From Frankfurt to Regensburg:
Looking for Goethe
keith harmon snow
(Published January 1999, by Wingspan magazine, Tokyo, Japan.)
Mozart had been buried for 30 years. Old Goethe,
having warmed up twelve-year-old Felix Mendelssohn with his most cherished Bach fugues, next challenged the child prodigy with an original Mozart score. “Now we will see whether you can play something you do not know.”
The boy’s eyes beamed as he recognized the clear but small notes of Mozart’s hand. Young Felix played it like a boyhood friend. “That’s nothing,” Goethe teased, “anyone could do it.” Then Goethe laid before Mendelssohn a roll of parchment sloppily splashed and lined and blotted with ink. Laughing at the apparent joke, the prodigy went silent as Goethe pressed him to play.
“Why, Beethoven wrote that,” declared Goethe’s friend Zelter, leaning over the shoulder of his awestruck pupil. “He always writes with a broomstick and passes his sleeve over the notes before they are dry.”
Felix explored Beethoven’s labyrinth once through. “That is true Beethoven,” he passionately exclaimed, sticking on notes which lurked in the chaos and surprise of the composer’s genius, “I recognize him in it at once.” And then Felix played it.
It was November, 1821. Thinkers the world over were seeking Goethe’s audience in person. Himself captivated by a romanticized America, Goethe read Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans four times. He favored the ideas of Thoreau, but it was Emerson who read Goethe in German in preparation for a visit. Arriving in Weimar in May, 1832, Emerson was four weeks too late. The great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had died.
In life Goethe pondered the cosmos. His was a world of primordial archetypes: plants, bones, souls. In his concepts of “intensification” and “polarity” he saw a universe of cyclic rebirth and transformation, of energy in balance and in opposition. Expansion and contraction. Light and dark. Poetry and science. Spirit and matter. Faust was Goethe’s pilgrimage, his epic design to educate humanity about itself. Mephistopheles was his devil; nature his temple.
“Words are as valuable as money,” Goethe once wrote. Yet mere words fail to convey his expansiveness. Coming from an American culture rich in arrogance and poor in education, I am stunned by the spectrum of Goethe’s energies. Poet, painter, architect, historian. Student of both Bible and Koran. Self-described as the “last of the great pagans.” There is a certain essence to Goethe which holds little currency at present. This is the Goethe I seek. Rebel. Iconoclast. Independent. Heretic.
“I, pagan?” quipped Goethe — who persecuted his heroines in reflection of moral and religious hypocrisy. “Well, after all, I let Gretchen be executed [in Faust] and Ottilie starve to death [in Elective Affinities]; don’t people find that Christian enough? What do they want that would be more Christian?” Another day he wrote, “I believe in God, nature, and the victory of good over evil.”
Frankfurt Am Main
I stroll the night along Frankfurt’s Main river, which the young Goethe loved. The city is big. The black hulk of a barge emerges midstream, drones under the bridge, fades into the foggy river. Herr Goethe is here: Commissioner of Highways and Canals. By day the financial district hums and I am reminded of Goethe’s reflections on returning to his childhood city: “People live in a perpetual whirl of making money and spending it, and that which we call ‘mood’ can neither be produced nor communicated. All amusements, even the theatre, are meant only as diversions.”
At the Frankfurt house of Goethe’s 1749 birth, scholar George Dewitz describes young Johann’s little puppet theatre. “This is the most important original artifact in Goethe’s house. It signifies the origins of Goethe’s theatrical work. Goethe, the most important theatrical dramatist in Germany.” George distills humor out of his 15 years as a quadrilingual guide at Goethehaus. “Who is Goethe?” a young man from America once asked. “He is like Shakespeare,” George replied. The youth was even more puzzled. “Who is Shakespeare?”
For three years Goethe studied law in Leipzig on his father’s wish, but illness and discontent brought him back home. As a law student in Strasbourg, he met the great thinker Herder (1744-1803) and through Herder came Homer and Shakespeare. “What noble philosophers have said about the world applies to Shakespeare too,” Goethe wrote, in a 1771 tribute. The theme is echoed in Faust: “What we call evil is only the other side of good; evil is necessary for good to exist and is part of the whole. I cry: Nature! Nature! Nothing is so like nature as Shakespeare’s characters.”
In the Strasbourg Cathedral, Goethe found the Gothicism which he hailed as “uniquely German.” His discoveries united him with the Sturm und Drang, a literary rebellion against the suffocating morality of the day. The poet G.E. Lessing set the stage with Laocoon in 1766. The storm and stress raged after Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther compelled forlorn lovers to copy the protagonist: Scores of young men committed suicide, copies of Werther in their pockets. It was 1774. Suddenly, all Europe was reading the 25-year-old Goethe.
The Court at Saxe-Weimar
In 1775, Goethe was invited to Weimar by the Duchess Anna Amalia, mother of the 18-year-old Duke Karl August. Arriving in Weimar under grey Thuringian skies, I find Goethe everywhere expropriated by entrepreneur and institution. The Goethe Museum is full of white space, empty of exhibits, in metamorphosis. It is a fitting reminder: In 1809 Goethe headed the reorganization of all museums and departments at the University of Jena. He was forever enriching and enlarging collections.
In the hustle of plans for “GoetheJahr 1999” and “Weimar 1999: Cultural Capital of Europe,” I find Goethehaus — and the house of soulmate Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) — shrouded in the scaffolds and plastic of repair. Inside are Goethe’s copious possessions, the “minerals, busts, engravings, statuettes and large drawings” noted by Felix Mendelssohn in a letter to his family. Standing at the piano, I imagine the spectacle of Felix Mendelssohn sight-reading Beethoven to the whim of Goethe. But the piano is silent. The floorboards creak under the feet of pious tourists and whispers die off like flies in the corners of stately rooms bereft of cobwebs.
The Weimar Hilton overlooks the Ilm river valley, and each morning I cross the original stone bridge and walk briskly to the palace in the footsteps of Goethe — through a park that he helped landscape, according to Norbert Lessing, the charming and hospitable manager at the Hilton.
“Not that Lessing,” Norbert Lessing had been quick to say. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) shared Goethe’s capacity for poetry and art. Both wrote essays on the Grecian statue Laocoon; both praised Shakespeare. Lessing had begun his own Faust, in 1759, but the work went unfinished. Goethe often staged his plays along with those of Schiller and Shakespeare, and Goethe’s own.
I see Goethe’s influence in the Duchess Anna Amalia Library: His direction from 1797 to 1832 secured its prosperity. To a bibliomaniac like me, the place is awesome. Even the floorboards, circa 1563 and spanning 30 inches, are impressive. House technician Klaus Hildebrandt pulls the velvet curtains to reveal countless first editions by Weimar greats. From the shelves he pulls Goetz von Berlichingen. I envy Klaus his position: Fifteen years with the world’s rarest texts — some 900,000 items including hand-bills from the Reformation, prints from the French Revolution era, and 13,000 volumes on Faust.
Herder followed Goethe to Weimar as Court Preacher in 1776. On the bronze statue hat fronts the 15th-century Herder Church, I read his motto: “Light. Love. Life.” Inside I can imagine Herder, a spiritual force in Goethe’s life, at the pulpit railing against the state, corruption and conquest: “Can you name a land where Europeans have entered without defiling themselves forever before defenseless, trusting mankind, by the unjust word, greedy deceit, crushing oppression, diseases, fatal gifts they have brought?”
Goethe struggled with duty and obligation as his Duke forged and shattered alliances in the expedience of success or defeat. As Director of the War Commission, he stood and ran with the Duke’s regiments in France in 1792, after Prussia meddled in the French Revolution, and again at the Siege of Mainz in 1793. As Councillor of State, he doled out justice and tried to moderate the Duke’s passions for hunting and war, both financed by taxes levied on peasants.
Beethoven found Goethe too servile to aristocracy. Astounded by the other’s talent, Beethoven had set Goethe’s Egmont to score in 1811. Meeting the following year in Bohemia, where the rich bathed in the healing mineral waters of Karlsbad and Marienbad, the two titans clashed. Goethe pitied Beethoven his increasing deafness, but found him “an utterly untamed personality, not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but who surely does not make it any more pleasant by his attitude.”
Goethe met Napoleon in 1808, which he described as “one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.” Napoleon liked the poet and his poetry. Others attacked Goethe for his aloofness to war. “National hatred is a peculiar thing,” he wrote in 1830. “How could I write songs of hate without hatred?” Still, his link to the Duke, his Court functions — his “interests” — blinded him and so many after him to the evils forewarned by his old friend Herder.
Travels in Bohemia
I am standing at the edge of a Bohemian meadow when a small deer leaps out of the grass and bounds to a distant thicket: It invokes an image of the Ducal hunt. Then I see Goethe, traveling with footman and carriage, no longer the “incarnate Wild Huntsman” of his youth, but the indefatigable scientist. Between visits to nearby Marienbad or Karlsbad spas, this land was Goethe’s laboratory. Year after year he came, investigating the secrets of nature (see “Goethe the Scientist”)..
Two deer, white tails flagging, cross my path as I walk a farm surrendered under the Potsdam Agreement by the family of Anna Woebking. Anna points to holes riddled in cement by strafing Allied planes in 1945. Eight years later, her husband, Wilhelm, stayed a year on my grandfather’s farm. “Willy” graduated from high school, with my mother, in Massachusetts. Four hours from Weimar by German Rail, we explore Goethe’s old haunts.
Goethe stayed in Plana, where Gothic frescoes date from circa 800 A.D. Alena Mrovcova from Galerie Plana walks us to the 13th-century postcoacher’s house where Goethe stabled his horse and took modest meals. “You should recognize that Goethe did much of his scientific work in this area,” says Galerie partner Tilo Ettl. “His house in Marienbad was ten kilometers from here.”
War between Austria and France forbade Goethe’s annual sojourn here in 1809. But this land has always been in dispute. Some 80,000 Prussians commanded by Frederick the Great conquered all land to Prague in 1744. Anna and Willy talk about the Thirty Years War (1618-48) against the doctrines of Martin Luther: Towns were sacked and burned, Bohemian peasants slaughtered by the thousands.
The castle ruins of Count Krasikov Svamberk (1287) rise on rock over the Bohemian plain.
We explore the playground of Anna’s youth as a chill wind drives ominous clouds over plains and castle, invoking Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen. “I am rescuing the memory of a valiant man,” Goethe wrote of his martyr of truth and liberty. In fact, Goetz was a robber baron more akin to a character from Goethe’s 1794 translation of the low-German epic Reineke Fuchs: The unprincipled, cowardly, duplicitous and greedy “Reynard the Fox.”
Pilgrimage to Rome
In a quiet hamlet on the plain, four kilometers by crow, Anna locates the exit of the castle tunnel. Nearby, two girls herd a sow and nine piglets into a furrowed field. A family gathers apples in a courtyard orchard. They are shy, but Anna’s introduction jogs their memories: They are friends of Anna’s family.
In 1786, Goethe spent an entire summer here conducting a series of experiments that showed how fruiting could be prevented by too much nourishment or accelerated by deprivation. The same year, he abruptly left Bohemia for Italy, in a secret plan known only to his servant and chronicled in Italian Journey: “I leapt into a mail coach, all alone, with only a portmanteau and satchel for luggage.”
In Regensburg I walk the Steinerne Brucke, Germany’s oldest stone bridge, which Goethe crossed on his way south. The rains have swelled the Danube and the sky remains grey, but medieval Regensberg, with its narrow alleys and Gothic architecture, is fascinating. Here, too, is Goethe: His study of 12th-century Gothic architecture prompted posthumous efforts to spire cathedrals at Cologne and Regensberg.
Goethe spent two years in Italy, disguised as undistinguished painter Filippo Miller. During this time he realized his artistic talents and resolved to spend the rest of his life writing. On his return to Germany, however, Goethe suffered for his enlightenment: “I received no sympathy, no one understood my language.”
Many of his friends were offended by his living with a young mistress, Christiane Vulpius, who bore him a son in 1789 (see “Goethe the Lover”). “My friends,” he wrote, instead of comforting me and drawing me back to them, drove me to despair. My delight in things almost unknown to them, my sorrow and grief over what I had lost, seemed to offend them. I could not adjust myself to this distressing situation, so great was the loss to which my exterior senses must become reconciled. But gradually my spirit returned and sought to preserve itself intact.”
Seeing ignorance, pride and stupidity everywhere, Goethe kept his genius to himself. He was indignant at censorship. He became more guarded. Still he experimented. He recorded. He created. Some works were kept secret. His Faust was a labor of 60 years and for that Goethe gets the last word. His Faust, he said in 1828, “represents a permanent record of the development of a mind, tormented by everything which tortures all human beings, stirred by the same things that trouble us all, engulfed by what we all abhor, and delighting in the things we all desire.” He published selectively, but profusely, to the end.
“I have found, not gold or silver,” Goethe wrote to his friend Herder the preacher, “but something that makes me much happier: The intermaxillary bone in man.”
His 1786 discovery was heretic. Humans were then held to be separately and uniquely ordained by God; Goethe’s study of animal forms — from hawks to pachyderms to turtles to rodents to sloths — verified the continuity of nature. Goethe put humans in their proper place.
He pioneered the disciplines of morphology and comparative anatomy. His evolutionary theory eclipses Darwin’s. His profound treatise on the Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) followed years of detailed studies, but was rejected by his publisher, and its importance remains unrespected to this day. Like his Theory of Colors (1808) and treatise On The Intermaxillary Bone In Man, his holistic, spiritual perspective was met with cold hostility. He was a poet, not a scientist, everyone said.
His science fills museums in Weimar, Stutzerbach, Marienbad and Jena. A ginkgo planted by Goethe towers over the Jena Botanical Gardens. Like the Observatory, their genesis was in Goethe. Chemistry. Weather. Optics. His ideas spread in letters, debates, journals — and in his poetry. Rejection followed. “It is tormenting not to be understood when one feels sure himself, after a great stress and strain, that one understands both one’s self and one’s subject.”
He was a fervent advocate of tolerance and the coexistence of ideas. He blistered at the exclusion of his views, at the “insufferable arrogance” and “distortion of truth” shown by the followers of Isaac Newton. “Newton explained,” wrote Ernst Lehrs about Goethe, “or at least was supposed to explain, why an apple fell; he never thought of explaining the exact correlative but infinitely more difficult question of how the apple got up there.”
Goethe foretold the abuse of mathematics, of abstraction and reductionism in the study of nature. He postulated a spiritual essence in plants. In his old age, he compared the earth to a living being — “she” in gender — perpetually inhaling and exhaling. Centuries ahead of his time, his poetry speaks his truth:
Who would study and describe the living, starts
By driving the spirit out of the parts;
In the palm of his hand he holds all the sections,
Lacks nothing, except the spirit’s connections.
“It was no love affair,” wrote Goethe’s last flame. At Marienbad in 1823, Ulricke von Levetzow wrote this “to refute all the fantastic things which were printed.” She was 18. Goethe — old fool that he knew himself to be — asked for her hand anyway.
The Marienbader Elegies grew from this affair. Dejected and sad, Goethe wrote: “Now I must see how I can get through a dull and monotonous winter, which, to some extent, I look forward to with horror. However, we must endeavor, with good humor and courage, to make the black days useful to ourselves and to our friends.”
Dark and light. Good and evil. Polarity in love as in all Goethe’s things. His teenage love for Gretchen of Frankfurt emerges in Faust. He was a heartbreaker, and the parson’s daughter Friederike Brion was his second victim. The Sorrows of Young Werther spoke of his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff.
“Do you know me in this style, Behrisch?” Goethe wrote. The older Behrisch — Goethe’s living Mephistopheles — had Goethe drinking and chasing women at 18. “The true lady-killer style,” said Goethe. “But to make no bones about it, I’d already be fit to...how the devil do I put it? ...a girl.” Goethe’s conquests continued in the Duke’s company.
Torquatto Tasso was for secret lover Charlotte von Stein, a court lady seven years his senior married to the Duke’s Master of the Horse. Goethe fell for Maddalena Riggi in Italy. He was captivated by Corona Schroter. Roman Elegies was for the young Christiane Vulpius, whom he married in 1806. West-East Divan was for Marianne von Willemer, also married, who roused Goethe’s passion in 1819.
Sin and salvation. Fantasy and reality. Renunciation and desire. Confined by a stifling and religious patriarchy, war was waged in Goethe’s soul: Duty, morality, salvation and fear pitted against desire, sexuality, love and freedom. His poetry was his grand expression of this human conflict.