|Goethe Girl in Sointula|
Working is the operative word. How much nihilism and negativity can you tolerate as a reader? How much do you want to read about the existential crisis of alienated males? Such features are present in nuce in Peter Camenzind (a really beautifully written book), but by the time of Steppenwolf (1927) they have been extensively worked out. I fear it will become worse in succeeding novels. Today, however, I came across a very amusing episode in which Goethe plays a role.
|Portrait of Hesse by Ernst Würtenberger (1905)|
Harry Haller is the so-named Steppenwolf, totally out of sorts with bourgeois society and against which he rages ad nauseum. At the same time, he longs for human companionship and love. He has all the prejudices of the highly educated against bourgeois propriety and bourgeois self-satisfaction, which provokes very bad behavior at the home of a young professor of East Indian languages who has invited him to dinner. Practically the first thing he notices, after the maid has received him, is an etching of a Goethe portrait atop a small round table. There was no sign in it of Goethe's fiery expression, not a trace of his solitude or tragic nature, no demonic quality. Instead, the image is one of control and moral uprightness (Biederkeit). In the course of things, Harry insults the professor's wife, who was fond of the portrait.
|Steppenwolf, ca. 1970|
The portrait of Goethe in the dream reminded me of the Goethe of Milan Kundera's novel Immortality, on which I posted earlier. In the dream Harry is a journalist who has an audience with His Excellency. Goethe appears, "small and very stiff," wearing the medal of some order on his "Klassikerbrust." He addresses Harry as follows: "You seem not to be in agreement with us and our efforts?" To which Harry replies in the affirmative: "You are too solemn for us, too vain and pompous. Essentially too insincere" (zu wenig aufrichtig). Goethe smiles in response, his officially closed lips open, and the words of the poem "Dämmerung senkte sich von oben" pours from his mouth, which disarms Harry to such an extent that he is ready to kneel down at Goethe's feet.
Still, Harry goes on to complain. Despite recognizing and feeling the dubiousness, the hopelessness of the human condition, the glory of the individual moment and its miserable withering away, the imprisoning character of everyday existence, etcetera, etcetera, in short all the hopelessness, exasperation, and burning despair of the human lot -- why on earth did Goethe nevertheless preach the opposite, express belief and optimism, extol persistence and meaning?
Goethe is unruffled, continues to smile, and asks Harry if he is repelled by Mozart's Magic Flute. In Goethe's words: "Die Zauberflöte stellt das Leben als einen köstlichen Gesang dar, sie preist unsere Gefühle, die doch vergänglich sind, wie etwas Ewiges und Göttliches, ... predigt Optimismus und Glauben." Goethe is not offended by Harry's irritated response, that Mozart lived only to the age of twenty-eight and did not experience the demands of persistence, order, and rigid dignity. "It may seem inexcusable," Goethe says, that he reached the advanced age of eighty-two, but he always had a great desire for old age (Dauer) and feared death. The battle against death, along with the unconditioned and obstinate desire for life, however, are principles by which all outstanding men have operated. His own desire in this respect was the same at twenty-eight as at eighty-two. And even though there was plenty of playfulness in his nature, he also became aware that play (Spiel) must also have an end.
|Lotte and Werther dance|
Images: Creating the 19th-Century Ballroom