Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees

A New Companion for My Bus Rides

Arthur Rimbaud: Poésies complètes. ISBN 978-2-253-09635-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ After Rainer Maria Rilke I have found a new companion for the time I spend on the bus or train to go to work: Arthur Rimbaud. For ecological reasons I use public transports whenever my schedule gives me a little flexibility. An excllent occasion to read French poems and a paradigmatic shift since I realized that every small initiative to protect our planet matters.

Leaving the trodden path – Rimbaud seems to be right poet to come along. I had read his poems as an adolescent. I had seen the rebellious element, but I had failed to a appreciate the emotional depth, the many allusions and the richness of Rimbaud’s language at the time. I am glad to discover all that now. His early works are hardly more than trial-and-error poems, they breathe too much the spirit of Romanticism, the nostaligia for ancient Arcadia, to be anything else than emulations of poets of the past. Rimbaud however quickly found his personal language, which, I must confess, I find singularly attractive.

“Le bal des pendus” and “Sensation” are two poems from 1870 that I immediately liked and had to reread them a couple of times. The first depicts a macabre dance, mirroring the Romantic fascination with death, but casted in a new, modern shape. “Sensation” again echoes some of my iwn longings, past and present. “Ophélie”, a poem inspired by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”, seduces mecsimply because it depicts Ophelia as a fragile and almost divine figure, just like I imagined her after I first heard Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s incidental music “Hamlet”.

“Le Dormeur du Val” shows Rimbaud’s cruel humour, not unlike Heinrich Heine’s power to disenchant the romantically inclined reader with the last verse, while “La Maline” stands for the poet’s benign humour and keen observation power. A poem like “Le Buffet” stands for Rimbaud’s nostalgia for times gone by, the innocence of childhood and the comfort a tightly knit family offers.

To any reader wishing to read Rimbaud in French I can recommend this edition, which has an excellent introduction by Pierre Brunel dealing with Rimbaud’s life, his education and, quite important, his relationship with Paul Verlaine. As for translations to German and English, I doubt anyone can really render Rimbaud’s spirit in another language than French, but there must be good translations.

A generation after Rimbaud’s a French composer of the name Darius Milhaud wrote an interesting String Trio (op. 274), which I highly recommend:

Parallel tonalities in a time of infighting and disarray

From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door