Why Goethe Matters

I contemplated deferring this post on Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832) because I am still discovering this amazing person, but then I realized that was silly — one will always be discovering him.

As with so many of the great figures of history, literature, and thought (e.g. Immanuel Kant, the Marquis de Sade, Jeremy Bentham, and probably a hundred others) I first became aware of Goethe when I was a tween from compulsively scanning the pages of that addicting tome The Book of Lists. So young and unread was I (at the age of 12, after all) that I imagined a pronunciation something like “goath”; in reality, the German umlauted “o” is sounded as the Rhode Islander pronounces the “ur” in “curb” (i.e., non-rhotically — with a silent “r”). The “th” is rendered hard, as a “t”. And while the “h” is silent, the “e” is not, it is pronounced like a schwa. Thus the name contains two syllables and sounds something like “Gerta”, again with a silent “r”.

Your German lesson for the day! And I’m certain Germans would be shocked to know how little Americans know about this major figure, whom one might forgivably call the greatest of all Germans. Americans know the names of the major German composers, and certainly many of their political leaders, but beyond, say, the Brothers Grimm, shockingly few of that country’s writers (as compared with the major poets, novelists and philosophers who write in the Romance languages). You could probably write an entire book (or a shelf of them) as to why that may be, but to even speculate here would be a can of worms we’re not prepared to open. What every educated person should know is that Goethe is widely considered as THE giant of German culture, a kind of combination of Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Virgil and Cervantes — honestly, something like that. He not only bridged the Enlightenment and Romantic eras in the culture of Western Europe, but was fully OF both of them, helped create and define BOTH of them. He was a philosopher, a scientist, a playwright and theatre director, a diplomat, a government administrator, a poet, a novelist, a critic, an aesthetic theorist, and much else.

Like most people who know anything at all about Goethe, I have been acquainted with the two parts of Faust (1808 and 1832) the best and longest. I’ve read it 5 or 6 times, and though it’s a “closet drama” (meant for reading rather than full theatrical production) I have seen various staged adaptations, ranging from a puppet play starring marionettes to opera to Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). In the 1770s, Goethe had written a poem on the theme of Prometheus, and contemplated writing a full drama on it. It occurs to me that Faust (which he began around the same time) actually fulfills that ambition, at least in part. The man who defies God in pursuit of knowledge, and throws caution to the wind for the sake of it. The legend had previously been dramatized by Christopher Marlowe, and Goethe, a lover of the Elizabethans, was doubtless impacted by it, but also knew the local legends directly. Faust was an actual historical figure, ostensibly an alchemist and dabbler in black magic. (Not unrelated, while in Italy, Goethe once met the real Cagliostro, and even wrote a comedy about him!) In the story Faust sells his soul to the devil — Mephistopheles — and after much wayfaring has ample cause to regret his decision. It seems to me that all mad scientist characters in horror, in particular Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whom she terms, after all, “the Modern Prometheus” owe their existence of the creation of Faust.

Another well-known and related work by Goethe on this theme is his 1797 poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, in which the titular character dabbles in the black arts and is soon very sorry of the experiment. This work is indirectly known by millions without knowing it has anything to do with Goethe, for it was turned into a symphonic poem by the composer Paul Dukas, which was then used for a section of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), starring Mickey Mouse!

I find it by no means unrelated that Goethe himself was a scientist who ventured into some sketchy areas. While studying anatomy in the 1790s, he performed Galvanic experiments (shocking living and dead specimens with electricity, the very practices that inspired Shelley’s Frankenstein). To this day, I can’t imagine anyone doing such work — such UNCANNY, unnatural work — without asking oneself, “Is this right? Should anyone be doing this?” His other scientific work was less horrific, and of equal or more importance. He identified a certain bone in the crania of all mammals, still called “the Goethe bone”. He invented a popular barometer. He wrote such influential works as Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) and Theory of Colors (1810). For his geological studies he possessed nearly 18,000 rock samples, the largest such private collection in Europe. He also oversaw the creation of Weimar’s botanical gardens.

And of the greatest importance to lovers of theatre, our ostensible core readership, Goethe was the director of the German National Theatre at Weimar from its founding in 1791. Prior to this he had written such plays as Egmont (1788) and a 1787 adaptation of Eurpides’ Iphigenia in Tauris. He is most noted for fostering the plays of Friedrich Schiller (the partnership lasted 1794-1805) and for implementing his theories towards the refinement of the art of acting. Influenced by Shakespeare and a pilgrimage to Italy, he is celebrated along with Schiller as one of the fathers of Weimar Classicism.

At the same time, and somewhat counterintuitively, Goethe was also one of the prime movers of the Sturm and Drang era, a literary movement characterized by unleashed emotion which helped pave the way for Romanticism. That he could contribute to both, seemingly divergent strains of thought, is endlessly interesting to me, and puts him in a category with such other geniuses of his time as Beethoven and Napoleon, two other colossi who likewise bestrode those successive oppositional swings of the pendulum. I have just been spending time with Goethe’s two proto-Romantic novels The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796).

The former had been on my “to do” list for decades. It’s relatively short, and was written when Goethe was 24. It’s the work that put Goethe on the map. It made him a literary star and paved the way for everything he did afterward. When one reads it, one experiences a light dawning, for it feels like a template for much that followed. My own particular revelation (and I don’t know how true it is, it will warrant more investigation) has to do with Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite authors since my late childhood. As I have read more widely over the decades, I have become increasingly aware of something like a literary mystery. I could find no PRECEDENT for Poe. He is utterly unlike almost all American authors of his time or before. And, yes, his Gothic themes owe something therefore to European influences (Ann Radcliff and others have been cited), I have never located any fiction or poetry that possessed anything like Poe’s PATHOLOGY, his bringing the reader into close contact with (and close identification with), an alienated hero, an obsessive person with some fatal idée fixe, whether it be a passion for a woman, a hatred for a rival, a persecutution mania, or what have you. AFTER Poe, there is a flood tide of such literature: Dostoevsky and Kafka spring immediately to mind. I have not experienced it in anything earlier than Poe (and I include the English Romantics), at least not QUITE the same feeling of lonely, despairing darkness. I absolutely feel it in The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book in sum is a narrative told in epistolary form (common at the time), about a young man who meets and becomes infatuated with a young lady who is already spoken for. In a way, her very kindness towards him is a torture. Ultimately, he cannot bear it, and blows his brains out! It sounds like a futile ride. Why bother, right? Well, you either relate to this sort of thing, or you don’t. But I do believe it is the foundation of everything from radio suspense thrillers to entire cinematic genres. (In related news, Goethe shares a birthday of Sheridan Le Fanu, a topic for another time).

The other major Goethe work for the theatre lover to prioritize is Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and this is because it is all about the theatre! Wilhelm is a young man who is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant, but is drawn by a variety of factors to a life with strolling players. One reason of course is the perennial one — he’d been a fan of it of since his first puppet show, which he describes in the book at length. The other reason, of course, is another time-honored one — he’s in love with an actress. And so he runs away and travels with a theatre company for a time, a reward for the reader in and of itself. And for Wilhelm, his love of theatre has to do with something more, something greater. It is metaphysical. Like Shakespeare, he sees the theatre as a the great metaphor for existence, and there are actually long conversations in the book about Hamlet. But the beauty part is — recall that Goethe himself RAN a theatre. And anyone who has worked within this heartbreaking art form knows the challenges and the disappointments. Among all the art forms, theatre is perhaps the one in which the vision, the ideal, of the author is more often than not the LEAST successfully realized, almost by definition. It is the work of many hands. Your collaborators have their own ideas. They fail. Your actual artistic medium, humans, have conflicts amongst one another. So the clockworks behind the clockface become part of Goethe’s metaphor. Dreams turn to ashes. Ultimately, Wilhelm becomes part of a mysterious brotherhood known as the Tower Society, whose adherants attempt to find truth and virtue in the plane of reality, rather than the plane of fantasy (Goethe himself was a Freemason). There is much more to the book, a chain of characters and relationships that give you a ride not unfamiliar to lovers of many a novel which came after. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprecnticeship is considered by many to be the founding work of bildungsroman, a novel of a young person’s reaching maturity after a long slog of bumping and stumbling through life, as we all do. The translation I read was by Thomas Carlysle, whom Goethe influenced immensely.

If you snickered at my mention of Benjamin Franklin earlier, you shouldn’t have. Many Americans have a tendency to undervalue this extraordinary person through overexposure and perceived overpraise (as we do several other Founders), and through caricatures and cartoons, as a guy who flew kites (as opposed to one who did so on the path to identifying the cosmic force known as electricity). In addition to being a scientist and inventor, Franklin was also a diplomat and man of affairs, as was Goethe. From the age of 25 Goethe served as chief adviser to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in a series of positions roughly equivalent to cabinet posts, running the war department, the treasury, highways, mines, building projects, etc. The “von” in his name is an indication that he was made a noble by the Duke for his services. At any rate, Goethe’s acting in these posts is not at all unlike the much revered Franklin serving America as an emissary to Britan and France and being a delegate to the conventions that gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Also there’s this: Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections (1833) is not unlike Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, published almost exactly a century earlier.

Another juicy tidbit: Goethe was a Free Lover. He lived out of wedlock for years with his lover Christiane Vulpius. They had numerous children and eventually caved to pressure and married. But not before he wrote his sexy poems Roman Elegies and Venetian Epigrams (1790), written in emulation of those dity, dirty Latins (and widely banned until the 20th century). In religion Goethe was a Spinozan, and his last words (probably apocryphal) are reputed to have been “More light!” He embodies the spirit of German liberalism and has done for centuries — a powerful refutation of everything German nationalists (and worse) ever stood for.

Some of his other notable works include the epic poem Hermann and Dorothea (1798), the novel Elective Affinies (1809), the travel book Italian Journey (1817), and much else. These are on my to-do list, as they should be on yours!