Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Portrait of a Marriage"

African American cemetery, Richmond, Virginia
In Sigrid Damm's Christiane und Goethe, the years from 1796 to 1802 marks greats strains in the relationship. Schiller has entered the picture, Goethe is feeling the need for poetic productivity. The love nest is sacrificed to the working life, and he spends much time in Jena. The letters from Christiane to Goethe from this period are painful to read. She has no social status, only him, and she sounds a bit like Gretchen in Faust. On September 25, 1796, she writes:  “[E]s ist mir … als wär mir es unmöglich, länger ohne Dich zu leben.” On October 2: "“Des Abends ist mein letzter Gedanke an Dich und des Morgens ist es wieder der erste. … Kurz, wenn Du nicht da bist, ist es alles nichts.” Truly cringe-worthy.

While he is in Jena, his letters to her have mentioned what he is working on, if not the content. When he informs her in 1797 that he has finished writing “Die Braut von Korinth” and “Der Gott und die Bajadere,” she actually suggests he take a break from writing. When she learns of his intention to travel to meet Heinrich Meyer in Switzerland, she threatens to come along, whether he wants her or not: "Und wenn Du nach Italien oder sonst eine lange Reise machst und willst mich nicht mitnehmen, so setze ich mich mit dem Gustel hinten darauf; denn ich will lieber Wind und Wetter und alles Unangenehme auf der Reise ausstehen, als wieder so lange ohne Dich sein." Damm writes that Goethe must feel himself threatened in the most important part of his existence, his creativity.

"Amyntas," written in classic, elegiac meters, visualizes this threat. In the poem Amyntas, suffering from love, addresses Nikias a "doctor of body and soul," who had advised reason. But Amyntas compares his situation to that of an apple tree, whom he has discerned speaking. The tree can scarcely bear fruit any longer and its own existence is threatened by the ivy that encircles, embraces, and strangles it.

Und so saugt sie das Mark, sauget die Seele mir aus … nichts gelangt zur Krone hinauf, die äußersten Wipfel / Dorren, es dorret der Ast über dem Bache schon hin. / Ja, die Verräterin ist’s! sie schmeichelt mir Leben und Güter, / Schmeichelt die strebende Kraft, schmeichelt die Hoffnung mir ab.”

Like the tree, however, Amyntas recognizes his own contribution to this threatening pas de deux:

 “Hab ich nicht selbst sie genährt und sanft sie herauf mir erzogen? … Soll ich nicht lieben die Pflanze, die, meiner einzig bedürftig, / Still, mit begieriger Kraft, mir um die Seite sich schlingt?/ Tausend Ranken wurzelten an, mit tausend und tausend / Fasern, senket sie, fest, mir in das Leben sich ein.”

Goethe is often called "the poet of experience," but as this poem demonstrates, the experience is never unmediated. He transfuses his experience with inherited poetic imagery or forms, especially classical exemplars.

Nicholas Boyle writes that Schiller, commenting to Goethe on the poem, diplomatically overlooked the Nikias-like advice he had been offering Goethe for over a year. Further, according to Boyle, Goethe "turns the symbol of sexual obsession into a symbol of quasi-marital fidelity and so creates a sense of amused detachment from a paradoxical relationship":

"Halte das Messer zurück! o Nikias! schone den Armen, / Der sich inliebender Lust willig gezwungen, verzehrt. / Süß ist jede Verschwendung! o! laß mich der schönsten genießen! / Wer wich der Liebe vertaut hält er sein Leben zu Rat?"

Paradoxical, indeed. Talk about sexual dependence. Körner responds to Schiller, who has written to him of Goethe's "weakness" vis a vis Christiane: “Man verletzt die Sitten nicht ungestrafft."

Andre Masson, Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants (1940)
The complexity of the relationship can be seen in an earlier poem (1790) more complimentary to Christiane, namely, "The Metamorphosis of Plants," which again resorts to intense nature imagery to describe the interdependence of the lovers: “O! gedenke denn auch wie, aus dem Keim der Bekanntschaft, / Nach und nach in uns holde Gewohnheit ersproß .. Denke wie mannigfach bald diese bald jene Gestalten, / Still entfaltend, Natur unsern Gefühlen geliehen.”

In any case, by 1798, as Damm writes, Goethe and Christiane finally came to an agreement, as Goethe has been able to make her understand the importance of his work for their combined future thriving; in other words, he must work and earn money. And his work means solitude for himself, even apart from her.

Picture sources: East End Cemetery; DreamTime;

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