Friday, February 3, 2012

Goethe and modernity

A reader of this blog has asked for reading recommendations for Goethe. He blamed himself for not being able to get through Wilhelm Meister and asked whether Werther would be a good place to start. I told him it was not his fault that he couldn't finish Wilhelm Meister. It seems to me that Goethe is most appreciated in German, especially his poetry, which generations of Germans have responded to. I am also beginning to think that Goethe, beyond us specialists, is more of interest for his place in the intellectual firmament of his time and for intimations of future tensions. He wrote on so many phenomena, made so many Orphic pronouncements -- note all the sententious maxims in the above "Lehrbrief" (apprenticeship certificate) from Wilhelm Meister -- that it is not surprising, for instance, that the Green movement has found inspiration in his writings, not to mention all the people spooked by science and technology. I'm surprised Goethe hasn't been drafted to comment on global warming.

Thus, I was particularly intrigued by a review in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement by Jeremy Adler on a translation of Wilhelm Meister. Professor Adler mentions Henry James' praise, in the July 1865 issue of the North American Review, for the novel in Carlyle's translation. James goes all out, outdoing even Germans in his estimation of the qualities of Goethe. Here is the money quote:

"Few other books, to use an expression which Goethe's admirers will understand, so steadily and gradually dawn upon the intelligence. In few other works is so profound a meaning enveloped in so common a form."

James goes on to compare its effect to that of other contemporary novelists, finding the latter wanting, precisely for their entertainment value: "We gladly admit, nay, we assert, that, unless seriously read, the book must be inexpressibly dull. It was written, not to entertain, but to edify." And further, "It is, indeed, to the understanding exclusively, and never, except in the episode of Mignon, to the imagination, that the author appeals."

As Professor Adler writes, these comments of Henry James show "the formative, if controversial presence on the British scene," of the novel. For Adler, the "kernel" of Wilhelm Meister -- and thus its effect in Britain -- lies in its view of "Bildung," expressed halfway through by our hero: "To tell you in a single word: ever since my youth, to educate myself, just as I am here before you, was obscurely, always my wish and my intention." Adler traces the influence of this "dictum" in Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, and Newman, men who fought the same "battle for the moral and aesthetic high ground" that Goethe and Schiller had fought in Weimar in the 1790s. Thus, Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meister leads "directly to High Modernism."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Goethe seems to have steered a moderate path between the Scylla of "collectivism" (ie Brecht) and the Charybdis of "right-wing extremism" (ie Pound). He seems to contain a little bit of everything; and he had the makings of a leader, a statesman, to boot. No, he was a politician, I presume, in the best sense of the word, the most honorable sense. I would bet that his political philosophy is similar to Shakespeare's understanding of honor (as if I knew exactly what that was!). On the issue of politics, would Goethe agree with that line in Blake--that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"? It's hard to imagine such a romanticism in the mature Goethe, based on what I've learned here. "Feelings" (of a sublime nature) seem to have been okay by Goethe, but reason and form also seem to have been very important to him. As to honor, it seems to partake of both feeling and reason in the holistic sense of "logos." I look forward to future readings with these questions and issues in mind. Very much enjoy these postings. I especially relished the portrait of the young Goethe that I read last week.