Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Biography of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

The Times Literary Supplement reviews in its current issue (1/23/09) Hugh Nisbet's biography of Lessing (unfortunately not yet published in English). For a person of his stature in German letters, it is hard to get a picture of Lessing the person. As Ritchie Robertson mentions in the TLS review, it would have been fascinating to have "Boswellian records of Lessing's conversations with friends in coffee-houses in Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg and Brunswick." Unfortunately, Lessing's day-to-day life has passed "into oblivion," which leads a biographer to concentrate on his writings. Fortunately, those writings give a picture of a very attractive human being. You see the mind working, and you tend to like what you see, whether or not you agree with what is being said. This respect for Lessing the person seems to have moderated Goethe's response to Lessing the writer.

Lessing (1729-1781) was only in his forties, thus at the height of his game, when the so-called Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang) generation erupted in the realm of German literature. Lessing's first play (Der junge Gelehrte, or The Young Scholar) had appeared in 1748, the year before Goethe's birth; the drama Miß Sara Sampson in 1755; and Laokoon, his treatise on the differences between painting and poetry, in 1766. While the Storm and Stress writers rebelled against standards of French taste that had been imported into German literature, Lessing had already been there, in his drama criticism, known as Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-69).

Goethe had what today would be called "issues" with his poetic precursors, with writers who influenced his own work. (The famous statue of Laocoon suggests something of his struggle.) There is a charming instance of this in The Sorrows of Young Werther, as Werther and Lotte, enraptured, watch a thunderstorm. Lotte, in a flood of emotion, suddenly utters the word "Klopstock!" which causes them both to explode in a flood of tears. (The heightened emotionality portrayed here is characteristic of the temper of the Storm and Stress movement.) Lotte was referring to the famous ode by that poet, "Frühlingsfeier" (Celebration of Spring). Werther's response: "Divine Klopstock! If only you could have seen your apotheosis in those eyes. And your name, so often profaned, may I never hear it uttered again!"

There are instances in Goethe's writing that likewise suggest thinly veiled jealousy toward Lessing. These can be found in the letters Goethe wrote in Leipzig to his friend Behrisch, in which he portrayed his emotions concerning his relationship with Käthchen Schönkopf. In the most famous of these letters, dated October (but really written November) 10, 1767, he describes his jealousy at seeing Käthchen in the theater with a man whom he imagines to be his rival. As he stands in the balcony and watches with feverish agitation, Goethe unobtrusively drops the name of the play being performed: Lessing's Miß Sara Sampson. He claims to notice nothing of the play because of the distraction caused by the other scene, Käthchen being courted by another man. Lessing the writer was also a poetic rival, however, as is clear in the continuation of the letter to Behrisch: "Es schlägt neune, nun wird sie aus seyn, die verdammte Comoedie. Fluch auf sie." It's 9 p.m., that's clear, but when he says "sie" will soon be out, he does not mean "she" (i.e., Käthchen), but the play (with the feminine pronoun for "Comoedie"). Then: Curses on it. The next installment of the letter continues in this febrile vein: "Ich habe eine schröckliche Nacht gehabt. Es träumte mir von der Sara" (I had a terrible night. I dreamed of the Sara).

And, of course, much has been written about the volume of Lessing's Emilia Galotti found in Werther's room after his suicide.

Aside from his scientific pursuits, Goethe's ouevre has the same range as Lessing's, and includes reflections on many of the same subjects, from the aesthetic to the political and religious. Both were men of the Enlightenment, in different ways, with Goethe more inclined to sensuous appreciation. Both men are also characterized by important friendships, Goethe with Schiller and Lessing with Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). 
Robertson reports that Mendelssohn wrote, after Lessing's death, that Lessing was the only person who in thirty years had never made him unwanted as a Jew. In the portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Lessing stand in the center between Mendelssohn and Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian who attempted to convert Mendelssohn to Christianity.

Indeed, Lessing's third play was Die Juden (1749), about a Jew who looks like a gentile and who saves a baron from two highwaymen who are gentiles disguised as Jews! His most famous play in this regard is Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), a portrait of enlightened religious tolerance among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It even takes place in the Middle East, though I have a feeling one will not find it performed there today, outside of Israel.

Among the statements that Goethe made about Lessing, two stand out as expressing important aspects of the character of both men. In conversation with Eckermann on October 15, 1825, he said: "A man like Lessing is what we need now. For why was he so great but through his character, through his tenacity! There are plenty of clever, educated men, but where is a man of such character?" In a later conversation (on April 11, 1827) he addressed differences between himself and Lessing: "Because of his polemical nature, Lessing prefers to inhabit the region of contradiction and doubt; his strength is in making distinctions, for which a his great intellect [Verstand] came to his aid. You will find that I am completely different. I have never involved myself in  contradictions. I always tried to reconcile doubts inwardly and only expressed the results of that process."

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