Published June 20, 2014
One thing you may have noticed by now, if you’ve been paying attention at all to any of my postings anywhere online, either here, or on twitter or reddit or anywhere else, is that I talk a lot about Goethe, the 18th/19th century German poet, in fact, you could say I’m a little obsessed with him, and my question is, why isn’t everyone else as well? There are a few reasons for this I think, but the main one is the simple fact that Goethe did and achieved so much that it’s impossible to condense even only his major accomplishments into anything resembling a digestible summary.
English readers are generally, at most, aware of his Faust I (nobody really reads the second half), which is widely touted by reductive ‘Great Books’ programs as his ‘masterpiece,’ and maybe his first, youthful novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his life and works, all of his major works are generally considered masterpieces of their respective genres. Goethe is occasionally compared to Shakespeare, and that comparison is apt insofar as Goethe is similarly influential in the history of German letters as Shakespeare is within the English tradition, beyond that though it tends to be misleading as they are very different cases.
Unlike Shakespeare a great deal is actually known about Goethe’s life, in fact really everything is known about it. Goethe was a prolific man of letters, and the letter was the foundation of 18th century society. From the best and most comprehensive biography of Goethe in English, Nicholas Boyle’s “Goethe: The Poet and The Age”:
After he moved to Weimar the daily chronicle of his doings, now being put together for the first time in seven large volumes by Robert Steiger, is practically continuous, especially once he began to keep a regular diary in 1796. Accounts of conversations with him, excluding Eckermann’s famous collection, run to some 4,000 printed pages, over 12,000 letters from him are extant and about 20,000 letters addressed to him. His official papers run to four volumes, and Wilhelm Bode filled another three with contemporary gossip about him, extracted from the correspondence and diaries of third parties. There may be parallels to this flood of documentation for an individual life, though few surely can be sustained over so long a period — Voltaire or Gladstone perhaps? certainly not Napoleon. What makes Goethe’s case manifestly unique is the quantity, quality, and nature of the literary and scientific writing which caused this interest in him and which expands indefinitely our potential knowledge of his inner life through its unceasing stream of reflection on the events and projects of his outward career.
Goethe’s sphere of activity was incredibly and profoundly broad, after moving to Weimar in November of 1775 Goethe became the indispensable adviser, mentor and brother of Weimar’s Prince, Karl August, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Professionally Goethe wore many hats, and as the years went by Karl August gave Goethe an infinitely wide berth to pursue his own administrative and institutional projects, initially though Goethe served as Privy Councillor to the Duke acting as head of the highway and war commissions.
When they first met Goethe was 25 and Karl August was just at the age of ascension, 17. During his first decade in Weimar Goethe had a reputation for being a bit of prankster and a rogue and it’s likely that my favorite character from “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” Jarno, was modelled after Goethe during those years. Goethe lived isolated in a garden cottage on the river Ilm, on which he would hold ice-skating masquerade balls during the winter and he was infamous for wearing a devil’s mask on such occasions and tapping roman candles to the horns. Every spring he would hold public Easter egg hunts for the children of Weimar in his garden. The character of this period is captured in his memoir of his journey with the Prince in Switzerland in 1779.
Goethe is sometimes described as a ‘polymath,’ whatever that is, and it’s obvious when you survey his life and career why some reductivist designation is needed to capture the full range of his activities. His passion was for art, ironically, it was always his ambition to be a great master painter I think but by the 1790s the writing was on the wall and he always seemed deeply disappointed at his incapacity in this area. Regardless he was definitely a skilled artist. He trained professionally in Italy studied anatomy religiously and even taught drawing at the Weimar art academy.
If I had to choose one word to sum up Goethe’s career, one word to describe him, it would be Collector. Collection is the essence of Goethe’s worldview. He curated an enormous collection of art, of marble casts, of etchings and prints, of coins and incised gems, he even collected mineralogical specimens, and during his Italian Journey he reprimands himself at several points for loading down his baggage with every interesting rock or mineral he came across. On walks he was notorious for carrying a rock hammer in his pocket and it was typical for him to return hauling a basket full of juicy specimens to pore thorough, as, lest it be forgotten, he was also a dedicated Naturalist whose theories on plant and animal morphology prefigure Darwin.
His tendency towards collection extends as far as his administrative projects even, he was court librarian and as administrator of the University of Jena he even collected intellects, like Schiller and Fichte, who he first brought to Jena/Weimar as professors.
What he’s most known for though, of course, is the literature. Goethe, unlike Shakespeare, is perhaps characterized most by the shear diversity of the genres he produced masterpieces in. Besides “Faust” he penned a number of other Shakespeare-level dramatic classics: “Egmont,” “Iphigenia in Tauris,” “Torquato Tasso,” and “The Natural Daughter”. His lyric poetry on the other hand is perhaps even more influential as the foundation of an entire genre of classical music: the Lied, or art song:
If there is one genre in particular Goethe’s accomplishments deserve notice in, it’s probably the novel, Goethe’s three mature novels, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” “Elective Affinities,” and “Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years,” are three of the greatest and most influential novels ever written. Among critics of the novel the first Meister novel in particular is noted as foundational of the modern novel as we now know it.
This post was brought on by a conversation with some self-proclaimed Feminist I was having on Twitter last night. She was spouting off the tired only “The Mask We Live” conception of ‘toxic’ masculinity and she asked me what I personally thought masculinity was all about. To me, masculinity is Goethe, but she had so little awareness of who Goethe even was that she wasn’t able to wrap her head around his significance.
Nietzsche said of Goethe that he “was not just a good or even a great man, but an entire culture.” Many philosophers and writers have said similar things but it’s important to recognize that it’s not just effusive praise, Nietzsche here is speaking quite accurately when he says that Goethe was an entire culture, Goethe was a microcosm of the entire German speaking world of Central Europe between the years of 1775 and 1832.
Neoreaction, at least in part, is an attempt by young men to reconstruct an intellectually positive masculinity in the aristocratic style of old, it’s a generational project, to cast off the cobwebs and fuzzy conceptions imposed by the cathedral in favor of intellectual greatness. I’m highly supportive of such a project and the only reason I talk about Goethe so much is that he represents a template or role model the entire movement could learn a thing or two from I think.