Monday, 31 August 2015

Charles Baudelaire: Autumn

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer's stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn. 

All of winter will return to me:
derision, Hate, shuddering, horror, drudgery and vice,
And exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison,
My soul will harden into a block of red ice.

I shiver as I listen to each log crash and slam:
The echoes are as dull as executioners' drums.
My mind is like a tower that slowly succumbs
To the blows of a relentless battering ram.

It seems to me, swaying to these shocks, that someone
Is nailing down a coffin in a hurry somewhere.
For whom? -- It was summer yesterday; now it's autumn.
Echoes of departure keep resounding in the air. 

Middlemarch and the “Cry From Soul to Soul”

George Eliot’s novels are often painful places to be. Her characters frequently find themselves embroiled in circumstances beyond their control or understanding, struggling to find their way forward in the face of incompatible desires or competing goods. “It is very difficult to know what to do,” Janet Dempster says plaintively in “Janet’s Repentance,” one of Eliot’s first published works of fiction, when she flees her miserable marriage to an abusive alcoholic. “O it is difficult, — life is very difficult!” says Maggie Tulliver to Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss as she resists the mutual passion that violates their most cherished loyalties; to her, “one course seemed as difficult as another.”
Who — as a spouse, a lover, a parent, a friend — hasn’t been in such a situation, when to go one way seems as fraught with complications as to go another? If only there were simple rules to follow, or someone to relieve us of the burden of navigating our own way through life’s complexities. That, as Eliot is well aware, is one of the great consolations of religion: it offers us not just scriptures full of precepts to follow, but a hierarchy, both worldly and otherworldly, to which we can submit our problems and subordinate our judgment. But even for believers, the world can be a lonely and confusing place, and the yearned-for help can seem long in coming, while nonbelievers (like Eliot herself) have no comforting expectation that solutions to immediate hardships will be delivered from afar, or that there will be compensations in another life for trials in this one. Moral courage is hard to sustain in the face of such cosmic indifference.
Between prayer and despair, however, lies a different possible response to our common condition, one exemplified in Eliot’s novels in ways that reflect her own most deeply held convictions about our place in and responsibility for the world we live in. Over and over in her fiction she shows us that our best hope and greatest obligation is not faith but fellowship: that while we may not have God, we do have each other. There are still no simple solutions to our problems: indeed, her novels immerse us in the density of the historical, social, and personal contexts in which, like us, her characters are entangled. But her novels, which she called “experiments in life,” teach us through vicarious experience to sympathize with their predicaments and then to recognize our own role in making the world a better — or at least a less difficult — place.
Eliot’s interest in translating sacred impulses into secular action is visible throughout her novels, which are preoccupied with religion to an extent that initially seems paradoxical. She was, after all, as one contemporary observed, “the first great godlesswriter of fiction.” Yet Scenes of Clerical Life, with its minute and sympathetic attention to parish life, convinced many of its original readers that its then-anonymous author must “himself” be a clergyman. The Methodist preacher Dinah Morris is the moral center of Adam Bede; in Romola the eponymous heroine transforms her life under the influence of the charismatic preacher Savonarola. From Adam Bede’s Reverend Irwine to Felix Holt’s Mr. Lyon or Dr. Kenn in The Mill on the Floss, clergyman often embody her novels’ highest virtues — compassion, generosity, altruism. But there is no real contradiction here. For one thing, from its largest organizations to its metaphorical language, Eliot’s world, and the world of her characters, was saturated with religion; her realism required her to reflect that fact in her fiction. Even more important, though Eliot’s studies had led her to reject Christianity’s supernatural premises as myths rather than truths, she recognized the church itself as a vital historical and social institution, one that had long provided forms and opportunities for people to express their highest moral aspirations. Following Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) she was the first to translate into English, Eliot believed that what people imagined as “God” was really a projection of their own best and worst capacities. As science and philosophy advanced, she expected that people would reclaim supposedly divine qualities and powers as their own and thus come to accept their own primary responsibility for the state of the world. In the meantime, doctrines mattered less than actions: the real measure of virtue, she held, was sympathy “with individual sufferings and individual joys,” an ethics for which religious faith was neither necessary nor sufficient.
All of her novels guide us towards this revised understanding of religion, not as the earthly manifestation of divine will, but as something essentially and inextricably human. This aim is made most explicit in Silas Marner, which rewrites Christianity’s central salvation myth as a humanist fable: in Eliot’s version too, redemption comes in the form of a small child, but one whose history is anything but miraculous and whose influence is thus all the more profound and touching. Eliot always feared lapsing (in her words) “from the picture to the diagram,” however, and thus she is rarely so overt in pursuit of her philosophical aims. “After all has been said that can be said about the widening influence of ideas,” she observes in Romola, “it remains true that they would hardly be such strong agents unless they were taken in a solvent of feeling.” Though her essays and reviews demonstrate her mastery of argumentative rhetoric, she found that fiction enabled the most potent combination of thought and feeling. “Art is the nearest thing to life,” she argued in her early essay “The Natural History of German Life.” It is “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Her novels work in just this way, guiding us, without lecturing us, to put aside the religious doctrines that too often divide or punish, rather than help, and urging us to embrace the simple starting premise expressed by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”
This philosophical project appears in its most elegant form in Middlemarch, where it is fully integrated into the novel’s moral and emotional drama. An exemplary moment occurs soon after a crisis in Dorothea’s marriage. We know long before she does that this marriage was a terrible mistake. Idealistic but naïve, Dorothea mistook the drearily pedantic scholar Edward Casaubon for the answer to her pressing question: “What could she do, what ought she to do?” Believing he could lead her to the spiritually meaningful future she dreamed of, she accepted his proposal — only to discover on their honeymoon that “such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” She is too preoccupied with her own disappointment to consider his point of view: “she had not yet,” the narrator tells us, “listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.”
Soon after they return home, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon quarrel bitterly over what Dorothea (with some justice) perceives as unwarranted criticism on her husband’s part: “Dorothea had thought that she could have been patient with John Milton,” the narrator remarks dryly, “but she had never imagined him behaving in this way.” Dorothea is full of self-righteous anger — until Mr. Casaubon collapses with a heart attack. Our sympathy for him, like hers, is at a low ebb when it strikes, but it’s a sad spectacle nonetheless, and it is not in Dorothea’s nature to turn away from suffering, even of the man who has blighted her own hopes. In her emotional turmoil, she turns to the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, who has been called in for his medical advice. “Help me, pray,” she says to him piteously; “tell me what I can do.”
It is with her complex existential situation, as much as her husband’s physical health, that she really longs for help, but Dr. Lydgate —who like a good man of science deals primarily in the literal world — is ill-equipped to understand, much less solve, her problem. And so, finding himself at a loss, he rises to go:
He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —
“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been labouring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. And I mind about nothing else —”
For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life. But what could he say now except that he should see Mr. Casaubon again to-morrow?
Dorothea’s desperate appeal is all the more moving because there are no simple solutions. What can Dorothea do — whatshould Dorothea do, indeed? Does compassion require her to sacrifice her youth to a man who is proving wholly undeserving of her ardent devotion? Would it be so wrong to stand resolute against his arbitrary demands and stultifying inhibitions, insisting on her own right to happiness, and never mind his failed hopes and heartfelt sorrows? And yet how can we expect her to turn her back on the man for whom the narrator has only just made this eloquent case:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
Mr. Casaubon’s “hungry shivering self” surely has some moral claim on Dorothea, especially because the illness that is so distressing to her might well prove literally fatal to him. Before long, in one of the novel’s most moving passages, we will be reminded that he is a man “looking into the eyes of death,”
passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die — and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel.
Unpleasant as Mr. Casaubon is, the reiterated first-person pronouns remind us of our kinship with him, if only in our common mortality. What, then, are the duties of his wife, who — albeit under a naïve delusion — vowed to love, honor, and cherish him? These questions go well beyond any physic Lydgate could provide, and no answer he or we might come up with is going to satisfy all of the competing demands George Eliot has established on our sympathies or our conscience.
Dorothea’s “involuntary appeal” speaks for all of us who have looked at our “fitfully illuminated” lives and wondered what we can — or, often harder, what we should — do. Dorothea’s religion teaches her that at such a time she should appeal to God, and indeed the narrator remarks that if Dorothea had been alone, her supplicating impulse would have “turned into a prayer.” She isn’t alone, though, and what she really wants and needs is not divine intervention of some indeterminate kind but personal comfort and practical guidance. There at hand is someone whose own wider experience might provide the wisdom he needs to offer her, if not solutions, at least support. “You are a wise man,” she says to Lydgate entreatingly; “you know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do.” Caught up in the story, we can feel the emotional urgency of her demand even as we recognize that there is no single clear path through the tangled web of circumstance, duty, and emotion in which Dorothea is caught. Eliot’s ethics are not prescriptive in that way: she does not offer a set of alternative commandments, which in her view would be a mistaken effort to codify the intricacies of human life. “All people of broad, strong sense,” she writes in The Mill on the Floss,
have an instinctive repugnance to the man of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.
“Moral judgments,” she believed, “must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.” Her novels draw us into just such attention to particularities, never falsifying the difficulty of knowing what to do. But they also insist that complexity is not the same as inexplicability, and that our appeals for help don’t have to dead-end in mystery. Patient inquiry, deep understanding, and sympathy are our best ways forward, and while an appeal to God may momentarily relieve our feelings, Dorothea’s “cry from soul to soul” points us towards what we all really need: not a priest, but a friend.
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Sunday, 30 August 2015

A virtuoso muse - Bettina Brentano



Who," asked Napoleon Bonaparte, "is that fuzzy young person?" She was Elisabeth Brentano, known simply as Bettina. Actually, Napoleon was not among her conquests, nor was he her type.

She did not jump into his lap, as she did with Goethe, or croon her name into his ear, as with Beethoven, or go for intimate walks, as with Karl Marx. Napoleon did not dedicate a battle to her, as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms dedicated songs and the Grimms an edition of their fairy tales. But, even at a distance, Bettina Brentano drew comment.

She was sister to one famous poet, wife to another and inspiration to others, but declined to write poetry. What she did write has outraged and fascinated people ever since. She was a supreme muse, a one-woman literary movement, at once among the singular and most representative figures of the Romantic century.

Bettina was born in Frankfurt in 1785 to the large family of an Italian merchant. Her grandmother was an acclaimed sentimental novelist. Her mother had been Goethe's first great love and Bettina grew up thinking of him as family property.

When her mother died, Bettina, then aged eight, was dispatched to a convent. When she was 12 and living with her grandmother, a handsome young man turned up. It was her brother Clemens, whom she had not seen since she was five. He became her mentor and protector.

Clemens encouraged Bettina to read Goethe. She promptly went mad for the fabled character of Mignon in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Goethe's Mignon was a little Italian dancer, stolen from her family by circus performers.

She perched on roofs; some days she would not speak and others spoke in riddles; she carried a cutlass and fought with brigands. In manner and dress, Bettina became the elfin, inexplicable Mignon. Meanwhile, for Goethe himself, she conceived a passion that would simmer until she died.

Oddly enough, it was Clemens's main concern that Bettina should marry well and become a proper hausfrau. He was afraid that his sister would hook up with a mad poet.

Clemens knew about mad poets because he was one himself. At one point he painted his room (floor to ceiling), the carpet, the curtains and his own face blue. He wrote plays and fairy tales and, with his friend Achim von Arnim (and with help from Bettina), gathered the folk poems for the epochal collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a touchstone of German Romanticism. As a lyric poet, Clemens rivalled Goethe.

Decades later, Bettina would publish her correspondence with her brother. We find him alternately encouraging her and trying to rein her in. She resisted relentlessly. "For heaven's sake," he chided, "don't become a Seeress... If you knew that... witches of former centuries were none other than the victims of constipation, you would take more care."

Already Bettina had a horror of the ordinary. To Clemens she wrote, in terms she would echo for the rest of her life: "It is no use telling me to be calm; to me that conveys sitting with my hands in my lap, looking forward to the broth we are having for supper... My soul is a passionate dancer; she dances to hidden music which only I can hear... Whatever police the world may prescribe to rule the soul, I refuse to obey them."

Bettina was small and delicate, with black blossoming curls, porcelain skin, fathomless brown eyes and a magnetism beyond conventional beauty. "What artist could do justice to her?" Goethe exclaimed.

Teenaged Bettina's first actual love was for a girl five years older, a beautiful, melancholy, impoverished poet, who lived in a convent: Karoline von Günderrode.

Bettina would publish their letters, too. "I can't write poetry like you, Günderrode, but I can talk with nature... And when I come back... we put our beds side by side and chat away together all night... great profound speculations which make the old world creak on its rusty hinges."

But Günderrode had a desperate passion for a married man. One day she opened her dress to show Bettina the place on her breast where a knife would find her heart. Finally the lover went back to his wife, and Günderrode put a dagger through the place on her breast. (Goethe used the incident in stories.) Bettina was devastated but not defeated. Günderrode had fallen to the dark side of the Romantic temperament: fatal longing, like Goethe's Werther. Bettina was the sunny side.

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Novalis: Longing For Death

Into the bosom of the earth, 
Out of the Light's dominion, 
Death's pains are but a bursting forth, 
Sign of glad departure. 
Swift in the narrow little boat, 
Swift to the heavenly shore we float. 

Blessed be the everlasting Night, 
And blessed the endless slumber. 
We are heated by the day too bright, 
And withered up with care. 
We're weary of a life abroad, 
And we now want our Father's home. 

What in this world should we all 
Do with love and with faith? 
That which is old is set aside, 
And the new may perish also. 
Alone he stands and sore downcast 
Who loves with pious warmth the Past. 

The Past where the light of the senses 
In lofty flames did rise; 
Where the Father's face and hand 
All men did recognize; 
And, with high sense, in simplicity 
Many still fit the original pattern. 

The Past wherein, still rich in bloom, 
Man's strain did burgeon glorious, 
And children, for the world to come, 
Sought pain and death victorious, 
And, through both life and pleasure spake, 
Yet many a heart for love did break. 

The Past, where to the flow of youth 
God still showed himself, 
And truly to an early death 
Did commit his sweet life. 
Fear and torture patiently he bore 
So that he would be loved forever. 

With anxious yearning now we see 
That Past in darkness drenched, 
With this world's water never we 
Shall find our hot thirst quenched. 
To our old home we have to go 
That blessed time again to know. 

What yet doth hinder our return 
To loved ones long reposed? 
Their grave limits our lives. 
We are all sad and afraid. 
We can search for nothing more -- 
The heart is full, the world is void. 

Infinite and mysterious, 
Thrills through us a sweet trembling -- 
As if from far there echoed thus 
A sigh, our grief resembling. 
Our loved ones yearn as well as we, 
And sent to us this longing breeze. 

Down to the sweet bride, and away 
To the beloved Jesus. 
Have courage, evening shades grow gray 
To those who love and grieve. 
A dream will dash our chains apart, 
And lay us in the Father's lap. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Amitav Ghosh: Flood of Fire

AMITAV GHOSH likes to trouble boundaries. None of his books fit snugly within categories, either of genre or of nation. He slipped between memoir and scholarly thesis throughout In an Antique Land (1992), using old letters in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo to follow the path of an Indian slave who traveled the Red and Arabian Seas a thousand years ago. Political lines on a map grew porous in Shadow Lines (1988), where Ghosh described a fictional family that suffered loss at the hands of communal tensions spilling over the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Hungry Tide (2005) weds ecology with anthropology to explore the disturbed history of man and tiger in the Sundarbans as it leaks into modern times. The Ibis trilogy — now complete with the release of Flood of Fire — represents Ghosh’s longest and most ambitious work by far, depicting a world in motion on the eve of the Opium Wars.

The ensemble cast of the Ibis trilogy — the first two volumes are Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011) — lives and breathes in the mind long after you put the books down, from soldiers to sailors, indentured laborers to fallen aristocrats. A slaver-turned-trading ship called the Ibis ties together the main characters, each of whom is transformed by their journey across the ocean. A Bengali aristocrat stripped of his titles by the British ends up a scribe and informer for the Chinese in Canton. Two Bhojpuri lovers whose relationship is barred by caste and class are able to reinvent themselves as a married couple on the Ibis and then in Mauritius. A Parsi opium trader from Bombay is split between two identities: the upright trader with a wife and daughters in Bombay, and the man with a Chinese mistress and son in Canton. But what cleaves him in the end is not this, but a moral divide — between his status as an opium trader who needs to recoup losses, and the ravages that he sees opium addiction wreaking on China and his own son. His wife finds her identity expanded by the ocean when she leaves Bombay, later, to visit her husband’s faraway grave.

In theory, the historical context of the Ibis trilogy can carry few surprises. We know the outlines of what’s to come long before Ghosh begins. The first set of Opium Wars began nearly two centuries ago, with China’s attempt to end the lucrative (and illegal) opium trade. By the late 1830s, British and American merchants were growing rich off the sale of opium to China in return for tea and silks — leaving debilitating addiction in their wake. In 1839, after China’s attempts to block opium through diplomacy failed, Commissioner Lin Zexu ordered the destruction of all opium cargoes belonging to British and American merchants at the port of Canton.

Following the costly loss of opium, the British navy retaliated against China — leading to war and China’s humiliating defeat. By 1842, China had lost ownership of Hong Kong along with the right to turn opium from its shores. The country was forced to open its borders to trade with the rest of the world, in a series of “unequal treaties” undermining China’s sovereignty, treaties that were not completely overturned until World War II. These events, apocalyptic for China, reverberated across the rest of the world. With the victory of free trade came the expansion of empire.

Against this exquisitely researched historical backdrop, the tale of Britain’s victory and China’s loss reaches the levels of Greek tragedy in Ghosh’s skilled hands — there are few storytellers alive today in the English language as gifted as Amitav Ghosh.

A frame story is set in the future in Mauritius, where a handful of the previous denizens of the Ibis tell stories of how the tumult leading up to the Opium Wars disrupted each of their lives. The matriarch of the group in Mauritius, a Bhojpuri woman named Deeti, has a touch of second sight that allows her to look beyond her own narrative — she went from widowhood in the poppy fields of Uttar Pradesh to transportation on the Ibis as an indentured servant, and finally to a second marriage and a second start in Mauritius. Opium suffused her life and nearly broke it. The poppy crop barely supported her family in India, and its extracted drug killed her addict husband. Opium permeates every other life in the narrative, too — each character embedded within its far-flung web of trade and war, from businessmen who extol the virtues of Free Trade to addicts seeking an escape from painful reality.

The narrative gives equal sympathy to all these characters, deftly drawing us into each conflicting mind in turn. We are shown the perspectives of the Chinese fighting for their homeland and of Indian soldiers far from home as they fight for the British in China. Toward the end of Flood of Fire, an Indian soldier named Kesri notices the passion of a Chinese soldier who fought to the death at the Battle at Chuenpee. Kesri feels the other’s depth of belief is something he himself cannot have, fighting as he does under the flag of the British East India Company. It “struck Kesri that in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight,” the narrator says, for something that was his own. “An unnameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.”

This is the strength of Flood of Fire, the best of the three novels at taking that imaginative leap that lifts fictional characters off the page. The first two books are weighed down at times by the research that went into them — unsurprising, given that Ghosh dug enough from the archives for this series to write several academic texts on Indian Ocean naval history alone. When faced with so much material, it can be a surgeon’s job to carve out only as many details as the reader needs to grasp an unfamiliar context and bring a lost world back to life. River of Smoke might have benefited from fewer details about Cantonese cuisine, for instance, and more about the emotional growth of the characters.

But with Flood of Fire, Ghosh has gotten the balance right. The reins of the narrative are back in the hands of individuals we can identify with and care about — often to the reader’s peril. There is no safety in this world that Ghosh paints, rushing as it does down the path to war. The most destructive acts happen not on the battlefield, however, but within the minds of the characters themselves. One of the darkest narrative arcs of the series takes us on the journey of a man from Baltimore named Zachary Reid, who opens the trilogy as an optimistic, likable young sailor on the Ibis. He is mixed-race, born of an African-American mother and a Caucasian-American father, and learned to imitate his father’s gentry manners and accents while waiting at the latter’s table. Escaping racial violence in Baltimore by boarding the Ibis, Zachary has learned to pass as white by the time he reaches Calcutta. Here, no one knows of his mixed heritage except for an odd mystical figure named Baboo Nob Kissin, who sees in Zachary an avatar of the dark-skinned god Krishna.

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Friday, 28 August 2015

Passion and art: the story behind Faust


The story so far is this. Johann Wolfgang (not yet von) Goethe, the prodigiously talented son of a prosperous Frankfurt citizen, startles his compatriots with a furious and rambling play, Götz von Berlichingen (1771), which effectively inaugurates modern drama in Germany. He then writes The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a melancholy novel in letters, and becomes an immensely influential European figure, a provoker of fashions in dress and suicide, a sort of Byron before Byron. He is 25.

Troubled by this success in print - Götz was published to great acclaim but not staged for some time - Goethe seeks a different public and a different relation to the world. He moves to Weimar in 1775, where he becomes confidential adviser and then minister and privy councillor to the Duke. He is made a baron in 1782. Weimar at this time is a city of 6000 inhabitants, compared with Frankfurt's 36,000. But Weimar is also the centre of a duchy, which includes the territories of Jena, Eisenach and Ilmenau. It is a little world but it is a world.


Goethe occupies himself with mines, politics, the development of the University of Jena. He starts several lengthy writing projects but finishes few, although at this time as at all times he writes remarkable poems in many genres. He becomes frustrated, both by the burdens of office and by the stranglement of what appears to have been a long Platonic affair with a married court lady, Frau von Stein. He longs to travel in Italy, a journey he has often imagined, and which he postponed when he came to Weimar. Finally, in 1786, he asks for and is given a leave of absence and takes off for the better part of two years, visiting Verona, Padua, Venice and Naples, and staying for some time in Sicily and (twice) in Rome.


He finds a new life among German artists in Italy - 'artists' here means painters and sculptors, but Goethe, and Schiller soon after him, convert the word to something like its modern meaning, where it includes writers and film-makers, for example. 'I have found myself again,' Goethe writes to the Duke, 'but as what? - As an artist!' This is a declaration of independence of sorts, but Goethe knows he can't stay in Italy. He returns to Weimar, works again on his Faust, finishes other plays (Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, Tasso), elaborates an early version of his novel Wilhelm Meister, and publishes his Collected Works in eight volumes.


He also grieves extensively for the warm, permissive South and his lost artist colony in Rome, but realises, on a brief return trip to Venice, that his future lies in Germany. Italy had been paradise, or rather a proof that paradise exists and can be abandoned. Goethe is happy with the sterner North, or says he is. 'The Duchess is well and contented,' he writes of his employer's mother's homecoming from her Italian trip, 'as one is when one returns from paradise. I am now used to it, and this time I was quite happy to leave Italy.' Used to his return, he means, and used to the absence from paradise. The words I have just quoted are the last words of the first volume of Nicholas Boyle's biography of Goethe. The date is June 1790, and other things have been happening in Europe, to which Boyle immediately turns in his new book.


Germany at this time was far from a nation state - it was a confusion of duchies and principalities and free cities, shadowed by the rising power of Prussia and the continuing presence of Austria at the centre of a slightly rickety Holy Roman Empire - but it was full of national feeling, of stirrings and reachings towards a shared culture.


Thought and literature travelled fast, and Boyle expertly evokes their journeys. He is emphatic that Goethe doesn't reflect or resemble his age; but equally emphatic that the writer and his age can be understood only if we look at them together. '"The Age of Goethe" is simply the series of literary and intellectual temptations which, as it happens, Goethe resisted.' Not so simply, perhaps; and certainly not just 'as it happens'. Boyle says at the outset of his first volume that 1749 to 1832, the period of Goethe's life, is not one age but several. 'To think otherwise is to diminish the man and to misrepresent the time - his time, and ours.'


This must be true in the long run, and presumably will be seen to be true in Boyle's completed work. But his first volume, and even the second, show us a Goethe rather more associated with his age than not. It's true there are 29 years to go.


Meanwhile, loyal to his overall idea but scrupulous about individual historical moments, Boyle keeps offering modest disclaimers. Werther has a 'uniquely close relationship to its public'. 'Goethe's personal experience at this time' - 1773 - 'was... approximating to, and becoming symbolically representative of, that of a whole generation'; 'Goethe at this time in his life, as never again, spoke directly from and to the situation of his contemporaries'; 'He was very soon seen as the most prominent representative of a movement. For once, this was not wholly a misapprehension.' Boyle's general argument seems to be that Goethe was quite different from his contemporaries, but more German than they were - or more attuned to German possibilities, inventor and citizen of a Germany that never quite happened.


'If Werther is the moment of his nearest identity with his public, Urfaust is the first major work in which he establishes the initial distance of his own subjectivity from that of his contemporaries which will be characteristic of all his subsequent writing.' Goethe is becoming Goethe as Boyle sees him, and 'initial distance' is the phrase which establishes the room for manoeuvre. Weimar allowed Goethe to live 'on the edge of centrality', and he settled there because 'with the unconscious sureness of a sleepwalker, perhaps, he was finding his way to the one place where he could bring the centre of gravity of his own life as close as possible to the political centre of gravity of what was destined to be the nation, while retaining the generously broad and multifarious conception of nationhood of his Strasbourg and Frankfurt years'.


Quite apart from the edgy combination of 'sureness' and 'perhaps', this is an extraordinary proposition, less an explanation of Goethe's behaviour than an exposition of what the name 'Goethe' means, but none the less valuable for that. Goethe's 'universal genius', in this perspective, means not that he was a talented painter and wrote poems, plays, novels, satires, libretti, an autobiography, studies of plant life and a theoretical treatise on colour, having also effectively run a small country, directed a theatre, and established a university, but that he knew how to make the edge of centrality a centre of gravity. A mixed metaphor, but the mixture was his gift.


Boyle calls his first volume The Poetry of Desire because a terrific yearning marks all Goethe's best work of this period. 'None but the lonely heart' is the traditional translation of 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt', a song Goethe gives to his character Mignon in Wilhelm Meister. Boyle calls this poem a 'half-strangled cry', and his literal version begins 'Only he who knows yearning', but even 'yearning' can't catch the world-emptying force of Sehnsucht, a longing which is more like a disease than a feeling, and whose very existence seems to deny the possibility of fulfilment. Italy complicated this emotion for Goethe, since it showed him that fulfilment, sexual and otherwise, was possible.


The place that Mignon dreams of, in another song, 'the land where the lemon trees bloom, the golden oranges glow amid the dark leaves, a gentle wind blows from the blue sky, the myrtle stands motionless and the bay tree tall' (Boyle's translation), really does exist, is not just a Northerner's fantasy. What Goethe now denies is not the fulfilment of desire but the desirability of fulfilment. It is important in this perspective that satisfaction should actually be possible, just as sexual chances need to exist for celibacy to be a moral option rather than a plight. What Goethe learned in Italy, Boyle says, was 'where his true spiritual home lay - not, after all, in Mignon's Vicenza but in a land where only those who knew yearning could know what he suffered'. Not in Italy but in Germany, that is, though both places have become allegories of desire, and strange, exclusive ideas crowd into the very thought of the nation. What you need to be a German is not a passport but a proper sense of Sehnsucht.


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Thursday, 27 August 2015

Lytton Strachey: Voltaire and Frederick the Great



At the present time [October 1915] when it is so difficult to think of anything but of what is and what will be, it may yet be worthwhile to cast occasionally a glance backward at what was. Such glances may at least prove to have the humble merit of being entertaining: they may even be instructive as well. Certainly it would be a mistake to forget that Frederick the Great once lived in Germany. Nor is it altogether useless to remember that a curious old gentleman, extremely thin, extremely active, and heavily bewigged, once decided that, on the whole, it would be as well for him not to live in France. For, just as modern Germany dates from the accession of Frederick to the throne of Prussia, so modern France dates from the establishment of Voltaire on the banks of the Lake of Geneva. The intersection of those two momentous lives forms one of the most curious and one of the most celebrated incidents in history. To English readers it is probably best known through the few brilliant paragraphs devoted to it by Macaulay; though Carlyle's masterly and far more elaborate narrative is familiar to every lover of The History of Friedrich II. Since Carlyle wrote, however, fifty years have passed. New points of view have arisen, and a certain amount of new material -- including the valuable edition of the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick published from the original documents in the Archives at Berlin -- has become available. It seems, therefore, in spite of the familiarity of the main outlines of the story, that another rapid review of it will not be out of place.

Voltaire was forty-two years of age, and already one of the most famous men of the day, when, in August 1736, he received a letter from the Crown Prince of Prussia. This letter was the first in a correspondence which was to last, with a few remarkable intervals, for a space of over forty years. It was written by a young man of twenty-four, of whose personal qualities very little was known, and whose importance seemed to lie simply in the fact that he was heir- apparent to one of the secondary European monarchies. Voltaire, however, was not the man to turn up his nose at royalty, in whatever form it might present itself; and it was moreover clear that the young Prince had picked up at least a smattering of French culture, that he was genuinely anxious to become acquainted with the tendencies of modern thought, and, above all, that his admiration for the author of the Henriede and Zaire was unbounded. 

La douceur et le support [wrote Frederick] que vous marques pour tous ceux qui se vouent aux arts et aux sciences, me font espérer que vous ne m'exclurez pas du nombre de ceux que vous trouvez dignes de vos instructions. Je nomme ainsi votre corm merce de lettres, qui ne peut être que profitable à tout être pensant. J'ose même avancer, sans déroger, au mérite d'autrui, que dans l'univers entier il n'y aurait pas d'exception à faire de ceux dont vous ne pourriez être le maître.
The great man was accordingly delighted; he replied with all that graceful affability of which he was a master, declared that his correspondent was "un prince philosophe qui rendra les hommes heureux," and showed that he meant business by plunging at once into a discussion of the metaphysical doctrines of "le sieur Wolf," whom Frederick had commended as "le plus célèbre philosophe de nos jours." For the next four years the correspondence continued on the lines thus laid down. It was a correspondence between a master and a pupil: Frederick, his passions divided between German philosophy and French poetry, poured out with equal copiousness disquisitions upon Free Will and la raison suffisante, odes sur la Flatterie, and epistles sur l'Humanité, while Voltaire kept the ball rolling with no less enormous philosophical replies, together with minute criticisms of His Royal Highness's mistakes in French metre and French orthography. Thus, though the interest of these early letters must have been intense to the young Prince, they have far too little personal flavour to be anything but extremely tedious to the reader of to-day. Only very occasionally is it possible to detect, amid the long and careful periods, some faint signs of feeling or of character. Voltaire's empressement seems to take on, once or twice, the colours of something like a real enthusiasm; and one notices that, after two years, Frederick's letters begin no longer with "Monsieur " but with "Mon cher ami" which glides at last insensibly into "Mon cher Voltaire"; though the careful poet continues with his "Monseigneur" throughout. Then, on one occasion, Frederick makes a little avowal, which reads oddly in the light of future events.

Souffrez [he says] que je vous fasse mon caractère, afin que vous ne vous y mépreniez plus.... J'ai peu de mérite et peu de savoir; mais j'ai beaucoup de bonne volonté, et un fonds inépuisable d'estime et d'amitié pour les personnes d'une vertu distinguée et avec cela je suis capable de toute la constance que la vraie amitié exige. J'ai assez de jugement pour vous rendre toute la justice que vous méritez; mais je n'en ai pas assez pour m'empêcher de faire de mauvais vers.
But this is exceptional; as a rule, elaborate compliments take the place of personal confessions; and, while Voltaire is never tired of comparing Frederick to Apollo, Alcibiades, and the youthful Marcus Aurelius, of proclaiming the re-birth of "les talents de Virgile et les vertus d'Auguste," or of declaring that "Socrate ne m'est rien, c'est Frédéric que j'aime," the Crown Prince is on his side ready with an equal flow of protestations, which sometimes rise to singular heights. "Ne croyez pas," he says, "que je pousse mon scepticisme a outrance... Je crois, par exemple, qu'il n'y a qu'un Dieu et qu'un Voltaire dans le monde; je crois encore que ce Dieu avait besoin dans ce siècle d'un Voltaire pour le rendre aimable." Decidedly the Prince's compliments were too emphatic, and the poet's too ingenious; as Voltaire himself said afterwards, "les epithetes ne nous coutaient rien"; yet neither was without a little residue of sincerity. Frederick's admiration bordered upon the sentimental; and Voltaire had begun to allow himself to hope that some day, in a provincial German court, there might be found a crowned head devoting his life to philosophy, good sense, and the love of letters. Both were to receive a curious awakening.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Theodor Fontane feels your pain

Theodor Fontane is not the sort of novelist whose works I feel moved to press on other people. I'm not sure why. He has been described as a "loveable" writer, but I'm never confident that the rather chilly charms of Effi Briest and Frau Jenny Treibel will be apparent to others. Nevertheless, I've always been drawn to the Prussian wanderer, and particularly to his travails in the rough and tumble of the German publishing industry in the late 19th century.

Fontane was writing at the time of the emergence of a mass market for fiction, in which the origins of today's publishing industry can be easily discerned, most notably in the privileging of profit over aesthetic concerns. Improved printing technology meant books and journals could be produced with increased ease. (This did not impress Fontane, who called modern editions "cheap and nasty".) Literacy rates were increasing, yet regard for high-quality literature was wavering; the Stiehl regulations of 1854 actually greatly reduced classical literary education in schools. More than ever before, the function of literature veered towards entertainment and escapism. For writers with ambitions in the Goethe and Schiller direction, this was a discouraging situation.


As books remained beyond the means of most of the reading public, the "family journals", with their massive circulation, were easily the best sources of income for fiction writers. Many of Fontane's novels were serialised in publications such as Die Gartenlaube, which rose to prominence by ruthlessly slashing its subscription prices to undercut rivals. Unfortunately, the journals also acted as a literary straightjacket. The emphasis was on tried-and-tested formulae and genres; guidelines were issued to writers that included an insistence on happy endings. In a crowded market, editors were loath to take risks lest they alienate readers. For Fontane, the choice for writers was stark: either maintain artistic integrity and starve, or compromise your literary ideals for money. "The ink slave is born," he noted wearily in 1891.

Fontane's particular ire was reserved for those he saw as the true culprits: the readers. "The taste and voice of the public are being more anxiously obeyed than is necessary," he wrote in 1881. He considered this a poor editorial strategy because this new audience had no taste at all: "I can't write robber stories and adventure nonsense to please the mob," he complained to his wife. His was not an original sentiment; Gottfried Keller wrote in 1843 that he wished to burn down all libraries and "force people to read either something good or nothing at all". Neither Keller nor Fontane appears to have considered the possibility that reading habits were shaped by the output of the journals, rather than the other way round. It can't have helped Fontane's attitude to his audience that his attempts to move beyond the constraints of popular taste were met with hostility. In response to Fontane's increasingly racy themes, one reader ("Outraged of Bavaria"?) spluttered to the editor, "Will the disgusting whore-stories never end?"

Not only did those pesky readers persist in buying trivial rubbish, they also failed to show sufficient respect for writers. The mass distribution of literature had led to the demystification of the author and the assumption that "everyone can write," as Fontane asserted gloomily in an essay on the social position of the writer. Even the cultural elite were culpable. Fontane lamented the fact that those who appreciated good writing were only interested in the classics: "Their attitude to modern writers is often not merely indifferent, but actually hostile." He criticised the herd mentality of supposedly cultured readers, claiming that nine out of 10 of his acquaintances had not bothered to read his latest novel, while "the 10th reads it, falls silent and withholds his judgement until 'the critics' have spoken."

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Artist’s Evening Song

Through my mind, echoing!
That through my hands might course
A sap-filled blossoming.
I only shudder, I only stutter,
And yet can’t halt: at last,
I feel I know you, Nature,
And must hold you fast.
When I think how all these years
My powers have been growing,
And where barren heath appeared
Now streams of joy are flowing:
How I yearn for you, Nature, then,
And long for you, with faith and love!
For me you’ll be the leaping fountain,
A thousand springs will hurl above.
And every single power
In my mind you’ll heighten,
And this narrow being-here
To Eternity you’ll widen.


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics

When Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, World War II had ended and Hitler was dead, but Stalin lived and ruled. Arendt wanted to give her readers a sense of the phenomenal reality of totalitarianism, of its appearance in the world as a terrifying and completely new form of government. In the first two parts of the book she excavated hidden elements in modern anti-Semitism and European imperialism that coalesced in totalitarian movements; in the third part she explored the organization of those movements, dissected the structure of Nazism and Stalinist Bolshevism in power, and scrutinized the "double claim" of those regimes "to total domination and global rule." Her focus, to be sure, is mainly on Nazism, not only because more information concerning it was available at the time, but also because Arendt was more familiar with Germany and hence with the origins of totalitarianism there than in Russia. She knew, of course, that those origins differed substantially in the two countries and later, in different writings, would undertake to right the imbalance in her earlier discussion (see "Project: Totalitarian Elements in Marxism").

The enormous complexity of The Origins of Totalitarianism arises from its interweaving of an understanding of the concept of totalitarianism with the description of its emergence and embodiment in Nazism and Stalinism. The scope of Arendt's conceptual objectives may be glimpsed in the plan she drew up for six lectures on the nature of totalitarianism delivered at the New School for Social Research in March and April of 1953 (see "The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism"). The first lecture dealt with totalitarianism's "explosion" of our traditional "categories of thought and standards of judgment," thus at the outset stating the difficulty of understanding totalitarianism at all. In the second lecture she considered the different kinds of government as they were first formulated by Plato and then jumped many centuries to Montesquieu's crucial discovery of each kind of government's principle of action and the human experience in which that principle is embedded. In the third lecture she explicated three important distinctions: first, between governments of law and arbitrary power; secondly, between the traditional notion of humanly established laws and the new totalitarian concept of laws that govern the evolution of nature and direct the movement of history; and, thirdly, between "traditional sources of authority" that stabilize "legal institutions," thereby accommodating human action, and totalitarian laws of motion whose function is, on the contrary, to stabilize human beings so that the predetermined courses of nature and history can run freely through them. The fourth lecture addressed the totalitarian "transformation" of an ideological system of belief into a deductive principle of action. In the fifth lecture the basic experience of human loneliness in totalitarianism was contrasted with that of impotence in tyranny and differentiated from the experiences of isolation and solitude, which are essential to the activities of making and thinking but "marginal phenomena in political life." In the final lecture Arendt distinguished "the political reality of freedom" from both its "philosophical idea" and the "inherent 'materialism'" of Western political thought. 

In addition to its complexity the stylistic richness of The Origins of Totalitarianism lies in its admixture of erudition and imagination, which is nowhere more manifest than in the particular examples by which Arendt brought to light the elements of totalitarianism. These examples include her devastating portrait of Disraeli and her tragic account of the "great" and "bitter" life of T. E. Lawrence; other exemplary figures are drawn from works of literature by authors such as Kipling and Conrad (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, chapter 7). A single, striking instance of the latter is Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Arendt called "the most illuminating work on actual race experience in Africa," her emphasis clearly falling on the word "experience." Engaged in "the merry dance of death and trade," Conrad's imperialistic adventurers were in quest of ivory and entertained few scruples over slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants of "the phantom world of the dark continent" in order to obtain it. The subject of Conrad's work, in which the story told by the always ambiguous Marlow is recounted by an unnamed narrator, is the encounter of Africans with "superfluous" Europeans "spat out" of their societies. As the author of the whole tale as well as the tale within the tale, Conrad was intent not "to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters."1 Marlow, a character twice removed from the reader, is aware that the "conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing." It is in the person of the "remarkable" and "eloquent" Mr. Kurtz that Marlow seeks the "idea" that alone can offer redemption: "An idea at the back of [the conquest], not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea."
As Marlow's steamer penetrates "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" in search of Kurtz's remote trading station, Africa becomes increasingly "impenetrable to human thought." In a passage cited by Arendt, Marlow observes the Africans on the shore:

The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us--who could tell? We . . . glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be, before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of the first ages, of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign--and no memories. . . . The earth seemed unearthly . . . and the men were . . . No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leapt and spun and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
The next sentence spoken by Marlow consists of one word, "Ugly," and that word leads directly to his discovery of Kurtz, the object of his fascination. He reads a report that Kurtz, who exemplifies the European imperialist ("All Europe contributed to [his] making"), has written to the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." It is a report in the name of progress, of "good practically unbounded," and it gives Marlow a sense "of an exotic Immensity ruled by an August Benevolence." But at the bottom of the report's last page, "luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky," Kurtz has scrawled "Exterminate all the brutes!" Thus racism is revealed as the "idea" of the mad Kurtz and the darkness of his heart becomes the counterpart of the not inhuman but "uncivilized" darkness of Africa. The horrific details follow, the decapitated heads of Africans stuck on poles, facing inward toward Kurtz's dwelling. Marlow rationalizes Kurtz's "lack of restraint": "the wilderness . . . had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know," a whisper that "echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core." It is questionable whether Marlow is less hollow when, at the end of the work, he attempts in "fright" to lie about Kurtz's last words, "The horror! The horror!" The experience of race is now complete; even the shadowy narrator of Marlow's story is left before "the heart of an immense darkness" in which the image of Kurtz's racism looms in the consciousness of Conrad's readers and of the world.

Arendt, however, is not saying that racism or any other element of totalitarianism caused the regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but rather that those elements, which include anti-Semitism, the decline of the nation-state, expansionism for its own sake, and the alliance between capital and mob, crystallized in the movements from which those regimes arose. Reflecting on her book in 1958 Arendt said that her intentions "presented themselves" to her "in the form of an ever recurring image: I felt as though I dealt with a crystallized structure which I had to break up into its constituent elements in order to destroy it." This presented a problem because she saw that it was an "impossible task to write history, not in order to save and conserve and render fit for remembrance, but, on the contrary, in order to destroy." Thus despite her historical analyses it "dawned" on her that The Origins of Totalitarianism was not "a historical . . . but a political book, in which whatever there was of past history not only was seen from the vantage point of the present, but would not have become visible at all without the light which the event, the emergence of totalitarianism, shed on it." The origins are not causes, in fact "they only became origins- antecedents--after the event had taken place." While analyzing, literally "breaking up," a crystal into its "constituent elements" destroys the crystal, it does not destroy the elements. This is among the fundamental points that Arendt made in the chapter written in 1953 and added to all subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism (see "Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government"):

If it is true that the elements of totalitarianism can be found by retracing the history and analyzing the political implications of what we usually call the crisis of our century, then the conclusion is unavoidable that this crisis is no mere threat from the outside, no mere result of some aggressive foreign policy of either Germany or Russia, and that it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany. It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form--though not necessarily the cruelest--only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.
According to Arendt the "disturbing relevance of totalitarian regimes . . . is that the true problems of our time cannot be understood, let alone solved, without the acknowledgment that totalitarianism became this century's curse only because it so terrifyingly took care of its problems" (see "Concluding Remarks" in the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism). The rejection of the totalitarian answer to the question of race, for instance, does not solve but reveals the problem that arises when race is viewed as the origin of human diversity. Totalitarianism's destruction of naturally determined "inferior" races or historically determined "dying" classes leaves us on an overcrowded planet with the great and unsolved political perplexity of how human plurality can be conceived, of how historically and culturally different groups of human beings can live together and share their earthly home. 

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Monday, 24 August 2015

Friedrich Hölderlin: Ages of Life

Euphrates' cities and
Palmyra's streets and you
Forests of columns in the level desert
What are you now?
Your crowns, because
You crossed the boundary
Of breath,
Were taken off
In Heaven's smoke and flame;
But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks, upon
The deer's heath, and strange
And dead the ghosts of the blessed ones
Appear to me.


 English translation by David Constantine

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A Public Man - Lord Byron

Francis Gastrell was very annoyed. He had bought a nice new house only to find hordes of uninvited guests tramping through his garden and helping themselves to sprigs and branches from his mulberry tree. These trespasses angered him so much that one day he took up an axe and chopped the tree down, thus removing the inconvenience. The visitors stopped coming, which in turn upset the villagers who relied on their money. They formed a gang, descended on Gastrell’s house, and smashed all his windows. With the score evened, things quieted down for a bit, at least until the town council decided to raise the taxes on the property, thus driving Gastrell into a renewed frenzy. Rather than pay the increased dues, the reverend (for Gastrell was a man of the cloth), chose to vacate the house and dismantle the entire building brick by brick and gable by gable. A fresh stump and a razed plot were all that remained to inform visitors that here had stood New Place, the handsome and spacious manor house that William Shakespeare had bought for his retirement, and where, with his very own hands, he had once planted a mulberry tree.

Gastrell’s spectacularly vindictive act of vandalism took place in 1759, depriving the world of one of the only remaining sites with unambiguous ties to Shakespeare. But it served to mark the advent of literary tourism. Infused with the nascent spirit of romanticism, late-eighteenth-century lovers of literature who desired greater intimacy with their favorite works set off to commune with the spirit of genius as it lingered in place. Writers became objects of fascination, celebrities noted not for their craft or erudition but for their vivid individuality and the expansive range of their passions. For living legends like Voltaire and Rousseau, daily life involved a procession of curious sightseers who came not to speak with them as equals, but to nudge each other and point as if gazing at monuments, which made Rousseau so uneasy he built a trapdoor in his study to escape them. Souvenirs were an essential part of the experience, a sliver of the mundane snatched to unite oneself to the vast infinity of the sublime. Though fairly innocuous in the case of literary gardens, they could also be decidedly ghoulish. The body of the novelist Laurence Sterne was dug up shortly after his death by resurrectionists at the behest of surgeons who prized the opportunity to examine the great wit’s organs. The body was recognized on the slab by horrified students also acquainted with literature. When the body of John Milton was exhumed in 1790 in order to locate the exact site of his grave, it was immediately ransacked for hair, teeth, and ribs and put on display for anyone willing to pay sixpence. The dismantled Milton was eventually put back together, but only after a scandalized antiquarian bought back the remains at an inflated price. The heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley was famously plucked from the flames of his funeral pyre on a beach near Viareggio and squabbled over by Leigh Hunt and Edward Trelawny, the former wishing to preserve it in a jar of wine, and the latter wanting to present it to Shelley’s widow, Mary, who eventually kept it in a drawer of her writing table. Lord Byron had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull, but Trelawny, “remembering he had previously used one as a drinking cup,” only preserved a fragment of it, which is now in the possession of the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library. It looks exactly like a piece of dried leaf.

Byron had a penchant for keepsakes and mementos, often traveling with a specially made screen that had pictures of his favorite actors on one side and his favorite boxers on the other—ironic given that he felt so devoured by the ravening and persistent intrusions into his private life that he eventually sent himself into exile. “Byromania” (a term coined by his future wife, Annabella Milbanke) swept England after the publication in 1812 of his poetic travelogue Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which went on to sell a remarkable twenty thousand copies. It was followed by a series of “Oriental tales” that were also successful—The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos (both 1813), Lara and The Corsair (both 1814), The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (both 1816)—all eminently accessible poems, built around bold, questing narratives and propelled by jogging rhythms that depicted men of “loneliness and mystery” tormented by forbidden knowledge and a threatening secret.

The unprecedented reaction to Byron’s poetry coincided with the demands of intimacy that romantic readers were making upon authors they admired. As Sir Walter Scott would write, Byron was “the first poet who, either in his own person, or covered by no very thick disguise…directly appeared before the public, an actual living man expressing his own sentiments, thoughts, hopes, and fears.” The work became virtually secondary to the man whose own identity was the real achievement, sending London “stark mad,” according to the poet Samuel Rogers, in their efforts to inhabit some small part of him. Men practiced Byronic scowls at their dressing tables, but it was women for whom the work resonated most strongly, drawn to the poet’s fantasies of unconstrained movement that gave voice to freedoms they were otherwise flatly denied. Many went to extraordinary lengths to get near him, propositioning him at the theater, turning up at his house, or disguising themselves as chambermaids. They bombarded him with letters filled with frank confessions and amorous addresses and begged him for souvenirs: locks of hair, signed copies of his works, samples of his handwriting, and even “an occasional place in your lordship’s thoughts.”

Yet for all the adoration transmitted by his readership, Lord Byron was ultimately viewed as more consuming than consumed. From the start there was the suggestion of something supernatural about his fame. His friend and early biographer Thomas Moore remarked how it had been oddly instantaneous, forgoing all “the ordinary gradations,” and simply appearing “like the palace of a fairy tale, in a night.” William Wordsworth (who had his walking stick pried off him by a souvenir hunter and was perpetually battling with tourists who peered through his windows and defiled the bushes at Rydal Mount) condemned the public’s insatiable thirst for “outrageous stimulation,” denouncing Byron as “coarse” and “epigrammatic,” a panderer to the basest artistic urges and secretly insane. (By way of retort, Byron referred to the Lakes poet simply as “Turdsworth.”) Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.” As with the Byromania, the Byrophobia was the result of the sheer gravitational weight of a fame that had the power to distort everything around it. As one of the earliest beneficiaries of a new kind of entrepreneurial celebrity forged in the furnace of rapid industrialization and no longer dependent on the authority of conquest, church, or heredity, Byron embodied a phenomenon that was new and unnerving in the range of emotions it could elicit and the power seemingly at its command.

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