Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Goethe's Serenity

The poet and scholar Eric Ormsby has an essay in the October issue of The New Criterion on the Library of America edition of Thornton Wilder's novels. He writes of Wilder: "Even when dealing with tragic events, he is possessed of a decided equanimity." Examples are the collapsing bridge in 18th-century Peru and the 12th birthday of Emily Webb recalled from beyond the grave in Our Town.

Serenity is not much in favor these days, writes Ormsby; it is not edgy enough, and we Americans tend to associate it "with such pedestaled behemoths as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the full name says it all.)" Another term with this flavor bestowed on Goethe was "Olympian." It is true that Goethe often seems above it all, distant from the cares of the world. The Olympians, however, were not all serene. Thomas Mann points out about Goethe (in his 1932 essay "Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age") that "there are in Goethe, on closer examination, as soon as the innocence of the youthful period is past, signs of profound maladjustment and ill humor, a hampering depression, which most certainly have a deep-lying uncanny connection with his mistrust of ideas, his child-of-nature indifference. ... Nature does not confer peace of mind, simplicity, single-mindedness; she is a questionable element; she is a contradiction, denial, thorough-going doubt."

I reencountered this quote from Mann today while perusing Harold Bloom's book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Bloom begins his discussion of Goethe with reference to the trope, contrasting the energetic melancholia of Samuel Johnson with Goethe's "hard-won serenity."

Ormsby notes of Thornton Wilder his "acuity in spotting the eternal type under a character's idiosyncratic lineaments," which is on display throughout his work. I would add that Goethe's characters also have something of the "type" about them, which can be seen even in the names bestowed on them. (How many variations of "Otto" in Elective Affinities!) Bloom is of the opinion that, "since Goethe, unlike Shakespeare, could create no persons except himself, we are puzzled by his novels and plays. Faust is an idea (or matrix of ideas) but not an individual. Shakespeare invented the human; Goethe hardly needed to invent Goethe, who arrived as nature's masterpiece, the genius of potential happiness."

Very interesting observation by Bloom, certainly applicable to the figures that appear in Goethe's novels and plays, though it tends to obscure rather than illuminate the person of Goethe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some striking passages in Faust point up Goethe's interest in the Perennial Philosophy--how could he not have been interested, with friends like Holderlin and Hamann, perhaps acquaintance with the likes of a Schelling and other transcendentally-minded philosophers! Anyway, towards the end of Part One, the motif of the nameless sphere, the Experience beyond words and names...comes up...was it an exchange between Faust and Margaret? This sort of thing is, to me, very high drama, indeed. But on some level Goethe clearly seems to have known the "mindset," as it were, of Mephistopheles. I recall Gadamer quoting Goethe: "There is no crime I am incapable of committing." After reading most of Faust I, I'm not surprised that Goethe seems to have experienced some depression. Some darkness. Nor could anyone be surprised at Goethe's capacity for great serenity and bliss.