Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Goethe as Idol of the Modern World

In being a Goethe scholar, one has a certain satisfaction or even a feeling of distinction, since Goethe is generally recognized as one of the greats, even by those who are only familiar with his name. I suppose it is like being a scholar of Milton or of Shakespeare. Even among writers whose work is considered "great" (e.g., Joyce, Proust, Wordsworth, Dickens), few of them have an oeuvre that is as rich and, in Goethe's case, abundant (letters, views of contemporaries, as well as scientific and legal writings). This abundance and richness led in Goethe's lifetime already to a kind of glorification of his person.

It is not that there have not been critics of Goethe, and in reading their oppositional views one comes to see Goethe in a different light and understand him a little better. One such writer was the biologist Jacob Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge, whom I discussed in an earlier post. Another critic was the Jesuit writer Alexander Baumgartner (1841–1910), from whom the title of this post comes. His 3-volume life of Goethe appeared in 1879, and an excerpt appears in volume 3 of Goethe im Urteil seiner Kritiker, edited by Karl Robert Mandelkow.

Baumgartner, writing fifty years after Goethe's death, takes issue with the 19th-century "deification" of Goethe. I use that term advisedly. According to Baumgartner, Goethe's admirers transported him to that "religious-political battlefield" which Goethe himself deliberately avoided during his life. He was proclaimed the prophet of a new Gospel of "Tat und Gesinnung," with the intention of driving out true Christianity's Gospel of "Wort und Glauben."

Here are some examples of those who, in Baumgartner's view, have drafted Goethe in the secular cause: Heinrich Dünzer, e.g., called Goethe "Hohenpriester der Liebe." Ernst Haeckel elevated this "Prometheus" onto the banner of his materialistic evolutionary history. David Strauß recommended Goethe's works as a surrogate for the "superannuated" Gospels. For Johannes Scherr, the "Haus zu den drey Leyern" is a new Bethlehem. In sum, "Eine umfangreiche Literatur predigt unter der Devise 'Goethe' nur Unglauben, Darwinismus, Spinozismus, Naturalismus, alle Sorten von Gefühls-, Kunst- und Naturchristentum."

Baumgartner is of course an apologist for orthodox Christianity, especially in the context of Quanta Cura (1864), and his objections concern Goethe's aesthetic "morality" (Sittlichkeit).  He writes: "Goethes Philosophie, Religion und sogenannte Weltanschauung ist weiter nichts als der seichteste und flachste Naturalismus." He is particularly troubled that "der geliebteste Lehrer Deutschlands" had such a cavalier attitude toward women: "Besonders für Frauen und Mädchen ist Goethe der schädlichste und verhängnisvollste Schriftsteller. Wie in seinem Leben, so hat er auch in seinen Schriften, mehr als irgend ein anderer Dichter, den Frauen geschmeichelt, alle ihre Schwächen verherrlicht und glorifiziert, aber nur, um sie schließlich, nach Körners Ausdruck, herabzuwürdigen." Strong words.

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