I had the opportunity to be with Goethe through his creative and turbulent times from the translation by David Dollenmayer of Rudiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as Work of Art. A great read about the literary genius of Germany and to know how he was inspired and lived life to its fullest. From his anointed beginnings with rich imaginative story telling in his childhood, his mother’s unconditional love till her end, his flair of artistic and creative genius which we were inborn and spontaneous portraits the life of a great poet, scientist, administrator and story-teller.
His maiden flight to fame happened by capitalizing his depression which he warded off by intensively writing the famous novel – Wilhelm Meister. It became as best seller of his yester years. Being a drop out of Leipzig and unconsummated love affair with Gretchen didn’t deter the young Goethe and he moved on to Strasbourg where he made it for his Lawyer degree and returned to Frankfurt but to pursue his literary passion. by chance of providence moved to Weimar at the invitation of young duchy Carl August to be his companion, court poet and administrator. He wrote numerous poems, novella, elegies, essays and a scientific treatise on colors of light – which describes color’s affect on eyes and how it perceives it – a more physiological investigation rather a scientific postulation. His big inspiration and breaking of Weimar boredom and inner clash got sorted when he rushed to Italy on artistic sight seeing trip on a long leave from his official duties. A man of prodigious literary output culminated in the celebrated classic Faust – an epic battle between good and evil. One should not miss his autobiography – Poetry and Truth and writings on Italian Journeys. Goethe had an active court, family and literary life during which following interacted – Anna Amelia (Carl August’s Mother), Katharina Elisabeth (his mother), Christiane Vulupius (his wife), August (his son), Otillie (his daughter in law), Schiller, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Charlotte von Stein (his distant lover and mail-mate), Zelter (final year friend), etc.
A few excerpts that I think others may like from Goethe’s life from the above book:
On Goethe’s aesthetic expression:
Goethe opposes the principle of imitation of nature with the principle of creative expression. But since the principle of imitation applies not just to concrete natural objects but also to the traditional forms of representation that one should emulate as well, the critique of imitation has a double significance: art needs to be liberated both from conventional forms and from dull realism. With his Götz as well as his nature and love poetry, Goethe was attempting exactly that. Whoever ties art to the imitation of nature assumes the goodness and beauty of nature, Goethe claims, and quotes Sulzer, who says of nature that it touches us “through pleasant impressions.” Goethe answers, Are not raging storms, floods, rains of fire, subterranean infernos, and death in all the elements just as true testimonies to its eternal life as glorious sun- rises over ripening vineyards and perfumed orange groves? Goethe denies that beauty in nature only needs to be imitated, and in the fervor of his polemical dismissal adopts the extreme counter- position: beauty must be forcibly wrested from a cruel nature. Far from following the example of nature, art must resist it. He advances an entirely novel thought: art is precisely the counterforce, it arises from the individual’s struggle to maintain himself against the destructive force of the whole. From this vantage point, he ventures a daring look at the culture of the future. Humanity, he writes, is in the act of closing itself off in a cultural palace behind walls of glass. A century later, Dostoevsky would define modernism in exactly the same way.* The young Goethe anticipates him en passant and also suggests Dostoevsky’s conclusion that the glass palace, the artificial world that has been wrested from nature, becomes a site of complacency. The powerful assertion of self against nature morphs into luxurious relaxation. Decadence threatens. Man, Goethe writes, gradually becomes softer and softer. How was such decadence to be avoided? The reviewer can answer even that. Since art and culture owe their existence to the resistance to nature, one should ally oneself with this resistive power and not simply take it for granted. One should pay attention to the difficulties artists have to overcome and the power that allows them to do so. That is how the creative impulse is fortified—nature pays it tribute. Yet the artistic power of anti-nature that is here invoked is, in the final analysis, itself nature, and the young Goethe knows that too. What else could it be? There is a kind of natural impulse to oppose what seems complete and finished in nature. Or, according to the traditional formulation, “natura naturans,” creative nature, opposes natura naturata,” incarnate nature. In another review, Goethe defines this power of natural anti-nature as genius. It is our firm belief that genius does not imitate nature, but rather itself creates, like nature. His early aesthetic is concentrated in this sentence. There is one more review that deserves to be quoted at length. Goethe wrote it after he had already moved to Wetzlar. He used a review of a trivial, conventional love story to describe a pair of lovers who would truly deserve to be depicted:
O Genius of our Fatherland, let a young man flourish soon who, full of youthful strength and high spirits, would be first the best companion for his circle . to whom the of friends, choose the best games, sing the happiest little songs . best dancer would joyfully give her hand … let him find a girl worthy of him! When more sacred feelings lead him from the bustle of society into solitude, let him discover a girl on his pilgrimage whose soul is all goodness and whose form all gracefulness, who has had the good fortune to develop in a quiet family circle of active, domestic love. Who is the favorite, friend, and support of her mother and the second mother of her home, whose always affectionate soul irresistibly wins every heart for her, from whom poets and wise men would willingly learn and take delight in her native virtue, prosperity, and grace.—And if she feels in hours of solitary peace that with all the love she broadcasts she is still missing something, a heart that is as young and warm as she and would yearn with her for more distant, more hidden joys. Firmly yoked to his invigorating company, she would strive toward all the golden prospects, eternal togetherness, lasting union, eternally entwining love. Let the two of them find each other. At the first approach they will sense, darkly and powerfully, what an epitome of bliss each is taking hold of in the other. They will never leave each other…. Truth will be in his songs and living beauty, not colorful soap-bubble ideals like those floating about in hundreds of German songs.
But do such girls exist? Can there be such youths? The reviewer has good reason to think that such a girl and boy really do exist, for he himself is the boy and the girl is Lotte Buff, and what happens between them takes place half in Wetzlar and half in a dream.
His poetic erotica – Roman Elegies:
He was able to connect his lovemaking with his memories of romance in Rome. Having read Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, he realized that he could ennoble the subject by deploying forms and motifs from Roman antiquity. Throughout 1789 his friends received bulletins about erotics or entertainments in the style of the ancients. He continued to work on them until the spring of 1790. On April 3 he wrote to Herder, I believe my elegies are finished; there is almost no trace of this vein in me anymore. And no wonder, since at the time he was in Venice, far from Christiane. The “Roman Elegies” were finished, but Goethe had no intention yet of publishing them. Herder advised against it, as did the duke, who was certainly no prude. He feared there would be talk, and it would be better to avoid trouble. Such things were only for the cognoscenti, not the general public. The “Roman Elegies” were not published until four years later, at the urging of Schiller, who was looking for something engaging for his cultural journal Die Horen. Goethe sent a version that deleted two of the elegies, and they were finally published in 1796. The elegies tell the story of a little love affair with a beautiful widow. They begin with Goethe ironically making fun of his own assiduous appetite for cultural enrichment: Tell me, oh stones, and speak to me, lofty palazzos! / Streets too, utter a word! Genius, not yet astir? /.. . / Certainly you are a world, oh Rome, but unless there be love, / Then were the world not a world, Rome then would not be Rome. Not until his Roman lover joins him in bed does Rome come alive. First, however, her vigilant mother must be propitiated with generous gifts: Mother and daughter enjoy their guest from the northern lands / And the barbarian rules Romans, body and soul. The third elegy is devoted to the theme of the unexpected. It is beautiful when things go quickly—not the lovemaking itself, but the preliminaries: Do not, Beloved, regret that you surrendered so quickly. / Know that I think nothing low, think nothing mean of you. Christiane is discernible behind the portrait of the beloved, especially in the description of her hair: Once she appeared to me, a nut-brown maiden. Her hair / Fell, a cascade rich and dark over her brow and down. / Shorter locks made ringlets round her delicate neck. / Waves of unbraided hair fell from crown to shoulders. And then the famous fifth elegy. Goethe’s contemporaries were surely asking themselves if the subject of the poem was a fictitious Roman lover or the very real Christiane. The question remains unanswered.
All the night long, however, it’s Amor who keeps me busy.
If I only learn half, lam doubly amused and
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.
If my beloved steals a few hours from my day, she
Gives me hours of the night—compensation enough!
Kissing is not our sole occupation. We talk and reason,
And if she falls asleep, I lie awake with my thoughts.
Many’s the time I’ve lain in her arms and made poems,
Counting hexameter’s feet, fingers quietly tapping them
Out on her sleeping back.
Flowing from the pen of the young philosopher: “I know with absolute certainty that I have provided the first true theory of color, the first in the entire history of science. Recall that Goethe thought the Theory of Color was the work with which he had gained superiority over many others, that made him feel like a Napoleon of the intellectual empire. And now an unknown philosopher still in his twenties claims to be the one who first elevates this work to the level of a theory and also—the height of impertinence!— claims that to do so was a minor matter. Goethe had been working on the Theory of Color for half his life and this young philosopher had the gall to write, “Except for a few weeks, I too always treated it as a minor matter, and carry around in my head theories entirely different from that of color.” Goethe’s reply is remarkable in its amiable equanimity and sovereign irony. Alluding to Schopenhauer’s philosophical subjectivism, he writes, Whoever is himself inclined to construct the world out of the subject will not dismiss the observation that the subject, in its appearance, is always only an individual, and therefore needs a certain amount of truth and error to maintain its singularity. There is nothing, however, that divides humans more than the fact that the portions of those two ingredients are mixed according to various proportions. Schopenhauer was unwilling to accept that, with this sentence, Goethe’s judgment of the entire matter had been pronounced and nothing more was to be said. But what did Schopenhauer expect? Did he think Goethe would write him and say, Yes, you have elevated my scattered observations into a genuine theory. It is astonishing, young man, the way you’ve managed to crown my life’s work in just a few weeks. I shall hasten to make your work—which for the first time allows the full sun to shine upon my work—available to the public? Perhaps Schopenhauer really did hope for some such reply. At least’ he hoped that his treatise on colors would receive the blessing Of hi ersatz father. Goethe did not accept the proffered role. But he respect this pupil even though he was too eager to appear as the teacher.
Challenges of Love: Elective Affinities:
How free is love? How much natural compulsion does it involve? These are the challenging questions the novel sets out to answer. Goethe explained his title in the advertisement released by the publisher: It seems that the author’s continued exploration of physical nature caused him to choose this strange title. He would like it noted that in natural history one often makes use of ethical similes in order to bring closer something far removed from the circle of human knowledge; and so, in this story of a moral crisis, he was pleased to restore a chemical simile to its spiritual origin. What does it mean in this case when a chemical simile is restored to its spiritual origin? The chemical elements that form new bonds have no choice in the matter. And yet it looks as if they do. When humans form new bonds, they choose to do so. But does it only look that way in their case too? That would then be the origin of the simile. Both times—in the chemistry of the elements and in the chemistry of human interactions—there is necessity and what at most appears to be freedom, freedom as a simile, not as reality. The novel’s figures themselves discuss this problem. Charlotte protests against absorbing the human world into the natural realm. But after all, man is so many levels above those elements, and if in this case he was somewhat generous with the lovely words “choice” and “elective affinities,” he would do well to look inside himself and reflect on the value of such expressions on this occasion. For Charlotte, to reflect on their value means to reserve the expression “choice” for the human sphere and remove it from the realm of nature. But that is not what Goethe thinks. He says in a letter that he wants to show how traces of murky, passionate necessity are constantly infiltrating the realm of cheerful freedom and rationality and can be completely extinguished only by a higher hand, and in this life perhaps not at all. The novel is set up as an experiment to examine the relative power of freedom and necessity in erotic interaction. It begins with a mature couple, bound together by a gentle love and living a with- drawn and protected life in their manor house and garden, free of all obligations and in a situation that allows—but also constrains—them to find satisfaction in themselves and each other. The story begins at the moment that this previously idyllic, closed world is opened up.
How should a mother be and slip quietly:
Goethe did not immediately inform his mother of his marriage to Christiane or of the birth of his son. She first heard about both events from others. And yet she bore her son no grudges, and when she called Christiane his “bedmate,” she by no means meant it disparagingly. She regularly sent large packages of presents to her grandson and adhered to a principle she once described to Charlotte von Stein: “I like people very much … never get preachy with anyone —always try to find their good side—leave their bad side to Him who created man and knows best how to file down their sharp corners.” She took an active interest in Goethe’s literary works, read and commented on them, and proudly gave them as presents to her Frankfurt friends. She also kept him up to date on the Frankfurters’ opinions of their celebrity son, and since she was out in society and often attended the theater, there was much to tell. In one of her last letters, she calls the first volumes of the Cotta edition of the complete works “heartwarming” and praises in particular the ballads “The Bride of Corinth” and “The God and the Bayadere.” She always liked his erotic works best and was not one to take exception to the “Roman Elegies.” In her last letter, shortly before she died, she put in a good word for August: they shouldn’t “plague” him with demands to write letters to her. Young people had other things on their minds, so please, no “thumbscrews” for her sake! Goethe had the exact circumstances of her death described to him. Katharina Elisabeth had proved to be as plucky and witty at the end as she had been all her life. The coffin maker had appeared at her bedside to take measurements, and she expressed her regret that had already been arranged and he had made the trip for nothing. She slipped away quietly soon thereafter.
Final thoughts – are they repeatable in every epoch?
The unassailable conviction formulated in a letter to Zelter:
Young people are much too easily excited and then swept away in the maelstrom of the times; wealth and speed are what the world admires and every- one strives for; railroads, express letters, steamships, and every possible facility of communication—that’s what matters to the educated world: to outdo and out- learn one another and thereby remain stuck in mediocrity.
As so often in the late letters, this is followed by defiant self-assertion: Let us cling as much as possible to the attitudes with which we grew up; perhaps with a few remaining others, we shall be the last of an epoch that will not soon return.
If you’re not a genius, perhaps this is how you should be?
Karl Friedrich Zelter, recipient of this famous and oft-quoted letter and, as we have seen, Goethe’s best friend after Schiller’s death, was a marvel of vitality. He had learned bricklaying from the ground up and led one of the most successful construction companies in Berlin. He was the head of a large family, well-to-do and influential in the city, robust and decisive in his person, and possessed of native Berlin wit and common sense. Intelligent, straightforward to the point of earthiness, a good judge of men, and not easily intimidated, he could also be tender and sensitive. He liked difficult mathematical problems and appreciated emotional subtlety in works of art. He also loved music, which, as was his habit, he learned from the ground up, studying composition with the court composer Karl Friedrich Christian Fasch, Frederick the Great’s music teacher. In the summer, he set off on foot at three in the morning for his lesson with Fasch in Potsdam, so that he could be back at his construction site in Berlin by noon. By the 1790s Zelter was known for his lieder and choral compositions, and it is not surprising that spiteful tongues (the Schlegels for instance) made jokes about the bricklaying composer. But envious jibes from starveling intellectuals slid off Zelter’s broad back. In 1791, he played a Substantial role in founding the Singakademie in Berlin; it soon became the leading bourgeois music organization in Germany and a model for the numerous song circles and men’s choruses then springing up. Zelter did much to help make nineteenth-century Germany a nation of singers. He was ten years younger than Goethe and at first admired the poet from afar. He set several of Goethe’s poems to music, and the poet praised the results: if my poems have given rise to your melodies, then I can certainly say that your melodies have awakened me to many a song. Zelter’s admiration grew into respectful cordiality, and the two became very close, Goethe desiring the intimacy as much as Zelter. They soon corresponded with increasing trust, sharing the joys and sorrows of their daily lives, and in the last twenty years of his life, there was no one in whom Goethe confided so unreservedly. Any trace of patronizing disappeared entirely, and frequently it was Zelter who acted as Goethe’s adviser and helper. Zelter’s varied experience had enriched him; he retained an innate curiosity, had a ready enthusiasm, and was always eager to learn. He was no genius, but did everything with solid workmanship—as the head of his household, as a builder, composer, organizer of musical events, and for a time as a member of city government. Zelter was a man after Goethe’s own heart: multitalented, always active, yet calm and collected. While correspondence with other friends often slowed or stopped altogether, the exchange of letters with Zelter only grew more frequent, and Goethe could not get enough of it.