Friday, August 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

It was on the 28th of August 1749, at the stroke of twelve noon, that I came into the world in Frankfurt on the Main. The constellation was auspicious: the Sun was in Virgo and at its culmination for the day. Jupiter and Venus looked amicably upon it, and Mercury was not hostile. Saturn and Mars maintained indifference. Only the Moon, just then becoming full, was in a position to exert averse force, because its planetary hour had begun. It did, indeed, resist my birth, which did not take place until this hour had passed.

These good aspects, which astrologers in later years taught me to value very highly, were probably responsible for my survival, for the midwife was so unskilled that I was brought into the world as good as dead, and only with great difficulty could I be made to open my eyes and see the light.

Goethe begins his autobiography with the above description of his birth. He was being somewhat fanciful, for he rejected the "metaphysical assumptions" of astrology, namely, that one's path in life was determined by the position of the planets and other stars at the moment of one's birth.

Nevertheless, he saw fate (Schicksal), an element of what he referred to as necessity (Notwendigkeit), determining one's life in an "incomprehensible way" (auf unbegreifliche Weise). Moral freedom was achieved by the individual working within the limitations imposed by necessity and thereby crafting a meaningful life. Goethe's view would seem to have much in common with the Ancients, especially the Stoics, an aspect I have not investigated much in connection with Goethe. There is a great element of willfulness in his view of the world, especially as he grew older, perhaps influenced by a resistance to enthusiasm or mysticism, as if willing something to be the case would make it so.

I suspect that Goethe's description of his birth is playing on the account in Matthew 2: 1-12 of the Three Magi who followed the star from the East to the site of where Jesus lay in the manger. They are portrayed above in a late 6th-century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuova in Ravenna.

Even if Goethe himself rejected astrology, astrologers themselves have devoted themselves to plotting his natal chart. For a full "Astro-databank" on Goethe, go to this link, where you can find a larger image of the chart above; for Christiane here.

Poetry and Truth translation credit: Robert R. Heitner; natal chart: Astrotheme

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In his "untimely meditation" on "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth" Nietzsche remarks on Goethe (after remarking that Wagner at a certain point "could do anything he wanted to do" in art)...actually Nietzsche quotes Goethe (warning: his quotes are sometimes inaccurate!): "I always believed I had everything; they could have set a crown upon my head and I would have thought it quite in order." (p. 227, Cambridge Texts, ed. D. Breazeale)
Speaking of Goethe and geology, I recall an image from Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil," I believe. The aphorism was entitled, "Learning Changes Us." Yes, Nietzsche seems to agree, in part, with Rousseau's "Emile" on this issue. Yet, the "immoralist" speaks in this aphorism of a "granite" core in our soul that resists forever any changeability. It gives the reader pause; and Nietzche must have paused often while reading Goethe, his master it seems, in many ways. This granite-like bottom of our being finally seemed to me to be something like what Freud wound up explaining, or trying to, at length--our initial character. I wonder if Nietzsche picked up this image of granite, of the rock-like substance within us, from Goethe.

My impression of Goethe thus far is that he is clearly a more stable person than Nietzsche. The latter comes up with "will to power" as the "bottom" of everything, the source, the first principle (along with eternal return of the same). Thus, all of nature, for Nietzsche, whether animate or granite-like, is suffused with will to power. We see already in 1872 or so--Wagner and his music as expressions, embodiments, of this principle. Nietzche was into "certainty." Goethe, I take it, was more comfortable with "ambiguity," albeit perhaps not of the "postmodern" variety. Well, I've opened a can of worms here. My bottom line for this comment would be that Goethe's emphasis, as I've seen it so far in Faust, on authenticity...this seems to have definitively influenced Nietzsche's approach to life and letters. And Nietzsche, in turn, seems to have definitively influenced Martin Heidegger who, in Being and Time, points up the primacy of authenticity for the individual-in-community. The problem is, today, we've gotten carried away with this "do your own thing" business. Thus Allan Bloom writes of the "Closing of the American Mind" and one of HIS students, I hear, has written about The End of History (Francis Fukuyama). All this is too hard a knot for me to untie. Goethe's sanity, in this context, is indeed a breath of fresh air. So, indeed, a (belated) Happy Birthday to Goethe!