Sunday, July 14, 2013

Goethe and Saint-Simon

Pierre Joseph Proudhon by Courbet (1865)
I came to this topic of course through my readings on 18th-century utopianism, which is a lot about France. Throughout my research on this byway, I have tried to keep Goethe in mind. It was evident early on that he did not have the frame of mind of the French utopian thinkers, namely, the belief that humans were perfectible, given the "correct" social environment and education. Nevertheless, he did not ignore the ideas that were being mooted in response to the emerging social and economic problems of the early 19th century. He rejected the Romantic solution of withdrawal. Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre represents his awareness of utopian settlements, yet, in contrast to the communities of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, his emigres are a self-selected group of men with the same occupations. This self-selection operated within the religious communities founded in the early 19th century in America, in particular those of German emigrants, with which he was familiar through, for instance, Prince Bernard's account of his American travels.

The bibliography of Johannes John's entry in the Goethe-Handbuch led me to the article "Goethes Verhältnis zum Saint-Simonismus im Spiegel seiner Altersbriefe" by Werner Kahle, which appeared in volume 89 (1972) of the Goethe-Jahrbuch. Professor Kahle was at the university of Jena, and it is not surprising in 1972 that he would place Goethe within a Marxist context. (In the same way, Goethe scholarship these days often reflects our own ideological tendencies, e.g., "the Green Goethe.") Thus, the subject of Kahle's 1963 publication (of 514 pages!) entitled Die Grundlinien der ideologischen Entwicklung Goethes im Spiegel seiner Brief: Ein Beitrag zum marxistischen-leninistischen Goethebild. As evidence for Goethe's sympathy with socialism, Kahle notes Faust's visions of the future in his last monologue as well as the Pedagogical Province in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, both of which reveal "a far-reaching affinity and agreement with the ambitions of French utopian socialism."

Aufbau der Republic by Max Lingner
Whatever Goethe's attitude was toward socialism, the opening of Professor Kahle's article makes an interesting point about Goethe's intellectual openness: "In a time of dark reactionary politics and intellectual suspicion, a retired civil servant of high standing in a German dukedom concerns himself with undisguised sympathy with an extremely progressive social teaching, with an important branch of utopian socialism: this, for German conditions, was extraordinary and at the same time greatly characteristic of Goethe's fundamental unbiased disposition in viewing the world" (vorurteilslose weltanschauliche Grundhaltung).

I can't help thinking how that comment could have applied to Professor Kahle's own situation in the DDR, where open-mindedness to a non-Marxist point of view would have been not only extraordinary but also quite dangerous. As I indicated above, however, we postmoderns can also be less than openminded ourselves in our scholarship. One might not be thrown in prison or lose one's teaching position by expressing opinions or having an attitude that goes against the ideological grain of the time, but there can be much social disfavor, which is also oppressive.