Sunday, July 12, 2009

Goethe's Friend Jung-Stilling

While reading the section of Poetry and Truth in connection with my recent post -- on Goethe's fear of heights -- I reencountered Johann Heinrich Jung (1740-1817). His autobiography, written under the name of Jung-Stilling, has the simple title Lebensgeschichte. I read it years ago, back in graduate school. Indeed Goethe seems to have strongly encouraged his fellow student in Strasbourg to write his life story. In it Stilling comes across as a very pious young man, which he indeed was, and also so modest, unassuming, and unworldly that these qualities are hard to reconcile with his later accomplishments, in particular as a physician and oculist who performed thousands of cataract surgeries.

I have just reread the section of Lebensgeschichte in which he describes his own experiences as a student in Strasbourg. It struck me that Goethe may have made use of Jung-Stilling's autobiography, which appeared in 1789, when, in 1809, he began to plan his own autobiography.

Jung-Stilling got to know Goethe because they took their daily lunch at the same establishment, one that catered principally to medical students. Jung-Stilling writes of his experience (in the third person) among these new colleagues: "In the circle in which Stilling now found himself he had temptations aplenty on a daily basis to become a doubter. He heard every day new arguments against the Bible, against Christianity, and against the precepts of the Christian religion."

Goethe was a doubter from an early age, which is not unusual for someone who had grown up around strongly religious people. Indeed, he was well acquainted with Pietists among his mother's friends in Frankfurt. Nevertheless, it is an indication of his generosity of spirit that, when Goethe found something to like about another person, he was not disturbed by his (or her) religious enthusiasm. Thus, he writes (in Poetry and Truth) of Jung-Stilling:

This man's way of life had been very simple and yet crowded with events and manifold activities. The wellspring of his energy was an unshakable faith in God and in the help emanating directly from Him, which manifested itself in uninterrupted providence and unfailing rescue out of all distress and every evil. ... His faith tolerated no doubt and his conviction no mockery. And, inexhaustible as he was in his friendly narrating, it would all stop short if he met contradiction. At such junctures I usually helped him along, and he rewarded me with his sincere affections.

Stilling himself mentions Goethe coming to his defense, in connection with a student from Vienna named Waldberg, "a man whose heart was full of ridicule against religion." Jung-Stilling wore a wig, called a "Beutelper├╝cke," with which I am not familiar but which must have been already a bit out of date by 1770. And so it happened one day at lunch that Waldberg asked Stilling whether Adam had worn such a round wig in paradise? According to Stilling, everyone at the table laughed except for Goethe, Salzmann (whom Goethe describes as a rationalist), and Trost (this last was Stilling's own friend from home with whom he had come to Strasbourg). Stilling chastised Waldberg for his cheap comment, and Goethe added his own reproof, asking whether one shouldn't first see whether a man is worth being ridiculed. "It is the devil's work to pull the leg of an honest man who has offended no one."

Goethe does not describe that specific incident in his autobiography, although he does mention the wig. It was through Goethe that Stilling came into the circle that also included Herder and Lenz.

Credits: Robert R. Heitner (Poetry and Truth translation); Der Spiegel (18C wigs)

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