Monday, 26 December 2016

Goethe - Germany's Renaissance Man


One of the places that I ended up visiting in Frankfurt was the Goethe House, and while a part of me wants to simply write about the house (particularly since the website is actually pretty detailed), I will either leave that for my travel blog, or another post in this blog at another time. However, what I will say is that the house itself is quite large, comprising of four floors, all of them packed full of Goethe related material, and lots and lots of artwork (though he wasn't much of painter, rather the paintings were from his father's collection). Next door, well not so much next door because it is actually a part of the museum, is another gallery of paintings by Goethe's contemporaries. Actually, the staff were pretty keen on me going in and having a look, which is what I eventually did.

Anyway, here are some pictures from inside the house:

The house is actually his birthplace, and where he spent the formative years of his life, that is until he was shipped of to University in Leipzig where is father insisted that he study law. Oh, I probably should make reference to when Goethe was around, namely from 1739 to 1842, which meant that he lived through the incredibly turbulent times of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Actually, he even had the privilege of meeting the French Emperor, which is not all that surprising because one of the things that he happened to do well was play the political games in Weimer (well, he was appointed as a commissioner and sat on the legislature, but to me they are still political games).

Sure, his father wanted him to be a lawyer, and he did end up becoming very successful in his legal and political career, but in the end, like a lot of romantics, Goethe really wanted to be an artist (mostly a writer), and also had a passion for the sciences and study. In sticking with this romantic idea he even secretly married an Italian woman, Christine Vulpius. Also, being your typical artist, when he completed his masterpiece Faust, he had it sealed up until he died, possibly because he didn't want to see it flop.

The Man Behind the Myth

Well, I should be honest and say that I really know little, if anything, about the guy. Sure I have heard his name bandied about here and there, and there is also this institute, the Goethe Institute, which seems to be primarily focused on teaching German to people who want to learn how to speak German. Well, no offense to those German speakers out there, but German isn't probably one of the best languages to learn namely because it is restricted to a small part of Europe, and most people who live there generally know how to speak, or at least understand, English. Sure, as a language it certainly isn't all that hard, but as for usefulness - not much (when I was over in Europe I probably counted only one German speaker who couldn't understand a word of English, but that had more to do with her being Asian than a German who skipped all of her English classes).

Okay, the Goethe Institute is somewhat more than a glorified school for teaching German, and has a lot to do with German Culture (and even runs a film festival). To me it seems to be a German version of Alliance Francais, which is a French version of the Goethe Institute (yes, I know, circular argument but since I have had little to do either either of the institutes, I can't say all that much beyond comparing them to each other, though my Dad did learn French there and does highly recommend it, though they are pretty expensive). Anyway, I seem to have gotten quite a bit off track here because I was supposed to be talking about Goethe, though there probably isn't all that much that I haven't already said that isn't mentioned in either Wikipedia, or Online Literature. Oh, the Wikipedia entry is a lot more detailed, but then again that probably shouldn't be all that surprising considering who we are talking about.

The interesting thing is that Goethe reminds me of another famous German author - Franz Kafka (though I believe he could actually be Czech). The reason I say that was because Goethe didn't study law because of some huge passion to become a rich and powerful lawyer (though he did eventually do that) but because his father wanted him to be successful. Rather, Goethe wanted to pursue the arts, and even went as far as studying poetry instead. This didn't particularly impress his father, and the two became ever more distance, though Goethe did drop out of university and return to Frankfurt for a spell. During this time he had actually written quite a lot of stuff, though most of it was eventually thrown out (namely because authors do tend to be perfectionists). He did eventually complete his studies, this time in Strasbourg. Not being able to sufficiently support himself as an author, he also went and completed his legal studies (though then became famous with his book the Sorrows of Young Werther).

Mind you, as it turns out, Goethe didn't really have clean hands. After becoming a famous novelist he was invited to Weimer to take up a political position for the Duke. During this time he was head of the war commission, which included selling prisoners and vagabonds as mercenaries, including to support the British in the American War of Independence. Also, after the French revolution broke out, he participated on the side of the Germans in the first coalition against France (which is not surprising considering his patron happened to be the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimer, and he couldn't be seen as supporting the overthrow of the aristocracy). However, they lost at the battle of Vilmy, and were forced to retreat, which resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Mainz. This Republic didn't last all that long because the Prussians then counter-attacked, and pretty quickly put an end to this upstart rebellion. The only reason I mention this though is because Goethe ended up painting a water colour of this event.

A German Titan

While trying to find out some more about this guy I stumbled across a rather interesting article from the New Yorker. It is interesting how they compare Goethe to Shakespeare, and in fact suggest that he is Germany's poet (in the same was that the French consider Moliere their Shakespeare). The problem is that us English speakers really don't care for anybody who simply does not write in English, and suggesting that some other language or culture had their own Shakespeare is inconceivable. In fact us English speakers, even if we don't realise it, or even admit it, revere Shakespeare in an almost godlike manner to the point that we don't even believe that it is physically possible to produce as many classics as Shakespeare did. In fact we go as far as even suggesting that Shakespeare, or at least the Shakespeare that we know, didn't even exist and that the plays were written either by somebody else, or was a collaborative effort.

The thing is that we can't make the same suggestions about Goethe, particularly since he lived in what is effectively the modern age. In fact we know much more about Goethe than we do about Shakespeare (though we can learn a lot about him from his plays, such as believing in the divine right of kings, and disdaining the working mob on the grounds that they wouldn't know the first thing about ruling a country and are so swayed by honeyed words of a fine speaker than they could become incredibly destructive force). As for Goethe, we actually know quite a lot about him, and his writings cross from literature, to scientific, to political. We also know that, like Shakespeare, he was a royalist and a conservative, which is interesting considering the times in which he was living.

There is an anecdote (which I picked up from The New Yorker Article) that suggested that he and Beethoven were walking through a town when they encountered a royal procession. Goethe showed them proper respect while Beethoven barged through them, and did so without being arrested. What is happening here is that we are moving from the era when one's family name carried respect to where one's ability carries respect. In a way we are seeing the rise of the celebrity cult where the artists aren't clambering to get the attention of the royals, but the royals are clambering to get the attention of the artists because one's status is shown through who one associates with. 

In a way we are seeing this all the more today where politicians fall over themselves to be seen courting, and being endorsed by, major celebrities. It was suggested that if Opera liked your book, and she mentioned it on her show, then you were on your way to being a best seller. Not being American, and having never watched her show, I can't say for sure whether she endorsed presidential candidates, or to what extent that the endorsement would have on the outcome of an election, but she certainly had her cult following, and there would be people who would literally hang off her every words.

Yet rulers theoretically didn't need to have celebrities endorse them because they ruled through their own divine right - but this was changing. England had already executed one king in the 17th Century, and deposed a second when he refused to play ball, and this was starting to sweep over onto the continent. Also note how Goethe was elevated to a position of authority after publishing his first best seller, and finding himself courted by a duke, even if it was a minor duke doing the courting. Times were changing, and the playwrights and the artists were no longer there simply to amuse the nobility, they were there for the nobility to demonstrate their cultural sophistication.

A Literary Master

Here is a video I found as I was trying to find a bit more about Goethe, and in doing so looks not only at his life, but also what we can learn from him.

After watching this I realised that my understanding of Goethe's Faust is a lot different from what it actually is, but that is because the Faust that I know is the one by Christopher (Kit) Marlow. It seems that Goethe's Faust is actually a lot different (not that I have read it, and from what I gather the play lasted for something like thirteen hours - more like a mini-series than a play). In Marlowes' version Faust is basically an academic that becomes board with life because he pretty much knows everything, so he makes a deal with the devil to be given access to the mystical arts, however the catch is that he is only allowed to enjoy that for a short time before his life is demanded as payment. Thus the first part of the play has Faust enjoying his new found power, such as teasing the Pope and having a love affair with Helen, and then the final section of the play with time winding down to that day of reckoning, and living with the belief that since the deal is struck then there is no way out of it.

However Goethe's version seems to be a lot different, and instead is a morality tail on how to enjoy life - that is enjoy its pleasures but don't over indulge in them. It is a tale of learning to live in moderation - there isn't anything that is inherently bad, all that we have and all that we experience, is good, it is just that we have a habit of taking something that is good and making it really, really bad, and I can think of a lot of things that fall into that category - sex, alcohol, computers, Facebook. It sounds as if the Faust in Goethe's play was offered these things by Mephistopheles but never actually took them, being satisfied with what he already had.  Mind you, like a lot of people, the only thing I know about this play is what I have heard about it through the grapevine - I have never read it, and I certainly have never seen it performed (even if it is actually performed because the only performances I have seen was of the Marlowe play).

To finish off I wish to mention another short poem of his - Prometheus. I'm not sure why this is so famous that it garner's its own Wikipedia page, but it does. Okay, I read the English version as opposed to the German version, namely because my Germen certainly isn't that good. Anyway the poem seems to reflect the changing society and the move towards a more 'enlightened' humanity. Okay, human belief was that we were heading that way, especially at the turn of the century when there had been effectively one hundred years of peace (or so they were told). However, this is in a period before the French Revolution, but at a time after the Church had splintered apart due to the reformation. What we have is Prometheus addressing Zeus, though it is done in a way that is suggestive of the Christian god.

The idea comes about through the scientific revolution where we stopped claiming that things happen because God makes them happen, and instead things happen because there are a series of scientific laws that guide the universe. However, consider the story of Prometheus - he we have a titan who disobeys Zeus and gives humanity the secret of fire, or as I have explained elsewhere, the beginnings of technology. In the same way that technology had resulted in the Ancient Greeks being less reliant on the gods, the scientific revolution means that humanity has evolved to a level where the universe no longer operates because 'God is in control'. This is not necessarily something that I accept, namely because just because there are a series of scientific laws that dictate the way the universe runs, doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't the hand of a divine entity behind it, but that is another story for another day.

Instead I'll finish off with a link to a site where you can find a collection of Goethe's writings.
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Goethe - Germany's Renaissance Man by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. You really should read Goethe's Faust! (And Marlowe's, if you haven't already.) Part 1 is easy to find (and parallel's the *story* of the earlier versions - but not the spirit, as you point out. It is the lesser known second part, which is not as easy to find as I would like - I have a paperback, not the delightful Delacroix illustrated hardback I have for the first part - but it is really the more interesting part of the play.

    It is hard to describe it, because it is (in my experience) kind of a dream sequence with a lot of philosophy in it, rather than a drama in the usual sense. I cannot imagine trying to stage it. Ghastly expensive, and impossible to tie together into a coherent unity on the stage, I should think. But it really does turn the point of Faust on its head. While the earliest Faust legends clearly intend to make the point that secular knowledge (including science) is of the devil and opposed to sound theology, later versions (including Marlowe's) find different lessons. (I read Marlowe's as being about the corruption of power, for example.) For Goethe, Faust's quest for knowledge and transcendence is what saves him, why Mephistopheles is unable to catch him at the end. Interesting stuff.

  2. I have actually had the opportunity to see Marlowe's Faust performed on stage, namely in London (though I arrived half an hour late and missed the first part, though saw it later in the cinema). I'd certainly keep an eye out for Goethe's version, though as you suggest, it can be a little hard to find (and I do prefer the normal paper books as opposed to audio books and kindles).