In September 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte, the world-conquering Alexander of his time, summoned Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most celebrated literary figure in Europe, to an interview at the Congress of Erfurt, not far from the writer’s home in Weimar. The emperor was eating breakfast and conducting business when Goethe was admitted—there was no mistaking just who was condescending to whom here—and proceeded to dilate on a supposed defect in the plot of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s 1774 novel about unrequited love that had won international renown.
Having read Werther several times, and having been inspired by it to try his hand, too, at a romantic novel, Napoleon wanted Goethe for his own. He envisioned him as the cultural star of a Parisian court—Beethoven was in his sights as well—that would be the artistic and intellectual cynosure of a federated Europe. Goethe would compose dramatic paeans to imperial military glory, employing classical subjects like the rise of Julius Caesar and thereby concealing the praise of Napoleon in plain sight. No one could fill this distinguished role so formidably as Goethe. Napoleon accented his esteem by declaring, loudly enough for his courtiers to hear, “Voilà un homme” (there is a man). Goethe, who was indeed a man, said thanks but no thanks.
Perhaps no other vignette from Goethe’s life illustrates so tellingly the reach of his fame and the strength of his character. Not even compliments expertly applied by the most powerful man in the world could sway him. The very wholeness that Napoleon flattered rendered Goethe impervious to the flattery.
Of course, these days the powerful of the earth are unfamiliar with Werther. And not just the powerful: scarcely anybody in America reads Goethe any more; he is the deadest of Dead White Males. Nor is this a new development, or confined to America. Writing in 1962, W.H. Auden declared: “Everybody knows that the thrones of European Literature are occupied by the triumvirate referred to in [James Joyce’s] Finnegans Wake as Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper, but to most English-speaking readers the second is merely a name.” Among the reasons enumerated by Auden are the difficulty of learning to read German and Goethe’s peculiar resistance to translation into English.
John Armstrong, a philosophy research fellow at the University of Melbourne, has now bravely attempted to remedy this situation with a biographical study entitled Love, Life, Goethe.1 As the title suggests, this is not your typical critical biography. Simple and straightforward in style, to the point of being occasionally simplistic or even smarmy, the book emphasizes the lessons that Goethe’s exemplary life offers—lessons, that is, in how to live. In his acknowledgements, Armstrong mentions the shaping hand of Alain de Botton, the author of the immensely popular How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Love, Life, Goethe proves to have similar elements of exhortation and self-help, using its literary hero as a moral bootstrap.
Armstrong’s Goethe is an engagingly robust sort who happens to be graced with literary genius but who rejects the prevailing contrarian values of literary culture by honoring such bourgeois values as “money, power, learning, and status.” Equally, although Armstrong does not come out and say so, his Goethe is the precursor of a familiar American type: the self-actualizing person described by the “Third Force” psychologist A.H. Maslow. For Goethe, as for Maslow, “the point of life is self-cultivation: the harmonious development of one’s character.” Armstrong himself appears to embrace this understanding of life without reservation. In the closing sentence of the book, he urges us to see Goethe’s final message not as “a plea to understand him, or [to] become like him,” but rather as an invitation to “take courage in an infinitely more worthwhile task—that of becoming ourselves.”
At a time when the very mention of human nobility sends the spiders of egalitarian ressentiment scurrying from their dark corners—and when artists are expected to spit impudently in the face of normality—there is something undeniably alluring in the Goethe whom Armstrong honors. The question is, how alluring.
He was born nearly dead on August 28, 1749; the planets’ auspicious alignment, which he details in his autobiographical Poetry and Truth (1811-1832), must have helped him pull through. His father was a rather unsuccessful lawyer who had inherited a fortune, his mother the daughter of the principal official in the Frankfurt city council. Gentility and taste—a picture gallery was crammed with paintings after the Italian and Dutch styles, and hallways were hung with prints of Roman architecture—marked the Goethe household. In Armstrong’s words, “The ideal of the well-run home and the life lived within it was, for him, emblematic of human fulfillment.”
When Goethe was six, his father gave him and his younger sister a puppet theater for Christmas. Puppetry became his boyhood passion; he wrote plays, made costumes for the characters, and directed the action. His youthful literary tastes ran to Racine and Corneille, whom he plundered to serve his marionettes, and later to Torquato Tasso’s chivalric epic Jerusalem Delivered, whose beautiful heroine Clorinda ravished him. By fifteen, he had also had his first taste, such as it was, of living feminine beauty thanks to a charming and willing waitress a few years older than he.
At sixteen he went off, somewhat grudgingly, to study law at the University of Leipzig, his father’s alma mater. There he fell in love with an innkeeper’s daughter—a social misalliance that had to be broken off as there was no chance his father would let him marry her. Instead he wrote a play about it, Partners in Guilt, not for the last time turning his erotic unhappiness to literary advantage.
Hard luck in love, an unfavorable course of study, and intense spiritual anxiety contributed to Goethe’s physical and emotional collapse. He came home from Leipzig seriously ill and without a degree. Recovery took a couple of years, but in 1770 he was able to resume his legal studies, this time at Strasbourg. There, with Johann Gottfried Herder, he enjoyed his first passionate intellectual friendship. Herder had confounded the Enlightenment faith in the triumph of universal reason by championing the significance of local customs and beliefs. Under his influence, Goethe produced an essay on the Gothic splendors of the Strasbourg cathedral—the Gothic style being then widely derogated as a lapse from classical beauty.
And once again he fell in love, this time with the daughter of a country parson. The romance seemed headed inexorably toward marriage, but the prospect spooked Goethe and he unceremoniously bailed out. Armstrong quotes the final lines of a poem he wrote at the time:
I went, you stood, your eyes
on the ground; you gazed
after me through your
But what a joy it is to love
and, my God, what joy to
He would always find it a joy to write beautiful verse about the hearts he broke, even when one of them was his.
Degree at last in hand, Goethe returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to practice law but actually to devote most of his time to writing. His essay on the Strasbourg cathedral appeared in a collection by the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement, whose members were sworn to the bold romance of transcendent youthful energy. Bold romance also marked his first successful play, Goetz von Berlichingen (1773), about a 16th-century knight who defies imperial authority but is broken by its superior power. Armstrong: “Thus Goethe broaches the question that was to dominate his work for the rest of his life: if we don’t want to be tragic heroes, how are we to live in a very imperfect world: the only world we have?”
Goethe would invent a very different sort of tragic hero in The Sorrows of Young Werther—dreamy, feckless, self-absorbed, fatally obsessive in love. Drawing upon the young author’s romantic experience during a term of service at the Imperial Court of Appeal in Wetzlar, Werther portrays through letters the hero’s desperate hankering for the unavailable Lotte, which consumes everything that connects him to contented normality. This perfectly constructed novel ends with Werther blowing his brains out with Lotte’s husband’s pistol.
Werther made Goethe a European cult figure. Pathologically sensitive young men and women were said to have bid the cruel world farewell with Goethe’s volume open beside them. Armstrong (who denies there is any evidence such ritual suicides ever happened) takes pains to distinguish Goethe’s teaching from his character’s fate. “With genuine Romantics, he shared an interest in despair, passion, and wildness; he didn’t share their admiration for these extreme states.”
In 1775 Goethe fell in love again, with the sixteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy Frankfurt banker, but once again he shied away from marriage. In any case he preferred the moral adventure of making himself into something superb to the routine of settling down as a family man in Frankfurt. And adventure soon arrived in the form of an invitation from Carl August, the eighteen-year-old Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, to visit his court.
Accepting on a moment’s whim, Goethe wound up making his home in Weimar for the rest of his life. The worldly, active life of a court official—in 1776 he was appointed to the duke’s private council—clearly filled a need in his many-sided nature. Over the course of his tenure he variously held portfolios in mining, transportation, war, and finance; he accompanied Carl August on the campaign against the revolutionary French in 1792; and he served as chancellor at the University of Jena, at a time when the professoriate included Schiller, Fichte, and Hegel. For someone seeking to perfect his self and soul, here was exactly the right opportunity to join the contemplative with the active life.
His writing benefited from this infusion of worldliness. His play Torquato Tasso (1790) depicts the conflict between an honored but unbalanced poet and an accomplished courtier who refuses Tasso the friendship he thinks he deserves. The tragedy Egmont (1787) shows a doomed political hero who in his prison cell is vouchsafed a magnificent vision of Liberty in the form of a beautiful woman but whose mission fails because he lacks the prudence to survive. Goethe learned the lessons of prudence in his political life, and transmitted them in these shapely and vital dramas.
Even so, Weimar could not give him everything he needed. In September 1786 he slipped out of the duke’s hands and headed south. Italy had beckoned for many years, and he would spend twenty months there, mostly in Rome. As he wrote in Italian Journey (1816), a compilation of journals and letters, “Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? How much can I take in at a single glance? Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?” He was after happiness, sought it in the everyday activities of ordinary people, where he found beauties worthy of lasting art, and sought it too in the noblest artistic masterpieces. Simply to open his eyes on Rome was the beginning of a long-awaited education.
Inevitably, that education extended to the more basic pleasures as well: the Roman Elegies (1790) detail his sexual adventure with a young widow he calls Faustina. If the record of Goethe’s sex life up till then had been laden with unfulfilled desire, the Elegies highlight the delicious facts of love-making as enjoyed by an initiate into physical pleasure:
Now not Jupiter’s pleasure in
Juno’s embraces is
And no mortal’s content vies,
I will wager, with mine!
Ours is the true, the
authentic, the naked
Love; and beneath us,
Rocking in rhythm, the bed
creaks the dear song of
Goethe’s sexuality stayed lit when he returned to Weimar in 1788. An attractive twenty-three-year-old approached him while he was promenading by the river, and it seems they were making love by the next day. Christiane Vulpius was common and uneducated, and worked in a factory making artificial flowers; but she was exactly what Goethe wanted. Although the gossips would snipe continually at the great man’s lowering himself to consort with a mere wench, Goethe lived with Christiane for twenty-five years, married her in 1806, and fathered a son by her.
There was a need in Goethe’s life for passionate male friendship as well; he found it with the younger playwright, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. After a rough start—Schiller felt insufferably in Goethe’s shadow during the first years of their acquaintanceship—the two would exchange a thousand letters, start up the vastly influential literary magazine Die Horen (The Hours), collaborate on a collection of epigrams against foolishness, and love each other with warm constancy. The day Schiller died in 1805, at the age of forty-five, may have been the saddest of Goethe’s life.
In 1806 Goethe completed the first part of the verse drama Faust; he would work on the second part virtually until the end of his life in 1832. His fame grew so immense that his Weimar home became an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour. In 1823 the aspiring poet Johann Peter Eckermann paid a call on the great man, and they began a conversation that lasted nine years, to Goethe’s final days.Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (which Nietzsche called “the best German book there is”) records Goethe’s thoughts on everything from the stature of Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Byron, to the proper training of actors, to the wish that he could live to see the Panama and Suez Canals built, to the hope that his unflagging industry might be an earnest of his soul’s immortality. The book also records the awed and tender moment Eckermann spent with Goethe’s dead body: “A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode.”
The immortal spirit had certainly spent its full allotment of energies while on earth, hurling itself into every sort of artistic and intellectual undertaking, and performing them all with genius and fire. Goethe was perhaps the greatest lyric poet Germany has produced. Youthful ardors turned out simple lyrics clear and shining as dew, like Heidenroeslein (“Rosebud in the Heather”) and Mailied (“May Song”), a leaping, headlong frolic utterly heedless of the thought that the joys of young love will end. Yet at twenty-four Goethe could also write Prometheus, railing in a truculent humanist mode that has no use for gods but reveres the self alone.
Nature was Goethe’s muse, as it had been Shakespeare’s. Künstlers Abendlied (“An Artist’s Evening Song”) celebrates the poet’s emerging creative power as it enjoys nature’s wondrous force. In Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (“The Metamorphosis of Plants”), written in 1798, botany is made erotic as scientific wonder blooms and enfolds human love. Our sensory, intellectual, and moral powers, Goethe believed, are fitted to this world:
Something like the sun the eye
Else it no glint of sun could
Surely God’s own powers with
Else godly things would not
Goethe was an inspired scientific amateur. Believing that science was best served by the direct observation of nature, he made his most startling discoveries outside the laboratory and without benefit of instrumentation. Wandering through the gardens of Palermo in 1787, he hypothesized that the several developing structures of plants were variations on the leaf “in its most transcendent sense.” Picking up a sheep’s skull in the Jewish cemetery in Venice in 1790, he speculated that the bones of the skull were evolutionary outgrowths of the vertebrae. In a letter to Schiller in 1796, he coined the term “morphology,” and his writings on the metamorphoses of vegetable and animal forms and structures would set the course for 19th-century biology. Although his studies of light and darkness, set forth in his Theory of Colors (1810), exhibit a dubious contempt for the mathematical foundations of Newtonian physics, some scientists still take them seriously as a complement to classic optics.
But his supreme gifts remained those of the writer. The early days of Goethe’s friendship with Schiller coincided with the completion of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), his extraordinary Bildungsroman or novel of education.2 As the story begins, Wilhelm, the son of a respectable bourgeois household, is certain that he has found his destiny in the love of a beautiful actress and the prospect of a glorious career for himself in the theater. But realizing one’s destiny—or fulfilling one’s nature—requires more than transports of imagination. Wilhelm loses his love, and discovers in the end that he is not made for a theatrical career; he can only play himself. To his profound good fortune, a secret brotherhood of wise and accomplished men watches over him and guides him toward worthy and suitable ends.
Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the most hopeful and joyous of the great novels of education. The ashen cynicism of such later masterpieces of the genre as Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s The Sentimental Education is far removed from Goethe’s world, in which the qualities of chivalric romance—mysterious characters, uncanny incidents, ineffable coincidences, the richest hearts suffering the deepest sorrows and knowing incalculable elation—are transposed into the novel’s modern setting. The marvels of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with its sage and virtuous brotherhood leading the young to happiness, lie close at hand, and the severe trials and hard-won joys of Tolstoy’s heroes, Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and Constantin Levin in Anna Karenina, can be seen in the distance.
Not that Goethe is the novelist that Tolstoy is. He lacks the intensity of sensuous imagination that is the mark of a creator’s love for his creatures, and his plot advances largely and sometimes with a clunk by means of the intellectual conversation, the disquisition, the soliloquy. As for Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, a sequel that was not completed until 1825, it has all the faults of the Apprenticeship and then some, but almost none of its virtues.
Elective Affinities (1809) is a much finer novel, though it too suffers from hypertrophic abstraction. A story about adultery and its tragic consequences serves Goethe as a setting in which to ask what are the privileges and obligations of spiritual genius. Eduard and Charlotte, recently married in mid-life and decidedly happy, invite into their home Eduard’s friend the Captain and Charlotte’s young niece Ottilie. Of course the Captain and Charlotte fall in love, and so do Eduard and Ottilie. Then Charlotte and Eduard have a child whose features eerily resemble the Captain’s and Ottilie’s, and in a terrible accident the infant is drowned.
The various lovers, except for Ottilie, perceive this awful event by the light of their own desires—as a necessary sacrifice that frees them for happiness. Divorce and remarriage seem in the offing; but Ottilie refuses, dissolving the presumption that demonic powers can be reasoned with, or that love can be subjected to calculation. To realize her pure intentions, Ottilie starves herself, and in death works saintly miracles. Eduard follows her to the burial vault, “and what a happy moment it will be when one day they awaken again together.” Such is Goethe’s brief for the primacy of the spirit in the erotic life, and one of the most remarkable books ever written about love.
Finally there is Faust. The most learned of scholars, Faust wants not only to extend the bounds of human knowledge but to enjoy the bountiful experience of the world that his cloistered life has denied him. He proclaims a proto-Nietzschean love of the here and now, and defiantly renounces idle dreams of some better world to come. By striking a pact with the devil Mephistopheles, he gains the power to feel everything, absolutely everything—the full measure of what it means to be human, which is both to suffer and to rejoice. According to the pact, only when he achieves a moment of ultimate satisfaction will his life end and his soul belong to the powers of hell.
To avoid this fate, Faust vows himself to perpetual striving. In the process he becomes complicit in great evil, seducing the simple beauty Gretchen, who drowns their child, and killing her honor-obsessed brother in a brawl. But Gretchen is granted eternal salvation—and so, in the end, is Faust himself. The angels sing, bearing Faust’s immortal part to heaven:
He’s saved from evil, the great
Confounding clever Satan:
“Who strives, and keeps on
For him there is redemption!”
But it is not Christian virtue or divine mercy conventionally understood that has saved Faust; it is his indomitability and eagerness for more and more life. In this drama, Goethe’s virtual worship of energy and élan vital exonerates his protagonist of patent monstrosities. God, as Goethe understands Him here, not only loves but respects the sort of man that Goethe spent his life trying to be: relentless in the quest for knowledge, passionate in the pursuit of sensual fulfillment, devoted to the expansion of one’s powers in every direction. In the face of such glory, which represents an amoral force of nature at its full stretch, mere goodness shrinks.
In the last days of his life, speaking with his friend Eckermann, Goethe professed his faith in Jesus Christ “as the divine manifestation of the highest principle of morality.” But then he went on to declare his reverence for the sun, “likewise a manifestation of the highest Being, and indeed the most powerful that we children of earth are allowed to behold.” In Faust, Christ-like morality submits to solar power. The heavenly spectacle of salvation that crowns the play is a vehicle for a pagan cult of the magnificent self.
Goethe was not only that cult’s leading devotee but also its supreme deity. He was the most remarkably accomplished man of modern times; surely no one else since Michelangelo has had such rightful claim to the royal title of l’uomo universale, the universal man. If (as A.H. Maslow and a host of others have taught, and as John Armstrong agrees) self-actualization is the human ideal, then Goethe, in dedicating himself to the development of his gifts and the refinement of his character, embodied humanity at the peak of its attainment.
Victor Hugo said the problem with Goethe was that he let his indifference to good and evil go to his head. One suspects that Hugo had Faust in mind, but he might also have been thinking more generally of the self-absorption required for Goethe’s project of manifold literary, philosophic, and scientific mastery. Vast as Goethe’s achievement was, nothing he wrote quite equals the overwhelming humanity of Hugo’s Les Misérables—the tenderness for inconsequential human flotsam, the willingness to weep unabashedly at salvation achieved through torment, the hatred of human malignancy that does not eradicate sympathy for the most malign among us.
One cannot escape the conclusion that, for all his imaginative insight into the lives of others, the life Goethe cared for the most was his own. He cannot but inspire a certain reverence. Yet unlike others among the great writers—Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky—he does not inspire love. And as for other would-be self-actualizers, down to this day, the devil alone knows their fate.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 483 pp., $30.00.
2 The translation of choice remains, after 183 years, Thomas Carlyle’s, which has recently been reissued in paperback. Aegypan Press, 508 pp., $25.00.