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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