Friday, July 31, 2009

Goethe and the Unobservable

Goethe supposedly hated the sight of people wearing glasses, though he was nearsighted himself and occasionally used a lorgnette. This aversion was aesthetic, even ethical. Here is the money quote, from a conversation with Eckermann:

It may be one of my peculiarities -- he told me repeatedly -- but I cannot overcome this aversion. As soon as a stranger enters my room with spectacles on his nose, I experience an ill feeling which I cannot master. ... The glasses give the impression of a discourteous person to me; as if a stranger on his first encounter would attempt to say something unpleasant to me.

As an extension of this, it is often held that Goethe objected to modern "Sehhilfen," such as microscopes and telescopes. Hartmut Böhme, in a chapter entitled "The Metaphysics of Phenomena: Telescope and Microscope in the Works of Goethe, Leeuwenhoek, and Hooke" (in Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century, 2005), disputes this contention. He quotes Goethe:

From the greatest as well as the smallest (and only observable to humans through the most artificial means) emerges the metaphysics of phenomena. In the middle lies the particular, what befits our senses, what I rely on. From the bottom of my heart I bless those gifted individuals who bring these regions closer (HA 12, 435).

As Böhme writes, Goethe used both microscope and telescope since his youth and "eagerly consulted the microscope" in his botanical, zoological, and mineralogical studies. (Read more to learn about "the metaphysics of phenomena"!) At left Hooke's microscope, and herewith the kind of microscope Goethe might have owned.

It was a review of works by philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraasen in the current Times Literary Supplement that got me to thinking about Goethe and microscopes. According to the review, 18th-century science "stuck to the surface of things, systematizing and cataloging the observable world." It was only in the 19th century that "microscopic theories" penetrated the scientific method and indeed the surface of things.

The review was accompanied by beautiful illustrations, "polarized micrographs," made possible by the development of optical instruments. Goethe of course relied on the most primitive of microscopes, in comparison to what we possess today. I have a feeling he would have loved the kinds of results (as pictured here) that microscopy makes possible. The above image of a section of a meteorite ("an example of a barred chondrule found in a thin section of JaH 055") is by Tom Phillips, who is featured (along with other micrographs and his equipment) in an issue of "Meteorite Times Magazine." According to Wikipedia, the topmost image of pollen was selected as "image of the day" on February 16 and December 9, 2005. Imagine these gorgeous things the next time spring causes you to sneeze!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ortega y Gasset on "Goethe from Within"

Man, with all his preoccupations and efforts, is delivered over to the outward, to the world around him and must try to know it and make it serviceable to him to the extent required by his ends. But concerning himself he knows only when he is satisfied and when he suffers, and only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself, teach him what to seek and what to avoid. For the rest, man is a confused creature; he knows not whence he comes or whither he goes, he knows little of the world, and above all, he knows little of himself.

The above report of a 1829 conversation of Goethe with Eckermann is quoted by José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) in his 1932 essay "In Search of Goethe from Within" (Pidiendo un Goethe desde dentro). I have read the essay many times (the translator is Willard R. Trask), and every time I do so I come away with an increased understanding. Ortega was quite knowledgeable about Germany and German culture. He had gone to Germany in 1905 to study, and was a student of the famous Neo-Kantian scholar Hermann Cohen. Among others, he was a friend of the equally famous Romance scholar Ernst Robert Curtius

In 1932 Ortega y Gasset (on the cententary of Goethe's death) announces his objections to biographies of Goethe heretofore, which all express, in "contourless vocables" (e.g., "Titan," "genius"), "sterile Goethean bigotry." These biographies (excluding that of Georg Simmel) are built "in accordance with the optics of monuments," as if their authors were commissioned "to create a statue for a public square." They go around Goethe; they never work underneath. Instead, Goethe must be constructed from within.

Ortega focuses on the phrase "Only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself" from the passage from Eckermann. He finds it surprising that no one has emphasized the contradictions between the "optimistic" Goethe -- for instance, his botanical image of life according to which all proceeds calmly with "gentle cosmic necessity" -- and his "constant, painful preoccupation with his own life, with himself, which will not let him relax for an instant." Why have his biographers not explained why  man who seems to have been fortunate in every way was also, from documentary evidence, a man who "spent most days in a state of depression"?

In Ortega y Gasset's opinion Goethe was a "perpetual deserter from his inner destiny." The amorous flights in Goethe's life were not in the service of his authentic vocation, as his biographers claim. Ortega y Gasset will have none of this, but, first, one must have an idea of what he means by inner destiny.

"Life is, in itself, forever a shipwreck," according to Ortega. It is only our consciousness of shipwreck, being the truth of life, that constitutes our salvation. The "I" that is us does not consist of our body or our consciousness or our soul or character. We have those, just as we have parents or a liver or were born in a certain place. Our "I" found itself with all these physical and psychical things when it found itself alive. "You are the person who has to live with them, by means of them ... You are not a thing, you are simply the person who has to live with things, among things, the person who has to live, not any life but a particular life. There is no abstract living." In this way of thinking, life consists of the I finding itself while submerged in what is not itself, "in the pure other," which is environment. (One hears Heidegger and the Existentialists in these ideas.)

For Ortega y Gasset, Goethe's destiny was "to soar and sing," to revolutionize Germany's literature and, indeed, the literature of the world. The Goethe of Strassburg, Wetzlar, and Frankfurt seemed to point in that direction. Instead, he went to Weimar, and in that "sterile flask he magically dessicated into a Geheimrat, slowly changed into a statue." Though irremediably a poet, he forces the poet to visit the Ilmenau mine. He begins to lead a spectral, unssatisfied life between poetry and reality. Then, having accustomed himself to this life, Goethe ends by not needing reality. Instead, "everything evaporates into symbol." True life, for Goethe, thus becomes something that will be to a concrete life what the Urpflanze is to each individual plant. But, says Ortega, this is a reversal of the truth of life, which is "precisely the inexorable necessity to make oneself determinate, to enter into an exclusive destiny ..." Symbol is avoidance.

There is much more to this powerful, insightful essay, and one can argue with the author's conclusions. I wrote my dissertation on Goethe's pre-Weimar works, on the subject of "how Goethe became Goethe," because it seemed to me that Weimar constituted a major breach. Unlike Ortega, I am of two minds about whether the post-Weimar oeuvre was worth the move, but it can't be denied that, for non-Goetheans, the "late" Goethe is something like an acquired taste. From early on, of course, Goethe was satisfied with a small audience. By cutting himself off from the larger public (for instance, those readers who would like him to have continued in the vein of The Sorrows of Young Werther or of the early poetry) he was doing what he wanted to do and, in a different sense, fulfilling his own destiny.
The picture of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's has nothing to do with the Spanish philosopher. The afterlife of famous writers moves in unanticipated directions. Thus, there is a branch of Tiffany's in Madrid, indeed, in a landmark building, at 10 Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset. According to Tiffany's press release, this is the city's premier location, referred to as "the golden mile" for luxury shopping.

Picture credits: Squirm (painting of Burggarten Goethe monument); Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Friday, July 24, 2009

Goethe on Landscape Painting

After my visit earlier this week with my friend Barbara Cushing (one of her paintings is above), I began to think about Goethe's writing on landscape painting.  As John Gearey has written, however (in his afterward to the English edition of Goethe's writings on art and literature), Goethe had no particular "theory" when it came to art, landscape otherwise. That was Schiller's domain, and indeed Schiller, in a 1794 essay on Friedrich von Matthisson's nature poetry, devoted much thought to the subject of landscape. It is another instance of Schiller wrestling with the difference between the "ancients" and the "moderns." According to Schiller, it was the moderns who were the first "to consider inanimate nature a subject worthy of depiction for its own sake." I am quoting Jason Gaiger here (from his 2000 article in The Journal of the History of Ideas), who also points out that, from the perspective of classicist aesthetics, "the diffuse and ever-varied forms of the natural landscape appear[ed] resistant to the ennobling and ordering vocation of art."

Goethe's own numerous drawings of landscape (as the one above) are evidence of his interest in landscape painting, but, as John Gearey (who was my Doktorvater) writes, instead of theory, instead of abstract pronouncements, Goethe's essays on art were the products of "an occasion." At the same time, as John writes, "to speak of any work of art was to speak of all art."

Thus, Goethe's essay on three paintings by the Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael (ca. 1628-1682) must be seen in this light. It is not so much a discussion of the qualities of landscape as it is a presentation, in 1816, of convictions that had been developing since his journey to Italy in 1786. Thus, the first painting Goethe discusses is The Waterfall (1660-70; National Gallery, London), which, as he writes, "presents successive periods of human history simultaneously."

When Goethe went to Italy in 1786, according to Gearey, he brought with him not only a preference but also a passion for realism in art, particularly the art of the North. He was familiar with such art from his home in Frankfurt, and he first encountered Ruisdael's paintings already in 1768 in Dresden. After Rome, Goethe's early "evolutionary" ideas about artistic creation (as expressed in the essay on the Strasbourg Cathedral) had to be fitted into a "broader framework of meaning." Though Goethe did not abandon an appreciation for "realism" in art, he now preferred "ideal" landscapes. His essay on Ruisdael praises the artist for "delighting, teaching, refreshing, and invigorating us through the health of his mind and his senses."

Goethe rejected the elegiac landscapes of Romantic artists, which reminded him too much of time's winged chariot. In his words, these were pure negations of life (Das sind ja lauter Negationen des Lebens). An example of such an "unhealthy" landscape is the one above, Cloister in the Snow, by Karl Friedrich Lessing. Goethe suggested (in a conversation with Friedrich Förster) that Lessing could improve the painting by rearranging the moon illumination in such a way as to make the viewer forget the the subject was a cemetery! The image here is a copy of Lessing's famous painting by the German artist Klaus W. Kunze, who specializes in such historical reproductions. (No free copies of this painting on the Internet!)

Picture credits: ⓒ Barbara Cushing; Goethezeitportal

Monday, July 20, 2009

World Literature

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The above, from the 1848 manifesto of the Communist Party, is the most famous reference to world literature. Karl Marx, however, was indebted to Goethe for the concept of "world literature," which describes a process Goethe had been thinking about since at least the time of the Napoleonic wars  and which he first began to refer to by name in the 1820s. Goethe was talking about intellectual intercourse between nations, which he imagined would have the salutary effect of making people more cosmopolitan, thus less nationalistic or chauvinistic. By becoming familiar with the works of foreign authors, through translations or even in the original languages, people would learn to overcome the narrow ethnic and religious differences that had bedeviled Europe for centuries.

Of course, the nations of Europe had been engaged in such intellectual and cultural exchange for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but by the beginning of the 19th century, this process seems to have gone into overdrive. Writers were now actually in a position, either through correspondence or in personal visits, to become acquainted with writers from other countries.

Obviously the increase in the possibilities of travel itself was the factor that made this rapid interchange possible. There was still considerable risk in overseas travel (which meant that the U.S. was a belated participant in this interchange), but Europeans of a certain class traveled all the time. Goethe was somewhat unusual in not having visited Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, or London. Paradoxically, in light of his later interest in literary exchange, even when he was in Rome he failed to interact with local literati and consorted almost exclusively with other Germans. Well, there was always something self-sufficient about Goethe, and, besides, everyone came to visit him in Weimar.

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 19th century he was aware of this new and rapid interchange. More important, Goethe also connected it with the spread of trade and commerce. In other words, free trade would lead to free commerce in ideas. Note the language of commerce in an April letter to Thomas Carlyle, in which he predicted that "more or less free intellectual commerce [geistigen Handelsverkehr]" would occur via travel and the exchange of "cultural goods [Güter]." Thus, contrary to Marx, it is not ideas that change material conditions, but the changes in the material that transform our intellectual or spiritual habitus: the improvement of living standards in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries rearranged the way people thought of themselves. Individual liberty was a growth product, along with separate bedrooms, the Argant lamp, and personal cleanliness.

Goethe has been accused of being "Eurocentric," insofar as the world literature he spoke of was only an inter-European product. In the meantime of course there has been a spread of "European" ideas to the rest of the world, in particular ideas of individual liberty and rights. But liberty and rights have to be embodied in a particular material culture, and at the moment many of the peoples longing for freedom live in cultures where the institutional arrangements are not conducive to freedom.  I am in a minority among my intellectual colleagues, however, in thinking that the more opportunity people have to make money, to travel, to buy whatever they like with their money (in other words, to enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be robbed of it by over-taxation or corrupt governments) will likewise lead to self-empowerment.

Many of my colleagues feel regret at the loss of the self-sufficiency voiced in Marx's opening statement, quoted above. That regret is another product of Western affluence. I venture to assert that the people working on the assembly lines pictured here -- when they pocket their earnings -- are glad not to be toiling in rice paddies or in other traditional labor. Modern work, according to Alain de Botton, needs to be reassessed. I certainly am grateful when I go outside at 9 a.m. and discover that anything I need is there because millions of people all over the world have gone to work and make the world function, especially for literary types like myself.

Picture credits: Big Picture; Harvard College Geoffrey Chaucer page

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Goethe's Fondness for Disguise

I am reading the first of a series of three novels by the East German writer Bernd Wolff. Each has as its subject one of Goethe's three journeys into the Harz mountains. The first, Winterströme, is about the first Harz journey, the most famous one, between November 29 and December 14, 1777. Famous because of the poem "Harzreise im Winter," which re-creates Goethe's experience of the journey and the experiences recorded in the poem. Wolff's novel is historical fiction, and it suffers from the problem of the genre, namely, the difficulty of capturing the lived reality of historical persons. Wolff uses "innere Rede" to convey the thoughts and feelings of characters. Thus, Charlotte von Stein comes across as a "desperate housewife." To a great extent Wolff manages to solve the problem of portraying Goethe -- and of drawing us into the 18th-century world he otherwise creates quite successfully -- by presenting him in the disguise in which Goethe traveled, namely, as a landscape painter named "Weber."

I have just reached the middle of the novel, describing Goethe/Weber's meeting with the young man named Friedrich Plessing. Plessing is an instance of a now frequent phenomenon, namely, a person who sees in a famous person the embodiment of his own most intense feelings. Identifying with the central character of The Sorrows of Young Werther and imagining that its author is the only person on earth who can understand him, he began to pursue Goethe, besieging him with letters, asking for advice, wanting to be his friend. Goethe, uncomfortable with this importuning yet somehow intrigued by the morbid personality that comes across in the letters, thus makes a stop during the Harz journey in the town in which Plessing lives. Impersonating himself as Weber, he visits the young man, who, despite being in the best of health and having enjoyed a good education, lives in reclusion with his aged parents. (How very contemporary is that!) Weber/Goethe, imagining that the cure for Plessing's depression is some outdoor activity, convinces him to take a walk. The weather is beastly, however, Plessing's footwear is inadequate to the snow and the slush, and the walk only confirms for Plessing that nature holds no wonders for him.

I was thinking of this scene yesterday when friend Paula and I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibition of paintings by the Belgian avant-garde artist James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor made a rather conventional 19th-century beginning as an artist, but there was one painting in the first room that pointed in the direction for which he would become known. This was the work, from 1883, called The Scandalized Masks. Like the other early paintings, it is rather dark, yet, at the same time, oddly "colorful," in that Ensor binds many colors together. I like the application of paint to the canvas in these early works; one is aware of the painting's texture as much as one is of the subject. Still, one can't call the works beautiful; they are simply too dark (for my taste, anyway). At a certain point, however, Ensor makes a transition to whites and brilliant colors. Light enters the paintings, never to disappear, as can be seen in the painting of masked figures at the top of this post. He returned to this subject of masks time and again (too often, in my opinion), and in these grotesqueries he seems a predecessor of the German Expressionists.

Goethe and his writings continue to have an effect on people. I was intrigued by the website of a California named Peter Chao, who credits Goethe with being one of his "spiritual mentors." You can find on his site a translation of the poem "Winter Journey in the Harz."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Goethe's Friend Jung-Stilling

While reading the section of Poetry and Truth in connection with my recent post -- on Goethe's fear of heights -- I reencountered Johann Heinrich Jung (1740-1817). His autobiography, written under the name of Jung-Stilling, has the simple title Lebensgeschichte. I read it years ago, back in graduate school. Indeed Goethe seems to have strongly encouraged his fellow student in Strasbourg to write his life story. In it Stilling comes across as a very pious young man, which he indeed was, and also so modest, unassuming, and unworldly that these qualities are hard to reconcile with his later accomplishments, in particular as a physician and oculist who performed thousands of cataract surgeries.

I have just reread the section of Lebensgeschichte in which he describes his own experiences as a student in Strasbourg. It struck me that Goethe may have made use of Jung-Stilling's autobiography, which appeared in 1789, when, in 1809, he began to plan his own autobiography.

Jung-Stilling got to know Goethe because they took their daily lunch at the same establishment, one that catered principally to medical students. Jung-Stilling writes of his experience (in the third person) among these new colleagues: "In the circle in which Stilling now found himself he had temptations aplenty on a daily basis to become a doubter. He heard every day new arguments against the Bible, against Christianity, and against the precepts of the Christian religion."

Goethe was a doubter from an early age, which is not unusual for someone who had grown up around strongly religious people. Indeed, he was well acquainted with Pietists among his mother's friends in Frankfurt. Nevertheless, it is an indication of his generosity of spirit that, when Goethe found something to like about another person, he was not disturbed by his (or her) religious enthusiasm. Thus, he writes (in Poetry and Truth) of Jung-Stilling:

This man's way of life had been very simple and yet crowded with events and manifold activities. The wellspring of his energy was an unshakable faith in God and in the help emanating directly from Him, which manifested itself in uninterrupted providence and unfailing rescue out of all distress and every evil. ... His faith tolerated no doubt and his conviction no mockery. And, inexhaustible as he was in his friendly narrating, it would all stop short if he met contradiction. At such junctures I usually helped him along, and he rewarded me with his sincere affections.

Stilling himself mentions Goethe coming to his defense, in connection with a student from Vienna named Waldberg, "a man whose heart was full of ridicule against religion." Jung-Stilling wore a wig, called a "Beutelperücke," with which I am not familiar but which must have been already a bit out of date by 1770. And so it happened one day at lunch that Waldberg asked Stilling whether Adam had worn such a round wig in paradise? According to Stilling, everyone at the table laughed except for Goethe, Salzmann (whom Goethe describes as a rationalist), and Trost (this last was Stilling's own friend from home with whom he had come to Strasbourg). Stilling chastised Waldberg for his cheap comment, and Goethe added his own reproof, asking whether one shouldn't first see whether a man is worth being ridiculed. "It is the devil's work to pull the leg of an honest man who has offended no one."

Goethe does not describe that specific incident in his autobiography, although he does mention the wig. It was through Goethe that Stilling came into the circle that also included Herder and Lenz.

Credits: Robert R. Heitner (Poetry and Truth translation); Der Spiegel (18C wigs)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Goethe Dealt with Heights

Among the first sights Goethe describes on his arrival in Strassburg in April 1770 is the cathedral. Indeed, it was, he claims in Poetry in Truth (pt. 2, book 9), his "dearest desire" to see it, a "colossus," almost too large to register in the small square in which it stood, but which nevertheless made a "unique" impression on him. The cathedral also offers him a novel way of overcoming his paralyzing fear of heights:

All alone, I climbed up to the highest part of the cathedral tower and sat in its so-called neck, under the crown, as it is named, for a good quarter of an hour until I dared to go back out in the open air and stand on a platform that is hardly a yard square and has hardly any handhold. From there one sees the infinite landscape before one's eyes, while the ornaments and other things round about hide the church and everything upon and above which one is standing.

It is exactly as if one were aloft in a Montgolfier balloon [pictured above in the 1784 painting by Antonio Carnicero]. I exposed myself to similar fears and torments often enough so that I became quite indifferent to the impression they made, and since then these preliminary exercises have been a great advantage to me on mountain trips and in geological studies, on large construction sites where I completed with the carpenters in running over ledges and exposed beams, even in Rome, where one must engage in just such exploits to get a closer look at some significant art works.

I thought of this passage when reading last week about the new glass viewing platform on the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Towers) in Chicago. According to the news report, the platform is suspended 1,353 feet in the air and just four feet from the Tower's 103d floor Skydeck. The transparent walls, floor, and ceiling give viewers the impression of "floating over the city." The "Ledge," as it is called, is open to the public, "for those brave enough to look straight down," to a "heart-stopping vista of the street and Chicago River below."

Well, count me out. According to the news stories, my reaction is typical of adults. Thus, I like the spectral image at the top of the post. Children, however, are said to take right to this spectacular height.

Credits: Robert R. Heitner (Poetry and Truth); Museo del Prado; Artefaqs Corporation (Willis Tower)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Stephen Spender on Goethe

In Goethe, certain kinds of intellectual ideas are more concretely experienced than in any other poetry I can think of. Goethe's knowledge is amazingly wide and penetrating, and at the same time it is infused with his personality. In the second part of Faust, particularly in the Helena scene, a fusion of knowledge, intellectual will, and egotistic personality of an unparalleled kind takes place in the poetry. One lives within the world of antiquity which is immensely learned, competely realized, and supremely Goethean. To read these pages is like opening up some Egyptian tomb and finding oneself surrounded by objects made of solid stone and gold, all of them pervaded with the concreteness of the age to which they belong.

I encountered this passage in an essay by the English poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), which struck me as so correct, expressing perhaps as only another poet could the effect of Goethe's poetry.

It has been observed already that the English have impressive insight into Goethe, one of the first being Carlyle, who was actually a Scot. So, amend that. Can we say Anglo-Saxon? Probably not, and it has recently come out that Spender himself (pictured here in the portrait by Wyndham Lewis) had Jewish antecedents. This rather modern complexity is the subject of Spender's essay, which he relates to Goethe in another passage: "Goethe was evidently close to the problem of Joyce, the problem of the disintegration of a very complex modern consciousness within a world whose values do not provide a structure upon which such complexity can realize itself objectively."

Spender addresses the "fruitful misunderstandings" that occur when a poet who speaks one language reads a poet in another language. Misunderstandings are inevitable, but the misreading, in Coleridge's case, for instance, serves as a fruitful comparison of the differences between German and English poetry. After a discussion of Goethe's poetry (including the effect of Shakespeare on Goethe), Spender comes to the conclusion that the "root cause" of the fruitful misunderstanding between "the Goethean poetic mind" and the English one "is an uninhibited guiltless attitude which for Goethe was the source of his creativity." I have not thought to put it in so many words, but one reads this and agrees.

Spender's essay is a special instance of the workings of "world literature" (a term Spender indeed uses several times), specifically the effect that the works of foreign writers have on our own self-understanding. As Goethe wrote to Eckermann (July 15, 1827): "Es is aber sehr artig, daß wir jetzt, bei dem engen Verkehr zwischen Franzosen, Engländern und Deutschen, in den Fall kommen, uns einander zu korrigieren. Das ist der große Nutzen, der bei einer Weltliteratur herauskommt und der sich immer mehr zeigen wird. Carlyle hat das Leben von Schiller geschrieben und ihn überall so beurteilt, wie ihn nicht leicht ein Deutscher beurteilen wird. Dagegen sind wir bei Shakespeare and Byron im klaren und wissen deren Verdienste vielleicht besser zu schätzen als die Engländer selbst" (As a result of closer contact between French, English, and Germans it's very charming that we have occasion to correct one another. That is the great advantage of world literature, which will continue to be the case. Carlyle wrote a biography of Schiller and judged him generally in a way that a German would not do easily. On the other hand we are clear when it comes to Shakespeare and Byron and understand better than the English to appreciate their achievement).

Picture credit: The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

Friday, July 3, 2009

Max Beerbohm on Goethe

Goethe has more than once been described as "the perfect man." He was assuredly a personage on the great scale, in the grand manner, gloriously balanced, rounded. And it is a fact that he was not made of marble. He started with all the disadvantages of flesh and blood, and retained them to the last. Yet from no angle, as he went his long way, could it be plausibly hinted that he wasn't sublime. Endearing though failure always is, we grudge no man a moderately successful career, and glory itself we will wink at if it befall some thoroughly good fellow. But a man whose career was glorious without intermission, decade after decade, does sorely try our patience. He, we know, cannot have been a thoroughly good fellow. Of Goethe we are shy for such reasons as that he was never injudicious, never lazy, always in his best form -- and always in love with some lady or another just so much as was good for the development of his soul and his art, but never more than that by a tittle.

The above assessment of Goethe is by the English "parodist" and caricaturist Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), seen here in a caricature by Walter Sickert in 1891 for Vanity Fair. (What a lifetime: from the Victorian era to the era of the Bomb.)  It is from an essay by Beerbohm called "Quia Imperfectum" from 1918, in which he shows a pretty good knowledge of Goethe. The essay is rather tongue in cheek, mostly about Goethe's relationship with Tischbein and the famous painting of Goethe in the Campagna. For the entire essay, see here.

Beerbohm reminded me that Goethe had not seen the finished painting. It was given to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt in 1878 by the Baroness Salomon de Rothschild, also known (according to the Städel site, as "Adèle Hannah Caroline von Rothschild" (1843-1922), who was living in Paris when she made the bequest. How the painting got from Italy to Paris is not indicated.