The mystery of Goethe

Of all the demigods, it is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who is the most difficult to explain when it comes to explaining his permanence in the literary Olympus. Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare (in fact, in the twentieth century, bardolatry surpassed itself and the unknown actor came to be considered “the inventor of the human”) are immovable, together with Homer and the Greek tragedians, to whom Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were added, while everything indicates that the contribution of the last century to the mega canon will remain with Proust, Joyce and Kafka. And of the poets, perhaps Eliot. And although there have been cases of saints brought down by stoning, such as Terence, Tasso, Anatole France or Hemingway, the invitations to bring Goethe down from his place have been ineffective. It is even bad luck to belittle the wise man from Weimar: that epithet called Claudel (“solemn ass”, he called him) turned out to be a boomerang for someone who had to see another Frenchman and Catholic, and contemporary of his, Mauriac, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952.

It is curious to read or reread Goethe (1749-1832). His Splendorwritten in two parts with an interval of half a century, is one of the founding enterprises of modernity, but as dramaturgy it is unrepresentable and its lessons, in the light of the criticism of Progress, are disturbing; the rest of his theatre is an antiquity and, although it has wonderful verses (especially those of the Divan of East and West1818-1827) his lyrical gifts are inferior to those of Heine, his young rival.

Read also: Naive and sentimental according to Schiller

As early as 1774, when they appeared, The Sorrows of Young Werther not only did they unleash a wave of suicides for love (in the face of which Goethe only suffered from attrition), but also the mad laughter of those who saw in that book not only a moaning taste but a lack of imagination: Beyle, who would sign as Stendhal, wondered why Werther did not steal his fiancée, as was the custom, off to another ranch, to add color to the mess. Those pistol shots would have been avoided, given the imperfection of the mechanism, which left the dying man bleeding in gunpowder for hours or days, as happened to the Goethean hero. I love the rest of the novels, especially the cycle of Wilhelm Meister (1796-1821), but because they explain Goethe, without having given, however, to the narrative genre what Richardson, Diderot, Choderlos de Laclos, Sterne or Voltaire, reaped. The fact that Goethe was the first cultural official in history in Weimar contributes to another point.

The current century, on the other hand, has been promising for the man of science, since Goethe wanted to be one as much as a man of letters. Although he lost his substantial battle against Newton, his totalizing idea of ​​Nature enjoys much credit in contemporary environmentalism. His cult of Pangea, spread by Bortoft in Nature as a whole. Goethe’s scientific vision (1996) would lead to a holistic science, rather than an analytical one: “we are all part of the cosmos” and the planet Earth must be recorded as a living being.


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I believe that Goethe’s permanence is explained there, extending from science to aesthetics because, if I may say so, his was an epistemology of enormous subtlety. The most monistic of minds, Goethe, did not admit that there could be science without the history of science, or literature without the history of literature. In the face of Kant (whom he finally understood thanks to Schiller, according to Cassirer, whom no one reads anymore) he disbelieved in any separation between subject and object, postulating unity. I arrived at this point (it is nothing else) after finding out why Goethe had a horror of literary criticism.

Not only did he hate it because he was human – as Mann reminded us – and therefore the owner of an elephantine vanity, but because Goethe despised the tedious artistic procedures, which were closely watched by the critics of the time, more concerned with precepts than with literature. Reich-Ranicki, the all-powerful German critic, recounts in The lawyers of literature (1994) that, when versifying, Goethe did not care about the meter (he asked for help in that line without scruples) and his disdain for French theatre was motivated, above all, by his contempt for rules. But he was far from being a libertarian or a libertine.

Poetry and truth (1811–1830), as well as the conversations with Eckermann, are full of good sense and a lot of good naivety because Goethe believed (and hence the prudence that inspires the Faustian) that fair dealings could be made with the devil. His antipathy for the idea of ​​decadence – at the same time so tempting – is noteworthy when he refutes, in Poetry and truththat if a literature is on the rise or if it is on the decline, it is because “literatures have seasons that alternate with each other, like nature, which unleash certain phenomena and succeed one another. That is why I do not believe that one can praise or censure in general terms an entire literary era. I especially dislike it when people praise or extol so much certain talents that arise in the thread of the time in which they live, while they vilify and oppress others. The throat of the nightingale is stimulated by spring, but also the gullet of the cuckoo. The butterflies that so please the eye, and the mosquitoes, that so disgust the sensibility, are invoked by the same summer heat. If we really assimilated this, we would not have to listen to the same complaints over and over again every ten years, and we would not so often waste the vain effort it costs us to annihilate one or another thing that we dislike.”

These four seasons of literature, venerated by Goethe, are, of course, alien to the critical spirit, and that is why it is so difficult for the gentleman from Weimar to fit into the modern puzzle. He thought reviewers were as miserable as dogs and he saw criticism as Ate, the Greek goddess of fate, whom he personified as limping after authors, unable to catch up with them. Goethe created the romantic totality but did not know how to inherit it. To inherit is to die a little (or a lot) and Goethe detested death.

The early romantics’ insistence on fate made Goethe retreat: if his creation could not live forever like Nature, wisely avoiding extinction through metamorphosis, it was better to disassociate himself from its heirs. To criticize was to nibble at creation, an absurd attempt to cut up the diamond and so, not believing in God, he invented the force of the demotic, in its very German sense and therefore suspected of being the property of the superman, alien to Providence and evil fates, a kind of pure and absolute spirit, a divinization of all things dear to his teacher Spinoza. Perhaps for this reason, Goethe cannot be expelled from Olympus because he embodies the implausible idea, but one that he held without any distraction, that art is the most finished form of Nature. Such a sentence brings a smile to a humanity that was modern, enlightened, romantic, revolutionary, conservative, futurist, postmodern, and will continue to be many other things, but composed of individuals who will always have something of beauty in their souls. If it is true that this was the ethical and aesthetic mission of the Ancients, Goethe was there to take care of this corner.

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