Thursday, February 4, 2016

Temperaments and Generations

In his New Yorker article "Design for Living," Adam Kirsch revisits a possibly apocryphal story:
Goethe and Beethoven . . . were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way--which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute about whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn't the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.
Beethoven's Eroica symphony has been a touchstone in my life, yet I have read very little Goethe. As I wrote in yesterday's post, that distance, it seems, is not entirely my fault. I don't read German, and many English translations of his poetry are clumsy. What I have read, however, are the writings of the English Victorians who adored Goethe--for instance, young Mary Ann Evans, who later became George Eliot. Her biographer, Gordon Haight, writes:
[At twenty-five] Mary Ann was reading everything that came to hand. Though no list is available, casual references show the spread of her interests: Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens, Thackeray, Sir Charles Grandison ("I had no idea Richardson was worth so much"), Carlyle, Goethe, Frederika Bremer, St. Simon, Lamartine, Disraeli.
She was not alone in her passion for the poet. In his article, Kirsch notes:
Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to "close thy Byron, open thy Goethe"--which was as much as to say, "Grow up!" Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the "physician of the Iron Age," who "read each wound, each weakness" of the suffering human race. For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising to learn that George Eliot returned to Goethe's works again and again throughout her life, both as a reader and as a translator. For her own great writings--Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede--also speak eloquently to the necessity of "read[ing] each wound, each weakness," and thereby learning "to understand life and how it should be lived."

Yet perceptions change and, as Kirsch writes, "it was this very quality that led to [Goethe's] fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. . . T. S. Eliot wrote that 'there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe's healthiness.'" Perhaps that's why I, inheritor of both the Victorians and the modernists, am able to smile at the image of Beethoven, hat firmly on head, elbowing his way through a crowd of nobles. Does self-confidence, or artistic distraction, or plebeian solidarity, or hubris drive his rudeness? Or is his behavior simply childish? Goethe's modest civility (or toadyism, or repression?) are something else altogether. Is encountering Goethe, as Kirsch writes, "an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us"?

I mull these shifts in myself, these travels from childhood into a more patient watchfulness. Nonetheless, the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica still drives me to extremes. I can barely contain myself during a certain, brief, repeated passage . . .  when, for an endless second, my ear believes that this rising dissonance will swell and deepen and bite and scream and never be resolved. Listening to it is like cutting myself with a knife, for pleasure.

One might well ask, as Goethe did,
Why confer on us, O fate, the feeling
Each can plumb the other's very heart? 
--from "To Charlotte von Stein," translated by John Frederick Nims

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