Saturday, January 31, 2015

Goethe biographies

From The Book Haven
I have a new book review project: Rüdiger Safranski's Goethe: Kunstwerk des Lebens. I suppose it is not surprising that the titles of Goethe biographies resemble one another: Ludwig Geiger, Goethe: Sein Leben und sein Schaffen (1913); Albert Bielschowky, Goethe: Sein Leben und seine Werke (1895, followed by numerous editions); Friedrich Gundolf, simply Goethe (1916). It can't be helped. The same thing goes for biographies of Napoleon, Dante, Churchill, and lesser lights. Nevertheless, this issue of titles has me thinking about the book I am now completing, the title of which I will reveal in due course. Obviously, a book has to have a title that forces book buyers to want to look.

Safranski's method is to make use only of primary sources: the oeuvre, letters, diaries, conversations, reports of contemporaries. Whether this method is ultimately satisfying remains to be seen:  I have only reached chapter 7, which concerns the events after Goethe's return from Strassburg. In his preface, Safranski writes of a reason for our continuing interest in Goethe: "Er war nicht nur ein großer Schriftsteller, sondern auch ein Meister des Lebens." And the reason for a new biography? "Jede Generation hat die Chance, im Spiegel Goethes auch sich selbst und die eigene Zeit besser zu verstehen." In this respect, of Götz von Berlichingen he writes that what fascinated Goethe on this historical figure is the same as our fascination with American Westerns, i.e.: "der romantische Blick in eine vergangene Welt, in der der Einzelne noch zählt, der kraftvolle Kerl, der sich selbst seiner Haut wehren kann und der seine Souveränität noch nicht an Institutionen abgetreten hat, wodurch man zwar an Sicherheit gewinnt, aber eben auch verzwergt wird." That is definitely a Goethe for our time.

I was interested to see that Nicholas Boyle, author of Goethe: The Poet and the Age, of which two volumes have so far appeared, also published in 2012 a book entitled: 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis. This is a case of the kind of caution one must use in choosing a title. According to a headline of a 2012 review of the book in the English Daily Mail, "World could be plunged into crisis in 2014: Cambridge expert predicts 'a great event' will determine course of the century." Retuers (UK) headline: "Historian warns of looming political crisis." Well, 2014 is past, and what was that great event? An interdisciplinary journal, Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, opines: "A tempting thesis, leavened with erudite references, to Hegel, Bentham, Johnson and Jefferson, and sound on the confused waffle that surrounds 'human rights.'"

Cover image of book, 1949
The Amazon "reviewers" of books, ordinary readers, are always interesting. There were only three of 2014, two of which gave it five stars. Here is the one-star review, with the headline The Blurb Says It All, thus beginning with a quote from the book's jacket copy: "If human civilization is to survive the 21st century, that ideology [American exceptionalism] will have to give way to a more realistic acceptance of supranational authorities, and especially of an enhanced IMF and WTO." The reviewer then continues: "In other words, saving humanity requires giving the parasites of the world increased power to plunder America. Meanwhile we're going broke as it is. LOL."

As much as I admire Professor Boyle, I am always skeptical of people wandering outside of their discipline to opine on the state of the world, especially the future. Although Reuters identifies Boyle as a historian, he is really a scholar of literature. Moreover, despite having spent many years trying to enter into the world of the 18th century, I am reticent to draw lessons for the present from events and the actions of individuals of that time. One only lives when one lives. Thus, history or the writing of history is of interest for the "errors" of the past, but I am not really sure what lessons one can draw for current issues. Yet, of course, that is the aim of even Safranski's biography of Goethe: "im Spiegel Goethes [Generation] auch sich selbst und die eigene Zeit besser zu verstehen."

Photo credits: Cynthia Haven; Only Artists; Dictus

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