Contemplating and Listening

Because of its incandescent fascination with the moon, its spectral companion, German Romanticism has been called a “lunar period” (Rewald: Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers, 2001, p. 10) of art, music, philosophy, fiction, and poetry (for example, in chronological order, Klopstock, Goethe, Tieck, Brentano, Eichendorff). Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the greatest German Romantic painter, captured this mood best in his famous trio of works: Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819 and ca. 1830), and Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1824).


Starting in about 1817, Friedrich gives a prominent part in his landscapes to pensive pairs of city dwellers who belong to the tradition of Romantic friends and wanderers driven by restless yearning and seeking communion with nature.

The first and third versions of this particular painting depict two friends and comrades, who are seen from the back. In their evening walk through a forest in late autumn they have ascended a rocky, narrow uphill path lined by an evergreen fir tree, an uprooted dead oak, a large rock, and a broken off branch, and they are now resting and looking at the floating moon and the planet Venus, the evening star. In the first version (1819), which is almost monochromatic in its shades of brown and rust, the crescent floats in the night sky, while in the other two versions landscape, season, and the moon’s position are the same but the time is early dusk with a serene glow. In the third version (ca.1830), the rose-mauve light coming from the transparent sky conveys even great serenity.

The painting has been given a great variety of interpretations. The biographical interpretation focuses on the two men, the 45-year old Friedrich and his 25-year old friend and most talented colleague, the landscape painter August Heinrich (1794-1822).  The religious one sees the stony path of life leading to a vision of the moon as Christ announcing the resurrection. The mystical one analyzes the natural emblems in the landscape, all of them steeped in German symbolism. The naturalistic one asks whether the men are watching a waxing moon right after the new moon or a lunar eclipse. The inter-artistic one draws on the story of how seeing Friedrich’s painting was an inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953) with its two friends waiting in the evening in a landscape barren of all but a single naked tree by a country road.

Especially intriguing is the political interpretation. Starting in the late 18th century, European radicals often chose certain ways of dressing to identify themselves. For example, from the outset of the French Revolution, clothing was a principal way in which people showed their political affiliations (Wrigley: The Politics of Appearances: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France, 2002). The two men in Friedrich’s painting wear medieval Old German attire that had been adopted in 1815 by members of the Jena Student Association. Radical students and other intellectuals opposed post-Napoleonic ultra-conservativism represented by the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) and its chair, Austrian statesman Prince Metternich. However, in 1819 repressive decrees placed universities under surveillance, banned all student associations, and declared this kind of dress illegal because it was considered the “demagogues’ uniform.” Friedrich ignored the law and used in his paintings the Old German dress until his death. He alluded to this political choice when he told visitors to his studio that the two men were “plotting demagogic unrest.”

To these interpretations of the painting, which are not mutually exclusive, I would add a musical one, based on my friendship with Pantelis Polychronidis. The two men are struck by awe, by Plato’s “τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν” (Theaetetus 155d) – which Heidegger rendered Erstaunen and contrasted to dread/Erschrecken – because they are both contemplating and listening. In our evening walks in the city and the countryside Pantelis often puts his arm around my shoulder for a few steps. At these moments ours is “the complicity indicated in the [first and third] versions by the younger man’s leaning lightly on his older friend and by the closeness of their heads” (Rewald, p. 17, 33) which do not exist in the second version of the painting. Under the watchful blessing of Aphrodite’s star we look together at the crescent moon and talk about Her, the “soul mate” (the αδελφή ψυχή from Aristophanes’ story in Plato’s Symposium) whom Pantelis is expecting. Beholding the moon and contemplating Her coming we walk and listen to the resonant moment we share. His hand on my shoulder presses: “Listen to me listening, listen with me.” As listeners, we belong to being-there together. Our belongingness/Zugehörigkeit resounds with our collaborative listening/zu hören. In our attunement/Stimmung to one another and to the evening mood enveloping us we are listening to the voice/Stimme of Schubert’s second setting (D. 296, 1819) of Goethe’s poem “To the Moon” (1778):

“Blessed is he who shuts himself off/
From the world without hatred,
/Clasps a friend to his breast
/And, together with him, enjoys

That which, not known to people
/Or not considered,
/Through the labyrinth of the heart
/Wanders in the night.”*

In his autobiography Goethe depicts two friends contemplating together the moon, like Friedrich’s comrades: “Moonlight trembled over the broad river, while we, standing at the window, reveled in the abundant exchange that springs forth so richly during that splendid time when friendship is unfolding” (My Life: Poetry and Truth, Collected Works vol. IV, 1994, p. 460).

January 18, 2015

* Hans Pfitzner’s early song “To the Moon”, op. 18, is another splendid setting of Goethe’s poem.

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