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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

an ancient jug

In 1918, Ernst Bloch published his first edition of the Spirit of Utopia, beginning it with an observation on an ancient jug – Krug. The pitcher had been dug up from some place in the Franconia region. Bloch tells us that it brings a strangeness with it – Fremd fuehrt er hinein. It isn’t exceptionally beautiful – in fact, one could doubt it was beautiful at all, compared to other jugs from ancient times. Yet he likes it. There is something about it that has an Italian mood – perhaps it is roman. Yet its décor shows a very northern thing, a wilderness thing – from the Urwalde. It shows a bearded, savage man holding an uprooted pine sapling. He can imagine Tenier like peasants with big noses holding it and similar pitchers in their fists and drinking wine from it, “until they with the others had to disappear, as all good grounded handwork – bodenstandige Handarbeit - disappears.” He sees the wild man on the front of it descend, in the land, to the escutcheons of the nobility and the signs on taverns – a mysterious descent of the race of the savage in the heart of the Rhine country.

“Yet here, on our jug, the bearded man gazes immediately out of the shadows of the woods, the moist and dark wilderness of the oldest times approach all around, quite near, the head of the giant troll distributes his faunal, amulet-like, alchemical gaze. The speak out of a time, the old jugs, when the floppy ear and the fiery man could be seen in the evening fields in the Frranconia region, and havc kept the old man – das Alte - without allegory, literally, in peasant guise.”

1918, of course, saw the entire collapse of the Wilhelmine order. And this context is important enough that I am aware, even as I bracket it, that I cannot bracket it. But I bring up this ancient jug of Bloch’s because of the connection – the thread, as he puts it – between the savage, the troll, the peasant, and the Roman, the South. The pitcher is a pioneer, came north to the wilderness where one could still see the wood people in the evening fields. Tacitus mocked the Germans for being so barbaric that they didn’t know about agriculture – they were complete meateaters.

The question of frontiers, and of time, was one that kept coming up, in 1783, for a certain Leipzig merchant, Jean Phillip Moeller. He was traveling through Italy without any servants. Noticing that in certain Italian towns his German boots were attracting attention, he changed to shoes and socks – evidently trying to fit in with the people. He spoke Italian. He toured the great sites, or some of them – he only spent a few hours in Florence. Later he wrote that his course, which took him from Dresden across the Brenner pass to Venice, and then to Rome, seemed like an “underground” journey. In Rome, he met his friend, an artist, who reported that certain artists had spread the rumor that the merchant was really Goethe. This was shot down by a man who said that he knew Goethe, and Moeller looked nothing like him. This made Moeller laugh.

Because, indeed, he was Goethe. If Italy were an already ‘discovered’ country – Goethe’s father had made the grand tour of it – one way to remake it a frontier, one way to make it something new, was to make oneself an undiscovered person, an incognito. Goethe, on his trip to Italy, is not just escaping from his situation with Charlotte von Stein, with whom he was in a frustratingly chaste relationship, and the whole of Weimar’s claustrophobia, but he was escaping the very bonds of the eighteenth century. In a sense, in his person, Goethe was doing what Kant, at the same time, was doing – starting from the very ground of possibility and working on up. Like Kant, Goethe did not want his understanding to get in the way of what was there.

3 comments:

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Goethe did not want his understanding to get in the way of what was there".

That reminds me of an entry in John Julius Norwich's 1971 Christmas Cracker (page 45 in the Penguin anthology Christmas Crackers):-

...On almost every page [of Goethe's diary of his travels through Italy and Sicily] one is staggered by the difference between his reactions and what one's own would have been. He passed through Assisi, for example, without bothering to look inside either of the two churches. And the following incident, which occurred during his stay in Palermo, shows still more forcibly the gulf separating his century from ours. (The translation is by W.H.Auden and Elizabeth Mayer.)

The fair spring weather and the luxuriant vegetation lent an air of grace and peace to the whole valley, which our stupid guide proceeded to ruin with his erudition, for he started telling us in great detail how, long ago, Hannibal had given battle here and what stupendous feats of valour had taken place on this very spot. I angrily rebuked him for such an odious evocation of defunct ghosts. It was bad enough, I said, that from time to time crops have to be trampled down, if not always by elephants, still by horses and men, but at least one need not shock the imagination out of its peaceful dreams by recalling scenes of savage violence from the past.

roger said...

An anthology of christmas crackers? Mr. Lawrence, you are continually surprising me!

I'm not sure it was Goethe's century so much as Goethe. It is a very different account than you get from, say, Montesquieu, who would have gravely contemplated the elephants.

Anonymous said...

Li, like Mr.PML, I am somewhat struck by the last couple of sentences in your post about Goethe like Kant starting from the very ground of possibility and working on up. Old Kant writes in the KrV that the critique of pure reason is the integral idea of transcendental philosophy but not yet this science itself.
Or if you will, "the" subject doesn't - no longer and not yet - have it's feet on the ground.
Which makes me think of Moeller- Goethe - laughing at the success of his incognito. They don't resemble each other, which made him laugh. Is it the laughter of a traveler who knows himself to be self-grounded, beyond resemblance?
As within, so without? White mythology!?

Amie