|Goethe officially opens work at the Ilmenau mine, February 1784|
Like most books by Sigrid Damm, this one has a story to tell. The story here concerns the almost lifelong investment of time and energy by Goethe with the Ilmenau mine. It is an exemplary, almost conversational, analysis of certain subjects: the difficulties and complexities of mining in the 18th century; Goethe’s desire to have his name attached to a successful, real world project; and the failure of the mine and Goethe's transformation of failure (of the lack of metallic "Gewinn," so to speak) into personal gold. Aside from one exception, she does not draw on what scholars have said on the subject, but instead draws solely on writings by Goethe and others in his circle. She has done the research, with much attention to the "amtliche Schriften."
After an epigram -- “Im engsten Stollen, wie in tiefsten Schachten/ Ein Licht zu suchen, das den Geist entzünde” -- she opens with a scene, a “sunny day in September 1827” as Goethe and Eckermann make an excursion, and the 78 year old Goethe exclaims: “Was habe ich nicht drüben in den Bergen von Ilmenau in meiner Jugend alles durchgemacht!” Doubtless, writes Damm, he is referring above all to the Ilemenau mine. What follows is the history of Goethe’s engagement with the mine, filled with many high and low points. Despite Goethe’s allusion to his youth, his responsibility for the mine extends far into the future: from his 27th to his 63d year and “darüber hinaus,” the mine did not let him go.
Damm characterizes the project as follows. (Italicized words are those of Goethe or his contemporaries.)
“Die Metallgewinnung aus dem Erdinneren ist ein Werk, das er mit Ehrgeiz und einer großen Vision angeht.
"Ein Werk, das Grenzüberschreitung signalisiert.
"Wie unter seinem literarischen Werk soll auch unter diesem sein Namenszug stehen.
"Über die geistigen Impulse hinaus will der Erfolgsautor der ‘Leiden des jungen Werthers’ nun eine andere Dimension, er will das Leben selbst. Will Handlung. Tat. Das feste irdische Glück für andere ist sein Ziel. Durch sein Tun soll den Menschen einer wirtschaftlich schwachen Region, den Bergleuten, den armen Maulwurfen, wie er sie nennt, Beschäfftigung und Brod gegeben werden.
Ein soziales Projekt.”
|Goethe speaks to the shareholders|
Damm notes that in October 1796, by which date it was clear that the mine was useless and that there would be no help for the “armen Maulwurfen,” Goethe writes (source not given) concerning the death of the foundery master Schrader: “Seine Witwe bleibt freilich mit vielen Kindern zurück, an der wohl auch einige Barmherzigkeit zu thun ist; doch wird man sie wohl mit einer kleinen Abfindung los, weil sie wohl wieder nach Hessen zurückgeht.”
Ouch is the response of a 21st-century reader, but Goethe did not live in the 21st century. Indeed, after reading this book, one has the feeling that, if Goethe lived now, he would have been head of the World Bank or a White House chief of staff. Damm has combed all of the relevant documents, including the amtliche Schriften, which demonstrate in high degree Goethe’s administrative abilities. Goethe was not an idle dreamer. He consulted with all the relevant people, both the “Bergleute von der Feder, die wissenschaftlich augebildeten Geologen, als auch die Bergleute vom Leder, die Praktiker,” too. The mine had worked once; so it was thought, by 18-year-old Carl August, that it could be made to work again, with revenue for the duchy. Everyone had the best of intentions.
|Some of the original Ilmenau investors|
Damm asks whether it was the considerable amount of money or the enormous time delay, especially at this early moment of euphoria — Goethe had just given his speech at the opening of the mine — that caused Goethe to decide not to undertake the corrective maintenance? The result in 1796 was the “unsägliche Not, die mit dem Stollenbruch im Oktober 1796 über das Berkwerk hereinbrach.” As Goethe would later write: “Der Geldmangel der Gegenwart habe die Not der Zukunft geboren.”
Although this venture was taking place at a time when geological and mining knowledge was not as advanced state as it is today, Seebuck says that a close study of the archives of the Ilmenau mine at the time would have shown that the site chosen for the sinking of the shaft was incorrect. Indeed, an experienced “Praktiker,” had he studied the written history of the mine, would have been able to draw that conclusion. But in the 18th century “archival research when exploring the feasibility of mineral deposits was not yet recognized.”
In the end, Goethe’s own assessment was that it was the limits of nature herself that thwarted the venture (and all attempts to do good and, one must add, put his name on a successful, real-world success). In April 11, 1812, in response to Carl August, who had asked whether it was finally time to close the mine, Goethe wrote what Damm calls a “mit Wehmut das Scheitern eingestehende intime Aussage dem Freund und Mitstreiter,” which, she says, has no correspondence in Goethe’s public pronouncements about Ilmenau:
“Es ist freylich ein Unterschied, ob man in unbesonnener Jugend und friedlichen Tagen, seinen Kräften mehr als billig ist vertrauend, mit unzulänglichen Mitteln Großes unternimmt und sich und Andre mit eitlen Hoffnngen hinhält, oder ob man in späteren Jahren, in bedrängter Zeit, nach aufgedrungener Einsicht, seinem eigenen Wollen und Halbvollbringen zu Grabe läutet.”
|The Johannes shaft at Ilmenau|
It is this “completely unexpected natural formation” that is the lesson Goethe draws from all these years of effort. Despite feelings of resignation, the failure that might have weighed on others is not something Goethe accepts. It is his nature to draw a lesson for himself from such efforts. When, in 1816 Christian Gottlob Voigt celebrates his 50th anniversary in public service, Goethe congratulates him with a poem, from which the opening epigraph draws:
Im engsten Stollen, wie in tiefsten Schachten
Ein Licht zu suchen, das den Geist entzünde,
War ein gemeinsam köstliches Betrachten,
Ob nicht Natur zuletzt sich doch ergründe?
Und manches Jahr des stillsten Erdelebens
Ward so zum Zeugen edelsten Bestrebens.
As Damm writes, if reflection and practical work went hand in hand at the beginning, by this point reflection remains. “Mit der Distanz, die auch der vergehenden Zeit geschuldet ist, verlagert sich die Auseinandersetzung mit dem Mythos Berg ausschließlich auf die künstlerische Ebene, findet im Werk selbst statt.” The geologist and miner (Bergman) in Goethe remains alive in the poet and natural scientist, leading him beyond the practical dimension of the “Kampf mit der Natur” to its ethical counterpart. The final part of “Geheimnißvoll offenbar” examines works that resonate with this dimension.
These include the figure of Montan in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. Whereas Wilhelm sees only “ein weitläufiges Alphabet” in the crevices and cracks in the rocks, Montan seeks to understand the “Schrift der Natur.” Ottilie in Elective Affinities participates in a mysterious connection with the magnetic forces in the earth. And of course Goethe’s experience with mines can be seen in “Das Märchen.” Damm devotes most of her conclusion to several scenes in the second part of Faust, especially the carnival scene at the imperial palace, in which she also sees Goethe’s uneasy response, especially in the use of paper money, to the beginnings of a capitalist economy. As the failure of the Ilemenau venture shows, “treasures” may indeed lie buried in the ground, but one cannot count on harnessing them. Nature will have her way.
The paintings here are by Hamster Damm. More information about the book can be found on the website of the Villa Rosenthal in Jena, which on Feburary 10 features a reading from Damm's book by the actress Steffi Kühnert.
Image credit: Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics