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