Back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the German Minnesang poet Heinrich von Morungen (d. 1220), whose lyrics have an almost modern complexity. Here are a few lines from the poem I love best:
Mirst geschên als eime kindelîne,
daz sîn schônez bilde in eime glase ersach
unde grief dar nâch sîn selbes schîne
sô vil biz daz ez den spiegel gar zerbrch.
dô wart al sîn wünne ein leitlich ungemach.
alsô dâchte ich iemer frô ze sîne,
dô'ch gesach die lieben frouwen mîne,
von der mir bî liebe leides vil geschah.
(Here is the translation by Fred Goldin, with whom I had the good fortune to study medieval literature: "It has gone with me as with a child/ that saw its beautiful image in a mirror/ and reached for its own reflection so/ often till it broke the mirror to pieces;/ then its contentment turned into a great unrest./ So I, once, thought I would live in continual joy/ when I set my eyes on my beloved lady,/ through whom, besides some pleasure, I have felt much pain."
All this is a preface to talking about Goethe in love and distinguishing him from us moderns. His love poetry is an indication of his indebtedness to an earlier philosophic and poetic inheritance. Love was a many-sided phenomenon, as Diotima (here in the self-presentation of the Polish poet Jadwiga Luszczewska, 1834-1908) informed us, moving from romantic, physical love to intellectual longing and including several stages in between. The dignity once given to the subject is indicated by Greek terminology: eros, philia, agape. I like very much what Steven Marx has written about an aspect of Diotima's discourse: "the succeeding generations we procreate are like the recurrent memories of a real experience lost to time. Each generates the future in hopes of recapturing the past. Remembering, we approach, but also recede from what is remembered. We, our parents, and our offspring -- lost relatives in search of the absolute." How ideal can you get, anyway?
In severing reproduction from passion, love has been deconstructed for us moderns. Thus we also want it to be deconstructed for writers of the past like Goethe. We want him to be a man like ourselves. Thus, all that foraging around in his letters to ferret out sentences that might reveal homosexuality or incest. But what do we have when we have learned the details? I ask this because of my current work on V.S. Naipaul and world literature.
I am currently reading Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, and have come to the part describing Naipaul's relationship with Margaret Murray Gooding, a married Argentinian woman (with three children). In an interview with French, Naipaul reported of his reaction to her at their first meeting (this was on the balcony of a 10th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires): "I was completely dazzled. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all."
So, immediately, Naipaul's thoughts are of sexual seduction. Their first sexual encounter, however, was "a calamity": "They slept together, he had a quick orgasm." Did you really want to know that? Things obviously got better in this respect, because she became his mistress (he also had a spouse, back in England) for the next 20 years.
As his mistress, however, Margaret does not appear to have had an appreciable effect on his writing. Had she been instead his muse, a woman he desired but who remained unobtainable, a dimension might have been added to Naipaul's work that all agree is missing: "love" for others.
Frankly, I think Naipaul's work stands on its own and will hold up because it is really great writing (as I am coming to appreciate, as I go back through it, from the beginning). Still, thinking about Goethe in love has offered me reflections about the absence of "love" in Naipaul's writing.