Monday, October 5, 2015

Goethe meets Napoleon

I should have posted on this subject on October 2, but I was in Virginia attending the German Studies Association conference. So, here a few days late, is a small post on the encounter in Erfurt in 1808, described by Talleyrand in his memoirs as "a policy of imperial seduction to rally great German intellectuals" and "to give Napoleon a literary and cultural guarantee on a European scale." This last was important since Napoleon had lost the support of such eminences as Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand. (This site has more information on the meeting.)

Talleyrand did not record the famous "Voila un homme!" comment. Wieland, who also met the emperor and who wrote down his own recollections on the very evening, mentions that Napoleon had called him "Germany's Voltaire."

 (Am I being cynical to suggest that many intellectuals and writers today would feel profoundly flattered, as did Wieland and Goethe, to be so distinguished? And to receive the Légion d'honneur? Yes, I am being cynical.)

Napoleon receives the Austrian ambassador, October 1808
Talleyrand was present at the meeting between Goethe and the emperor. In the picture above, in which Napoleon is shown receiving the Austrian ambassador later in the same month, Talleyrand stands behind the table, between Baron Vincent and the emperor, while the Russian czar is seen in profile on the right. Although Talleyrand's memoirs must be read with some caution, he recounts that the emperor recommended that Goethe attend some historical plays that were being performed in Erfurt, asserting that the "dramatic art' was higher than history: "A good tragedy should be seen as the worthiest school for superior men."

Picture credit: Fondation Napoleon

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