Fer­di­nand Mount

Goethe: Life as a Work of Art by Rüdi­ger Safran­ski, trans­lated from the Ger­man by David Dol­len­mayer

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Life as a Work of Art by Rüdi­ger Safran­ski, trans­lated from the Ger­man by David Dol­len­mayer. Liveright, 651 pp., $35.00

Herr Glaser of Stützer­bach was proud of the life-sized oil por­trait of him­self that hung above his din­ing ta­ble. The cor­pu­lent mer­chant was even prouder to show it off to the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar and his new privy coun­cilor, Jo­hann Wolf­gang Goethe. While Glaser was out of the room, the privy coun­cilor took a knife, cut the face out of the can­vas, and stuck his own head through the hole. With his pow­dered wig, his burn­ing black eyes, his bul­bous fore­head, and his cheeks pit­ted with small­pox, Goethe must have been a ter­ri­fy­ing spec­ta­cle. While he was cut­ting up his host’s por­trait, the duke’s other hang­ers-on were tak­ing Glaser’s pre­cious bar­rels of wine and to­bacco from his cel­lar and rolling them down the moun­tain out­side. Goethe wrote in his di­ary: “Teased Glaser shame­fully. Fan­tas­tic fun till 1 am. Slept well.” Goethe’s com­pany could be ex­haust­ing. One minute he would be recit­ing Scot­tish bal­lads, quot­ing long snatches from Voltaire, or de­claim­ing a love poem he had just made up; the next, he would be smash­ing the crock­ery or climb­ing the Brocken moun­tain through the fog. Only in old age, and more so in the after­glow of pos­ter­ity, did he take on the man­tle of the dig­ni­fied sage. Yet even late in life, he re­mained fright­en­ing. His daugh­ter-in-law, Ot­tilie, whom he in­sisted on mar­ry­ing to his son Au­gust, though they were not in love and got on badly, ad­mit­ted that she was ter­ri­fied of him.

He alarmed peo­ple as much as he charmed them, not only by his im­pa­tience, his sud­den flare-ups, and his un­pre­dictable an­tics, but by his foul lan­guage. In mo­ments of ex­as­per­a­tion he would de­nounce as a shit­head any of the great men who had as­sem­bled at Weimar—Wieland, Herder, Schiller. The best-re­mem­bered line from his first play, Götz von Ber­lichin­gen, is the rob­ber baron Götz shout­ing through the win­dow to the em­peror’s mes­sen­ger: “Tell his Im­pe­rial Majesty that he can lick my arse”—oth­er­wise known as the Swabian salute. Goethe’s Vene­tian Epi­grams cheer­fully skit­ter through mas­tur­ba­tion, sodomy, and oral sex, with sideswipes at cof­fee shops and yo-yos (one of the first men­tions of the toy). Here’s a sam­ple cou­plet:

Hättest du Mäd­chen wie deine Kanäle, Venedig, und Fotzen Wie die Gäss­chen in dir, wärst du die her­rlich­ste Stadt.

(If only, Venice, you had girls as charm­ing as your canals and cunts

As nar­row as your al­leys, you would be the world’s finest city.)

This Goethe had to be cleaned up quite a bit to be­come the na­tional poet of the resur­gent Ger­many of the later nine­teenth cen­tury. Even the ar­chi­tects of that fear­some re­nais­sance were not 100 per­cent sure of his iconic sta­tus. Bis­marck said that he could do very well with no more than one-sev­enth of the forty-two vol­umes of Goethe’s col­lected works. The cen­te­nary of his birth in 1849 passed with rel­a­tively lit­tle no­tice. It was the Bri­tish who led the way in revalu­ing Goethe as the ge­nius for the new se­ri­ous age. Thomas Car­lyle ad­vised: “Close thy By­ron; open thy Goethe.” G. H. Lewes’s en­thu­si­as­tic but not un­duly rev­er­ent biog­ra­phy of 1855 pre­dates any­thing com­pa­ra­ble in Ger­man. Ge­orge Eliot was even more en­thu­si­as­tic than her hus­band, re­gard­ing Goethe as hav­ing raised the hu­man mind to an em­i­nence from which it could more clearly see the world as it re­ally was.

In his slash­ing at­tack on Prus­sian cul­ture, When Blood Is Their Ar­gu­ment, pub­lished at the height of the Great War, Ford Ma­dox Ford mocks the cult of “Goethe as Su­per­man.” Yet there still per­sists a no­tion of Goethe’s life as ex­em­plary, a phe­nom­e­non above and be­yond his works. This tra­di­tion lingers on in the sub­ti­tle of Rüdi­ger Safran­ski’s new biog­ra­phy, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. Goethe is not the only artist to have seen his life like this. Os­car Wilde fa­mously said to An­dré Gide, “I have put all my ge­nius into my life; I have put only my tal­ent into my works”; Mar­cel Duchamp had the same fancy. But only Goethe, I think, has suc­ceeded so well in per­suad­ing pos­ter­ity to take the same view.

Af­ter the col­lapse of Ger­many in 1945, only the fig­ure of Goethe was still vis­i­bly up­right amid the ru­ins as a source of na­tional moral au­thor­ity. All over the world, Ger­man Acad­e­mies were re­branded as Goethe In­sti­tutes— there are presently more than 150 of them in op­er­a­tion. Yet in re­cent years, in­ter­est abroad in Goethe (and more gen­er­ally in Ger­man lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture) has sadly de­clined. Safran­ski’s book is ad­ver­tised by his pub­lish­ers as “the first de­fin­i­tive biog­ra­phy in a gen­er­a­tion.” This over­looks Ni­cholas Boyle’s mighty un­der­tak­ing, which has al­ready oc­cu­pied two vol­umes (1991 and 2000), each slightly longer than Safran­ski’s, with an­other twenty-nine years of Goethe’s life still to go. Safran­ski does not be­gin to mea­sure up to the depth and sub­tlety of Boyle’s anal­y­sis. On the other hand, he says cer­tain things plainly that Boyle tends to blur or omits al­to­gether—like the story of Herr Glaser. Af­ter read­ing Safran­ski, we are en­light­ened, amused, and im­pressed but rather less in­clined to take Goethe’s life as non­pareil, while still re­gard­ing him as a won­der­ful writer. By his hon­esty, the bi­og­ra­pher un­der­mines his own sub­ti­tle.

Jo­hann Wolf­gang Goethe (he earned the “von” af­ter seven years in the duke’s ser­vice) was born to the plush if not the pur­ple. His ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was mayor of Frank­furt, his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther the city’s prin­ci­pal cou­turier who also mar­ried the wealthy widow of the pro­pri­etor of the Wei­den­hof Inn. Goethe’s in­dul­gent fa­ther, Jo­hann Cas­par, spent much of his large in­her­i­tance on the ed­u­ca­tion of his only sur­viv­ing son (of Goethe’s five sib­lings, only his sis­ter Cornelia sur­vived into adult­hood), pro­vid­ing a dozen tu­tors for every sub­ject from Yid­dish to the cello. The boy was spoiled and self­con­fi­dent from the start. At the age of seven, he wrote, “I can­not rec­on­cile my­self to what is sat­is­fac­tory for other peo­ple.” He in­sisted that his mother lay out three dif­fer­ent out­fits for him to choose from every morn­ing. His fa­ther gave him an al­lowance twice any­one else’s and never se­ri­ously in­ter­fered with his son’s plans. Nev­er­the­less, a lung ill­ness forced Goethe to drop out of Leipzig Univer­sity, and his dis­ser­ta­tion at Stras­bourg was re­jected be­cause it was crit­i­cal of state con­trol over re­li­gion.

Then, quite sud­denly, he was fa­mous all over the Ger­man-speak­ing lands and, a cou­ple of years later, all over Europe. Götz von Ber­lichin­gen (1773) in­stantly be­came the trail­blazer for the move­ment half-mock­ingly dubbed Sturm und Drang. This is nor­mally trans­lated as “storm and stress,” which seems to me a sur­ren­der to al­lit­er­a­tion. Drang de­notes, more prop­erly, an ac­tive force, as in Drang nach Osten: “push” or “thrust,” rather than a pas­sive un­der­go­ing of pres­sure. And Götz is a thrust­ing play. In Goethe’s view, the six­teenth-cen­tury rob­ber baron with the pros­thetic iron hand was one of the “no­blest Ger­mans.” Götz’s for­mer friend Weis­lin­gen says ad­mir­ingly, “You alone are free, you whose great soul is suf­fi­cient unto it­self and has no need ei­ther to obey or to rule in or­der to be some­thing.” Götz is cer­tainly brave, and he is stead­fast in de­fense of his tra­di­tional rights, but he is also a thug and a bully who robs in­no­cent mer­chants, partly for the hell of it. At the end of the play, we are told that it’s an un­happy age—i.e., the over­civ­i­lized eigh­teenth cen­tury— that has no room for a Götz.

The throb of na­tion­al­ism is un­mis­tak­able. Herder, the in­ven­tor of Ger­man na­tion­al­ism, per­haps of all mod­ern na­tion­al­ism, told his wife that she would en­joy the play, be­cause “there’s an un­com­mon amount of Ger­man strength, depth, and truth to it, al­though now and then only the thought is there.” In later life, Goethe protested when na­tion­al­ists de­ployed Götz in their cause, but he had used the phrase “Deutschheit emergierend” (Ger­man na­tional feel­ing emer­gent) about this phase in his work. In 1943, Hitler named the 17th Panzer Gre­nadier Divi­sion the Götz von Ber­lichin­gen Divi­sion. Its badge was an iron fist.

In the early 1770s, too, Goethe col­lab­o­rated with Herder in col­lect­ing Ger­man folk songs. His own de­light­ful “Hei­den­röslein” was in­cluded in the col­lec­tion as if it were a tra­di­tional folk song. For Herder’s book of es­says Of Ger­man Cul­ture and Art, he wrote an ar­ti­cle on Ger­man ar­chi­tec­ture, “Von deutscher Baukunst,” iden­ti­fy­ing Stras­bourg Cathe­dral as the quin­tes­sen­tial mas­ter­piece of the Ger­man style. In fact, the cathe­dral is more usu­ally de­scribed as a tri­umph of high French Gothic, al­though its prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tect, Er­win von Steinbach, cer­tainly was Ger­man.

As a young man, Goethe shared in the wide­spread long­ing for a re­vival of the Ger­man peo­ples and a re­cov­ery from the dev­as­ta­tion of the Thirty Years’ War. In later life, he would talk quizzi­cally, al­most pa­tron­iz­ingly, of “my dear Ger­mans,” but in the rough, down-to-earth lan­guage of Götz, its pace and move­ment—all bor­rowed from Shake­speare but sim­pli­fied and coars­ened—he had given his fel­low dream­ers some­thing to work with. This plain­ness of speech he never lost. It is just as ap­par­ent in his “clas­si­cal” dra­mas, Iphi­ge­nia in Tau­ris and Torquato Tasso, as it is in his rougher “Ger­manic” pieces, Götz and Part One of Faust. The same is true of most of his lyric poetry. In all his var­i­ous­ness, he re­mained a highly ac­ces­si­ble sage.

It was a dif­fer­ent sort of dream that an­i­mated his sec­ond and even more amaz­ing suc­cess only a year later. While Götz was for the Ger­man public, the novel The Sor­rows of Young Werther (1774) was for young peo­ple ev­ery­where. In tone and tech­nique, it owes a lot to Rousseau’s La Nou­velle Héloïse and Richard­son’s Clarissa, both also in­ter­na­tional best sell­ers. The co­pi­ous weep­ing, the un­bri­dled priv­i­leg­ing of per­sonal feel­ing, the let­ter for­mat—all these are char­ac­ter­is­tic

of the eigh­teenth-cen­tury novel of sen­si­bil­ity. Werther dif­fers only in two re­spects. The let­ters all come from one per­son, young Werther, and the novel is drenched in the pos­si­bil­ity of sui­cide. Werther is the “I” whose han­ker­ings, rec­ol­lec­tions, and opin­ions fill the hun­dred-odd pages of this novella, which over­whelmed Euro­pean read­ers be­cause they al­ready thought as Werther does. He wor­ships Na­ture as they do, loves the sim­ple life as ev­ery­one up to Marie An­toinette claimed to do; he is hap­pi­est pick­ing peas in the inn’s garden and shelling them while read­ing his Homer. And of course he sim­ply adores Os­sian. He reads six pages of his trans­la­tions of Os­sian to Lotte, with whom he has fallen in love; she bursts into tears, the only pos­si­ble re­ac­tion. The lat­ter part of the story, rather awk­wardly, has to be told by “the Ed­i­tor to the Reader,” be­cause Werther has al­ready shot him­self with pis­tols be­long­ing to Lotte’s hus­band, Al­bert. Werther’s mind has been on killing him­self for much of the story, for the sit­u­a­tion is hope­less from the start as Lotte is al­ready en­gaged to Al­bert. Copy­cat sui­cides have been dubbed the Werther Ef­fect, but Safran­ski dis­misses as only a per­sis­tent ru­mor the claim that young men ac­tu­ally killed them­selves in droves af­ter read­ing the book. There was, how­ever, one at­tested case of sui­cide pain­fully close to Goethe. On Jan­uary 16, 1778, Chris­tel von Lass­berg, the daugh­ter of a court of­fi­cial in Weimar who was em­broiled in an un­happy love af­fair, jumped from a bridge into the icy wa­ters of the River Ilm and drowned. A copy of Werther was found in her pocket—or was that only a ru­mor too? Nei­ther Safran­ski nor Boyle seems quite sure. At all events, Goethe was sum­moned from a nearby pond where he was skat­ing with the duke (how cold the river must have been), and he im­me­di­ately or­dered a grotto to be dug in mem­ory of the un­lucky girl. He wielded a pick­axe and shovel him­self and told his pla­tonic lover Char­lotte von Stein that they worked deep into the night:

In the end I con­tin­ued alone un­til the hour when she had died; that’s the kind of evening it was. Orion stood so beau­ti­fully in the sky .... There is some­thing dan­ger­ously at­trac­tive and invit­ing about this grief, like the wa­ter it­self, and the re­flec­tion of the stars of heaven that shines from both.

This is pure Goethe: he alone digs on, watch­ing the heav­ens, watch­ing him­self, ap­pro­pri­at­ing Chris­tel’s feel­ings if not her fate. The grotto came to noth­ing, but out of that night came his lovely poem “To the Moon,” which is also ad­dressed to the River Ilm and to Char­lotte.

All the same, he was un­de­ni­ably un­der pres­sure. Had he in­spired a ter­ri­ble ex­am­ple? Only a cou­ple of weeks be­fore Chris­tel’s death, he had put on at the Weimar court theater a farce he had writ­ten, The Tri­umph of Sen­ti­men­tal­ism, with him­self play­ing a king who has gone mad with the craze for Na­ture and Sen­ti­ment and who fills the ar­bor in his garden with soppy books like La Nou­velle Héloïse and Werther. This medi­ocre piece made some view­ers un­com­fort­able. Wasn’t Goethe heart­less to make fun of the silly folk whom he him­self had made dizzy? Safran­ski is in­clined to ac­quit his sub­ject: “Goethe’s ridicule of Werther-like sen­ti­men­tal­ism could sur­prise only those who hadn’t read Werther closely. For the novel presents Werther as a young man who has read too much of such lit­er­a­ture, and whose feel­ings come more from books than from life.”

But will this let-off do? There is so much of young Goethe in Young Werther. He ad­mit­ted, “I my­self was in this case and know best what an­guish I suf­fered in it and what ex­er­tion it cost me to es­cape from it.” We are re­minded of Flaubert say­ing “Madame Bo­vary, c’est moi.” But Flaubert was mer­ci­less about Emma’s pre­ten­sions. Goethe wasn’t.

Not ev­ery­one was blown away by the book. Ge­org Christoph Licht­en­berg, the physi­cist-satirist of Göt­tin­gen, was no more en­thu­si­as­tic about the novella than he was to be about Goethe’s sci­en­tific ef­forts: “I think the smell of a pan­cake is a bet­ter mo­tive for stay­ing in this world than all young Werther’s pon­der­ous rea­sons for leav­ing it.” I must my­self con­fess a con­gen­i­tal an­tipa­thy to Goethe’s nov­els. The char­ac­ters seem to swim about in a glau­cous haze like elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled fish. Goethe claimed that Elec­tive Affini­ties was his best book and that it needed to be read three times to be prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated. I have done just that but re­main baf­fled by its im­plau­si­bil­i­ties: the ex­tra­or­di­nary stilted talk be­tween the hus­band and wife, Ed­uard and Char­lotte, the fail­ure of any­one to no­tice that beau­ti­ful Ot­tilie is starv­ing her­self to death, the im­mu­nity of her lovely corpse to the nor­mal pro­cesses of de­com­po­si­tion. The cen­tral con­ceit that the char­ac­ters are at­tracted to one an­other by a qua­si­chem­i­cal process seems to me to lack any shock value, since they are such in­ert sub­stances to be­gin with.

Like other bi­og­ra­phers, Safran­ski por­trays Goethe as a ge­nius who is con­stantly rein­vent­ing him­self. This is a nat­u­ral ten­dency in deal­ing with a sub­ject who lived so long and did so much. But cer­tain cau­tion­ary notes need to be sounded. While his ca­reer as a lyric poet lasted his en­tire life and he was as fresh at the end as at the be­gin­ning, his ca­reer as a dra­matic demi­urge was a blaze as brief as it was bril­liant, with no more than seven years be­tween Götz (1773) and Tasso (1780), and it was over by the time he was thirty.

In many ways, he was fully formed as a young man, and his sub­se­quent turns, to­ward clas­si­cism, to­ward the erotic, of­ten ap­pear as no more than pirou­ettes on the ice. He bursts upon our at­ten­tion with his marvelous poetic fa­cil­ity, from “Wel­come and De­par­ture” when he was twenty to “The Bride­groom” and “To the Ris­ing Moon” when he was nearly eighty. As with other old cre­ative artists—Hardy, Yeats, El­gar—he found in his late-life in­fat­u­a­tions with young women “the throb­bings of noon­tide,” but this was re­viv­ing an old self, not in­vent­ing a new one. In al­most all his verse, there is an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­bi­na­tion of move­ment and mu­si­cal­ity, the best of By­ron with the best of Ten­nyson. He is the eas­i­est of po­ets to re­mem­ber. Safran­ski’s trans­la­tor, David Dol­len­mayer, has pro­duced an ex­cel­lent English ver­sion. He has cho­sen to trans­late the verse him­self, and his ver­sions have a mod­est grace which of­ten stands up well against ac­knowl­edged mas­ters such as Michael Ham­burger and David Luke. I pre­fer, for ex­am­ple, Dol­len­mayer’s Fifth Ro­man El­egy to Ham­burger’s:

All the night long, how­ever, it’s Amor who keeps me busy.

If I only learn half, I am 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. What as­ton­ishes, al­most as pow­er­fully as his lyric fer­til­ity, is the fe­roc­ity of Goethe’s self-as­ser­tion, his de­ter­mi­na­tion not to bow to any god. He tells us that he had be­gun early on to de­velop his own re­li­gion, far from any church or liturgy. He re­volted against the aus­tere Lutheranism of his boy­hood, and when he came in con­tact with the Pi­etist com­mu­ni­ties around Stras­bourg, they bored him rigid, though he had a close friend­ship with the de­vout Su­sanna von Klet­ten­berg, a cousin of his mother’s. He de­scribes him­self as a Pe­la­gian, with­out any be­lief in orig­i­nal sin. He told Su­sanna that he didn’t know what he needed to ask God’s for­give­ness for. He was a stranger to guilt. De­spite in­ter­mit­tent gloom, his ba­sic out­look was sunny. He signs off “The Bride­groom” with a line that might wind up the spiel of any cor­po­rate mo­ti­va­tor: “Let life be as it will, yet it is good.”

Cu­ri­ously, bi­og­ra­phers of Goethe, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that he was a self­con­fessed pa­gan, tend to present him as a rather chaste char­ac­ter. Safran­ski and Boyle re­count his flir­ta­tions with Lotte and Lili and the rest and sigh over his test­ing ami­tié amoureuse with Char­lotte von Stein. Yet they both leave the im­pres­sion that for Goethe sex be­gan in 1788, in Rome, when he was nearly forty. He is con­ceded only two sex­ual re­la­tion­ships in his whole long life, with the in­se­curely iden­ti­fied Faustina in Rome (for whom he seems to have left be­hind a pay­off of four hun­dred scudi) and with the sweet-na­tured and loyal Christiane Vulpius when he got back to Weimar, later to be­come his wife and the mother of his chil­dren. Goethe’s brag­ging to the duke about Faustina, in Boyle’s view, sug­gests a cer­tain sex­ual in­no­cence that “makes it un­likely there were many pre­de­ces­sors.” Safran­ski men­tions none.

I won­der. Goethe was a bound­less, en­er­getic, un­in­hib­ited char­ac­ter who hap­pened to be the most fa­mous au­thor in Ger­many. In his early twen­ties he had boasted to his friend Kest­ner: “Be­tween you and me I know some­thing about girls.” His first let­ters from Weimar record that “I’m lead­ing a pretty wild life here.” It was com­mon gos­sip that al­most as part of his du­ties, he was con­stantly out with the duke shar­ing the lo­cal girls. In his early farce Han­swurst’s Wed­ding, the bump­kin Han­swurst only wants to take Ur­sula up to the hayloft, and when he is told that all the posh peo­ple are com­ing to his wed­ding, says, “Sie mö­gen fressen und ich will vögeln” (“They want to eat, I want to fuck”). To present Goethe as a stranger to the hayloft is to col­lude in the sort of prud­ish sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion he ab­horred. What he be­lieved above all was that Na­ture must take its course. Cer­tainly he had no shred of rev­er­ence for Chris­tian chastity.

His re­vul­sion against Chris­tian­ity ex­tends to a loathing of its iconog­ra­phy and of the per­son­al­ity of Je­sus. Here he dif­fers from his nine­teen­th­cen­tury English ad­mir­ers, who still warmed to the ethos of Chris­tian­ity while doubt­ing whether any of it was true. Goethe did write a cou­ple of re­li­gious po­ems in his early youth but burned them and never used bib­li­cal im­agery again. “I for my part could not be per­suaded by an au­di­ble voice from heaven that a woman has given birth with­out a man or that a dead man has risen again; on the con­trary, I re­gard these as blas­phemies against the great God and His rev­e­la­tion in Na­ture.”

When he fi­nally made his long­dreamed-of trip to Italy, he re­mained im­per­vi­ous to the Chris­tian art he saw. He was dis­ap­pointed even by the clas­si­cal mon­u­ments he saw in Rome, most of them at this date over­grown tum­bles of stone. For all his end­less fer­til­ity, Goethe’s imag­i­na­tion or lack of it has a for­bid­ding qual­ity. He made an ex­cep­tion for Man­tegna’s fres­coes in the Eremi­tani Chapel in Padua, which seemed to have a blunt, pure pres­ence. “Pres­ence” is the key word here. He con­demned what he saw as the poverty of Chris­tian mythol­ogy, al­ways long­ing for some­thing ab­sent, dwelling, in a way that he re­garded as un­holy, on depri­va­tion, suf­fer­ing, and ex­pec­ta­tion rather than em­pow­er­ment and pos­ses­sion.

The only true divin­ity was Na­ture. “Gott sive Natur”—“sive” here mean­ing “which is only an­other way of say­ing.” This did not lead him into a woozy pan­the­ism, see­ing di­vine pur­pose in every blade of grass and benev­o­lence in every puff of wind. In his early poem “Divin­ity,” he spells out the mes­sage: Na­ture is un­feel­ing; the sun shines on the evil and the good.

From his early thir­ties on­ward Goethe plunged into al­most every branch of the nat­u­ral sciences—min­er­al­ogy, ge­ol­ogy, botany, anatomy, chem­istry, op­tics—with a zest that was thor­ough with­out ever quite ceas­ing to

Werther’s sui­cide; Ger­man wood en­grav­ing, nine­teenth cen­tury

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