Thursday, September 24, 2020

Goethe Wisdom Anew

An email and a link appeared this morning in my inbox from Carl Muenzer, former president of the Goethe Society of North America. It turns out that the estimable cartoonist Brian Crane's comic strip Pickles, which features a long-married couple and their friends and neighbors, has drawn on Goethe's words of wisdom in these trying times. The cartoon below appeared recently in The Washington Post and shows the extent to which Goethe's "wisdom" travels. (Click to enlarge.)

According to The Washington Post, Pickles has topped comics polls across the nation again and again, and it appears in 900 newspapers around the world

This particular bit of Goethe wisdom is one that I have mentioned in a couple of posts, including recently, as occurring in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. I have also posted frequently on the appearance of Goethe in various non-Goethe contexts. shoes, lifestyle magazines, not to forget Duckenfaust.

Image credit: © 2020 The Washington Post

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Goethe at Wartburg castle

In 1776 Goethe joined the “administration” in Weimar. By 1777, he was often accompanying the duke on trips in connection with that administration. According to Nicholas Boyle, the first two and a half years on the Council were “a natural, if time-consuming extension of his principal role as companion and mentor to Carl August.” Besides sessions in Weimar, they traveled to other places in the duchy. In 1777, for which I am also Tweeting from Goethe’s diary. they traveled to Martinroda, Manebach, Elgersburg, Stützerbach, all in the vicinity of Ilmenau. In Stützerbach he wrote to Charlotte von Stein of a wild night of dancing with the peasant girls (Bauernmädel) and drinking until 1 a.m. In those same days, however, he suffered an intense toothache. Yes, even the great one had toothaches. As he wrote to Charlotte from Eisenach on September 6, his swollen face compromised the good times with the “girls”: 

Alles ist wohl nur ich habe mir ein Monster von dicken Backen ganz wider allen Sinn meiner dürren Constitution geholt …  und muss nun inne sitzen und warme Kräutermilch im Mund haben, und kann nicht auff Misels ausgehen, es wird ein verfluchter Streich sein, wenn ich mit verzognem Gesicht soll die Maidels belügen.

Hans Lufft’s Bible printed 1536

He and the duke then traveled to Eisenach on September 12, where he would take part in the sessions of the Eisenach Estates, principally concerning tax matters. First, however, he was still suffering a "Geschwülst und grose Schmerzen" from the toothache, and had to remain in lodgings, while the others with whom he was traveling were out hunting. But the highlight of these days was certainly his stay at the Wartburg, the famous castle, where Martin Luther spent ten months, during which he translated the New Testament. Carl August made it possible for Goethe stay there, from September 13, and Goethe took the opportunity to sketch. On the 16th he wrote to CvS about the view from on high:

Heute früh war wider alles neu. Philip weckte mich und lies mich ans Fenster gehn! es lagen unten alle Thäler im gleichen Nebel, und es war völlig See, wo die vielen Gebürge, als Ufer, hervorsahen.

He liked Wartburg so much that he was back there at the end of September, when he wrote to his Wetzlar friend Kestner, saying that he was “living on Luther’s Patmos.” Indeed, Luther had referred to his stay in the castle as his personal “Patmos,” in reference to the exile to the isle of Patmos of the apostle John, who wrote the final book of the Bible there. A website I just came across, which appeared in 2017, “Reformation Year,” reports that Luther was very depressed during his stay in the castle and believed his end was near. Goethe, however, was in a far different mood. As he wrote to Kestner, he was “der glücklichste von allen die ich kenne.”

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Somerset Mauham on Goethe's novels

Maugham looking Olympian
I have been gearing myself up this summer to write a scholarly article on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novels. I foresee a year before me of combing through the scholarly literature on the subject, some of which I read side my side during my daily pensum of reading the novels. I have started off with books I have on my own shelves, including Eric Blackall, of course, whose footnotes offer guidance to older studies, and in which I find many underlinings from my first reading of it back in grad school. An essay by Stuart Atkins on Goethe's "classicism" also offers hints as to the choices Goethe made in writing the Apprenticeship.

It can't be said that reading these novels is an unmitigated pleasure, as is, for instance, sinking into many a 19th-century English novel. Goethe's literary production always owed a great debt to inherited literary models. Again, it is Atkins, whose essay on Wilhelm Meister, subtitled "Novel or Romance?," offers a clue to the abundance of long 18th-century prose narratives with which Goethe would have been familiar. These included, in the case of der Roman, as one calls the genre in German, "Reiseroman, Politischer Roman, Satirischer Roman, Schäferroman," and, most famously perhaps, the "picaresque." In the case of the WM novels, we are faced, as in these earlier types of novels, by a string of episodes in which a character is seen traveling and meeting lots of "types" of people, having many adventures, and so on, but not adding up to the kinds of resolutions with which we are familiar from "canonical" 19th-century novels. In other words, no plot (which, in any case, has been condemned by postmodernists). According to Atkins, Goethe himself did not generally refer to the WM novels as Romane; it was only Elective Affinities that he continually spoke of as a "Roman."

Since Somerset Maugham was himself a novelist, his essay on Goethe's novels is illuminating on Goethe's "failure" in respect of what moderns expect in the way of a novel, while at the same time knowledgeable concerning the 18th-century background of Goethe's writing. He speaks highly of the precursor to the WM novels, Theatralische Sendung, begun by Goethe in 1779, which Maugham associates with the Spanish picaresque novels that were in vogue in Europe: Gil Blas by Le Sage, Tom Jones by Fielding, and Humphrey Clicker by Smollett being three successful ones. Maugham found it "a pity" that Goethe was unable to finish along the lines he had begun. Instead, when Goethe again took up the novel, in 1794, he diverted from the original plan, which, according to Maugham, would have "reached the conventional end of a picaresque novel," with Wilhelm as manager of a theater and a happy marriage. Instead, "Goethe's theme was not, as it had been, the art of the theatre, but the art of life. ... Art is an effect of design; life is so largely controlled by chance that its conduct can be but a perpetual improvisation." As readers of WM's Apprenticeship are aware, of course, "chance" plays a huge role in the novel. In other words, Goethe did not leave the influence of the 18th-century novels behind, all of which abound in far-fetched coincidences that redirect the action.

Of the Sendung, Maugham writes that, if finished, "it would [not] have been a great book, but it would have been a good one and have stood comparison, not unfavourably, with the best of the picaresque tales." At the same time, he gives credit to what Goethe did achieve: "If on the whole the novel which Goethe eventually sent to the press is a failure, it is of more consequence than many a novel which within its limits is completely successful."

Maugham makes a point about what happens when an author is "drawing a portrait of himself" in a novel, which he contends is the case in Werther, Clavigo, and Götz. (He doesn't mention Stella.) The male characters are "slaves of their emotions," traits, one suspects, "that were deeply rooted in Goethe himself." And so it is with Wilhelm: "Goethe had a weakness for delivering long disquisitions on any subject that happened at the time to interest him." Moreover, when the author is the hero of his novel, "the hero is acted upon, rather than acts, with the result that he remains shadowy in comparison with the other persons, objectively seen, of the story."

Image credits: Graham Sutherland; Barnes and Noble