Monday, September 4, 2017

Autobiography and novel in Goethe

A review by Thomas Keymer in the London Review of Books (August 7, 2017) of A History of English Autobiography by Adam Smyth has got me thinking about Goethe. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) certainly fulfills the definition of the genre offered by the French critic Philippe Lejeune, quoted by the reviewer: "A retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality."

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.

I have not seen it discussed anywhere, but it strikes me that the autobiographical trend documented in Smyth's study was concurrent with the rise of the novel. Autobiography and the novel are both "Western" phenomena. Whatever purely literary criteria can be applied to characterize it, the novel, like autobiography, arose from circumstances that were unique to the nations of western Europe beginning in the early modern period. The capitalist marketplace began to erase traditional ways of life, and a  dominant theme of works by 19th-century novelists was the dilemmas that deracinated and alienated — even merely “exceptional” — individuals faced in a world in which all the old resources had become superannuated. The position of people in traditional societies was set out for them from even before their birth. There could be no personal development, except of a religious nature. It was only with the breakdown of traditional hierarchies that, for instance, a man (usually it was a man) could break out of such bonds and work his way up in life by his own "bootstraps."

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.

Brontë country
But to return to Goethe. Dichtung und Wahrheit as well as his other late novels reject the "subjective isolation" that characterizes, on the one hand, the confessions of Rousseau, and, on the other, the soul-wringing of the Brontës. As we know, The Sorrows of Young Werther is evidence that Goethe was able to write a Brontë-like novel (had Emily read Goethe?), yet he abandoned this path. For Goethe it was more important to portray the individual as coming to terms with the objective facts of life, what Klymer calls "social, political, and economic engagement." This somewhat bloodless characterization does not do justice to the engagement described in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novels. The Bildungsroman–style plot of those novels would seem to have greatly influenced the succeeding history of the German novel in the 19th century.

Eduard and Charlotte's country home
I recall that when I first read the opening pages of Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) so many years ago, I thought that Goethe was heading off on an English-novel path. And yet, despite the number of elements that situate that novel in the kind of country estate setting of Jane Austen, ultimately the demands of the heart -- and, in Eduard's case, excessive subjectivity -- are rejected. So even if Goethe claimed that his works constituted "fragments of a great confession" (HA 9, 283), that confession was always formally mediated, especially in his poetry. One could best identify if one respected the language in which the confession was composed.

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

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