Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The first thing that caught my eye in Goethe Yearbook 15 was the section devoted to "Goethe and 20th-Century Theory," edited with Angus Nicholls. An essay in that section by Katrin Kohl is entitled "No Escape? Goethe's Strategies of Self-Projection and Their Role in German Literary Historiography." The question in the title refers to the dominant role played by the personality and work of Goethe in giving shape to German literary history. After all, whether we speak of "Weimar Classicism," "Goethe period," "Romanticism," "Storm and Stress," and so on, Goethe turns out to be not only "central to the history," as Kohl writes, but also throws all who follow him into the shade.

Such was his intention, according to Kohl, who quotes from an unpublished text from 1832 -- "Noch ein Wort für junge Dichter" -- in which Goethe speaks of himself as a liberator ("Befreyer"), insofar as young poets became aware, through his example, that "Der Künstler von innen heraus wirken müsse; indem er, gebärde er sich wie er will, immer nur sein Individuum zu Tage fördern wird," to which he adds, "nur auf diese Art ist es möglich Original zu seyn." In terms of German literary history, this view of himself as originator (expanded in his autobiography) has become a founding myth of German literary history. Before Goethe, all was darkness, when poets were unaware of the need for what Kohl calls an "individual creative impulse"; afterward, Goethe emerged "as the unique and enduring embodiment of German culture," meeting the requirements, as Kohl suggests, "of a nascent German nation that needed to construct a coherent cultural identity."

The appearance of the word "Original" in a late text surprised me, for it seemed to show, as late as the year of his death, of the persistence of a concept that I had thought was restricted to the "Genius" period, when that movement in German literature known as "Sturm und Drang" rejected the authority of poetic predecessors and instead invoked the creative power of individual subjectivity. And indeed Kohl begins her essay with a look at that period, for a look at the "origin" of Goethe's views on art, nature, and creativity.

In 1774, in a well-known letter to Fritz Jacobi, Goethe employed the metaphor of "reproduction" to describe writing:  "Sieh lieber, was doch alles schreibens anfang und Ende ist die Reproduckion der Welt um mich, durch die innre Welt die alles packet, verbindent, neuschafft, knetet und in eigner Form, Manier, wieder hinstellt ..."

The metaphor of reproduction, according to Kohl, indicates that Goethe was responding to the debate about poetic imitation in the 18th century and moving away from the neoclassical position of poetry as imitation of the best models. Instead, it is the "inner world" from which the poet "is capable of originating, fashioning, and controlling a work of art equivalent to the external world created by God and unique to the poet." In this connection, Kohl refers to a biblical passage, Job speaking to Yahweh ("Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay!/ Will you then bring me down to dust again?"), which she juxtaposes with the fashioning by Prometheus of man from earth and water. Goethe's "Prometheus" ode, from 1773/74, in which the mythological figure emancipates himself from Jove and fashions a man in his own image, "could be understood," writes Kohl, "as a confident assertion of independence by the modern artist."

A couple of points. First, what kind of "world," really, is inside a person, be he poet or otherwise? A poet, like everyone else, has feelings, imagination, fantasy, rationality, sensibility, memory, experience, and so on, but how are these materialized into form except by words that the poet has inherited from people who spoke these words before him?

Second, the poet may have a world within that he would like to express, but creating art from himself cannot be compared to divine creation. God (in the "orthodox" view) did not create man from himself, but stood outside of his Creation. Thus, the painting by Michelangelo (who did not consider himself an "original") conveys the sense that God created a being that is separate from its creator, with an independent existence. Originals, however, drawing only on their own inner world, would only be able to "re-create" themselves. This suggests narcissism.

My point here is not to take issue with Kohl, whose analysis I find excellent. Her essay has merely allowed me to engage with the issue of "originality," a bête noire of mine.

Let me return to the "orthodox" view of Creation, according to which God created both man and woman. From them descended generations of humans and with them the products of human hand and intelligence, including art. The cultural inheritance traditionally had something biological about it, replicating the characteristics of previous generations in its transmission. For this reason, we can recognize works of art, for instance, distinguish painters by schools and trace their antecedents. I read many German writers of the "Anacreontic" persuasion when I was writing a chapter on Goethe's early poetry for my dissertation. The poems of Friedrich von Hagedorn (Des Herrn Friedrich von Hagedorns sämmtliche poetische Werke, 1775) actually include footnotes citing the poem that he is imitating in a particular instance. In other words, poets felt "legitimacy" as poets in being able to identify their poetic progenitors.

I use these biological metaphors advisedly, to draw attention to the rhetorical strategy of the 18th century "originals," a word radically at odds with its etymology. Originals, "re-producing" their inner world, have no origin, are self-created. While the literary originals assert their artistic independence and their lack of reverence for literary progenitors, this gesture mirrors a transformation going on in the social order in the 18th century, when men  (and it was men in this instance) began to be emancipated from the ties that bind.

As I have written earlier (Goethe Yearbook 10), in connection with Goethe's poem "Der Wanderer," originality or self-creation encapsulates the 21st-century terminus of a long process, during which the legitimacy of truly originating attachments -- family, the work, required to care for future generations, and so on -- has been gradually eroded. That this process was still in its infancy in the 18th century can be seen in Goethe's poem. The role of the nursing woman in that poem, in reproduction, creation, and indeed the process by which cultural products are passed on generationally, is in competition with the man, the "Wanderer," who is able to go out and create an independent existence for himself. Note the majestic gesture of independence in the painting by Caspar David Friedrich, from the year 1818. The creation of the modern world required independent souls, and artists were the first to give voice to this need.

Kohl opens her article with a quote from Harold Bloom who contends, in The Western Canon (1994), that "every Goethe text, however, divergent from the others, bears the mark of his unique and overwhelming personality, which cannot be evaded or deconstructed." Bloom also had something to say about Goethe that is relevant to the issue of originality: "Goethe, like Milton, absorbed precursors with gusto, evidently excluding anxiety." I would contend that the opposite is the case, that Goethe had "issues" with his literary forebears, and even the construction of his works often reflects his attempt to suppress or destroy them. Indeed, Arnd Bohm in his recent study of the European epic makes this point. In addressing Goethe's failure to write an epic, Bohm responds by saying that "Goethe did compose an epic poem, which has been hidden in plain view" (my italics), namely, Faust. (I love Bohm's subtitle, also relevant here: "Forgetting the Future.") Thus, the importance for Goethe of the concept of "Original," an instance of what Kohl calls Goethe's "self-projection throughout his career ... predicated on an internal, natural creative force that is independent of teachers and examples." By now, originality has become "naturalized," but it does have a history. Can its historiography be far behind?

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