|Goethe and "Bettschatz"|
Some back history, which Kundera gets right. Goethe first met Bettina in the spring of 1807. She was twenty-two, about the same age as Goethe when he fell for her mother, Maximilian, back in his youthful Frankfurt days. This earlier infatuation with her mother may have led Bettina to imagine that she could be Goethe's daughter. As Kundera writes, the feeling grew in her that “she had some sort of secret right to the great poet, because in the metaphoric sense (and who should take metaphors seriously if not a poet?) she considered herself his daughter.” In any case, she developed what might be called hero worship for the great man. She was a small person and played on being a child, a figure like that of Mignon in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novel. She liked to sit on the floor; later she wrote that she had sat on Goethe's lap. They met very few times: in Kundera's reckoning six times in the course of twenty years. But she wrote him fifty-two letters, in which she addressed him with the familiar “you” form. These letters were the basis of the book she published after Goethe's death, Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kind. As Kundera points out, it was not until 1920 that the authenticity of the correspondence was questioned, when the original letters were discovered and published.
“The gallery of Goethe's loves” (Frederika, Lotte, Lily, Ulrike) usually excludes his wife, Christiane: “The public refuses to see Christiane as one of Goethe's love simply because Goethe slept with her. For love-treasure and bed-treasure were mutually exclusive entities.” The dismissal of Christiane has deep roots, starting in the culture of Weimar, but Bettina added some fuel to it. It is with an encounter between Christiane and Bettina at an exhibition of paintings that Kundera begins his story. The date is September 13, 1811. There was a disagreement about the merits of the paintings, and the upshot was that Christine knocked the glasses off of Bettina's face. It was a very rude thing to do, but Christiane knew that Goethe had approved of the paintings that Bettina was criticizing. Moreover, Bettina's husband was a prominent figure among the Romantic poets to whom Goethe had an aversion. Christiane was also probably sick and tired of Bettina flirting with Goethe.
Goethe cut off contact with the Arnims then and there, which caused Bettina go on a tear in the salons of Weimar, saying of Christine: “That fat sausage went crazy and bit me!” As Kundera writes, true or not, it has become an “immortal remark," cementing an unflattering image of Christiane.
In the 20th century, Romain Rolland became “a witness for the prosecution of the eternal trial conducted against Goethe.” For Rolland, the self-professed progressive intellectual, the Teplitz episode was an allegory: Beethoven as a radical, Goethe as a reactionary. Kundera finds the anecdote nonsense, even preposterous. Beethoven, after all, had not hesitated to compose for royalty; he even wrote a Polonaise for the Empress of Russia. An alternate allegorical picture would interpret Beethoven striding past the Empress as a statement on behalf of creativity: works of art are immortal, unlike wars or aristocratic costume balls. (Goethe would have felt the same way, but would have been more circumspect.) Those who applaud Beethoven fail to understand his pride as an artist: they are, as Kundera writes, for the most part people blinded by politics. Romain Rolland “would surely have bowed much more deeply than Goethe, if he had encountered Stalin on a path in Teplitz.”
Rolland (along with Rilke and Paul Eluard) also criticized Goethe for not properly loving Bettina and instead preferring his wife. Christiane was described by Rolland as “jealous,” “fat,” “ruddy and corpulent,” and “importunate.” This is surprising for an admirer of the proletariat:
“Why did it never occur to the friend of the proletariat to elaborate the anecdote with the glasses into an allegory, in which a simple woman of the people rightly punished the arrogant young intellectual while Goethe, having taken his wife’s part, strode proudly forward with head held high (and hatless!) against an army of aristocrats and their shameful prejudices?”
Picture credits: SWP.de; Interlude; Alamy Stock Photos