LITERATURE – Goethe


People have always had trouble pronouncing his name; if you don’t speak German it’s not at all obvious how you’re supposed to say it. A safe bet is to start with a hard G on Ger- and end with a -ter: Ger-ter. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has often been seen as one of Europe’s big cultural heroes, comparable to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer. During his life, Goethe’s admirers were impressed by his literary works, but more than any of his books, what impressed people at the time, was how he lived his life, the kind of person he was. We can pick up some vital lessons from him: 1. Stop being so romantic Goethe’s first proper job after law school was as an assistant at a national tribunal judging cases between the many minor German states that, at that time, made up the Holy Roman Empire. While he was working, Goethe fell in love with the fiance of one of his colleagues. He then committed a huge indiscretion and wrote up the love affair as an novel. He called it, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. The central character, Werther, is a lightly disguised self-portrait. The book tells the story of how, Werther/Goethe falls in love with a young woman, Charlotte. It’s a very detailed description of all the tiny steps one takes on the road to infatuation: they danced together, at one point their feet accidentally touch under the table, they smile, they write each other flirtatious little notes; it makes being in love seem like the most romantic experience in life; Werther asks himself, “what is a life without romantic love? A magical lantern without a lamp”. This deeply charming novel was a best-seller across Europe for the next 25 years. Napoleon boasted he’d read it seven times. The story has a miserable ending: Charlotte doesn’t really love Werther and finally rejects him. In despair he kills himself. The tragic denouement shows Goethe beginning to see the limitations of the romantic view of life. Romantic love is deeply attractive but it causes us immense problems too. The core problem, as Goethe came to see it, is this: romantic love hopes to freeze a beautiful moment; it’s a summer’s evening after dinner; Werther is walking in the woods with his beloved; he wants it to be always like this so he feels they should get married, have a house together, have children; though, in reality marriage will be nothing at all like the lovely June night; There’ll be exhaustion, bills to pay, squabbles, and a sense of confinement. By comparison, with the extreme hopes of Romanticism, real love, as Goethe came to see, is always, necessarily, a terrible disappointment. That’s why Goethe gradually moved away from romanticism towards an ideology of love he termed “classicism” : marked by a degree of pessimism and acceptance of the troubles that afflict all couples over time, and of the need to abandon some of the heady hopes of the early days for the sake of tranquility and administrative competence. Goethe was a critic of romantic ideology, not because he was cold-hearted or lacking in imagination, but because he so deeply and intimately understood the attractions of romanticism and therefore its dangers. 2. Get a real job In April 1775, not long after his big success with Werther, Goethe got a job as a civil servant. Karl August, the Duke of Weimar, appointed him as his chief adviser and senior administrator to help run his country. Goethe continued in this employment for most of the rest of his life. His main jobs was Minister for Roads and as the overseer of the state-owned silver mining operation. It can sound like a strange move for a very successful creative figure, as if the winner of the Booker Prize became a civil servant; we just assume that art and literature are at odds with an enthusiasm for government administration. But Goethe didn’t see it that way; he felt that understanding administration would help him put big ideas into practice. Later in his life, instead of writing about how good it would be to have a national theater, he was able to establish one, and instead of just saying that cities should have green spaces, he was able to rev up the governmental machinery into action and actually create a model urban park. 3. Travel as therapy In September 1786, after 10 years in the Weimar civil service, when his 40th birthday was coming into view, Goethe got fed up with Germany: the cold, the bad food, and this was key for him, the lack of sex. So he went to Rome with a very classical idea of the point of travel: the outer journey was intended to support an inner journey towards maturity. He felt that there were parts of himself that could only be discovered in Italy. But, like many visitors to Rome, when he got there he felt a bit disappointed. In the famous book of poems he later wrote about his experience, the Roman Elegies; he describes how the great city seemed to be filled with lifeless ruins that were famous but didn’t actually mean anything to him; “Speak to me, you stones!”, he pleads. It’s a feeling many later visitors have had. Goethe realized that what he needed was not a more elaborate guidebook, but the right person to have an affair with; someone who would embody the spirit of the place he was in. In his poems he describes the woman he meets, whom he calls Faustina. They spend lazy afternoons in bed. She’s not a great intellectual, but she breathes the spirit of Rome; she tells him about her life, about the building she passes on her way to the market, the Pantheon, a Baroque church designed by Bernini, which she hadn’t even realized were famous; they were just the buildings that happened to be around when she was getting the milk and the aubergines. For Goethe, the point of travel isn’t relaxation or just taking a break from routine, he had a bigger goal in mind; the aim of travel is to go to a place where we can find a missing ingredient of our own maturity. 4. Living Life to the Fullest One of the most striking things about Goethe is how much he did, how broad his horizons were, and how wide his interest came to be; He explored this particularly through his most famous work, Faust. Goethe worked on Faust all his life; the earliest sketches go back to his teens and he only decided he was done with it when he was in his early eighties. Faust comes in two parts and together the performance takes about 13 hours. Goethe himself never saw the whole thing and few people have ever since. Faust is a medieval academic and scholar, he’s very learned, but he doesn’t do very much. He’s unfulfilled in love, he hasn’t made any money, and he has no power. His knowledge is sterile, his life feels pointless, and he wishes he could die. But then he is visited by a devil, called Mephistopheles, who offers him boundless energy, good looks, and the ability to do whatever he wants. The question is: what will Faust want to do? The first danger for Faust is to just stay an academic who resists worldly impact; with the Devil’s help he could be the ultimate bookworm; he could get his hands on the oldest rarest manuscripts. But Faust gets weary of words and longs for action. Now the second danger is that he will use his new powers to gratify every sensual appetite; he might become just a pure hedonist. Faust goes some way down this path; he goes to a bar and gets everyone very drunk, he goes to huge orgy, but then he realizes that what he really seeks is beauty and love, and this leads him on from sex and alcohol. The third danger is that Faust will become a confident, but shallow political leader; but in a second part of the play, Faust pursues a grander purpose: eventually he organizes the development of a new country, somewhat reminiscent of the Dutch Republic, which at that time was the most enlightened and successful society in the world. Faust is a morality tale for all of us; he shows us both the pitfalls of life and how we might avoid them. Faust knows a great deal, but he resists being an academic; he love sex, but he doesn’t give way to debauchery; he likes power but he doesn’t use it for megalomania; he puts it to work in the service of noble ends. Faust’s career path is not unlike Goethe’s. Faust is essentially tracing for us a theory of how to live a full life: he’s very interested in ideas, but not a scholar; he visits Italy, but he doesn’t stay there; he goes back to work: he tries out administration and learns how to wield power, but once he’s mastered this side of himself he moves on. The Faustian idea is that in order to develop fully, we have to flirt with things that are quite dangerous, but hold on to a sense of higher purpose. 5. Science for Artsy People Goethe was the last European to do a certain kind of remarkable things: to write great novels and plays, and also to play a significant role in science. His interest ranged through geology, meteorology, physiology, and chemistry, and his most important work was in botany. In 1790 he produced a study: The Metamorphosis of Plants, and a book on optics and color, called The Theory of Colors, was published in 1810. Thereafter this combination of very significant work in the arts and in the sciences disappears from the European civilization. Goethe gives us some guidance as to why this has happened. He’s a hero for people of a more literary and artistic sensibility, who are attracted from a distance to the broad subject matter of science, but who find the details a bit less appealing. Goethe liked science that you can do yourself, by looking carefully at the world around you; for example, he did a lot of his research on plants in his own back garden in Weimar, he did a lot of his research on optics with candles and colored pieces of paper in his study; he liked the training this gave in asking oneself, “what do I actually see?” Goethe was very interested in the psychological aspect of our relationship to the sorts of things that science investigates: plants, light, stones; rather than exclude the issues of personal meaning, Goethe sees these essential to the proper and full investigation of nature. Goethe was worried by the direction that science was taking, which he particularly associated with the work of Isaac Newton. As Goethe saw it, the academic professional scientist wasn’t interested in a personal meaning of the things they were investigating, and thereby helped to kill the subject. As he aged, Goethe kept on working, and he kept on seeking love and sex; in his seventies, he fell in love with a woman called Ulkrike; his passion was unrequited. He died at his house in Weimar in 1832, aged 83. We have so much to learn from him; we don’t often hear people declaring a wish to be a little more like Goethe, but if we did, the world would definitely be a more vibrant and humane place.

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