Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Water, the unsteady element

Georg Melchior Kraus, Weimar Römisches Haus, 1799
A building in the Park an der Ilm, based on an idea by Goethe

Goethe's novel Elective Affinities (1809) is about attraction and marriage, duty and freedom, centring on an analogy with the way certain chemicals combine with others.  It is also about landscape design - something barely mentioned in Walter Benjamin's much-admired essay on the book, but clearly influential on Tom Stoppard, whose play Arcadia, a re-writing of Elective Affinities, foregrounds this theme.  Goethe's story begins with a rich married couple, Eduard and Charlotte, gardening for pleasure on their large estate.  The first of the two characters whose arrival disrupts their marriage, Eduard's old friend The Captain, is given the job of surveying this land and making improvements.  He undoes some of Charlotte's work, suggesting changes to a rocky path she made that would create instead a sweeping curve.  Their constant companionship eventually turns to love and meanwhile Eduard is himself falling for Ottilie, the young girl - his daughter's contemporary - who comes to stay with them.  He has a new house has built in an ideal spot with a fine prospect over the landscape, and it seems as if he has built it for her.

In the introduction to his translation, David Constantine describes the characters' focus on gardening.  'Though the style aimed at is English and so, by comparison with the French, informal, this is only the studied informality achieved also in the village when the villagers, spruced up for Sundays, gather before their cottages in 'natural' family groups.  The principal impulse in the garden is still to control, arrange and tame.'  The novel, particularly in its later stages, is haunted by death.  And 'although in real life there may be nothing particularly wrong (at least nothing deserving of death) in landscape gardening,' this and other examples of controlling behaviour suggest a society set against change or any way for the characters to escape their roles.  The most ambitious landscaping project involves the merging of three ponds and in a celebration to mark this event, a boy is nearly drowned.  At the end of the book, Ottilie accidentally drowns Charlotte's baby in these same waters.
'Ironically, by merging the ponds they were returning them to their former and in that sense more natural state; for they were once, as the captain has found out, a mountain lake.  Nature, especially water, 'the unsteady element', constitutes a threat throughout the novel; or we might say, it is present as an alternative to the rigidity of the estate.  That alternative, the way of greater naturalness, appears as a threat, and in the end as a deadly threat, to people afraid to embrace it.'

Friday, January 24, 2020

Goethe's oak

 Paintings in the Goethe House, Frankfurt

I was on something of a Goethe pilgrimage last weekend, with five stops, beginning in his childhood home in Frankfurt.  This was where he began Faust and wrote Werther before moving to Weimar at the age of twenty-six.  The house itself was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid but has been reconstructed; the contents were all kept safe during the war.  What you see when you look round is essentially the home Goethe's father created, including his pictures - some of them landscapes - all framed in black and gold.  I particularly liked two circular landscape views in the music room either side of a pyramid piano. There is no readily accessible information on who painted these, which is a pity because I would love to know more.  The website refers to paintings 'in the Dutch tradition (Trautmann, Schütz the Elder, Juncker, Hirt, Nothnagel, Morgenstern), and by the Darmstadt court painter Seekatz'.  Schütz the Elder was a landscape specialist, so perhaps they are by him.

The music room in the Goethe House, Frankfurt

From Frankfurt I travelled to Weimar and the Park an der Ilm, landscaped from 1778 under the influence of Goethe.  It was based on the Wörlitzer park, Germany's first English-style landscape garden, which also inspired the setting for Goethe's novel Elective Affinities (which I will write about in my next post).  In the park you can look round Goethe's Garden House, his first Weimar residence, bought for him in 1776 by Duke Carl August.  Here he could write while listening to the water running over a weir in the river.  Among Goethe's landscape sketches on the wall are three he called 'My Moonlights'.  "Gazing at the moon from his cottage," the audioguide says, "Goethe was frequently inspired to bathe in the Ilm River by moonlight."  One of Goethe's best known poems is 'An der Mond' ('To the Moon'), a poem he sent in a letter to Charlotte von Stein in March 1778.

Goethe's Garden House, Weimar

Goethe returned to this garden house near the end of his life to work on the Italian Journey (this account of his travels in 1786 has always been one of my favourite books, in the classic translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer).  To help remember the topography of Rome he had two large panoramas of the city put up in the dining room.  The print I photographed below is Giuseppe Vasi’s view of modern Rome as seen from the Janiculum Hill (1765).  Turn round and on the opposite wall you see Pirro Ligorio’s bird’s-eye view of ancient Rome, originally published in 1561.

 A panorama of Rome inside the Garden House

From the Garden House I moved on to the main Goethe House and Museum in Weimar, where you start to get an idea of the extraordinary range and depth of his collections.  There are, for example, cases he had specially made for Majolica, which he wrote about in an 1804 essay.  But the true breadth of Goethe's interests was really underlined at my fourth stop, the Schiller House, which was hosting a superb exhibition called 'Adventure of Reason: Goethe and the Sciences around 1800'.  Here there was evidence of his interest in many branches of knowledge that relate indirectly to landscape, from botany (the 'urplant'), fossils and vulcanism to light and colour theory.  He was clearly a key node in the era's overlapping intellectual networks and among his many correspondents, as I've mentioned here before, was the landscape painter Carl Gustav Carus.  Goethe owned this painting by Carus, which reminded me of the chalk cliffs I wrote about in Frozen Air.

 Carl Gustav Carus, Chalk cliffs at Cape Arkana on Rügen, after 1819

The drawing below by Goethe below looks at first sight like a view of cliffs, but is actually a Hypothetical Depiction of a Mountain. It is a good example of his interest in morphology and archetypal structures.  Goethe had a professional interest in geology through his involvement in mining, but it was evidently an absolute passion for him.  His geological collection eventually numbered 18,000 items.  I loved this quote about his collection of tin specimens:
'For many years, especially after 1813, Goethe was occupied by stannous (tin) rock formations.  He collected them in Bohemia and Saxony and had them sent to him from all over Europe.  He called it his "tin pleasure".  He considered tin to be the primeval metal, as it marked the end of the granite age.  Despite years of study, he only published one short article on the subject of tin.'
Goethe's Hypothetical Depiction of a Mountain (probably 1824)
Goethe died in 1832.  Just a century later the Nazis were on the verge of power and five years on they were constructing a concentration camp on the beautiful wooded hill overlooking Weimar. The camp was originally going to be called Ettensburg, but because this place name had such strong associations with Goethe and enlightenment, it was decided to use the name Buchenwald, 'Beech Wood'.  Trees were cleared for the building of the camp, but one oak tree was left standing.  The inmates began to call it Goethe's oak, a living symbol of a better Germany.  The tree was damaged by bombing in 1944 and then felled, but its base has been preserved as part of the Buchenwald memorial.  You can see it in my photograph below under last weekend's grey winter sky.  The dark shape among the trees behind it is the tower of the crematorium.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

A terrace of incense lit by the dawn

I have been reading the Tang Dynasty poet Wei Yingwu (737-92) in Red Pine's award-winning translation, In Such Hard Times (2009).  Anyone who has read Chinese poetry will know of the An Lushan rebellion and its impact on the lives of China's greatest writers.  Wei himself had been a young palace guard when the insurrection took place and his life as an official played out in the 'hard times' that followed. He was born "within a horseback commute of Ch'ang an", the biggest city in the world, but the first poems in the book were written in 763 in Loyang, the eastern capital that had just been recaptured from the rebels. Like other Chinese poets, he was torn between official duty and the desire for scholarly retreat, with the example of  Tao Yuanming constantly in his mind.  There's a lovely poem called 'East of Town' that concludes with Wei wishing he could retire and build a hut like Old Tao. It begins: 'Stuck in an office all year / I left the city for the wide-open dawn / where willow catkins soothed the wind / and blue mountains stilled my cares...'

A few years ago I mentioned Red Pine's Han Shan book in which the translator talks about the mountains that inspired the poems.  In this book, his footnotes explain exactly where each was written, so I thought here I would give a sense of Chinese landscape through Wei's eyes by quoting lines he wrote at different locations over the course of two decades.  Of course these brief images are not unique to these places - similar scenes could have been experienced all over the country, or even further afield: the same moonlight admired by Wei and his friends also fell on Charlemagne's Europe...  Perhaps because I have never been to China, or been taught about it, I sometimes struggle a bit with its geography, so here, just for fun and to give sense of Wei's travels, I've superimposed a map of eastern China, in blue, on Europe (using I have positioned it so that the Tang Dynasty capital Ch'ang-an is where you see Paris and Loyang is roughly on top of Stuttgart. 

The Sungshan mountains, 771
'... from the summit I heard a chorus of winds
in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream
the sound of a bell roused me on the Way
the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist...'

The Sungshan mountains lie just to the southeast of Loyang. Here Wei writes of stopping on a pine ridge and hearing the bell from the Shaolin Temple, marking the end of the meditation period.  The temple is well known for its association with martial arts (the seventh Wu-Tang Clan album was called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin).

Hsiangshan Springs at Lungmen, 772

'... darkened ledges glistening with water
towering trees encircled with vines
the torrent divides into different streams
with eddies swirling beside the current. ...'

Hsiangshan (Incense Mountain) was across the river from Lungmen (Dragon Gate), ten kilometres from Loyang. Wei admired the seclusion of these jade springs, finding it hard to leave.

Mei Reservoir, at Huhsien, 777

'White water surges along the embankment
mist swirls in a sunny sky
green is taking over the trees
there's jade on a thousand mountains. ...'

Huhsien is fifty kilometres southwest of Ch'ang-an - relative to Paris this is further than Versailles but nearer than Chartres. The reservoir he mentions here was formed where the Mei river met the Laoyu river and in a later poem Wei calls it a 'boundless clear lake'. Tu Fu (Du Fu, 712-70) had written a poem about boating on it.

The Huai River, 782

'... as the wind whipped the waves higher
an the sun's setting light grew dimmer
people returned to darkened village walls
wild geese landed on white island sands...'

Wei stopped for the night at Hsuyi, a post station on the Huai river, while journeying from Ch'ang-an to take up a new post at Chuchou. The nearest city on my map to Chuchou would be Zagreb, so he had done the equivalent of travelling from Paris through Germany, then south through Austria to Slovenia.  In heading south, he was like the wild geese.

Chuchou's West Stream, 783

'I love unnoticed plants that grow beside a stream
orioles singing overhead somewhere in the trees
at dusk the current quickens fed by springtime rains
I pull myself across on an unmanned country ferry.'

This is the entire poem - four lines of description, written after a day in the countryside west of Chuchou. But possibly there is some symbolism here: neglected plants = unappreciated officials, orioles = unheeded advisers, and having to pull across the river = looking out for yourself in politically turbulent times.

Lushan Mountains, 786

'... the tiger tracks in the mud look fresh
as we mount up the sun finally breaks through
I survey the landscape of dawn
flowers are as dense as fog...'

This was written of a journey on horseback in heavy rain.  Lushan is the famous mountain that I have discussed here before.  It was near Chiangchou, where Wei became a magistrate in 785. The city is located about where Bologna is on my map.

Kaiyuan Hermitage, 790

'... I love to follow trails to monastic retreats
to an orchard of fruit trees after a rain
a terrace of incense lit by the dawn
where green shade nurtures quiet days...'

Having returned from Chingchou to Ch'ang-an (the equivalent of a journey from Bologna to Paris) Wei was appointed to Souchou in the Yangtze Delta (back down south - equivalent to.northern Bosnia).  Kaiyuan temple was to the south of the city.  This is from one of his last poems.  He died a year later, too ill to return to Ch'ang-an.