Classical culture, eh. The founding myths of a country. Every country needs one. Germany’s experience with finding one (well, several, over time)( has great relevance to Canada today (and given the American domination of world culture and its impending decay, not just Canada, either.) Forgive me for a journey away from Canadian shores to make this point, but that’s what is valuable about history. It helps us tell better stories. This is a bad story:
Homeless in Vernon, Canada
This issue of power and how it is divided in Canadian society in my city, Vernon, has classical models. What you see above is an example of how those models are working out today. Ignoring them doesn’t make things better. To tell the story of this relationship and what it might mean to us, I can offer some context. So, off to my Dad’s home town.
Schloss Favourite, Kuppenheim, Baden
This could be him, really. As a small boy, he used to play under that red beech tree. We visited it together a year and a half ago, shortly before he died. He leaned on his cane beneath it and had a silent chat. Later, he said that it remembered him. It is a powerful tree, over 350 years old.
Presented with the problem of building the ethical right to a state out of the religious madness of the Thirty Years War which depleted the population of this region by 97% (not a typo), the Duchess of Baden employed the remaining villagers to build a summer house: Schloss Favourite.
The name gives it away. Her classicism was an English country estate, which, as you can see, was merged with greco-roman traditions, within the erotic imagery of the baroque period. The German philosopher Johannes Gottlieb Herder led the way here in his book on sculpture Plastik, before the scientific world separated from the spiritual one (or thought it did.)
Why don’t painting and sculpture clothe themselves with a single unified form, in one joint manner? The answer: because sculpture can’t clothe itself and painting is always only clothing. Sculpture can never be clothed, because it still exists beneath the clothing, not as a human body any more but as a fully-clothed block. It can never represent clothing as clothing, because clothing is not a solid, not complete and not round. It is only the husk of our body, in the same way that a cloud wafts around us as a shadow or a shroud. The more sculpture tries to represent itself in nature, and imbues a body with growth, shape, movement and power, the more its foreign, inanimate weight is felt. And so a cloth of stone, metal or wood the most suppressing of all forms. It isn’t a shadow, nor a shroud, and certainly no longer a piece of clothing: it is a cliff full of heights and deeps, a lump of stone looming over you. Close your eyes and reach out with your fingers — only then will you touch this non-thing. Herder, Plastik.
The idea is simple enough: by ornately decorating his thought with flourishes of baroque etiquette and fancy, de rigeur, I might add, for communicating with an aristocracy that ruled its world by poetry and a priestly class that ruled it by textual exegesis, Herder communicated to some pretty thick heads that if you wrap a photograph around the space a body would inhabit if it were there to inhabit i, you create a soul, which is there. To update the idea: the sculpture is a kind of radio transmitter that catches souls and then radiates other ones to them. It is an old Egyptian model, which the Greeks only updated, as Herder did for Germany. Building a post-aristocratic Germany on such foundations was seen as a way to ensure that the new country was stable and true to humanist roots, rather than to capricious power. Then came the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire under Napoleon. A bird sings on the spot.
This Monument Marks the Battleground During the Battle of Jena-Auerstett in 1806. A bad day for Prussia and the German Alliance.
Faced with the problem of how to build the legal right to an independent state out of aristocratic lands out of French Occupation and the bleeding of the country because most of Napoleon’s soldiers were Germans sold by their lords, not to mention the problems of how to rebuild after the terror of the Napoleonic invasion, the Germans chose a couple routes: celebrate the forest, as a classic foundation:
Maypole in the Mosel Valley
Celtic-Roman-German vineyards. Who’s going to mess with a good thing?
Or celebrate what were considered the deepest roots of Western humanism, the models of Greece and Rome, what is known as “classical culture”, and build from those values:
Museum of Natural History, Gotha
Ancestral Seat of the English and German Royal Houses
Well, of course, things went bad. Revolution after revolution failed. The Grimm Brothers tried collecting fairy tales, to prove that the land was bound to the language, and obviously from that to the people, which is why it’s called “Deutschland” or “German Land”, ie the land that spontaneously creates Germanness, and not, well, the Holy Roman Empire, or Eastern France. Did that work? No, it did not. Canadian Indigenous people might raise their eyebrows in interest to see what went wrong and how the idea deteriorated. Well, for one thing, that Greek classicism gave the Germans good steel and in 1871 they defeated the French, who only had brass cannons. And what did the Germans do? They put up a classical statue facing France, above the Rhine:
And what did the Germans do? They messed it up again, a couple times, and each time they had to invent a new classical foundation. The German state of 1871 based their state on the classicism of the poets Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, and the school of measured creativity on updated Greek models they built there on Herder’s foundation. The German state of 1919 did the same. The German Reich of 1933 chose to turn the oak tree under which Goethe wrote the first verses of his great play Faust, into a hanging tree in front of the “hospital” in the Buchenwald concentration camp, itself a through-the-looking glass mockery of the German state of 1919.
The tree was in front of the left corner of the building. The foreground was filled with Barracks. This image was taken from the forecourt of the crematorium.
Their hero was Paul von Hindenburg, the German WWI General who as an aging president in 1932 handed Hitler the government, with disastrous results.
When the Russians came, they did a couple things to build up a new classicism. For one thing, they threw the statue of Hindenburg at the Barbarossa Monument into a pit:
When the Berlin Wall fell, he was dug up again but not put on a plinth. That remains too fraught. Ah, you ask, the Barbarossa Monument? Yes, the monument to Friederich 1, the Pope’s Enforcer, who led a disastrous crusade to the Holy Land and after whom Hitler named his campaign of conquest against Russia.
Barbarossa is said to not have died in Lebanon, to not have been pickled for his transport home, but to have secretly returned home dressed in a grey cloak (Yes, Gandalf and Odin in one), to observe the sad state of his land. He then went into Kyffhäuser Mountain with the dwarves, drank beer with them, and fell asleep. He wakes every 100 years, his beard longer, the dwarves assure him that the land is still a mess and the time for his return has not yet come, ply him with beer and he falls asleep. The monument was put up to add classical legitimacy to land-based folk-tale and to shore up the rather shaky legitimacy of Kaiser Wilhelm I and II. The new West German state of 1949 went back to Goethe, and to the classical fellow-feeling of their grief (which did a lot to appease the Americans.)
Returning German Soldier Contemplating his Fallen Comrades: Sacrifices, Peace and Freedom
The East Germans planted Russian graves in the English country gardens surrounding their classical oak trees, proud symbols of nationalism buttressed by Anglophilia:
Russian Military Graves, English Garden, Schloss Belvedere, Weimar
The neo-Nazis of the post-1989 reunification of American- and Russian-occupied Germanies want to throw Goethe out (and about 30,000,000 other people) and go back to the forest. Well, you get the idea. Classicisms all over the place. So, let’s be sober about this. We all adhere to national myth-making in Canada, too, but we should be very careful with it. We have many classicisms to choose from. The American one, for instance:
So, there’s a bit of a question we can all consider here: What classicism do we want? American progress? It’s only progress for a racial elite and, chances are, weakens our ability to care for ourselves. Law? Look at it in the image above. Forget the court order that gave the police the right to move in here and just consider that people were forcibly removed from their land because of a legal system they did not sign onto. Law was used as violence here. You can applaud it or mourn it, but that’s the case. Indigenous peoples are using “ancestral knowledge” and “stories” as a foundational classicism right now. Look again at the image above. Those police are, in effect, literary critics. Many Canadians are using individual rights as a classical foundation, which means that for them any time the state interferes with the full freedom of the individual, it proves its illegitimacy. Look again at the image above. Are those police illegitimate? Hardly. But they’re something we should name. Ironically, the chosen foundational method to deal with these conflicts between state and individual is through protest. Look again at the image above. Done that? Then consider this: the point of a classical myth is that it provides a foundation for a state against which the actions of the state and all of its citizens can be measured at all times and corrected back to a standard model, to keep it from decaying, as things tend to do. The Americans have long used their constitution as such a foundation. How’s that working these days? Personally, I think they’d better have a backup plan. So had we. At the moment, Canada has all kinds of foundational myths, and all kinds of classical measures, most of which disagree. The one thing that is constant, though, is the law. Problem is, it has a chequered past. That will continue forever. That’s the point of classical foundations.
Tomorrow: Different foundations.
Categories: Arts, Ethics, First Peoples, History
I am reading John Ralston Saul –THE COMEBACK–who deals with some of the same topics.
Thanks for the tip.
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Sobering. But isn’t the single tree (the oak, the beech) celebrated rather than the collective forest? We might do better celebrating and living with the forest.
That’s very observant, thanks.
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