Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Goethe and Politics Anew

I have been mulling the issue of Goethe and politics since my last posting. From the letters he wrote from Leipzig as a student, it seems clear that Goethe felt that it was his vocation to be a writer. Those letters of the 16-year-old from Leipzig show him working at his craft, reading and imitating other writers, trying to find his own voice. The literary life absorbed him. After all, two of the most important men of letters in Germany were in Leipzig at that time: Gellert and Gottsched. And so his apprenticeship continued in the following years, until he went to Weimar.

I am reminded of another writer whom I have been studying lately, V.S. Naipaul who has said of himself that, even when he didn't know how to write, his goal in life was to be a writer. I am now rereading The Enigma of Arrival, in the second chapter of which ("The Journey") Naipaul recapitulates his early struggle to find his subject and to craft a style, what he calls "a long preparation for the writing career!" In the early decades in particular he never had enough money, but he continued to persevere. But the struggle did not end when he became established:

"I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state -- of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content -- at which one arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time  of vigor, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again."

Perhaps in his early years Goethe had taken his desire to be a writer too lightly. It seems to have come all too easy to him. The idea that the writer's life should be difficult is in any case a modern one. But that Goethe almost abandoned his poetic gift to become a bureaucrat in the service of the duke of Weimar is hard to understand. Still, there was a pattern in Goethe's youth that might serve to explain partly what happened in Weimar.

Beginning in Leipzig Goethe had a poetic mentor in  Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch (1738-1809). In Strassburg Goethe eagerly accepted instruction on literary matters from Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). In 1771 he got to know Johann Heinrich Merck (1741-1791), whom Goethe later acknowledged (in book 12 of Poetry and Truth) as having had the greatest influence on his life. Acccording to Jochen Golz, who wrote the entry on Merck (pictured below) for the Goethe-Handbuch, Merck's first important influence on Goethe was in the matter of poetic production, in particular encouraging him while he was reworking Götz von Berlichingen. In any case, from all of these relationships flowed a variety of literary productions. By late 1774, when he met Carl August, Goethe appeared to be on the verge of not only a German but also a European literary career.

Of course, at the very time of his fame with Götz and The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe was still living at home in Frankfurt with his parents. And during all the years in which he had been working at his literary craft, he had also been training to be a lawyer. He had gone to Leipzig to study law; likewise Strassburg.  Back in Frankfurt, while he was writing Mahomet and Von Deutscher Baukunst and contributing to the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen, while he was getting to know Sophie von la Roche, Lavater, and F.H. Jacobi, he was preparing legal opinions under the direction of his father. Again quoting Ekkehart Krippendorff, Goethe's legal internship in Wetzler in 1772, at the Imperial Cameral Court, acquainted him with the legal and political structure of the "Reich."

No doubt, Goethe would have been an excellent legal adviser for any ruler of the time to have around. And for a young ruler like Carl August, Goethe was also a jolly companion. But for Goethe, who since his youth had wanted to be a writer, the question remains: why?

I can't help thinking that the early pattern of mentor and student played a role here. It is always said that Goethe wished to train the young Carl August to his duties as a ruler. Moreover, in Weimar Goethe seems to have fallen into the worst kind of mentor-student relationship with Charlotte von Stein. Unlike most everyone else, she seemed unimpressed with the young genius Goethe, and took it upon herself to train him in the ways of the court. Goethe, the ready pupil, took her instruction gratefully. For a decade he remade himself at the Weimar court, a process that went against his nature since he literally fled Weimar and Charlotte von Stein in 1786. (I owe the silhouette of Frau von Stein's family -- her father stands behind her, while she plays chess with her brother -- to a Gilbert Stuart blog, which says: "Note the formality.")

As far as politics goes, if one accepts Krippendorff's definition of politics, then Goethe was in the decade before he went to Rome, "ein Mann der Politik": "all behavior that has as its goal the forming, ordering, and permanent [!] structuring of social conditions and activities" (Wenn wir unter Politik alles Handeln verstehen wollen, das die Gestaltung, Ordnung und dauerhafte Strukturierung gesellschaftlicher Verhältnisse und Tätigkeiten zum Ziel hat). That "dauerhaft" (permanent) gives me a chill, for it sounds like the worst sort of bureaucrat. (Anyone for "remaking America"?) Of course Krippendorff does not leave the matter there. He stresses Goethe's aversion to the "power politics" of his day and his interest in cultural politics: after the French Revolution, according to Krippendorff, Goethe focused on the education establishment (das Bildungswesen), especially the university in Jena, museums and collections, the theater. As a minister Goethe still had a role to play.

Ever since I wrote my dissertation on Goethe's pre-Weimar oeuvre, I have felt that Weimar was a direction at odds with his poetic talent. Last night I was rereading his letters to Kestner from 1772-73, and was struck anew by the vitality of the young Goethe. Thus, even if his "politics" were of a sort that contributed to the general weal of the duchy of Weimar, as Krippendorff claims, there seems to have been much that was lost, especially in Goethe's empathy toward others. He became in the end an official person. The young man at the left turned into the stately minister pictured at the top of this post. There is of course much to admire in Goethe's later poetic oeuvre and also in his scientific pursuits, but in these accomplishments Goethe seems to have remade his nature into art.

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