Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Affective Enclosures: The Topography and Topoi of Goethe's Autobiographical Childhood

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Affective Enclosures: The Topography and Topoi of Goethe's Autobiographical Childhood

Article excerpt

Near the beginning of Goethe's autobiography Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, the narrator describes a series of enclosures that the child Goethe overlooks as he strolls along Frankfurt's city walls.

Gärten, Höfe, Hintergebäude ziehen sich bis an den Zwinger heran; man sieht mehreren tausend Menschen in ihre häuslichen, kleinen, abgeschlossenen, verborgenen Zustände. Von dem Putz- und Schaugarten des Reichen zu den Obstgärten des für seinen Nutzen besorgten Bürgers, von da zu Fabriken, Bleichplätzen und ähnlichen Anstalten, ja bis zum Gottesacker selbst-denn eine kleine Welt lag innerhalb des Bezirks der Stadt-ging man an dem mannigfaltigsten, wunderlichsten, mit jedem Schritt sich verändernden Schauspiel vorbei, an dem unsre kindische Neugier sich nicht genug ergetzen konnte. Denn fürwahr der bekannte hinkende Teufel, als er für seinen Freund die Dächer von Madrid in der Nacht abhob, hat kaum mehr für diesen geleistet, als hier vor uns unter freiem Himmel, bei hellem Sonnenschein getan war.1

[Gardens, courtyards, and rear buildings extend right up to the zwinger; one sees several thousand people in their domestic, small, enclosed, hidden states. From the ornamental and display gardens of the rich to the fruit gardens of the bourgeois, concerned for his advantage, from there to the factories, bleacheries, and similar institutions, even up to the graveyard itself, one went past the most diverse, most wonderful spectacle, changing with every step, in which our childish curiosity could not take enough delight-for a small world lay within the precincts of the city. In truth, the well-known limping devil, when he lifted up the rooftops of Madrid for his friend at night, performed little more for him than was done here before us under clear skies in broad daylight.]

In this panoramic view from atop the ramparts, the child's entire visual field is replete with enclosed spaces. Frankfurt becomes a walled-in "small world" of endless, confined small worlds. The view is created through the topological operation of enclosure, which separates an inside compartment from the outside environment. Enclosures shape and thereby create space. In this passage, they create spaces that consist in their subjective experience: they ignite a curiosity in the child by making him aware of a space hidden from his immediate perception. Enclosures show that they hide something and thereby arouse a desire not just to unveil the concealed, but also to imagine its contents. "An empty drawer is unimaginable," as Gaston Bachelard writes in his phenomenology of the childhood home.2

Such enclosures abound in the first books of Goethe's autobiography, especially in the narration of his childhood in book 1, which will be the focus of this essay. The ubiquity of enclosures in the autobiography should not surprise since this motif holds a central position in Goethe's narrative prose. From the wandering casket of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre to the cabinets, cases, and chambers of Die Wahlverwandtschaften; from the magical chest in the fairy tale Melusine to the case of puppets and box-filled pantry in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; enclosures permeate Goethe's narrated worlds. Nonetheless, a systematic account of the motif has yet to be undertaken. This essay makes no pretense at such an ambitious task, but I will argue that the enclosures of the autobiography resonate with those of other works, and that the motif serves as a figure of thought across Goethe's works such that we should consider how a poetics of enclosure is at work within them.3

Furthermore, I hope to add methodologically to our understanding of enclosure in Goethe by seeking connected insights through different approaches. Section 1 thus traces how enclosures arouse a desire that defines the phenomenology of childhood, and it untangles the semiotic coding of these spaces. Section 2 attends to the narrative structure of the first book, whose story is not a chronological sequence of events, but a topographical sequence of spaces. …

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