HiN - Humboldt im Netz

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Rex Clark

Alexander von Humboldt’s Images of Landscape and the ‘Chaos of the Poets’

2. Goethe and the ascent of Vesuvius

Both Goethe and Humboldt bring to their view of natural phenomena such as volcanoes a detailed knowledge of the earth sciences. Goethe maintained a life‑long interest in the sciences and any standard biography of Goethe discusses his interests, observations, experiments, and publications on geology, anatomy, biology, and optics.[1] Although much less a subject of scholarly interest, Goethe was also very concerned with applied technologies, in part because of his duties as an administrator for the court in Weimar. For example, he was involved with several failed attempts to put a local silver mine on a profitable basis.[2]

From 1786 to 1788 Goethe escaped his administrative obligations to travel in Italy. His account of these travels was not published until 1816‑17 when his journals and letters from this time were revised into the Italienische Reise.[3] During his stay there, he made what was an almost obligatory journey to view the volcano of Vesuvius. In the following we see that Goethe goes as a tourist to the edge of the volcano and he treats the event as entertainment. It is a game of daring danger and testing the power of nature in a playful challenge.

Wie aber durchaus eine gegenwärtige Gefahr etwas Reizendes hat und den Widerspruchsgeist im Menschen auffordert, ihr zu trotzen, so bedachte ich, daß es möglich sein müsse, in der Zwischenzeit von zwei Eruptionen den Kegelberg hinauf an den Schlund zu gelangen und auch in diesem Zeitraum den Rückweg zu gewinnen. … Noch klapperten die kleinen Steine um uns herum, noch rieselte die Asche, als der rüstige Jüngling mich schon über das glühende Gerölle hinaufriß. (14: 362)

There is obviously no knowledge‑gathering process requiring study or preparation to this visit to the volcano. There is no pretense of discussing the writings of prior visitors to make a comparison of observations. This contact with nature is thus filtered by preconceptions quite different from those with acquisitional travel goals. Once Goethe arrives at the top and looks down into the crater, it seems that there is little that would match the danger of the approach and the expectation of a spectacle:

Hier standen wir an dem ungeheuren Rachen, dessen Rauch eine leise Luft von uns ablenkte, aber zugleich das Innere des Schlundes verhüllte, der ringsum aus tausend Ritzen dampfte. Durch einen Zwischenraum des Qualmes erblickte man hie und da geborstene Felsenwände. Der Anblick war weder unterrichtend noch erfreulich, aber eben deswegen, weil man nichts sah, verweilte man, um etwas herauszusehen. (14: 362)

The language of description, using words such as “Rachen” and “Schlund” which evoke images of a fiery dragon’s mouth, builds up an anticipation which reality seems to disappoint. Only an animal of superstition and myth could explain the power and mystery of the volcano. But it seems, the description of the volcano crater is unremarkable and Goethe notes in the last sentence that there is little to see which is instructional.

Since he is not inspired to make any comments or comparisons on the view into the volcano, Goethe continues with his narrative of danger:

Das ruhige Zählen war versäumt, wir standen auf einem scharfen Rande vor dem ungeheuern Abgrund. Auf einmal erscholl der Donner, die furchtbare Ladung flog an uns vorbei, wir duckten uns unwillkürlich, als wenn uns das vor den niederstürzenden Massen gerettet hätte; die kleineren Steine klapperten schon, und wir, ohne zu bedenken, daß wir abermals eine Pause vor uns hatten, froh, die Gefahr überstanden zu haben, kamen mit der noch rieselnden Asche am Fuße des Kegels an, Hüte und Schultern genugsam eingeäschert. (14: 362‑3)

The images shift from the mythical dragon to instruments of modern warfare to heighten the suspense. The flying debris from the volcano is compared to the thunder (“Donner”) and shot (“furchtbare Ladung”) of a firing cannon. In short, this visit by Goethe to the volcano is a personal story of a small adventure with no attempt to make connections with any larger themes of literary or scientific interest. The story ends with little reflection or evaluation of the events.

On another visit to the volcano, Goethe gives a somewhat more systematic structure to the experience. This is an example of the narrative techniques used in the transformation of a landscape feature into a philosophic observation. The visit is prepared by the observation that first‑hand experience is more highly valued than received knowledge:

Die Kunde einer soeben ausbrechenden Lava, die, für Neapel unsichtbar, nach Ottajano hinunterfließt, reizte mich, zum dritten Male den Vesuv zu besuchen. …

Man habe auch tausendmal von einem Gegenstande gehört, das Eigentümliche desselben spricht nur zu uns aus dem unmittelbaren Anschauen. (14: 385)

In the following passage, we see that again the attempt to make close observations are unsuccessful, yet several images are noted which will resonate in the later reflections. First the light of the sun contrasts with the dark glow of the lava and a few lines later the hot smoky realm is directly linked to the fires of hell:

Durch die hellste Sonne erschien die Glut verdüstert, nur ein mäßiger Rauch stieg in die reine Luft. Ich hatte Verlangen, mich dem Punkte zu nähern, wo sie aus dem Berge bricht...

Wir versuchten noch ein paar Dutzend Schritte, aber der Boden ward immer glühender; sonneverfinsternd und erstickend wirbelte ein unüberwindlicher Qualm. Der vorausgegangene Führer kehrte bald um, ergriff mich, und wir entwanden uns diesem Höllenbrudel. (14: 385‑6)

After the preparatory remarks made during the actual experience of viewing the volcanic activity, Goethe looks back on the episode and makes a statement relating nature to the perception of sensations:

Der herrlichste Sonnenuntergang, ein himmlischer Abend erquickten mich auf meiner Rückkehr; doch konnte ich empfinden, wie sinneverwirrend ein ungeheurer Gegensatz sich erweise. Das Schreckliche zum Schönen, das Schöne zum Schrecklichen, beides hebt einander auf und bringt eine gleichgültige Empfindung hervor. Gewiß wäre der Neapolitaner ein anderer Mensch, wenn er sich nicht zwischen Gott und Satan eingeklemmt fühlte. (14: 386‑7)

Although the stated goal is to gain knowledge directly “aus dem unmittelbaren Anschauen” the images embedded in the previous volcano description fit almost too conveniently with these concluding comments. In this passage the sun and the lava images have now become metaphors relating features of nature to traditional contrasts of heaven and hell, of the beautiful and the horrific. The contemplation of the volcano gives rise to a superficial reference to Christian cosmology that views the two parts of nature as opposites. This leads to a comment on the sensation called forth by opposites, which in turn leads to an evaluation of the local culture or the nature of the local human character which must result from this sensation.

The perception of the volcano in the Italienische Reise is for the most part a narrative of personal impressions of particular visits to a well‑known tourist attraction. There is no attempt to find language to describe how the volcano functions. Perhaps Goethe’s lack of interest in this aspect was dictated by his stubborn adherence to the theories of the Neptunists, who believed the earth was formed from water deposits, over the Plutonists, who believed the earth produced the surface features by movement of the crust and by eruptions and deposits of a molten center. Thus the treatment of the trip to the volcano is limited to a narrative of personal experience with an occasional use of fairly traditional literary metaphor and comparison.



[1]Richard Friedenthal, Goethe, sein Leben und seine Zeit, 2 vols. München: Piper, 1963, devotes a chapter to Goethe’s study of nature (354‑70). Several essays and an extensive bibliography are included in the volume by Frederick Amrine, Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, Goethe and the Sciences: a Reappraisal. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987.

[2]Goethe’s experience with technology and the appearance of related themes in his fictional works is examined by Willy Michel, “Goethes Erfahrung frühindustrieller Fremde. Initiation und Fiktion im Kontext der zeitgenössischen Reiseliteratur,” Jahrbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache 9 (1983): 17‑43.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Italienische Reise. 1816-17. In vol. 14 Poetische Werke. Berliner Ausgabe. 22 vols. Berlin: Aufbau, 1961-78.

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