Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Space and memory in "Dichtung und Wahrheit"

Goethe-Haus Smart Guide
Gärten, Höfe, Hintergebäude ziehen sich bis an den Zwinger heran; man sieht mehrere tausend Menschen in ihren häuslichen, kleinen, abgeschlossenen, verborgenen Zustände.

The above is the description of the view from Goethe's childhood home in Frankfurt, to be found near the beginning of Dichtung und Wahrheit. It is illustrative of what Anthony Mahler called, in his paper at the Atkins Goethe conference, "desirous spaces," which form the structural principle of the autobiography. Its chronology, as Anthony pointed out, is difficult to follow, with events seemingly disconnected. Instead of the narrative being defined by the passage of events in time, it progresses via a series of "enclosed spaces," as "topoi of narration." Goethe is specific in his description of the house's compartmentalized rooms: "unzusammenhangende Zimmer," for instance, reached via a "turmartige Treppe."

Anthony characterized the multitude of enclosures as exciting the child's imagination by making him desirous to enter such spaces. In turn, growth in the poet's consciousness is achieved "through a narrative chain of border crossings in which the child either gains permission to enter or exit an enclosure or transgresses the border against some authority."

As I listened to his paper, a number of vignettes or stories that are lovingly detailed in the autobiography came to mind, e.g., the Gretchen story; the Sesenheim idyll; the Melusine story to which reference is made in that idyll; the imperial coronation ceremony; and so on. These, too, concern enclosures, but I had not previously related these vignettes to the structure of the autobiography. My own interpretation (in an essay that appeared in the Goethe Yearbook) was that the vignettes represented traditional poetic forms that the poet had to escape if he were to supersede them.

Something of the same flavor informed a second paper at the conference, by Steve Martinson. Steve presented Goethe as a "memory collector," with the autobiography representing a collection of memories. We all know that Goethe's avidity for collecting began in childhood already. According to Steve, the autobiography was an "aesthetically rich museum populated by living memories that inform and shape it: "Erinnerungsräume." Again, space, in which the individuals described take on a  statue-like character.

Both papers give me a new way of investigating Goethe's prose, especially the novels, which indeed seem to be structured by "set pieces."


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