Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Goethe in The New Yorker

Goethe, as illustrated by Boris Pelcer
A new anthology of Goethe's writing, The Essential Goethe (Princeton UP), edited by Matthew Bell, has prompted Adam Kirsch to give a galloping summary of Goethe's life and work in the current issue of The New Yorker. It is the first time that I have had occasion to find fault with a review by Kirsch, who is generally very thoughtful. Indeed, I mentioned an essay by him in a post a few years ago on this blog. But the New Yorker piece is rather potted, as if Kirsch had read a long encyclopedia article and excerpted it. All the high points are there -- e.g., the holism of Goethe's scientific view, the "objectivity" offered by Weimar, the "watershed" experience of Italy, the subject of "Bildung," the Olympian perspective -- but nothing distinctive emerges about Goethe's person or personality.

Kirsch brings out the old charge that The Sorrows of Young Werther started "a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero."

Here are a couple other assertions that one might quibble with.

"Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

Or of Goethe's death: "At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were 'More light!' Probably his vision was dimming and he just wanted someone to open a window. But it is also Goethe’s last perfect metaphor: one final plea for illumination, from a writer who had spent all his life seeking it."

I did like Kirsch's assessment of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: "Indeed, so many scandalous things happen in the novel—from adultery and illegitimacy to arson, incest, and suicide—that it often feels more like a gothic parody than like an earnest Bildungsroman."

Kirsch also emphasizes the difficulty of rendering Goethe's poetry in a way that truly captures its beauty, which is an obstacle to an appreciation of Goethe in the U.S.

A disappointing piece, although I like the illustration of Goethe by Boris Pelcer.

1 comment:

xklein57 said...

Hi Elisabeth,

I like what you write about the Goethe article in "New Yorker". I mentioned it in my little blog, too, and I would like to put a link to your post (if you do not mind).
By the way: At Easter I walked up to Brocken, it is a long way and I could hardly imagine, how he did it in winter without all the good ways now going up and without functional clothes, special shoes and Iphone.
He must have been a real tough guy.

Best wishes