Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Christiane und Marianne

Marianne von Willemer, 1809
Weimar had lain in the path of Napoleon's retreat after the battles between the French army and the Russian-Austrian allies in October 1813. As in 1806, Weimar was threatened, but the early arrival of Russian Cossacks, Prussian and Hungarian Hussars, and Austrian Dragoners had prevented the town from being burned to the ground by the retreating French. Despite uncertainty and fears, Goethe and his household were again spared. They receive a “Sauvegarde” on October 22. The Austrian general Hieronymus von Colloredo was quartered in Goethe's house from October 23, along with 14 officers. Every room in the house was required, and one can imagine the amount of work Christiane had to organize. According to Damm, there was a single "Abtritt" in the house. Despite the tribulations, Goethe made note in his diaries of the “interesting acquaintances” he had made, which to some extent mitigated the evils that he experienced: Metternich, Hardenberg, Prince Paul of Wurttemberg, Prince August of Prussia. At the court in Weimar he met emperor Alexander.

1814, as Sigrid Damm notes, the year of Restoration, was also one of restoration for Goethe. Christiane, however, was not part of what many at the time saw as Goethe's rejuvenation and rebirth. His failure to make her part of his intellectual life continued to deepen the distance them, no more so than in his discovery of the Persian poet Hafiz. A new woman, Marianne Willemer, came into his life. Damm's portrayal of the relationship between Marianne and Goethe, in connection with the composition of the West-East Divan, indicates what Christiane might have been had Goethe nurtured her spiritually and not been solely content for her to serve as his "Hausschatz" or "Bettschatz" (his own terms),

In May 1814, Goethe and Christiane made their final trip together as man and wife, to Bad Berka. While there, Goethe was given a copy of the Divan translation by Joseph von Hammer. Goethe began to make his escape from the risin German patriotism, with which he had no sympathy, and other contemporary political distractions with his "hegira" to the East.  Damm writes: “Gedankliches Auswandern als bewußte Abgrenzung zum Zeitgeschehen.” Throughout 1814 he continued to write poems in emulation of Hafiz. He also traveled in July to the Rhine/Main area. During his absence Christiane experienced the first of what Damm calls "Anfälle."

View of Frankfurt from Gerbermühle, with dedication by Goethe
1815 begins with her illness. Goethe writes to Johann Jacob von Willemer in Frankfurt in April that Christiane had been “two fingers” away from death. Does Goethe stay and attend to his wife, the woman with whom he has lived for 28 years? I am afraid Goethe does not come off well in Damm's account. That summer he is again in the Rhine/Main area, and spends over a month with the Willemers, both at their residence in Frankfurt and at their summer retreat at "Gerbermühle." The influence of Marianne on the further composition of the Goethe's Divan as well as her own contributions have been studied by scholars. (For an overview in English,  especially concerning the "Suleika" cycle, go to this link.) What interests me here, and what Damm contends Goethe must have noticed, were the parallels between Marianne and Christiane. Both were accomplished in the field of "Lebenskunst."

Marianne came from a theatrical background, i.e., her mother was an actress, with father unknown. She made an early appearance on the Frankfurt stage at the age of eleven with a traveling troupe of ballet-dancers. Theatrical notices of the time point out "the gracefulness of her infantine performances." Mignon, anyone? It was at this time that she attracted the notice of the wealthy Frankfurt banker Willemer, who literally purchased the girl from her mother (2,000 gulden) and who thereupon raised her in his own household, educating her with his own daughters. Like Christiane, Marianne was a "creature" of a man, but one who provided her with a many-sided education. For instance, she had had music lessons from Clemens Brentano. In the late summer of 1815, she met Goethe on equal terms.

Christiane, too, was Goethe's "Geschöpf," as Damm writes, but he never gave her the opportunity to rise above her background, which in any case was not lacking in intellectual substance. She went frequently to the theater, evidence of a life-long interest, awakened early in companionship with her brother, who himself was an accomplished writer. In the last year of her life, she attended 43 performances in a five-month period. She was on intimate terms with Weimar's star actress, Caroline Jagemann (also the duke's mistress), and, as Damm notes, had mediated the artistic differences between Goethe as director of the Weimar theater and Jagemann.

One can't help thinking that Christiane might have become a knowledgeable theater critic or even taken a more active role in Weimar theatrical productions had Goethe taken the time to lead her. After their marriage duties were imposed on her from which she had been excluded for 18 years and in which she was not skilled.  There had never been lessons, no training or education at all.  As Damm writes, Christiane did not know "the text." So, while the relationship with Marianne came to be symbolized by the Ginko leaf, with its two-part leaf form representing symmetry and even equal partnership, Goethe's relationship with Christiane is associated with the clinging ivy and strangled tree of the poem "Amyntas."

Despite the number of volumes of Goethe's works devoted to "autobiography," Damm observes that Goethe remained silent about his happiness during the six weeks he spent in Marianne's company. It is only in the Divan that one feels his happiness. And although Goethe lived for sixteen years after Christiane's death in 1816, he likewise never wrote a word about the woman with whom he had lived for twenty-eight years. Goethe never discussed any truly private matters. Damm refers to this reticence as a natural disposition to self-protection. His silence about Christiane, however, has given rise to clichés, legends, and half-truths that have obscured her image for posterity.

Pictures: Willemer portrait by by Johann Jacob de Lose (Freies Dt. Hochstift–Frankfurter Goethe-Museum); Goethe's poem "Ginkgo Biloba," in his handwriting, 1815, with attached Ginkgo leaves

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