Friday, October 11, 2019

Goethe and Charlotte von Stein

Slip-covered edition of Lotte meine Lotte by Die Andere Bbliothek
I have been Tweeting various entries from Goethe’s diaries, beginning with the Weimar era. Goethe started a Weimar diary on March 11, 1776, as follows: “Herzog und H.D. die verwittibte Herzogin die nach Gotha ging biß Erfurt begleit’. Beim Herzog geschlafen.” Since I started posting Tweets on September 5, illustrating them with images of people or subjects mentioned, all the Tweets reflect the day they were written in 1776. Occasionally I throw in a passage from Goethe’s letters, especially those to Charlotte von Stein. Which has led me to reread the letters, in the edition from the Andere Bibliothek (Lotte meine Lotte: Die Briefe von Goethe an Charlotte von Stein), which I reviewed in the Goethe Yearbook (vol. 23, 2016), alongside Der Briefschreiber Goethe by Albrecht Schöne.

The letters, upward of 1,700, are often only notes that were transmitted by a servant during the day or in the evening, accompanying an exchange of food (Feldhühner, Wildpratsbraten, Phasen) or of flowers and fruit. On an almost daily basis they mention concerts, plays, excursions. Goethe passes on gossip, tells her how he slept and of his tooth aches, and is much concerned for her health and sleep as well. According to my edition of his correspondence in the Weimar edition (WA IV,3), she is the recipient of the vast majority of letters he wrote between 1775 and 1778, beginning in early January of 1776, in other words within days of his arrival in Weimar. Johanna Falmer, with whom he had been corresponding before he left Frankfurt, gradually falls out of the picture.

My edition of Lotte meine Lotte is papered with post-its on which I express my astonishment at his importuning of her. By the end of January, he is addressing her per “Du”:

Liebe Frau, leide dass ich dich so liebe habe. Wenn ich iemand lieber haben kann, will ich dir's sagen. Will dich ungeplagt lassen. Adieu Gold, du begreiffst nicht wie ich dich liebe hab.

The contemporary German poet Jans Volker Röhnert, who wrote the afterword to the Andere Bibliothek edition, speculates that the letters represent a “gesteigerter Werther.” Rather than expressing his ardor for a beloved Lotte via William, Goethe now addresses himself directly to a similarly-named, likewise unavailable lady of much higher station. How many ways can one say “I love you”? It can be hard reading: “Ja liebe Lotte ietzt wird es mir erst deutlich wie du meine eigne Hälfte bist und bleibst. Ich bin kein einzelnes kein selbständiges Wesen.”

I hazard that there is another epistolary precedent to these letters, aside from The Sorrows of Young Werther, namely, the Leipzig letters of November 1767 to Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch. Those letters, ecstatic professions of love for Katharina Schönkopf scenically dramatized over several days, were clearly a case of literary role-playing. In the case of Charlotte von Stein, the role playing went on for a long time.

Interestingly, when Goethe was on the road, when he lacked the opportunity for the daily “conversation,” his need for communication is more objectively rendered. whether it concerns climbing the Brocken or exploring the Harz; the second Swiss journey in 1779, with Carl August; the diplomatic mission to Brunswick in 1784, also with Carl August (letters in French, nicely translated); or excursions to mines and in pursuit of his geological interests. They are evidence that Goethe had many registers in which he was able to express himself.

Rereading these letters led me to look at Nicholas Boyle’s Goethe bio anew, in which Boyle offers a cogent discussion of why Goethe stayed in Weimar and of the liaison with CvS. Regarding the former, it had in part to do with Goethe’s “pedagogical” tendency, which I noted in an earlier post in regard to the Conversations with Eckermann. That tendency was also on view in Goethe’s letters to Cornelia from Leipzig, and the duke was of course Goethe’s most important student. Boyle doesn’t mention Rousseau’s Emile, although much has been written of the influence of Rousseau on Goethe’s literary works. At a certain point, however, even after the duke was “educated” sufficiently, Goethe may simply have got used to the place. Boyle quotes from a letter Goethe wrote in which he is reflecting on his situation and which includes the following sentiment: “A man who changes his situation always loses his travel and removal expenses, both morally and economically.” Boyle gives the reference  (HABr i,414), but does not mention the date or the recipient. (I don't have that edition of the letters at home.)