Sunday, August 28, 2022

Happy Birthday, Goethe!

It seems like only yesterday that I wrote a long post on the above subject, but it was actually last year. That is a sign of how fast the years roll around. I notice that I also wrote a post on Goethe's birthday in 2009: thirteen years ago!!!! Since that long ago day, I have been working pretty extensively on Goethe's autobiography, and in connection with 2009 post I would only add that I recently came upon some information concerning that astrological account mentioned at the beginning of Goethe's autobiography This is how the account goes:

It was on the 28th of August 1749, at the stroke of twelve noon, that I came into the world in Frankfurt on the Main. The constellation was auspicious: the Sun was in Virgo and at its culmination for the day. Jupiter and Venus looked amicably upon it, and Mercury was not hostile. Saturn and Mars maintained indifference. Only the Moon, just then becoming full, was in a position to exert averse force, because its planetary hour had begun. It did, indeed, resist my birth, which did not take place until this hour had passed.

These good aspects, which astrologers in later years taught me to value very highly, were probably responsible for my survival, for the midwife was so unskilled that I was brought into the world as good as dead, and only with great difficulty could I be made to open my eyes and see the light.

Ernst Beutler, in his notes on Dichtung und Wahrheit, writes that the seeming originality of the opening actually draws on the autobiography of Geralomo Cardano. That reminded me that I actually wrote a post on Goethe and Cardano back in 2020. Cardano's work appears in English as The Book of My Life, and appears as a New York Review of Books Classic. Here is the Amazon description of the work:

"Whether discussing his sex life or his diet, the plots of academic rivals or meetings with supernatural beings, or his deep sorrow when his beloved son was executed for murder, Cardano displays the same unbounded curiosity that made him a scientific pioneer. At once picaresque adventure and campus comedy, curriculum vitae, and last will, The Book of My Life is an extraordinary Renaissance self-portrait—a book to set beside Montaigne's Essays and Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography."

Obviously, with Goethe there is always something new to investigate. The image at the top of this post is from Etsy. I receive no commission for mentioning this, but the card can be purchased.

Image: Etsy


Friday, August 19, 2022

The Summer of '72

That was the summer Goethe spent in Wetzlar ostensibly building up his legal bona fides. As with Goethe’s earlier legal education (first in Leipzig, then in Strassburg), there was less attention to the law and more to cultivating friendships and to literary matters. And as in Leipzig and in Strassburg, there was a lady. This time, however, the lady was already promised to another. Yet the acquaintance with Lotte Buff (die Braut) and her fiancé, Johann Christian Kestner (der Bräutigam), was a close one, and the time they spent together that summer represented what Goethe called an authentic German idyll.

The story of this idyll, both the natural scenery and Goethe’s relationship with Kestner and Lotte, is beautifully rendered in Book 12 of Dichtung und Wahrheit, and is reproduced in The Sorrows of Young Werther. The description of Lotte in particular mirrors the character we know  from the novel, as well as Goethe’s infatuation with her. She was the person who introduced him to life’s everyday world (Alltagswelt), and they became inseparable companions in fields and meadows, in pastures and gardens. Sometimes Kestner even accompanied him, when not working! Goethe was the carefree one.

We can imagine how attractive the young Goethe must have been. He was gregarious, charming, attentive. He liked to talk about his ideas and to read aloud from what he was working on, but he was also open to learning from others. Kestner’s first sighting of him indicates he must have been jolly company. Kestner had gone on a walk with Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, one of the founders of the Göttinger Musenalmanach, when they came across Goethe lying on the grass under a tree in discussion with three men whom Kestner characterized as an Epicurean philosopher, a Stoic one, and a “middle thing” between the two. Kestner also said that Goethe’s main interests in life were the fine arts and sciences, but not the “bread” sciences.

The other figure in this story was Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, whom Goethe also considerately and courteously portrays in Book 12. He is one of several individuals whose name is still known to us today because he is the figure on whom Werther was modeled, including his blue tailcoat and yellow vest and his suicide due to unrequited love for a married woman. But we don’t get the whole story here; it takes up about five pages of fifty-six in Book 12 in the Hamburg edition.

In Book 13 Goethe states that, on hearing the news of Jerusalem’s suicide in November 1772, he immediately felt the similarity of his own intense experience in Wetzlar and Jerusalem’s and sat down to write the novel, without distinguishing between what was “poetic license” and reality. Isolating himself from friends and distractions, he finished The Sorrows of Young Werther in four weeks. Of course, that was not the case, as the novel appeared in the summer of 1774.

In 1773 he was at work on many things, including the drama that first brought him to literary fame, Gottfried von Berlichingen (Götz von Berlichingen in the revised edition of the play, 1775). It is treated rather summarily in Book 13, with more attention to the money spent on the financing of the publication (although I think we are meant to understand that the events of the imperial coronation narrated in Book 5 refer to the decrepit Reich that forms the background of the play).

His own letters of 1773, when Werther was probably gestating, do not reveal a man who was in great turmoil, but he was definitely feeling unanchored. He uses the word Grille to refer to his behavior. But what’s love got to do with it? Clearly, Goethe had been infatuated with Lotte Buff in the summer of 1772. After leaving Wetzlar he was in an extensive correspondence with Kestner, and every single letter testifies to how lovable he found Lotte. In hindsight, one could assume that he was fairly obsessed with her, and at one point he responds to something Kestner wrote to him concerning his effusions. 

But the letters don’t quite start out that way. There are many subjects covered in the letters, including the report of Jerusalem’s suicide in November 1772. On receiving the news from Kestner, he traveled to Wetzlar from Frankfurt with Georg Schlosser (soon to be his brother-in-law) to obtain more news. Not long thereafter, Kestner sent him a long report of the details of the events preceding the suicide and the suicide itself, which would two years later appear in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

The letters to Kestner, by the end of 1772 (a long Christmas letter), seem instead to show him trying out the matter of love, as he had done in correspondence with Behrisch in Leipzig in 1767, which resulted in his earliest poetry. This time, however, even though Goethe may have been besotted with Lotte Buff, it was not so torturous as with Kätchen Schönkopf. He was now almost ten years older and wiser: “It’s physical/Only logical/You must try to ignore that it means more than that.”

Most scholarship considers that he began writing the novel in January 1774, right after the marriage of Maximiliane von la Roche, she of the brown-eyed Lotte in Werther. However, in October 1773 he wrote to Johann Fahlmer (later his sister-in-law) that his “authorship” was an inconstant thing. He had been working on various pieces, but nothing had come to fruition. And then: “Ein schöner neuer Plan hat sich in meiner Seele aufgewickelt zu einem grosen Drama.” Drama, of course, could refer to the play Clavigo, which would also appear in 1774, but it could also apply to the drama in prose. Could it have been the news that Max was going to marry that spurred him?

Since Goethe relied on so many documentary sources in writing Dichtung und Wahrheit, was it likely that he conflated the date of Jerusalem’s suicide (1772) and the period in which Werther was written (late 1773–early 1774)? Perhaps it is the case that Goethe was inadvertently trying to establish a background for the reception of Werther on its appearance. Thus, the long excursus in Book 13 concerning the state of the soul of young men (in particular) in Germany in the 18th century, including the effects of morose English poetry. Unlike himself, many of the readers of the novel did not distinguish between poetic license and reality. Some were said to have committed suicide in emulation of Werther.

Werther reading Ossian to Lotte

I could write more, but this longwinded post concerning the genesis of Werther must suffice, treating only a few of the many influences on him, at least in his own account, that began with his return from Strassburg to Frankfurt in 1771. Goethe liked company and most of all liked to read aloud his ongoing work to others. In Book 13 he writes of himself (in the third person) using another technique when alone, that of imaginary listeners. Such are my posts as I continue my investigation of the young Goethe:

Er pflegte nämlich, wenn er sich allein sah, irgend eine Person seiner Bekanntschaft im Geiste zu sich zu rufen. Er bat sie, nieder zu sitzen, ging an ihr auf und ab, blieb vor ihr stehen, und verhandelte mit ihr den Gegenstand, der ihm eben im Sinne lag.

Whenever he found himself alone, he would mentally summon someone he knew, ask that person to  sit down, while he paced back and forth and discussed the subject that was on his mind.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Wanderer continues his journey

As I mentioned in my previous post, Goethe’s autobiography is not the best place to look for the “facts” about his life or even the kinds of personal details that reveal a person’s character. His experiences are instead filtered via a larger portrait of the tendencies of the period in which he came of age and which, as he writes, offered little in the way of direction for young writers like himself. Books 12 and 13 are devoted to the three years when things started to fall into place for him and when he rather explosively appeared on the literary scene: 1772 to 1774. As I wrote in the last post, Darmstadt was the first important stage of this development. In the spring of 1772 in Darmstadt he became friends with Merck, who, like Behrisch in Leipzig, encouraged him and, equally important, brought him into contact with another literary current, Empfindsamkeit. Here is a report in a letter in the spring of 1772 to Herder from his fiancée Caroline Flachsland that gives an idea of Goethe at that time and of the mood. (Please go to Google translate and paste in.)

 Wir waren alle Tage beisammen und sind in den Wald zusammengegangen und wurden auch zusammen durch und durch beregnet. Wir liefen alle unter einen Baum und Goethe sang uns ein Liedchen, das Sie aus dem Shakespear [As You Like It] übersetzt: ‘Wohl unter grünen Laubes Dach’ [Under the greenwood tree] und wir alle sangen den letzten Vers mit: ‘Nur eins, das heißt auch Wetter’ [No enemy/But winter and rough weather].

Caroline also reported that Goethe was reading to this circle of friends scenes from what would become “Gottfried von Berlichingen.”

The next stage was Wetzlar, where he spent the summer of 1772 and was befriended by Kestner and his then-fiancé Lotte Buff. I am going to skip over this stage until the next post. Sorry for the suspense, but Goethe himself leaves Wetzlar at the end of Book 12. It is September 1772, and neither the idea for Werther nor the theme of suicide has taken root. The next stage, as recounted in Book 13, begins with Goethe taking a long trip on foot along the Lahn River from Wetzlar to near Coblenz. (The image at the top of this post does not show Wetzlar, so I have added a star to indicate its approximate location on Goethe's path.) It is in Coblenz that he meets Sophie von la Roche and a new circle of literary people, mostly Catholic. Her novel in letters, The History of Fräulein von Sternheim (Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim), appeared in 1771.

Maximiliane von la Roche with her mother and husband

Are you getting the picture? Things are falling into place. Like The Sorrows of Young Werther, it is a novel in letters. Of course, it was not the first of its kind. Goethe was familiar with the epistolary novels of Rousseau and Richardson, but here he was meeting in person the first woman in Germany to pen such a novel. Unlike Werther, the story of Sophie von Sternheim is told from several different perspectives, more like in the later Liaisions Dangereux. Indeed, Sophie doesn’t appear until fifty pages in.

Sophie von la Roche had a teenage daughter of fifteen going on sixteen, Maximiliane by name, who would be married off within a year and half to a wealthy Frankfurt businessman, Peter Brentano, a 36-year-old widower with five children. The nature of the relationship between Max and Goethe is vague; that he was attracted to her, spent a lot of time with her, is not surprising, especially after her move to Frankfurt on her marriage in January 1774. The important thing in connection with The Sorrows of Young Werther is that she had dark brown eyes, like the Lotte of the novel, but unlike the real Lotte. Before her death in 1793, at the age of 36, Max bore twelve children, among whom were Bettina von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.

Next time, the final building block of the composition of Werther, as recounted in Dichtung und Wahrheit. This is obviously more a story of the composition of the autobiography than of the specific literary merits of Goethe's first famous novel. And before signing off, a lovely photo from my lovely island retreat. I will be here until September, working away on Goethe and other literary projects.