Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Goethe and the Greeks

The title is a bit too specific for what follows, but let me go ahead anyway. My work on the free speech volume is over, since the book will be appearing by the end of October (according to the publisher). Thus, after a long break, I am finally turning back to Goethe, looking at his "aesthetic writings." His literary criticism, in particular, seems unsystematic, but there is a method behind his judgments.

First off, Goethe disliked "rules." This prejudice was instilled in him and the Sturm und Drang writers early on by Herder. He nevertheless came to theorize -- yes, Goethe did have a theory, though he would not have called it such -- about something called "Eigengesetzlichkeit": the individual lawfulness of things. The Greeks or the classical inheritance was the model for Eigengesetzlichkeit. The Greeks were not to be imitated, however, but to be emulated. Our estimation of a literary work proceeds from its success in representing the nature of man, for which the Greeks gave us the model. "Jeder sei auf seine Art ein Grieche. Aber er sei's." So Goethe wrote in 1818 in the essay Antik und modern.

Art is not imitation of nature, but its highest expressions, like Nature's phenomena, nevertheless follow laws. A work of art represents a world, imposing unity on phenomena. Though he rejected naturalism -- "Nur-Wirklichkeit" -- the work of art must not be such as simply to titillate the imagination. It must be "plastisch" in its representation, falling between naturalism and fantasy. "Plastische Dichtung" (three-dimensional literature) -- Homer was a preeminent exemplar of this type -- has a definite and finite form that nevertheless allows the imagination to perceive the eternal nature of things. Romantic poetry, in contrast, tempts the imagination into uncharted regions. Goethe was very much opposed, because it meant that poetry was abandoning the "Urgrund" (the source) of European culture.

Goethe speaks very little about formal qualities in literary works. Indeed, for the most part his conception of the literary work ignores its constructedness, its facture. Because of this absence -- and Goethe is partly guilty here -- it is common to say that Goethe wrote "from experience." And, indeed, there is much in these aesthetic writings that assert that the artist must proceed from his experience: "der Künstler [muss] von innen heraus wirken ..., indem er, gebärde er sich wie er will, immer nur sein Individuum zutage fördern wird" (Ein Wort fur junge Dichter). In other words, the artist must bring to light or reveal his own "individual." This sounds a bit like Romanticism, doesn't it? Next time I would like to go into this area a bit more.

Picture credit: Mlahanas.de


Anonymous said...

It appears that Goethe's literary criticism is an "all things considered" approach. It is not New Criticism or "postmodernism." It would not appear as a Straussian parsing of the text. It would not be reductive, like Marxist or feminist approaches--unless the individual doing the writing truly did justice to himself and the text. Goethe seems to have learned from Homer and the Greeks, no doubt. These sources remain the perennial Ground. Hegel's model for literature was "Antigone." But Goethe also seems to have appropriated Shakespeare's approach to art. Shakespeare drank in Plautus and Terence and Vergil as a young student of Latin. He then grew up to create his own unique spin. As Harold Bloom puts it, he invented the human. This un heard of blend of the individual and the "classic" seems also to inform Goethe's vision. I'm listening to cassettes on Augustine, who was the pioneer in this personal-yet-universal writing. One then has to keep going back...to Paul, his Letters, and the entire New Dispensation. It is partly in this Light that Goethe and Strauss, Heidegger (authenticity) and Gadamer (authenticity) live out the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the Ancients and the Moderns.

Ross Wolfe said...

As a student of classical Greek philosophy, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, as well as German philosophy from Kant to Hegel, I am quite interested in German thinkers (Goethe, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Jacobi, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer).

Thank you for your compliment on my site. I am adding you to my blogroll under "General Philosophy" links.