*Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe



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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

German, 1749–1832
Poet, playwright, novelist, aphorist, government official, and natural scientist: all apply to the polymath and essayist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s essayistic production spans his long and prolific life as a writer. A reflection of a multifaceted career, his essays display an astounding range, versatility, and interdisciplinarity. Like many of his other achievements, his work as essayist is preeminent, masterful, and exemplary. He was, moreover, a leading proponent of the form, albeit avant la lettre, as the German language and literature of the time did not yet have a single or specific label for the genre. Even so, his essays can be readily identified or classified as such according to subsequent definitions of the term.
While it is difficult to characterize something as protean and undefinable as the essay and equally difficult to distinguish among different types of essay, Goethe’s might be said to fall loosely into biographical, historical, critical, personal, general expository, and scientific categories. The subjects of his essays vary immensely and mirror his wideranging talents and activities. He accordingly penned essays on such topics as architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, aesthetics, the scientific (or experimental) method, botany, osteology, geology, and morphology. Though some of his prose expositions on literary and aesthetic themes have received considerable scholarly attention, his science essays remain mostly unappreciated and unfamiliar to many readers.
Goethe’s essays provide a showcase for his mastery of prose style. Many have long been prized as models of German prose writing, among them “Zum Shakespeares Tag” (1771; “For Shakespeare: A Tribute”), “Von deutscher Baukunst” (1772; “On German Architecture”), “Über den Granit” (1781, 1784; “On Granite”), and “Winckelmann” (1805), to name only a few. His essayistic writing flows with a seeming effortlessness, natural grace, and elegance. The metaphor Friedrich Schlegel chose to describe Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795–96) likewise typifies Goethe’s essayistic prose; it is a metaphor Goethe himself borrowed from Solomon’s Proverbs (25:11): “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, his essays reflect a concern for the well-wrought phrase, for excellence in manner of expression.
Characterized by clarity and facility as well as economy, they exemplify a form of simple eloquence. Neither too casual nor too erudite, they typically occupy a space somewhere between the so-called formal and familiar essays. Samuel Johnson’s description of Addison’s essayistic style in The Lives of the English Poets (1781)—“familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious”—could easily apply to Goethe’s as well.
Goethe’s essayistic writing is a rich, eclectic, and expert blend of styles, voices, modes, and forms. Mood and tone vary greatly depending on topic, authorial intent, even Goethe’s stage of life, and so convey in one instance the exuberance of youth and in another the equanimity of greater maturity. “On German Architecture,” for example, has a decidedly rhapsodic tenor, while “Myrons Kuh” (1818; “Myron’s Cow”) shows more detachment. Similarly, the contentious and polemical “Literarischer Sansculottismus” (1795; “Literary Sansculottism”) differs markedly from the amiable and genial “SanktRochus-Fest zu Bingen” (1814; “The St. Rochus Festival in Bingen”).
In addition (and such variations notwithstanding), Goethe’s essays characteristically manifest a didactic tendency which is defined by the complementary action of prodesse et delectare, by the reciprocation of instruction and entertainment, or as the 18th century would express it, of nützen und ergötzen.
Associative, combinative, and collective as well as asystematic, inexhaustive, and undogmatic, Goethe’s essays display the same plasticity and state of flux he admired and described in his essayistic tribute to Christoph Martin Wieland, “Zu brüderlichem Andenken Wielands. 1813” (“In Brotherly Remembrance of Wieland, 1813”). As employed by Goethe, the essay investigates the relation of balance to imbalance, the interplay of similarity and dissimilarity, even the possibility of harmony in disharmony.
Moreover, his essays embody the tension between the static and dynamic (Dauer im Wechsel) and between levitas and gravitas (Scherz und Ernst), those concepts so fundamental to Goethe’s way of thinking and writing.
Goethe takes full advantage of the essayistic potential for metalinguistic collage. In his service, the essay fulfills its promise as a generic hybrid, as a genre of genres, as an amalgam of lyric, dramatic, epic, and whatever other kinds of writing one could imagine or care to include. If one word could describe Goethe’s essayistic prose, it might well be experimental—and in every sense of the word. As their various structures and contours illustrate, Goethe’s essays explore the vast possibilities of short expository prose.
“Ruysdael als Dichter” (1816; “Ruysdael as Poet”), for example, has no internal division to speak of, while “Das römische Karneval” (1789; “The Roman Carnival”) consists of numerous subsections, each with its own heading. By turns monologic and dialogic, assertive and tentative, analytic and synthetic, Goethe’s essays represent a literary space where not only style and content, but also form and function converge.
Essayistic may well describe Goethe’s prose writing in general. Indeed, an essayistic style informs much if not all of his literary production. Consider, for example, the essayistic properties of his epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sufferings of Young Werther), his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–13;
Poetry and truth, translated as Memoirs of Goethe), his travel narrative Italienische Reise (wr. 1817; Travels in Italy), the stylistically complex and varied Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels), or his study in optics Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colours). The essay is in a sense epitomic of Goethe, as it embraces and displays his literary style, scientific method, and way of thinking all at once.
Although never explicitly formulated, Goethe’s notion of the essay coincides with his concept of the scientific method, and both mirror his general way of thinking and working per se. This correspondence is most clearly expressed in his essay on the experiment (or assay)—“Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt” (1792;
“The Experiment/Essay as Mediator Between Object and Subject”). There he gives an account of his scientific modus operandi, which implicitly and concurrently describes his essayistic modus scribendi. Like his concept of experimentation, Goethe’s essayistic prose attempts to take into account the many and varied particularities of a given topic, issue, or phenomenon. In the essay, he collects several different perspectives and perceptions which when taken together offer a generalized impression of the subject under consideration. His essayistic compositions in effect extrapolate wholeness from particularity, completeness from fragmentariness, generality from speciality (and perhaps vice versa as well). At the same time, such extrapolation always remains a mere approximation, since the essay never fully comprehends every aspect of the topic in question.
As plied by Goethe, the essay encircles its subject by collecting a number of various impressions, perspectives, perceptions, experiences, and observations, for example in “Der Sammler und die Seinigen” (1799; “The Collector and His Circle”). In doing so, the essay constructs and yields a composite, approximating a unified whole or, to borrow a concept from Max Weber, an ideal type. Goethe’s essays reflect the same fundamentally morphological, typological, or synthetic thinking as that which distinguishes his science.
His essayistic writing illustrates an attempt to obtain a synthesis of multiple, isolated, and disconnected experiences. With the essay, Goethe generates a unified construct in approximation of an otherwise elusive and inaccessible whole. As such a construct, one which comprises a number of fragmentary and limited points of view, the essay in a sense performs the same function as Goethe’s concept of the Urphänomen, the protoor pure phenomenon he posits, but which is actually nowhere present or attainable in empirical reality (e.g. “Erfahrung und Wissenschaft” [1798; “Experience and Science”]). While Goethe’s essays admit to the fragmented and fragmentary nature of his knowledge and perceptions, they simultaneously attempt to overcome such limitations with what might be called a holistic response to the all but insurmountable discrepancies and often unrelated singularities of which our experience of reality consists. A comment in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit illustrates the holistic propensity that also informs his essayism: “only humankind taken all together is the true human being.” Like his science of morphology, Goethe’s essayistic method of thinking and writing bridges the gaps between objective and subjective realities as well as between incomprehensible, inconceivable totalities and multiple, even irreconcilable particularities.
Along with Montaigne, whom he had read extensively, Goethe could also have declared “je suis moy-mesmes la matière de mon livre,” for like the great French essayist, he too was himself the subject or substance of his essays. Goethe’s famous reference in his autobiography to his literary creations as fragments of a great confession (“Bruchstiicke einer grossen Konfession”) bears witness as well to such an understanding of writing as self-study and self-disclosure, an activity to which the essay particularly lends itself.
Even though Goethe always wrote both about and for himself, he certainly had another audience in mind. The conversational and dialogic quality of his essays in effect implies and requires a reader. Goethe thus enlists and enables the active participation of his reader; he engages and includes the reader as interlocutor. His essays invite cooperation and the opportunity to share in his deliberations, to think along with him, to enter into the process of thought itself, and to be a partner in both reflection and invention. Goethe “the creative writer” desired and posited a “creative reader,” one who as Emerson wrote “must be an inventor to read well” (“American Scholar,” 1837). In this way, Goethe’s reader becomes not only a rebut also a co-producer of the essayistic text.
Besides the implied individual reader, Goethe’s essays assume and address the cosmopolitan, intellectual community at large. Whether about Laocoön or the intermaxillary bone, his essays are not written for a few scholarly specialists, but for any educated, informed, knowledgable reader, all peers in the republic of letters, citizens of literary society in general. As practiced by Goethe, the essay created and afforded a “virtual” literary salon, a communal space for a meeting of the minds. Goethe’s essays represent a place where author and reader come together not only to explore the coincidence of art and science, but also to experience the intersection and interaction of thinking, reading, and writing.

Born 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt-on-Main. Studied law at the University of Leipzig, 1765–68, and drawing with Adam Öser; became ill, 1768, and convalesced in Frankfurton- Main; studied at the University of Strasbourg, 1770–71, law degree, 1771. Practiced law in Frankfurt-on-Main, 1771–72, and Wetzlar, 1772. Invited to court of Weimar by Duke Karl August of Saxony-Weimar, 1775: entered civil service at ducal court, 1776, appointed Privy Counsel, 1779, and held various governmental posts and carried out diverse administrative duties, directing economic, political, social, and cultural affairs of state; ennobled, 1782. Visited Italy, 1786–88. Liaison with Christiane Vulpius, from 1788, marrying her, 1806 (died, 1816): one son. First met Friedrich von Schiller, 1788.
Director of the court theaters, 1791–1817. Accompanied Duke Karl August on a military campaign in France, 1792. Editor of various yearbooks and magazines, including Xenien (with Schiller), 1796–97, Die Propyläen (with J.H.Meyer), 1798–1800, Kunst und Altertum, 1816–32, and Zur Naturwissenschaft, 1817–24. Chancellor of the University of Jena. Died in Weimar, 22 March 1832.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Essays on Art, translated by Samuel Gray Ward, 1845
Briefe und Aufsätze von Goethe, aus den Jahren 1766 bis 1786, edited by A.Schöll, 1846
Italienische Reise, Aufsätze und Aussprüche über bildende Kunst, edited by C.Schuchardt, 2 vols., 1862–63
Aufsätze zur Kultur-, Theater- und Literatur-Geschichte: Maximen, Reflexionen, 2 vols., 1913–14
Literary Essays, edited by J.E.Spingarn, 1921
Botanical Writings, translated by Bertha Mueller, 1952
Schriften zur Literatur, 7 vols., 1970–82
Goethe on Art, edited and translated by John Gage, 1980
Essays on Art and Literature (vol. 3 of the Suhrkamp Collected Works), edited by John Gearey, translated by Ellen von Nardroff and Ernest H.von Nardroff, 1986
Maximen und Reflexionen (in English), edited and translated by R. H.Stephenson, 1986
Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of the Suhrkamp Collected Works), edited and translated by Douglas Miller, 1988
Other writings: four novels (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [The Sufferings of Young Werther], 1774; Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship], 1795– 96; Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities], 1809; Wilhelm Meisters
Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meister’s Travels], 1821), many plays (including Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand], 1773;
Faust I and II, 1808, 1832), poetry, travel sketches, scientific works, and autobiographical accounts.
Collected works editions: Werke (Weimar Edition), 143 vols., 1887–1919; Werke (Hamburg Edition), edited by Erich Trunz and others, 14 vols., 1948–64; Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, edited by Ernst Beutler, 27 vols., 1948–71; Collected Works (Suhrkamp Edition), edited by Victor Lange and others, translated by Michael
Hamburger and others, 12 vols., 1983–89; Sämtliche Werke (Munich Edition), edited by Karl Richter and others, 1986–(in progress).
“Goethe-Bibliographie,” Goethe: Jahrbuch der Goethe Gesellschaft, beginning with 14/15 (1952/53); as Goethe-Jahrbuch, since 1972
Hermann, Helmut G., Goethe-Bibliographie, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1991
Pyritz, Hans, Goethe-Bibliographie, Heidelberg: Winter, 2 vols., 1965
Further Reading
Bennett, Benjamin, “Werther and Montaigne,” Goethe Yearbook 3 (1986):1–20
Blackall, Eric A., The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978
Bouillier, Victor, “Montaigne et Goethe,” Revue de Littérature Comparée 5 (1925):572– 93
Burgard, Peter J., “Adorno, Goethe, and the Politics of the Essay,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 66 (1992):160–91
Burgard, Peter J., Idioms of Uncertainty: Goethe and the Essay, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992
Damann, Günter, “Goethes ‘Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten’ als Essay über die Gattung der Prosaerzählung im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Der deutsche Roman der Spätaufklärung: Fiktion und Wirklichkeit, edited by Harro Zimmermann, Heidelberg: Winter, 1990:1–24
Dell’ Orto, Vincent, “Audience and the Tradition of the German Essay in the Eighteenth Century,” Germanic Review 50 (1975): 111–25
Eibl, Karl, “‘…mehr als Promctheus…’: Anmerkung zu Goethes ‘Baukunst’-Aufsatz,” Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schillergesellschaft 25 (1981):238–48
Fink, Karl J., and Max L.Baeumer, editors, Goethe as a Critic of Literature, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984
Haenelt, Karin, Studien zu Goethes literarischer Kritik: Ihre Voraussetzungen und Möglichkeiten, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1985
Krebs, Franz Joseph, “Goethes Aufsatz ‘Von deutscher Baukunst’ und Valerys Leonardo- Essay: Zwei Begegnungen mit dem Genius,” Französisch-Heute (September 1983):151–61
Küntzel, Heinrich, Essay und Aufklärung: Zum Ursprung einer originellen deutschen Prosa im 18. Jahrhundert, Munich: Fink, 1969
McCarthy, John A., Crossing Boundaries: A Theory and History of Essay Writing in German, 1680–1815, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989 van der Laan, James M., “The German Essay of the Eighteenth Century: Mirror of Its Age,” Lessing Yearbook 18 (1986): 179–96
van der Laan, James M., “Of Goethe, Essays, and Experiments,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 64 (1990):45–53
Wohlleben, Joachim, Goethe als Journalist und Essayist, Frankfurton-Main and Berne: Lang, 1981

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