's present goal is to make Frankfurt the center of Romanticism in Europe with a new museum of Romanticism. They are in the position to do this after having acquired adjoining property formerly occupied by the German Börsenverein.

Ernst Beutler vor dem Goethe Haus, 1944
Anne's talk was accompanied by slides showing the history of the Goethe's birth house since its acquisition by Otto Volger in 1859 and the simultaneous founding of the Hochstift. One was a touching photo of Ernst Beutler, director of the Hochstift from 1925 until 1960, sitting with his son amid the bombed ruins of the Goethe family home in 1944. During the Second World War, besides photographing the interior of the home, Beutler also succeeded in transferring many of its contents, including the library, to safe locations. These efforts were essential in the house's rebuilding after the war. I have always treasured his Goethe essays; now another reason to treasure Beutler.

As for Anne Bohnenkamp-Renken, I have long been a fan. In my research I have read tons of articles and books on world literature, but it is only occasionally that I come across one that enlightens my understanding of what Goethe might have had in mind. Her article, "Rezeption der Rezeption: Goethes Entwurf einer 'Weltliteratur' im Kontext seiner Zeitschrift 'Über Kunst und Altertum'" (included in this volume), is not part of the endless discussions of what world literature "means," but concerns what she calls the "weitgehend vernachlässigten Entstehungs- und Publikationskontext des Goetheschen Ausdrucks."

On this side of the Atlantic we Germanists also have a stellar Goethe scholar, Jane K. Brown, who delivered the first keynote of the conference. Goethe studies in the U.S. have been much enriched in the past half-century by such native American talent, as is demonstrated by a recent volume in her honor, Goethe's Ghosts: Reading and the Persistence of Literature. This volume, edited by Simon Richter and Richard Block, indicates by its title an appreciation for Jane's deep explorations of the European literary heritage as it was transmitted and transformed by Goethe, especially the continuance of the allegorical tradition. Her method of close reading of literary texts -- combining erudition with deft analyses of passages, plots, and plays, once the heart of literary scholarship -- occurred during the period when "theory" insinuated itself in the field of German studies. All the more reason to be a fan of Jane's.

Her keynote concerned Goethe's "Das Märchen" and what she called the "paradigmatic status of fairy tales for Goethe's works." I suspect that this exploration of the fairy tale is related to her longstanding work on allegory.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Space and memory in "Dichtung und Wahrheit"

Gärten, Höfe, Hintergebäude ziehen sich bis an den Zwinger heran; man sieht mehrere tausend Menschen in ihren häuslichen, kleinen, abgeschlossenen, verborgenen Zustände.

The above is the description of the view from Goethe's childhood home in Frankfurt, to be found near the beginning of Dichtung und Wahrheit. It is illustrative of what Anthony Mahler called, in his paper at the Atkins Goethe conference, "desirous spaces," which form the structural principle of the autobiography. Its chronology, as Anthony pointed out, is difficult to follow, with events seemingly disconnected. Instead of the narrative being defined by the passage of events in time, it progresses via a series of "enclosed spaces," as "topoi of narration." Goethe is specific in his description of the house's compartmentalized rooms: "unzusammenhangende Zimmer," for instance, reached via a "turmartige Treppe."

Anthony characterized the multitude of enclosures as exciting the child's imagination by making him desirous to enter such spaces. In turn, growth in the poet's consciousness is achieved "through a narrative chain of border crossings in which the child either gains permission to enter or exit an enclosure or transgresses the border against some authority."

As I listened to his paper, a number of vignettes or stories that are lovingly detailed in the autobiography came to mind, e.g., the Gretchen story; the Sesenheim idyll; the Melusine story to which reference is made in that idyll; the imperial coronation ceremony; and so on. These, too, concern enclosures, but I had not previously related these vignettes to the structure of the autobiography. My own interpretation (in an essay that appeared in the Goethe Yearbook) was that the vignettes represented traditional poetic forms that the poet had to escape if he were to supersede them.

Something of the same flavor informed a second paper at the conference, by Steve Martinson. Steve presented Goethe as a "memory collector," with the autobiography representing a collection of memories. We all know that Goethe's avidity for collecting began in childhood already. According to Steve, the autobiography was an "aesthetically rich museum populated by living memories that inform and shape it: "Erinnerungsräume." Again, space, in which the individuals described take on a  statue-like character.

Both papers give me a new way of investigating Goethe's prose, especially the novels, which indeed seem to be structured by "set pieces."

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

GSNA conference: Romantic tendencies in art

The conference is over. I am heading back to NYC in a few hours. I'll try to do a wrap-up of the conference in the days ahead, but I'd like to highlight a couple of presentations, because they allow me to add lovely pictures to the post.

Catriona McLeod's subject was the illustrations of German Märchen in the early 19th century. Only slowly were the Grimm brothers open to including illustrations with their tales. They were, after all, scholars, but they became convinced that they were losing a lucrative publishing opportunity, not to mention that the English had already begun publishing translations of fairy tales with their own illustrations. The brothers kept the business in the family, commissioning Ludwig Emil Grimm. The paternal Grimms monitored Ludwig Emil's drawings, which led to Christianizing the reception of the tales. For instance, in an illustration of "Red Riding Hood" (Rotkäpchen), a Bible appears on the table in the room where Grandmother lies in bed. Another instance can be observed in the lovely illustration above of the tale about the boy who is turned into a fawn. The sister and the deadly river are of course part of the original tale, but not the angel who watches over the pair. I learned a new phrase in Catriona's talk: "discursive interventions," i.e., which describes the function of frontispieces.

Spring Landscape in Rosenthal near Leipzig by C.G. Carus, 1814
Beate Allert organized a session on painting and visual aesthetics focused on Goethe, Carl Gustav Carus, and Ludwig Tieck.  Carus (1789-1869) has been described by Peter Berglar as the "geniale Polyhistor und Polypragmatiker," who was also a medical doctor and psychologist, a "Naturwissenschaftler" and philosopher, painter, aesthetician, and writer, with over 200 writings to his name. (See the Goethe-Handbuch entry on Carus by Anton Philipp Knittel.) Their shared interest in the natural world and in art led to a correspondence between Carus and Goethe in 1818. Goethe had been enthusiastic about a book by Carus on animal anatomy, and the correspondence continued for a decade, during which time Carus sent many of his paintings to Goethe. The letters suddenly stopped three years before Goethe's death. Why is uncertain. Goethe drafted a letter to Carus in late 1831, but it was not sent.

Beate suggested some differences between the two men that may have played a role. Carus had worked on the front during the Napoleonic wars, an experience that left him with many psychic wounds, but that also led to his profound interest in "das unbewusste Seelenleben," a subject about which Goethe was very cautious and that explains much about his aversion to aspects of Romanticism. Carus seems to have been "purposive" in his life, both in medicine, in which he sought to help others, and in art, the practice of which served a therapeutic function for him. Goethe was antipathetic to art serving as therapy or, indeed, for any other purpose.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Atkins Goethe conference in Pittsburgh

The first visit I made after my arrival in Pittsburgh was the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library, site of a very impressive exhibit of rare materials, including early editions of Goethe's own works or of works that he might have known and that served as sources of poetic inspiration, and of works by contemporaries. There were also some manuscripts, coins, drawings, and etching, and paintings. Here is the flyer from the event, with a contemporary watercolor satirizing the reception of Werther among readers in England, in this case a servant girl.

Friday, the first morning of the conference (here is a link), was opened by current president of the Goethe Society of North America, Clark Muenzer, who humorously detailed Goethe "connections" in the Pittsburgh environment. The closest contact Goethe had with this area was via his familiarity with the travels of Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach who visited the state during his travels in the U.S. in 1825-26. In his account of his American travels, the prince described the Rappite community of German pietists who made their final home in the New World in a place they names "Economy," now Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Clark's lightheartedness was followed by a panel of three previous presidents speaking on a serious topic: "Goethe and the Humanities." They were Ellis Dye, Simon Richter, and Astrida Orle Tantillo. I am not going to add my two cents to that subject here, although I did address it in my own presentation in the afternoon.

More later.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

World literature and progress

Several posts on this blog have discussed Peter Goßens book, which concerns the reception of Goethe's concept of world literature already in Goethe's lifetime and in the decades following his death. World literature was appropriated in the context of social and political reform. For instance, prominent in Goßens’ treatment is the influence of Karl August Varnhagen and the penetration of the ideas of the followers of Saint-Simon, especially among Goethe admirers in Varnhagen’s Berlin circle. Cyrus Hamlin has written that Varnhagen’s reading of the Wanderjahre was a “Gebrauchsanweisung für die zukünftige soziale Ordnung Europas in 19. Jahrhundert,” thereby forming, in Goßens’ words, “der Grundstein einer sozialistischen Goethedeutung.”

So "progessive Universalpoesie," although not in the sense in which Friedrich Schlegel meant. World literature was the inspiration for reformers, not only of their own society, but also of the world. The project was utopian: formal analysis was set aside, and aesthetics was subsumed into ethics.  It was this utopian vision that drew Marx’s ironic response to world literature in The Communist Manifesto and to the more scathing ridicule in Engels’ Anti-Dühring.

Goethe himself had of course asserted that literary exchange among the European nations would erode the prejudices that existed among them and, in the future, extend beyond Europe to encompass the world. Echoing Goethe, if not in his own words, the German-American comparatist Louis-Paul Betz (for Betz, see my earlier post) wrote the following in 1903:

 "Comparative literature not only creates new and more liberal insights into  both national literature and foreign literature, it not only reveals errors and corrects traditions, but it also achieves useful, ideal, and ethical purposes: world peace, mediation between peoples, a humanity that, regardless of the inner life of a nation, also has heart and feeling for that which takes place on the other side of the boundary post. … it leads to the recognition that the concord of peoples and progressive national development are based on an continuously growing consciousness of the richness of all peoples and of their universal unity and on the principle of being forever true to oneself and of joining with the Other."

French soldier and Indian bride return from Paris, 1720
In an essay in 1924 ("Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown") Virginia Woolf claimed that "on or about December 1910 human character changed." She was not saying that literature produced this change, but that literature began to record or reflect changes on the ground. In my last post, I suggested that commerce and trade, beginning in 16th century already, was the major factor in diminishing enmity among the people of the various countries, if not among their rulers. Trade produced a need for new products and inventions. The result was "progress," at first of a material nature. Such progress, however, would upend the the traditional order of life, open people's horizons, and and make them codependent on others for their comforts and their way of life. This term, however, came to be moralized: progress meant an advance on the past, which began to be considered retrograde. As the painting above shows (click to enlarge), Europeans also sought to improve the conditions of non-Europeans, to help them to "advance," which meant becoming European.

Picture credit: Anglais pour le Bac

Monday, October 13, 2014

World literature and trade and commerce

In my paper on the construction of Europe as a cultural space, I am drawing attention to three thinkers who stressed the connection between trade and commerce, on the one hand; and the "advance" of manners and customs and the amity among nations, on the other. These are Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Nicholas Barban.

First, Voltaire, in his 1736 work Le Mondaine (The Worldling):


See how that fleet, with canvas wings,
From Texel, Bordeaux, London brings,
By happy commerce to our shores,
All Indus, and all Ganges stores;
Whilst France, that pierced the Turkish lines,
Sutans make drunk with rich French wines.
Just as the time of Nature’s birth,
Dark ignorance o’erspread the earth;
None then in wealth surpassed the rest,
For naught the human race possessed.
Of clothes, their bodies then were bare,
They nothing had, and could not share:
Then too they sober were and sage,
Martialo lived not in that age.
Eve, first formed by the hand divine,
Never so much as tasted wine.
Do you our ancestors admire,
Because they wore no rich attire?
Ease was like wealth to them uknown,
Was’t virtue? Ignorance alone.
Would any fool, had he a bed,
On the bare ground have laid his head?


Next, Montesqieu, from Spirit of the Laws (1748):

“Commerce cures destructive prejudices, and it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores. ... Commerce has spread knowledge of the mores of all nations everywhere; they have been compared to each other, and good things have resulted from this.” (ch. 1)

“The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace. Two nations that trade with each other become reciprocally dependent; if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling, and all unions are founded on mutual needs.” (ch. 2)

“It is the nature of commerce to make superfluous things useful, and useful things necessary.” (ch. 23)

Finally, the interesting figure of Barban, one of the earliest exponents of free trade, who makes concrete a point made by Goethe in his comments on world literature, namely, that commerce with other nations lessens our prejudices toward our neighbors. From A Discourse of Trade (1790):

"Nature may be satisfied with little; but it is the wants of the Mind, Fashion, and desire of Novelities, and Things scarce, that causeth Trade. A Person may have English-Lace, Gloves, or Silk, as much as he wants, and will Buy no more such; and yet, lay out his Money on a Point of Venice, Jessimine-Gloves, or French-Silks; he may desire to Eat Westphalian-Bacon, when he will not English ...”





Sunday, October 12, 2014

Goethe and Europe

Jean Cousin the Elder, The Abduction of Europa (1550)
 I am preparing my presentation for the Goethe Society of North America conference, which takes place in Pittsburgh from October 23 to 26. The panel I am on concerns "space": domestic spaces and cosmic space in the papers of my co-panelists. My paper concerns Europe, its construction as a unified cultural space by the 19th century and the implications of that unity, in particular universalist aspirations.

As is usual in my presentations, I come equipped with a "slide show." Herewith some opening images. (Click to enlarge.)

As Anthony Pagden has written (among his publications are The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union), "Europe" is an ambiguous place. As the painting by Jean Cousin indicates, the origins of Europe are not in geography, but in myth. The abducted Europa was a Phoenician, thus an "Asian." As Pagden writes, "An abducted Asian woman gave Europe her name; a vagrant Asian exile [i.e., Aeneis from Troy] gave Europe its political and finally its cultural identity; and an Asian prophet gave Europe its religion." Frankly, I find this "Asian" emphasis a bit thick. What, after all, constitutes "Asia," everything south and east of the Aegean Sea?

In connection with my presentation, however, this assimilationist tendency is characteristic of what has become "Europe." More postings on this subject follow.

Picture credit: Counter-Currents Publishing

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