Don’t Beat Up My Friends

Yesterday I read an article from The New York Review of Books, “Super Goethe” by Ferdinand Mount.

More or less it is a review of a recent biography of Goethe by Rudiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. I made it most of the way through this book until I realized that having read Goethe’s autobiographies (with a grain of salt and a grin) this book was, for me, gratuitous. I didn’t finish it. Goethe wrote a LOT about himself and I felt OK having let him tell his tale. I don’t take issue with Safranski’s book. This review, however?

I have a huge problem with retroactive judgements of historical figures and this review concludes with the intimation that, in another time and another place, Goethe would have been a Nazi.

Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s false. No way to know that because Goethe did not live in another time and another place and just because Weimar is near Buchenwald doesn’t mean Goethe would have been a prison guard, or worse, but Mount concludes his piece with, “I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

I happen to love Goethe, but that doesn’t mean I “know” him. I can’t. But when I look at the past I try to see past the hazy fog of intervening historical events to what had NOT yet happened.

  • In Goethe’s time, there were only the beginnings of what would be the Industrial Revolution. Marx was born when Goethe was 69.
  • When Goethe was a young man and made a journey to Switzerland, the United States of America was three years old and did not yet have a constitution.
  • Voltaire was alive; the Age of Enlightenment was in full force.
  • Goethe lived during the French Revolution. What he saw of it, what he knew of it, would have been FAR different than what we know of it. From Goethe’s perspective it was wanton death on the streets and the destabilization of life for millions of ordinary people.
  • Goethe was the son of a lawyer. Education in his family was extremely important, but it was not the common lot of most people to have the chance to go to school.
  • There was no “Germany.” That geographical blob on the map was a very loose assemblage of small duchies, principalities, etc. Imagine a big hunk of land broken up into hundreds of very vulnerable Liechtensteins and Monacos. When Goethe — or anyone at that time — wrote about “German cultural identity” they were writing about something that didn’t exist.
  • Goethe -SAW war. He was sent to be a correspondent about fighting in the Alsace. His descriptions of this are harrowing. He was never the same person afterward, either. He wrote about refugees from war, too, and problems they had becoming part of the culture to which they had refugeed.
  • Mount has written that Goethe admired Napoleon, a statement that is — miraculously — both true and false. They met. Napoleon could speak of Goethe’s novel, Sorrows of Young Werther but apparently had no directly knowledge of Faust. Goethe admired Napoleon, but only up to a point. Because Goethe was ALIVE at the Napoleonic moment, he would NOT have seen Napoleon the way I do or the author of this article does.
  • Science — as we understand it — was new. The scientific method was being, at that time, defined. Goethe was a contemporary of Newton. Goethe was himself a good scientist and far more influential than most of us are aware.

I will never know who Goethe really was. I like that he wrote very direct erotic poetry. I like that he was irreverent and reverent with life and language, both, at the same time. I appreciate his intellectual curiosity. I like that he believed a person needed to constantly learn, to explore, to nurture curiosity. In the time in which Goethe lived, there was no big push to specialize, and he didn’t. I like that he asked, “What if?” I appreciate his willingness — desire — to learn. I admire his resilient sense of wonder. I know he was misogynistic and thought people who wore glasses were trying to be something they’re not. I don’t know if he would have liked me; I even kind of doubt it. But, that’s OK. I probably wouldn’t have known him if I had been alive during his lifetime. But I’m not. I’m here, now, and I have been able to reap the fruits of his long lifetime of work. I like that he composed poetry such as this:

From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing,
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, and now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many-hued reflection we have life.

(Faust Part II, Act I, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Featured image: The Rhinefalls, ink sketch by Goethe

17 thoughts on “Don’t Beat Up My Friends

  1. I enjoyed reading that, although am no great expert on Goethe. What I did like was the sketch of the Rheinfalls by Goethe. I was there in August, my son lives near and today they have lost a certain amount of natural beauty with bridges and stairways being built for the tourist to get closer and the eternal motorized boats to bring the tourist nearer.

    • He did some nice sketches of the Rigi, too. When I was there in 2016, I could see it from the window in the apartment and it made me really happy. I think he also sketched the Türlersee. It looks like it. 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed how you connected the dots of what was possible and what was not. That and your “not rushing to judgement” as in determining who he might have been. Hindsight is hindsight and unless you lived during that time frame and saw him in action, thought and deed, it is conjecture and conjecture only.

  3. “retroactive judgements of historical figures”… to sell a few more copies of the book, I guess, especially when you come out with something shocking and seemingly impossible. it’s a recent trend. awful. thanks for posting this and your comments. Also, the list seems long enough of German and non-German Nazi sympathizers when the Nazis were in power and after that, do we really have to go back in history and make the list longer?

    • Absolutely, and I can’t subscribe to notion (which seems to exist) “If German (ever!) then Nazi.” The review doesn’t speak much about the book it purports to review, actually. I mostly hammers Goethe and the perception of Goethe as a heroic character. Somehow it’s NOT heroic to write blatantly erotic poetry, use obscenities, arrange a marriage for your son (in a time of arranged marriages), or live in Weimar. Never mind the very beautiful Wiemar Constitution that was in force when Hitler rose to power. I think the reviewer is not just biased, but ignorant.

  4. My father always taught me that retrospective judgement is inevitably questionable, because while you might have an impressive grasp of the facts, you can’t possibly recreate the emotional environment in which they existed and facts alone are only half the truth. Or perhaps two thirds, but not the lot, anyway.

  5. Despite being selected to speak at my junior high graduation on one of Goethe’s nine requisites for contented living — health enough to make work a pleasure — I knew nothing about him and neither did the other eight speakers. Mrs. Jensen, our ninth grade English teacher who was in charge of the program never felt the need to enlighten us, and our minds were more on what we’d wear for the grand occasion. Sadly, I lacked the interest and ambition to pursue the good man on my own. So thank you for enlightening me. I’ve always wondered how biographers and historians can say what someone would have done or would have been; and I think the good ones like Jon Meacham try not to.

    • I agree. The biography of Goethe this author was (allegedly) reviewing isn’t bad at all, but Goethe wrote his own story very well, and very readably. 🙂

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