Thursday, December 10, 2015

Goethe ascends the Brocken

Goethe, Brocken im Mondlicht
At the end of November 1777 Goethe undertook his 500 km Harz journey, traveling on foot and on horseback. He had been in Weimar two years by then, and was uncertain whether he should stay or leave. What was his life supposed to be about, anyway? He was in his superstitious phase and was looking for “a sign.” Even though it was winter, and even though everyone advised against attempting to climb the mountain, he believed that a successful ascent of the Brocken would be such a sign.

So it transpired that on this day in 1777 Goethe became the first person to climb the Brocken in winter. As he wrote in his diary: “d. 10. früh nach dem Torfhause in tiefem Schnee. 1 viertel nach 10 aufgebrochen von da auf den Brocken. Schnee eine Elle tief, der aber trug.” In his travel diary for Charlotte von Stein he wrote (in N. Boyle’s translation): “The goal of my longing has been reached, it hangs by many threads and many hang from it; you know how symbolical my existence is.” He interpreted his success as confirmation of his new existence in Weimar.

As Boyle writes, “the biblical tone and language that permeate G’s account of this day in his diary, and in his letters to Charlotte von Stein, show the religious significance that the ascent had acquired for him and had indeed always been intended to have.”

Hexenexperiment auf dem Brocken, 1932
The black and white photo depicts an experiment atop the Brocken on Goethe’s birthday in 1932, conducted by a British ghost hunter named Harry Price. The goal was to transform a goat into a young man, to be accomplished by the invocation of maiden. Unsuccessful, Price claimed that he was only seeking to prove “the fallacy of transcendental magic.”

Georg Melchior Kraus, Hexenaltar
The winter ascent of the Brocken occurred on what is called the first Harz journey, during which Goethe also visited several mines, indeed even descending into one. See an earlier post on this subject. Goethe climbed the mountain again, twice, first, with Heinrich von Trebra and Fritz von Stein in September 1783, then with Georg Melchior Kraus in September 1784. Both journeys were devoted to "geology."  As Goethe wrote to Herder at the time: “Krause ist also mit mir alleine, und wir sind den ganzen Tag unter freiem Himmel, hämmern und zeichnen.” The trip inspired his essay “Über den Granit."

The Goethezeitportal offers an account of all three of Goethe's Brocken ascents, with illustrations.

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