Posts Tagged ‘Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

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What does it take to be a “cultured” person? Anton Chekhov tells us (with a few qualifying words from Jane Austen).

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016
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Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was apparently free with his advice. Maria Popova over at “Brainpickings” found Chekov’s 1886 letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. We can only imagine how well the advice was received. After all, the letter is written to an older brother, when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28. In any case, the older brother died three years later of tuberculosis.

As for our humble selves, we can only quote Elizabeth Bennet, in the conversation with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Bingley’s sister Caroline Bingley, from Jane AustenPride and Prejudice:

jane-austen

Sensible lady

“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

1898_by_Osip_Braz

He looked the part. (Osip Braz portrait, 1898)

“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

Well, then. That’s almost as long as Chekhov’s letter from Moscow. He begins with the good news: “You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

“I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.”

Then the bad news: “You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.”

Then the list:

Chekhovs

Anton and his artist brother in 1882.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…. [here a mediocre poet is named], to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from Faust. …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.

It is time!

I expect you…. We all expect you.

Katharina Mommsen, still killing it at 90: “Goethe keeps me going.”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015
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Palo Alto, CA.,--September 16, 2015--Professor Katharina Mommsen at home in Palo Alto

A birthday photo a few days ago at her Palo Alto home. (Photo: Norbert von der Groeben)

Happy birthday to a Stanford legend, who turns 90 today! Katharina Mommsen, the world renowned scholar of the great genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is not slowing down one bit. “She is still plugging away fourteen hour days on the ‘monster’ international project of dozens of volume on the genesis of the works of Goethe,” according to her colleague, Gerald Gillespie, an emeritus professor of German and Comparative Lit at Stanford. Inspiring? That’s putting it mildly. There’s much to learn from this lady, and not just about Goethe.

“What keeps me going?  The question is as simple as the answer and, I think, self-evident. Goethe keeps me going,” she told me. “The love of his art, and all art, is what keeps me going and always will. This essential inspiration is there for everybody.”

Taken in.

He keeps her going.

In short, she has no elixir she is about to patent. “I have no secret source of life that is not freely available to all, but one has to know how to grasp and embrace it,” she said. “Not everybody does.”

Life has taught her tenacity and resilience in other ways. Katharina and her late husband Momme Mommsen, a former conductor and fellow Goethe scholar, left prestigious research positions at the German Academy of Sciences in East Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. They fled their homeland for the peripatetic life of the scholar, pursuing professorships, visiting and regular, in West Germany, Canada, and the U.S., finally settling at Stanford in 1974. Katharina accepted a position in German Studies and eventually held the Albert Guerard Endowed Chair for Literature.

An intimate birthday celebration will be held at her home with friends, colleagues, and students. The highlight of the afternoon will surely be this: the Consul General is coming down from San Francisco to bestow on her Germany’s highest honor for a lifetime of cultural service. Few people deserve it more.

Back to the “monster” international project: Gillespie describes it as “the dream shared with her husband Momme to restore the colossal project of a series on the genesis of works by the poet and polymath,” an effort called Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten. “To implement this grand design, for coordinating the efforts of many scholars globally, Katharina established the Momme Foundation for the Advancement of Goethe Research in the millennial year 2000, an American educational charity that collaborates especially through the Weimar Goethe Archive and other institutions.”

Divan_von_Hafiz

The Divan of Hafiz … was Goethe a kindred spirit?

And so the effort has taken her well into the 21st century, but she remains undaunted in the era of Pinterest and Twitter. “It’s surely true that times change and that we live in a different – digital – age,” she said. “But nothing about the age in which we live changes the transcendence of art. Bach will always be Bach. Nothing about a changing world, now or in the future, will ever alter this essence of life.”

Among the many gems by Katharina, Gillespie recommended in particular “her deep, sensitive study of the powerful friendship between the universal poet and the younger idealist Schiller in Kein Rettungsmittel als die Liebe: Schillers und Goethes Buendnis im Spiegel ihrer Dichtungen, a case of genuine, respectful  ‘romantic’ love between two creative spirits.”

“There is so much richness to appreciate in Katharina Mommsen’s life of devotion to German literature, but right after this celebratory pause, all her fans know she will be back at her desk coping with the next task.”

Perhaps Mommsen is best known, however, for her longstanding fascination with Goethe’s Islamic interests. In 1960, she published Goethe und 1001 Nacht, a revision of her dissertation at the University of Tübingen. Later, she published a study of Goethe’s motifs from Scheherazade’s tales in the classical Walgurgnisnacht and Helena scenes of Faust. She received praise for 1988’s Goethe und die arabische Welt as well.

“Goethe was enthralled by what we would call today the Islamic world. I write about these questions in my book Goethe and the Poets of Arabia (Camden House, 2014). But Goethe was fascinated from the beginning by the art and culture of the entire region, whether as a child by the stories from A Thousand and One Nights, or later by pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, by Hafiz and other Persian poets, or by the poets of ‘Arabia’ as well as by those of Turkey.”

“Goethe grasped the simple truth, at a time when not everyone did, that art is universal.”

No more billets-doux, no more epistolary novels, no more Collected Letters

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
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Write a letter lately?  I haven’t either.

According to a story in the Associated Press, nobody else is, either:

For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.

The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters — as well as the majority of bill payments — have largely been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Well, not so.  We’re not likely to be able to retrieve them.  Such missives are likely to be harbored in defunct email systems on old computers.  I save a bunch seven-inch floppies with interviews on them, in hopes I’ll find a computer that can decode them.  Nothing like hard copies, even if I can’t lay my hands on them readily.

Voltaire wrote about 15,000 letters during his 83-year life.  In more recent times, C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of pen pals. His Collected Letters amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I reviewed the 1,800+ page third volume for the Washington Post here.

Lewis wrote everyone, including T.S. Eliot, the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke, and the American writer Robert Penn Warren.  “Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all,” I wrote.

"...the oar to a galley slave..."

“The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave,” he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.

Who, in the future, will have volumes of Collected that will be thicker than a slim paperback?

Beyond the prospect of no Collecteds, whole novels have been held together by letters – Laclos‘s Liaisons Dangereuses, for example, or, since we’ve mentioned Lewis, his  Screwtape Letters, or his Letters to Malcolm.  Or his friend Dorothy L. Sayers‘ mystery novel-in-letters Documents in the Case.  Or  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Sorrows of Young Werther and Friedrich Hölderlin‘s Hyperion.

Beyond even that, letters provide pivotal revelations in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice.  Or in almost anything by Henry James.  The sudden realization, the catharsis, the flushed cheek…

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita begins with a letter – the letter that tells of the death, in childbirth, of the title character at age 16.  If people read it more carefully, they would have a different view of the “sexy” novel.  (Also if they read between the lines of Humbert Humbert’s self-serving pronouncements.  But without early training on all those day-after-Christmas letters and learning to write the evasive “thank yous,” how would we learn the most subtle nuances of writing at all?)

The very act of letter-writing consumed hours and hours of people’s time.  At Stanford, a whole project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, has evolved from the effort to track the to-and-fro correspondence during the time of the Enlightenment.  It turns out that we can map coteries, friendships, cultural epicenters, and famous journeys through letters.

AP again:

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.” …

But Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”

What about all those books that describes when a pile of a love letters are ceremoniously burned?  Or returned to the beloved in a ribbon-tied packet after a break-up?  Not quite the same as pressing a “delete” button, is it?  However, that sort of rite-of-passage has been on the downswing since the invention of the xerox machine.

“Letters mingle souls,” as John Donne wrote, but in a wholly different way than what is commonplace on the worldwide web.  Despite my sentimentality, however, I, for one, am not sure I’d trade pages on cream-colored vellum for the zip and brevity and immediacy of quickly typed “Sure. Will do.” on my Mac.