Monday, January 14, 2013

Goethe and utopia

Old Economy Village
As I continue my research on utopias, past and present, I am also keeping Goethe in mind. Thus, last evening I read an article by Karl J.R. Arndt on the "Auswandererbund" in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. It seems that Goethe was very conversant with the experiments of George Rapp, the Pietist from W├╝rttenberg who founded the original communal settlement of Harmony, Indiana, and with Robert Owen, the Scots factory owner who purchased Harmony from Rapp when the latter moved with his followers to Pennsylvania. Goethe was aware that the religious ties of the members of Rapp group contributed to its success, but he was not very sympathetic to religion as the binding element. Owen's secular experiment, "New Harmony," however, failed within a few years precisely because of a lack of common purpose.

George Rapp
Owen, taking a leaf from the Founding Fathers, advocated the pursuit of happiness. He envisioned giant habitations in which all the needs of the denizens wold be met, with superior products made on the basis of need rather than profit, along with the sharing of all resources. Owen imported a "boatload of scholars," as it was known, which was to bring enlightenment to the Midwest. As Donald Pitzer has written, however, Owen, who did not believe in mixing the classes, discovered hat he could not create in Indiana a community of equality that imposed "the cultural and living standards of eastern seaboard reformers, educators, and scientists of the 'better sort.'"

Goethe seemed to have taken a lesson from this failure, at least for his novel. Thus, there are no humanists, writers, or painters among the emigres. The "Auswandererstaat" is composed of men prepared to pursue useful trades, thus a colony modeled after George Rapp's Harmonists, united in this case by artisanal skills.

Picture credits: Old Economy Village; City Profile

1 comment:

WAS said...

This account of Rapp and Owen of course makes me think of Angel in the Forest and Miss Macintosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young, two of the great but sadly neglected books of the 20th century, both of which focus with surgical precision on the destruction of the two New Harmony colonies. More precisely, they chronicle the corrupt mindset that had to sacrifice every tenet of its morality in order to uphold its morality. To her this was the story of America in microcosm, founded on idealisms whereby God granted great favor to those who took ruthless dominion over the people and resources of the area but then abandoned them because they were not rapacious enough. To hear Goethe brought into the discussion is quite interesting, because Young was, especially in Macintosh, more concerned with the question of intersubjectivity that Fichte and Holderlin and Goethe and other German philosophers following Kant concerned themselves with. A fascinating literary connection!