Design for Living

By Kirsch, Adam | The New Yorker, February 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Design for Living


Kirsch, Adam, The New Yorker


DESIGN FOR LIVING

What's great about Goethe?

A new selection of Goethe's work reveals both his vast range and his unity of purpose.

In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there's enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare's work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine--these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch--a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe's significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language's greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds--enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.

Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe's most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn't lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe's name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-language biographer, "More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being."

Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes--and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince--in an age of revolution.

One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way--which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. …

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