Sunday, September 9, 2018

Goethe's aura

I return here to Goethe and Bettina, the subject of a 1924 essay by Hermann Hesse that I have come across in my research for my book review. Hesse begins the essay by alluding to the earlier legends surrounding  Goethe's relationship with Bettina, which have ceased with the appearance a few years earlier of the edition of the original correspondence underlying Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kind.

In a previous post, I discussed Milan Kundera’s account of the relationship between Goethe and Bettina. Hesse likewise notes the practically one-sided nature of the correspondence, but he is more sympathetic to Bettina. He contrasts the numerous, long, and loving letters she wrote, which received only short, terse, and scarcely cordial replies from Goethe, often no reply at all. There is in Bettina’s letters much that is beautiful, heartfelt, effusive, while in Goethe’s there is hardly anything worth reading. Not only did Goethe not reciprocate the touching, abiding, soulful love that Bettina felt for him until her death, but he also seems not to have completely recognized or understood it. Indeed her long letters, full of verbose enthusiasm, annoyed him, with his occasional responses lending a chilly note. Had she not come recommended by Goethe’s aged mother, he probably would have dismissed her at first encounter. Goethe’s error was that he could not say no, but also not yes, with the result that the “relationship” dragged on for years as a brittle affair. If there is any blame to be ascribed, it is Goethe’s.

And yet, Hesse writes, the edition is important for documenting two lives over two decades. We see Bettina transformed from a cheeky young woman to a wife and mother. As for Goethe, we witness his aging, his dismantlement, his increasing stiffening and isolation (Altwerden, Abbauen, zunehmende Versteifung und Vereinsamung), indeed his total dying out (Absterben), which is itself a poignant and sublime spectacle. For Hesse, the “aged Goethe” is illuminated here. Bettina's letters embrace him in a cloud of adoration and love, urge him to forget how old he is, and dare him to be infected with affectionate youthfulness. Initially such wooing is met with a few friendly words, even a smile or two, but soon there arrives the slow, inexorable distancing, so that one is not surprised, after the contretemps with Christiane, that Goethe had not a word to say about Christiane’s lack of self-control and simply cut off Bettina and her husband.

After Christiane’s death, Bettina resumed her letters to Goethe, with a new, affecting tone, which the “young Goethe” would not have withstood, but the present Goethe is unresponsive. No more letters from his side, though he did receive her in Weimar.

This new series of one-sided series of professions of love, of wooing, of “seelische” tributes is, however, eloquent negative testimony to a process in Goethe that might be ascribed to aging, but that really represents weariness (Müdewerden). While Bettina’s youthful voice continues to sing extravagantly, the other voice is absent. Goethe as such no longer exists. He has become a secretive (geheimnnisvoll) old man in the process of depersonalizing himself and disappearing completely into anonymity. This is not the effect of decrepitude, as is clear from his continuing studies and other attainments in these final decades. But he is no longer a person (er ist kein Person mehr); he is not one to whom one can direct songs of love or worship. One has the feeling that the voice of the world no longer reach his ears.

Bettina's last encounter with Goethe was in Weimar, in 1824. The great one, as Hesse writes, is a physically small and peevish old man who, in the course of the evening, keeps repairing to an adjacent room from which one can hear the sounds of him pouring himself a glass of wine. But it is not Goethe who speaks on this occasion, not the lips of an old man wet with wine; he is now a Nameless one, a no longer Personal one (der Namenlose, nicht mehr Persönliche, in den er sich verwandelt hat).

What seems to interest Hesse is the fatal, uncanny, indeed unearthly effect of an outsized Genius like Goethe. The letters reveal the tendency of the aged Goethe to die to the imprisonment of an almost totally over-cultivated personality (aus der Haft einer nahezu überkultivierten Persönlichkeit zu sterben) and to grow into a super personal and anonymous being (ins Überpersönliche, ins Anonyme hinüber zu wachsen) And while we sense that Goethe is no longer a person, not the lover or recipient of her letters and of her adoration, we see that she is a creation, an emanation of him. Consider, for instance, the beginning of the correspondence, in which she appears as a small, spirited boat striving to reach a far mountain: it is the boat that is active, the mountain is passive. But if we recognize that the mountain is magnetic, then the relationship is reversed. It is Goethe who generates the atmosphere in which everyone else participates. This quality of sucking up everyone else (Aufgesogensein) is clear if we consider those person less active (than Bettina) and less important who cluster around Goethe: Riemer, Eckermann, Meyer, even Zelter. Why do they live on? Why are their letters published, why do we read them? Why, after a century, does this “Gespensterlicht” still flicker around their marginal existences? Because, from each of them, a small bit of Goethe’s radiance emanates.

I render the last part of the essay in Hesse’s lovely prose. After considering that everything that Bettina wrote may have been a fib, a lie, Hesse writes:

Ist es nicht ganz einerlei, was Bettina sagt, ist denn nicht sie selbst, ihre ganze Beziehung zu Goethe, ihr Weinen und Knien in einem Zimmer neben jener Weinflasche, ist dies alles zusammen denn eine Eigenwelt, mit eigenen Gesetzen, mit freiem Willen zu Lüge oder Wahrheit, ist es nicht vielmehr ein Luftkreis um Goethe, ein Faden seines Geistesnetzes, eine Ausstrahlung seines Zentrums?

Picture credits: Getty Images

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Artists monumentalized

The neglect of Goethe on this blog this summer is due to my summer reading of Hermann Hesse in connection with a review I am writing of the English translation of a German biography of Hesse. Goethe comes across over and over in Hesse's writings, and hundreds of times in the biography. I estimate that the figures most frequently referred to by Hesse and that serve as touchstones for him are Goethe, Novalis, Nietzsche, and Mozart. This past day I have been reading "Klingsor's Last Summer," which Hesse wrote in 1919, when he had moved to Ticino. Hesse was apparently subject to frequent mood swings, and this story captures the volatility of the character of the artist Klingsor. In one scene, he and his friend, a fellow artist named Louis the Cruel (Louis der Grausame), have gone on an outing that leads them to the garden of an inn where they enjoy fish, rice with mushrooms, and peaches with maraschino cherries. (Hesse is big on the details of food and drink.) Naturally, lots of wine is drunk. The subject, as is often the case with Hesse, is civilizational decline. Goethe and Schiller come up in the discussion. (I quote here the German, as the English translation of the new biography has not yet appeared.)

Es fällt mir ein, daß jetzt da die zwei Maler sitzen, die unser gutes Vaterland hat, und dann habe ich ein scheußliches Gefühl in den Knieen, wie wenn wir beide aus Bronze wären und Hand und Hand auf einem Denkmal stehen müßten, weißt du, so wie der Goethe und der Schiller. Die können schließlich auch nichts dafäur, daß sie ewig dastehen und einander an der Bronzehand halten müssen, und daß sie uns allmählich so fatal und verhaßt geworden sind ...

He goes on to curse all the professors who periodize and transform great artists and writers into monuments.

The Goethe and Schiller monument in the above photo is in Syracuse, New York. It was produced in 1911, based on the original by Ernst Rietschel.