Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Goethe and Dante

I have been reading Goethe's Italian Journey and tweeting daily tidbits. Yesterday, in another connection, I read Erich Auerbach's 1929 essay, "The Discovery of Dante by Romanticism" in the splendid translation of Jane O. Newman. In this essay, Auerbach sketches the Dante reception in Germany in the 18th century. Of Goethe, Auerbach contends that he “never became truly intimate with Dante; his admiration for the Divine Comedy (or at least from some very few passages in the poem) was diluted by his instinctive antipathy for a personality like the Tuscan’s that was so fundamentally different from his own.”

The Goethe Handbuch sketches a more nuanced rapprochement of Goethe with the Italian poet, although it is true that the influence was on the level of poetic form and motifs, not of world view. For instance, Gerhard Schulz, in the entry on the 1806 poetic cycle that begins with "Mächtiges Überraschen," writes that the meaning of the cycle is captured in the last two words of that poem: new life. As in Dante's sense of Vita nuova, one of the first great collections of love poetry in "the Christian-European tradition." In Dante's work, according to Schulz, the experience of love first finds its true meaning in the poem itself. It was unclear to me from this entry, however, to what extent Goethe was familiar with the Vita nuova.

Of great interest was the stand-out entry on Goethe's "late poetry" (das lyrische Spätwerk), of 1819–32. The work of this period, writes Mathias Mayer, is characterized, among other things, by a "dialogue with foreign languages and cultures." For instance, the tercets of the poem "Im ernsten Beinhaus war's" indicate a dialogue with Dante.

Domenico Petarlini, Dante in Exile (1860)
Even though Auerbach knew Dante's works inside out, I would guess that he was thinking mostly in terms of the relationship of Faust to Dante's Divine Comedy. In this connection, Auerbach asserts that the "two worlds" of the works are “fundamentally incomparable.” The most important point: “The characters and scenes in Faust are, finally, the stuff of an individual’s soul and its history, unintelligible if they do not refer to the one who experiences them. In the Divine Comedy, they belong to an objective order outside the self.”

I learned from this essay that it was the Schlegel brothers, especially August Wilhelm, and Schelling, who “produced the most significant set of observations about Dante and his poem produced by Romanticism narrowly defined.” Schelling was the first since "the twilight of the hegemony of the Catholic Church and its philosophy" for whom "the integrity of the magnificent poem became visible.” Auerbach credits Schelling with understanding that the Comedy’s “characters enter into and manifest a kind of eternity as a result of the specific space that they are made to occupy in the poem.” Further, “the all-encompassing crux of the poem’s significance is this: our earthly and historical world in its true and eternal form is a manifestation of God’s judgment.”

I actually can imagine that Goethe recognized this significance and simply rejected it. Auerbach was more correct in respect of world view than in the influence on Goethe of Dante's poetic forms when he wrote that Goethe had no connection or rapport with “either the intellectual or the material world of the Trecento.”

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