Goethe and the giants of German Romanticism

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a cultural colossus, a figure to rival Dante and Shakespeare. But he is a banned figure. Goethe was well aware from the youth of his world history that he lived a long life – he was 82 when he died – the only great life of the pre-revolutionary era.

In the year of his birth, 1749, Handel and Rameau were still busy composing music; in the year of his death, 1832, Darwin arrived in South America on the Beagle. The Sorrows of Young WertherThe book that made him famous in Europe and North America was published in 1774, about two years before the American Declaration of Independence, and 15 before the invasion. of the Bastille.

During his life, the youth supported the beauty of Sturm and Drang he became an old supporter of old-fashioned recording; Classicism, he said, was healthy and modern Romanticism was sick.

For many 19th-century writers in the English language – Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot most notably – Goethe was an important intellectual presence. For today’s English-language readers, however, Goethe’s noble novels are Wilhelm Meister a Election Relations is overshadowed by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s In Search of Lost Timewhile Goethe’s poem is most familiar from Franz Schubert’s music.

Now there are two new books — Andrea Wulf’s Rebellions and a translation by Johann Peter Eckermann Dialogue with Goethe – shed light on the author’s life and work, and his complex and long-lasting influence.

In 1823, Eckermann, a young writer in need, turned up at Goethe’s door in Weimar and became an important part of the old man, as editor, friend and mentor. “Eckermann” admits, Goethe, “knows very well how to express me. . . that is what I continue Faust”. Goethe’s reworking of Faust is one of the greatest works of European literature, even if it is a work that is now little read in the English-speaking world.

Dialogue with Goethe, a memoir of the last nine years of Goethe’s life published four years after his death, presents a portrait of the artist as a sage. Nietzsche called it “the best German book out there”. In Allan Bunden’s new translation — the first for 150 years — we see Eckermann’s trust and respect for his master, but we are allowed to listen to Goethe’s great thought.

In the face of Shakespeare’s “playfulness and freedom”, for example, he is strongly humiliated and surprised: “It is impossible to talk about Shakespeare; words are not enough . . .[he]give us golden apples in silver bowls. We get the silverware by learning his games; but the problem is that we only have potatoes to put in it.

In Wulf’s wonderful new book, we see a young Goethe, although here he is a shining star in a group of great ideas – many of whom are now associated with the beginning of Romanticism – namely the philosophers Friedrich Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the philosopher. -Alexander von Humboldt and the playwright Friedrich Schiller. Rebellions repeat the brilliant period, between 1794 and 1806, when these figures gathered in Jena – a university town in the small Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, where duke Goethe served for decades years at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries – to live, love and argue.

Book cover of Conversations with Goethe

Although Schiller lived in Jena in 1789, he fled to his native Württemberg after the defeat of his revolutionary play. The Robbers in 1782, it was not until the summer of 1794 that he met Goethe. The setting was a meeting of Jena’s newly founded Natural History Society (another string in Goethe’s bow was his extensive involvement in botanical science and research), and Goethe’s enthusiastic embrace of The young writer is the inspiration for many of the comings and goings.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the so-called “Bonaparte of Philosophy”, was appointed professor in Jena at Goethe’s suggestion. Fichte began his intellectual career as a follower of Immanuel Kant, writing his Try a breakdown of all the Shows very much in the shadow of Kant himself Criticism for Pure Reason most readers have assumed that Kant himself was the author.

However, the kind of philosophy that Fichte is known for, his Wissenschaftslehre or theory of knowledge, is distinguished from Kant’s transcendental idealism by its focus on itself. “I just want . . . float boldly and fearlessly on the debris of the universe”, as he said. His disciples, of course, were welcomed.

A mid-18th century map of the city, showing red areas within the city wall boundaries and green areas outside.

An 18th century map of the German city of Jena. The red squares represent the town within its old walls © Map by Matthäus Seutter; SLUB Dresden/Deutsche Fotothek

And they came, the crème de la crème of intelligent Germany, in this small claustrophobic town. At the end of the 18th century, one could go from one side of Jena to the other in 10 minutes. Although Goethe was based in Weimar, he visited often. The Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, the founders of the study of modern Romantic art, lived on the other side of town, the Humboldt brothers – Alexander (the subject of the award-winning book and Wulf) and Wilhelm – in others. Ludwig Tieck, another important writer at the origin of Romanticism, came to Jena, as did the poet of the Romantic darkness, Georg von Hardenberg, the subject of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1995 novel. The Blue Flowerlive far away and visit often.

In a critical account of what he calls the “Jena Set” (which is as intellectual and emotional as the Bloomsbury Group), Wulf takes the dramatis personae with strength in life. But it was Caroline Schlegel-Schelling – married to August Wilhelm Schlegel from 1796 to 1803 and then to Schelling from 1803 until his death in 1809 – who emerged most strongly. His intellectual contribution has not been underestimated, especially in the case of Schlegel’s translations of Shakespeare, which made the English playwright an important part of German culture. Those translations, often given only to her husband, are part of a joint venture; and the picture Wulf conjured of them sitting together at home, throwing verses back and forth, Caroline playing the drums on the table, was unforgettable.

Like Wulf’s last picture of the golden age. Finally arriving in Jena, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel joined his friend Schelling there in 1801. On 13 October 1806, while Napoleon’s army was massing nearby, he wanted Hegel sends his manuscript. The Phenomenology of Spirit – his study of what he called “the process of [the mind’s] own” – to his publisher in distant Bamberg. The deadline is October 18, Bamberg is about 200km away, and five years of work is at risk of being burned or caught in the mêlée of battle; Hegel managed to seize the last truck that could deliver the precious cargo. Only a few hours later, he saw Napoleon Bonaparte on horse in the city, preparing for what would become the Prussian army’s victory at the Battle of Jena the next day.

This combination of events – the destruction of German idealism in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and the triumph of the post-revolutionary armed forces – retaining its ability to surprise. Hegel himself was full of joy: “I saw the Emperor – this worldly soul – running out of the city at the sight – it was truly wonderful to see such a man, to hold in one place, sitting on a horse. going around the world and ruling it.” A year later, Hegel’s work was published. “The result,” writes Wulf, “is a new system of philosophy—one, [Hegel] faith, will change everything.

In their intellectual life, the main elements of the “Jena Set” were involved in the debate about freedom and independence that arose from the intersection between Kantian thought and the French Revolution. They got together and talked for a while.

Hanging over them, as a benevolent father spirit, Goethe, attracted but at the same time protected by the Romanticism of all of them, in their various forms. The doctrine of these early Romantics was and remains the same; but in their emphasis on freedom and individuality, they ushered in a new world of thought and thought.

Dialogue with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann, translated by Allan Blunden, Penguin Classics £12.99/$21, 752 pages

Rebellions: the First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf, John Murray £25/Knopf $35, 512 pages

Ian Bostridge is a tenor and author of ‘Witchcraft and its Transformations 1650-1750’

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