Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Goethe and Anton Reiser

I am finally getting around to the continuation of the previous post, in which I mentioned what I saw as a connection between Goethe's account of the shoemaker in Leipzig and the account in Anton Reiser of AR's apprenticeship experience. In Goethe's account of his visit to Leipzig, the shoemaker is good hearted and philosophic, a joy to be around. In AR's account, the milliner in his cruelty is Dickensian avant la lettre.

Goethe and the Philosophical Shoemaker

It was not simply that particular contrast that made me think that Goethe had the character of Anton Reiser in mind when he wrote about the shoemaker in Book 8 of Dichtung und Wahrheit. That book, along with the last part of Book 6 and the entire Book 7, concerns Goethe's residence in Leipzig, and in particular his mentors, including the wife of Professor Böhme, Oeser, Behrisch, and even an officer who had fought in the Seven Years' War and to whom young Goethe confided his confusion concerning the nature of "Erfahrung." Each of these individuals was important in some way for Goethe's development. In Anton Reiser, in contrast, Anton also has several mentors who endeavor to assist him to rise from the narrow, impecunious circumstances in which he was raised. In every case, however, good fortune is followed by bad fortune.

What made me bring these two cases into connection was the opening paragraph of Book 9. Goethe is back home Frankfurt, after a less than stellar legal studies in Leipzig. It begins with a quote from a review by the classical philologist Heyne, which seems to sum up the real experience of Leipzig for Goethe. Here is part of the quote:

[W[ir haben eine Einbildiungskraft, der wir, wofern sie sich nicht der ersten besten Vorsellungen selbst bemächtigen soll, die schicklichsen und schönsten Bilder vorlegen und dadurch das Gemüt gewöhnen und üben müssen, das Schöne überall und in der Natur selbst, unter seinen bestimmten, wahren und auch in den feineren Zügen zu erkennen und zu lieben. Wir haben eine Menge Begriffe und allgemeine Kenntinisse nötig, sowohl für die Wissenschaften als für das täglich Leben, die sich in keinem Kompendio erlernen lassen. Unsere Empfindungen, Neigungen, Leidenschaften sollten mit Vorteil entwickelt und gereinigt werden.

Anton Reiser, of course, is never in control of is his imagination, which is always painting pictures of success, whether it be as an actor or a poet. It takes him so far afield that, whenever an opportunity comes his way for betterment, he is so far carried away by the glorioius prospect that his feet seem not to be on the ground. The result is that he ends up being cast down by what he perceives as his failure. The novel is a daunting story of what we might call today manic-depression. What Bodmer wrote of poetic enthusiasm (in his 1727 treatise Von dem Einfluss und Gebrauche der Einbildungskraft) applies to Anton Reiser:

[Sie] jagt die Einbildungs-Krafft in eine ausserordentliche Hitze, und führet den Dichter gleichsam ausser sich selbst, daß er die Einbildungen von den Empfindungen nicht unterscheiden kan, die gerichts von dem Gegenstand, dem wir wircklich, vor dem Gesicht haben, abkommen; sondern meinet er sehe und fühle die Dinge gegenwärtig.

For Goethe, of course, imagination was extremely important, but he had a different personality (to use another modern term) from Reiser. We know that he was occasionally petulant when criticized, but he seems to have been fortunate in being more grounded, so to speak, and was able to take his time, to allow himself to be led by those wiser than himself. As I read on in Der junge Goethe and in the autobiography, this is very apparent in his encounters with men like Herder and Merck.

Anyway, take it as you like. As I wrote in the previous post, one cannot know what was on Goethe's mind when he wrote this account of his early "apprenticeship," but his acquaintance in Rome with Karl Philipp Moritz, author of Anton Reiser, is suggestive of the many influences that affected his writing.

Image credit: AKG images