Friday, June 5, 2015

Goethe biographies

I posted already on Andrew Piper's short biography of Goethe, but here are a few additional take-aways from my reading.

Waterloo imagined
1) Goethe, as Piper writes at the start, was conversant in many fields representing the accumulated heritage of a thousand years, but he also was a man of his time, with his life coinciding with "some of the more decisive transformations of European society." Some of the events he lived through: the Seven Years' War, the French Revolution, the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo, and the July Revolution of 1830 in France. The fall of the HRE coincided with the rise of the nation state.

2) Speaking of Cornelia, Piper writes that she was "Goethe's first and probably truest love." After her death, "Goethe would spend the rest of his life searching for and falling in love with sister figures." True or false?

3) Of Kätchen Schönkopf, "Goethe's great love" of the Leipzig period, Piper writes that marriage was out of the question "for class reasons." But Goethe was only 17: did marriage ever really come seriously into question? I doubt it.

4) I was glad to be reminded of Herder's belief that language shaped nations and that "poets were the ones who shaped language." Fritz Strich, in his many essays on world literature, always stresses that a language expresses the spirit of a people.

Pfarrhaus Sesenheim (1770), drawing by Goethe
5) Piper calls the relationship with Friedericke Brion "a love affair." They spent "a great deal of time together, much of it alone." Later (p.29), when writing of Lili Schonemann, Piper asserts that, "unlike this traumatic separation from Friedericke, ... Goethe was careful to leave his affair with Lili unconsummated and thus leave Lili's social status untainted." Whoa!

From what we know, through plenty of later documentation, Goethe tended to fall hard for a woman, then withdraw, although not in a sexual sense. In my essay on the Sesenheim idyll, I explored the literary formation of the episode. Recently I have been struck by the similarities with Marianne von Willemer and the composition of West-East Divan.

6) Granted that Goethe's practice of law in Frankfurt after his return to Sesenheim was "a lacklustre performance," can one really say the same of "all of his subsequent administrative duties"? I have the sense that Goethe's performance in Weimar was anything but lacklustre. See (9) below.

7) Re Wetzlar: Goethe immersed himself in a domestic scene "that he was not wholly a part of." Good observation.

Lotte as "secularized" Madonna
8) Interesting is Piper's observation that Lotte re-creates "Christianity's virgin mother in a secular domestic chord (nicely amplified in the Eucharistic gesture of breaking bread with the children)."

9) In re (6) above, Piper's own description of Goethe's duties on the Privy Council in Weimar belies any sense of a lacklustre performance on Goethe's part. As Piper points out, Goethe "led an initiative to reopen a silver mine near Ilmenau." Although this venture was unsuccessful, Goethe spent years trying to make it work. This activity also contributed to his interest in geology and to his many mineralogical speculations.

10) Weimar as a site of "intellectual networking."

11) Finally, Charlotte von Stein. Piper writes that she was an "important medium of temperance" and helped him navigate the ways of the court, in the process weaning him away from his Sturm und Drang inclinations. Piper believes the "love affair" was in this case consummated. I have always doubted this, because it seems that everyone knew everyone in Weimar and such an indiscretion would hardly have escaped notice. On the other hand, after a few years in Weimar Goethe certainly became buttoned up, so to speak, as friends like Merck noted, so perhaps the buttoning up was a way of assuring that he did not reveal a sexual liaison. But then, again, the poetry he wrote under CvS's influence is so idealized, unlike the sensuousness of the Divan lyrics or the Roman elegies.

That's all for today. Guests tomorrow, so I am cooking up a storm this evening.

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