That Goethe wrote an autobiography was in keeping with the interest in the genre by the early 19th century. Keymer notes that it was not only "great men" who were expected to write about their lives. The times were what Carlyle called "Autobiographical," and "memorabilia" were part of a democratic trend. What characterized these writings was their "self-consciousness." Thus, the outward circumstances of a life as lived was the soil in which the inner life of a distinctive individual was nourished or just as often stultified. As Keymer writes, "subjectivity" is central to these autobiographies. Despite the presence in Dichtung und Wahrheit of Goethe's assessment of his own personality, even of his subjective motivations for certain behavior, the work does not indulge in the self-lacerating confessions of many autobiographies, for instance, those of Augustine and of Rousseau.
The novel's rise marks this struggle, and the genre's identificatory possibilities made rich men of certain writers, Charles Dickens foremost among them. What makes a novel really successful is the possibility of empathizing with the struggles and triumphs of the individuals portrayed. For this reason, so many contemporary American novels, with their portrayals of dysfunction, are such a turn-off, even if the media continue to hype what are considered exemplary works of the genre, e.g., Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. "Romance," in contrast, sells. Prime exhibit: Jane Austen.
|Eduard and Charlotte's country home|
Keymer notes in his review certain "fundamental questions raised by autobiographical writing: about the coherence of identity the play of memory, the gap between narrating and narrated selves ..." What, he asks, if "the self is not only relational, but also plural"? He cites examples discussed in Smyth's study, e.g., Katherine Mansfield's skepticism about "our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent." I would hazard to guess that Goethe believed in such a unitary self, thus, again, that comment about "fragments of a great confession." However fragmentary, his life and his work represented a coherence. I would only add here that the law does not yet recognize "plural selves." If you commit a crime, you are judged as a single entity. Goethe, as a lawyer, would have seen the matter that way. Like it or not, DNA and iris scanning also "presuppose absolute uniqueness," a singular self, and a habitation in the body (these insights are from another LRB review, this one a book on the history of the body).
Picture credits: Plastic Mind; Alison Robinson; Life as Myth; Bernd W. Seiler