Monday, September 14, 2009

Goethe and Romanticism

Goethe is often considered a "Romantic" writer. He pointedly distanced himself from the literary movement that is usually referred to as German Romanticism and that includes such diverse writers as the brothers Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Clemens Brentano, Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich H├Âlderlin, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Wackenroder. Goethe was a bit closer intellectually (and perhaps by sensibility) to the philosopher Schelling, but he literally seemed afraid of "contagion" by the younger generation, many of whom had come of age just as the French Revolution occurred. What made things worse for Goethe is that the younger writers took him as their model. Goethe's early writings, after all, had produced a new epoch in German literature, but by the time the German Romantic writers appears on the scene, by the late 1790s, Goethe had turned away from his own youthful literary enthusiasms. As Nicholas Boyle writes (in the first volume of his Goethe biography), by the 1780s Goethe "became more closely identified with the court culture," while gradually "his attention was turning to the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean."

These thoughts on Romanticism are prompted by my viewing yesterday of the film Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion. My friend Elizabeth Denlinger, curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, invited me to a showing sponsored by the Pforzheimer and the Keats-Shelley Association of America. The preview was in conjunction with the release of the movie, after its showing at various film festivals, this week in the U.S.

The movie, which concerns the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, gives more attention to Fanny than is usually the case with accounts of Keats's life. That is to say, Fanny hasn't traditionally come off too well in biographies of Keats. Jonathan Bate, for instance, has referred to the relationship as pitiful. Campion's film is in some sense revisionist, drawing on the more sympathetic reading of Fanny in Andrew Motion's recent biography of Keats.

There are plenty of sources concerning the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, including this one, which I leave for readers to investigate. What interested me was the portrayal of what might be called Romantic sensibility. As I have often stressed, it is really impossible wholly to enter into the mentality or even the material conditions of the past. Yet we never cease making the attempt. In the case of Bright Star, I kept thinking of the Jena Romantic circle, both the intensity of the poetic vocation and the volatile romantic relationships.

Something of the influence of Romantic-period painting can be seen in the photo below of actress Abbie Cornish, who plays the role of Fanny Brawne in Bright Star. For Romantic-period paintings of similar "Rooms with a View," see my posting of February 1, 2009.


Zentrist said...

Was Goethe a precursor of Nietzsche, perhaps like John the Baptist a precursor of Christ? A very, very strained analogy--all the more so since Nietzsche was the "ascetic" one and Jesus the One who apparently drank and ate what he pleased. Nietzsche,in this perspective, should have preceded Goethe, the real teacher of life. For all of his preaching about life, Nietzsche seems to have been a tortured martyr so that "the future of humanity" might actually Goethe actually lived! Between the two of them, in any case, Christianity has rediscovered the beauty of the body (I would argue). And indeed, given our environment-conscious pope, the intrinsic beauty of "the world." If the mustachioed one were alive today, he'd see a Christianity that definitely does not "slander" the world--or have "contempt" for the human body. Quite understandably, Nietzsche campaigned hard--he was a hard man--against the "lies" of a morality that he felt emphasized the "true world," "heaven," incorrectly as only a "hereafter." One should, instead, focus and focus hard on the issues of this world, this existence, this history. The church has learned this "teutonic" lesson if you will under its great German pope. Just read the very "this-worldly" encyclical, "Truth in Charity." One recurring theme in this recentmost letter to the world is the twofold theme of human development and human "solidarity." That word,"solidarity," I've learned, goes back to Romanticism in general and perhaps German Romanticism in particular. All that said, none of the people mentioned above believe in "heaven on earth" in the sense of some socialistic or communistic utopia. Richard Wagner--that's another issue.

Goethe Girl said...

Your comments have made me think that I need to consider Nietzsche more. His influence on Goethe was immense. In fact, all the "great men" of German letters would consider Goethe "the Forerunner," so to speak, though I hesitate to use the religious term for secularists like Thomas Mann.

Gerard said...

Goethe 1749 – 1832
Nietzsche 1844–1900
Goethe Girl might need to pay a little more attention to some historical facts in relation to her eponymous subject

Goethe Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Goethe Girl said...

Gerard has pointed out that I misspoke in my reply to Zentrist: it was Nietzsche who had an influence on Goethe, not the other way around. Thanks for the correction. But I hope the second sentence of my reply made clear that I understood that Goethe precedes Nietzsche in time.