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Goethe: Genius as a toady

August 07th, 2012

As a high official of the ducal court of Weimar – the Duke’s official poet and Minister of War – Goethe had the gifts of a great poet and the character of a toady. Public opinion and authority always held greater sway over him than the dictates of his talent. Thomas Mann said the same thing in a more flattering way when he remarked that Goethe’s work was informed both by his genius and a sense of propriety”.

In his Faust, Goethe wrote moving lines of protest against the execution of Gretchen, a poor girl who is seduced and abandoned by Faust and drowns their child to hide her shame. But since these lines could have been construed as a criticism of the public attitudes and laws of his time, he suppressed them when he produced the play at his theatre in Weimar.

Thomas Mann notes that “When in the presence of opposition and negation, Goethe always thought of himself as the grand seigneur and representative of the government.” Indeed, he was often more ministerial than he needed to be: in his capacity as Privy Councillor he is said to have signed the death warrant of a real Gretchen, a servant girl accused of killing her baby, even though the Duke of Weimar favoured clemency.

Faust has great comic scenes and marvellous lines, but it tells a wickedly false story: the hero makes a pact with Mephistopheles, but still ends up in heaven. It is as if Don Juan ended up with the angels. Some say the story doesn’t matter, but to my mind it is the most vital part of any fictional work because it conveys, more powerfully than direct statement, the effects of various forms of human conduct, what can and cannot be.

In this sense all stories are either guides or warnings, for a story is not only understood but felt. Which is why it matters that Faust, still officially considered the greatest work of German literature, enshrines the notion that you can deal with the Devil, commit vile acts, and still remain essentially a noble person who will come out on top in the end.

I believe this notion had more to do with the educated classes’ support for Hitler than all the works of Nietzsche. Goethe constantly misled people to reassure them, to make them feel safe, comfortable and good. But the history of Germany demonstrates that when writers betray their calling as truth-sayers, they do no favours to their readers.

Goethe is good for a quote on practically any subject, but he could never have written Swinburne’s lines: “The woundless and invisible thought that goes/ Free throughout time as north or south wind blows,/ Far throughout space as east or west sea flows,/ And all dark things before it are made bright.”

This sense of truth as a force invincible as the elements is what separates Goethe from those geniuses who were brave enough to disregard what everybody else thought and discover something new. It is thanks to them that we came down from the trees. Goethe wasn’t one of those who jumped first.

As Thomas Mann said, Goethe didn’t believe that he “could speak regardless and give free vent to his creative gift.” Most people of course prefer the writer who does not forget himself and doesn’t upset them: Goethe’s younger contemporary, Heinrich von Kleist, who gave free reign to his creative gift and wrote the most shockingly truthful stories about pride, indifference and callousness, was driven to suicide by poverty, while reassuring Goethe never ceased to prosper.

Of course, when Goethe wrote about subjects that had nothing upsetting and controversial about them, he was a peerless poet, and some of Roman Elegies rank among the best poetry there is. Both the elegies and The Diary, republished in London with an excellent translation by David Lukem are worth reading in any language.

Goethe can be moving. Often he is uncharacteristically outspoken – though when the Duke of Weimar and a bishop both advised him to suppress some of the elegies, he obeyed, as he himself said, ‘blindly’. As for The Diary, he decided against publishing it in his lifetime without even waiting for the Duke to censor him.

It tells you something about the flavour of these poems that Goethe, the famous poet and statesman and international celebrity, could feel at ease in bed only with his social and intellectual inferiors who needed his support.

At the age of 39 he took as his mistress a working girl who accosted him to ask a favour for her brother, and who had to address him in company as “Herr Privy Councillor”. He was the kind of man who needed a subservient partner in both sex and domestic life.

We are told he had his first complete sexual experience at the age of 37 in Italy, and his Roman Elegies are about his dalliance with a poor Italian widow who rejoiced in his purse: “She has kindled a fire in his heart, and shares it, rejoicing/ Too in his liberal purse” (Elegy III, lines 79-80).

He might just as easily have frolicked with women who didn’t need his purse, but he claims to have become sated with them: “I have grown sick of adornments and finery: are not, when all’s done,/ skirts of brocade and of wool equally easy to lift?” (Elegy III, Lines 41-42).

Here speaks a rich man who found humble women’s woollen skirts far easier to lift than the brocaded gowns of his social equals. I have no moral objection to this, only to the falsehood, the psychological nonsense, of the pretence that seducing a woman of his own class would have been no more difficult than dazzling a poor widow with money. No one knew better than Goethe, a virgin until the age of 37, what a big lie that was.

The most vividly conveyed passion in these erotic poems is the fear of getting the clap. The poet’s greatest love is his love of safety: “Always protect the neat little garden I cherish/ Fend off diseases from me when I’m invited by Love,/ And when I trust myself to him, that rogue, may my pleasure ever/ Carefree, and never with fear, never with danger be mixed!” (last four lines of Elegy IVII).

Goethe never wrote anything more heartfelt than this. Caution has its points – it could not be more timely in the Age of AIDS – but in Goethe’s case prudence gives way to hysteria, to mindless dread that displaces love and trust: “Who does not hesitate now to break faith with a tedious mistress?/ Love may not hold us, but sheer caution will make us think twice” (Elegy XVII).

In his obsequious introduction to the English edition of the Roman Elegies, Professor Hans Rudolf Vaget praises Goethe for wrapping his eroticism in the “classist’s cloak”. But to my mind the constant references to the ancient gods and goddesses are like fig leaves on statues.

In The Diary Goethe mixes sex and virtue in a most unlikely manner: the gentleman traveller makes a pass at a virgin chambermaid, whereupon she herself offers to come to his bed, when she has finished her work. It is the kind of tall tale told by men with little experience of courting women.

Nothing like it ever happened to Casanova, that champion seducer of chambermaids, who writes that he had to cajole and lie and scheme and part with lace, money and precious stones to persuade the maids to forget that he would leave them the next day.

Goethe’s passing stranger doesn’t resort to anything to underhanded: the virgin chambermaid decides to give herself to him without any inducements, simply because she finds him handsome. Even so, our hero cannot rise to the occasion until he thinks of his dear wife – and then, rather than embracing the lovely girl in his bed, he gets up and writes his wife a letter.

The Diary explains Goethe’s immense impact on generations of repressed and conventional people: unmentionable subjects are mentioned, so reading him is a kind of liberation, but a painless one! While reminding readers of their impure parts and feelings, the poet also administers a dose of virtue to quell any stirring sense of guilt or embarrassment.

Still, within the Big Lie, there are many lively truths. Here is one on erection anxiety: “There in my arms, happy at last. But though/ I kissed her now, her mouth, her brow, her eyes,/ I was in wondrous quandary even so:/ My master player, hitherto so hot,/ Shrinks, novice-like, its ardour quite forgot…” (Verse XI).

What I object to in Goethe is the mixture of truth and falsehood; his great talents have given good name to artistic compromise, which rots much of literature and induces mental laziness in readers.

Essay Date: 2000

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