Goethe: Life as a Work of Art

In the long history of Western culture, it is given to very few to have an entire era named after them. Socrates sits within Antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci within the Renaissance; even Shakespeare has been subsumed into the ‘Elizabethan age’. That the ‘age of Goethe’ (Goethezeit) should have become a standard term for the years spanning the Weimar poet’s active life – roughly, 1770 to 1830 – suggests, then, his overwhelming importance to the German psyche. Without Goethe, one might say, the great tradition of high culture that characterises modern Germany would never have begun; without Goethe, the archetypes of the national imagination – the raging Werther, the ageing Faust – would never have come into being.

How could one man accomplish so much? Among the many merits of Rüdiger Safranski’s masterly biography is that it explores the full range of Goethe’s achievements. Novelist and naturalist, statesman and poet, Goethe (1749–1832) made significant contributions to an astonishing array of disciplines. Not for him the narrow professional specialisations that would rapidly establish themselves in the decades following his death or the disciplinary boundaries to which lesser beings were beholden. At every new intellectual border he crossed, Goethe could announce, like Oscar Wilde but in earnest, that he had nothing to declare but his genius.

Such confidence was rooted in his early success. By the age of twenty-five, Goethe was the talk of Europe, the early drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773) – a Shakespearean reimagining of a knight’s misadventures during the Peasants’ War of 1525 – being rapidly followed by the international bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). With a single shot to his head, the lovelorn Werther, in thrall to sentimental literature and in despair over his beloved Lotte, created a fashion for sensitive young men in yellow waistcoats. Indeed, so startling was the novel’s impact that, for the rest of his life, Goethe was best known as the author of Werther (at their famous encounter of 1808, Napoleon claimed to have read it seven times). Here as elsewhere, Safranski shrewdly identifies the Eros behind the art, depicting the young author transferring his affections from one married woman to the next.

As Safranski’s work progresses, a pattern starts to develop that explains Goethe’s prodigious energy. The flipside to his enormous self-confidence was a recurring melancholy, a taedium vitae that suffuses Werther and re-emerges throughout Goethe’s writing. In order to combat such ennui, Goethe plunged himself into work: writing, Safranski suggests, was an exercise in cheering himself up. Time and again, on the death of a friend or family member, Goethe sought solace in his latest project; ‘striving’, the great Faustian verb of activity, came to define his vision of the human condition. As he observed of himself in 1797 (in a note written, not uncharacteristically, in the third person), ‘the centre and basis of his existence is a forever active, continuing poetic drive to develop himself inwardly and outwardly’.

In 1775, this drive led Goethe away from his native Frankfurt to the duchy of Weimar. Appointed adviser to the inexperienced Duke Karl August, the charismatic Goethe quickly became the chief attraction of the court, Voltaire to the young duke’s Frederick the Great. Safranski has fun recounting the various contemporary nicknames for Goethe, inspired in equal parts by admiration and envy: for his older colleague Wieland, he was ‘the wizard’; for the wife of the duke’s tutor, he was ‘the postscript’. His arrival in the duchy marked the beginning of Goethe’s maturity; he soon settled into a rhythm that would characterise the rest of his long and highly productive life. The great age of Weimar classicism had begun.

This also meant, however, that Goethe was becoming as much administrator as artist. Safranski is particularly good on the long stretches of Goethe’s life where he was in fact not writing. Determined to see himself as a man of action as well as of words, Goethe set about running the duchy – its army, its infrastructure – with his customary vigour. The famous ‘two souls’ that dwell within Faust’s breast take on a different meaning here. Goethe’s sense of self oscillated uneasily between literature and life, an experience he dramatised in the play Torquato Tasso (begun in 1780), in which the poet Tasso struggles against the court official Antonio. For eight long years, Goethe began numerous works, including Faust, Wilhelm Meister and Tasso – but finished almost none of them.

By 1786, he had had enough. Impelled by one of his periodic ‘moultings’ – ‘one must be born again’, he writes in a letter of the time, giving himself a new name and pretending to be ten years younger – Goethe headed off incognito on his ‘Italian Journey’, rediscovering himself under the southern sun. Out of this trip emerged the plays Egmont and Iphigenia in Tauris, as well as the intoxicating Roman Elegies, brimming with erotic adventure:

Do I not learn, after all, by tracing the lovely breasts’
Forms, by running my hand down the beautiful hips?
Only then do I grasp the marble aright, I think and compare,
See with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.

Following his return to Weimar, two primal events took place: the French Revolution and his encounter with Schiller. The political consequences of the former determined the course of the next thirty years; the intellectual consequences of the latter were equally far-reaching. After an initial meeting marked by envy and resentment (Schiller describes Goethe as a ‘proud, prudish woman whom you must get with child to humble in the eyes of the world’), the two writers grew increasingly close, notably following the founding of the journal Die Horen in 1794. Schiller’s death in 1805 marked another turning point in Goethe’s life, rapidly followed, in 1806, by Napoleon’s arrival in Weimar. The much-mythologised meeting in 1808 between emperor and author – ‘Voilà un homme!’, Napoleon is supposed to have said of Goethe – conferred in the latter’s mind a seal of sovereignty on his entire existence. ‘Nothing higher and more gratifying could happen to me in my whole life,’ Goethe reported to his publisher Cotta.

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