Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Biography
Johan Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1749. He studied law in Leipzig, and later in Strasburg. While studying law he became interested with the occult. The pivot of his life may well have been the moment he met William Shakespeare’s work and heard folk poetry, through the guidance of Johann Gottfried Herder. At the age of twenty-four Goethe wrote Goetz von Berlichingen, a play that begot him national fame, and established him as the Sturm und Drang movement. In a matter of weeks, from a biography of a noble highwayman of the German Peasant’s War, the play arose. In 1774, Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was an even greater success, he would repeatedly rework it over the next dozen years.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a fictional case history of a young, intelligent and rather charming man, who, under the spell of passion, blindly drifts into a disaster he does not see until his will to live has been sapped and his intelligence undermined. Book I is a series of letters, written to a friend - of whom the reader knows nothing more than that he is a displaced and always-there addressee - chart the itinerary of Werther’s mental disintegration, up until the final moment. Werther’s personality, as produced by his own pen, is an odd one; he is talented, sensitive, religious but without any adherence to dogma, devoted to nature, and her ways, over society and its conventions, and although observant, more inclined to reverie than interrogation. Moreover, he is under no pressure to conform for the sake of profitable employment, and is rather self-indulgent in a cult of pure feeling. The letters retell the night he met Lotte, and later, her fiancé. To his always-receptive friend, Werther admits his belief that it is he, and only he, who can make Lotte happy, truly happy, that is. In the last letter, he restages the last night, including his argument with the fiancé on the justification of suicide. On that same last night, in the next to last moment, Lotte unwittingly pushes Werther’s undisciplined, indulgent, and somewhat revengeful ego to suicide - retelling her mother’s final moments, her conviction that all who love will meet again in the next life; her words engrave a hope on the young man’s bleeding heart, keeping it pounding as it drips a trail to his grave, but a few hours later. Book II, is akin to an editor’s report; an editor who progressively follows Werther ever deeper into his private thoughts and silent moments, before returning to inscribe them on pages, for all to see. Lotte’s soul, with its unannounced and even unadmitted words, is no more beyond his grasp, then Werther’s secret paths and indulgent fantasies. In the editor’s narration we hear Werther’s alter ego, his justifications, his grounds and proofs, all from an all knowing and all seeing, other perspective.
The novel was a hit, his first bestseller. It brought its author nearly as much fame as it did criticism. Both, ironically, over the same misread element – the glorification of suicide. Werther, nonetheless, as should have been anyways, became a literary archetype.
Before becoming an advisor to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and holding a series of offices in the Weimar government, Goethe began work on Faust, and another play, Egmont. In September 1786, Goethe fled to Italy. Without word, or sign, to a single soul, he withdrew to find himself. Fearing he had become more a courtier and functionary than a poet, he left the world that made him such. The first year of this odyssey, he recounted in the Italian Journey. There, in the tranquil chaos of Sicily, Goethe returned to his Faust, and began Iphigenie auf Tauris, and Torquato Tasso.
After his return, in 1788, Goethe took part in the Battle of Valmy and the Siege of Mainz – parts of a failed invasion of revolutionary France. (A written account of these events in found within his Complete Works) In some senses, he was politically conservative, primarily because the masses couldn’t govern, even themselves. He did not oppose the War of Liberation, although he did oppose all efforts to unify Germany. He advocated only the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots.
Following his return to Weimar, Goethe began his great friendship with Friedrich Schiller, in 1794. They had become acquainted immediately following Goethe’s return, in 1788, but maintained a rather wary relationship, until Schiller wrote to Goethe, formally proposing a friendship. Their collaborative friendship would last until Friedrich Schiller’s death in 1805. Friedrich Schiller is widely regarded as responsible for encouraging and advising Goethe’s work on Faust – parts I, and II.
From 1795 to 1800, he continued work on Faust: part I, as well as writing Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice Years, and a series of poems, including the Roman Elegies. Friedrich Schiller’s death, in 1805, would coincide with grave illness, depression and another withdrawal.
Following the Battle of Jena, and Napoleon’s victory over, and invasion of, Prussia, in 1806, Goethe began the sequel to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice Years, entitled, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travel, as well as his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. In 1809, a year after the publication of Faust: part I, Goethe was received by Napoleon, and awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor; at the moment of their meeting, Napoleon, emperor of Europe, facing Goethe, uttered ‘Behold, man!’.
Faust: part I was written over the course of over thirty years, in four distinct phases: 1772-5, 1788-90, 1797-1801, and 1806. Unlike the sentimental tragic hero of Werther, Faust is perhaps the least sympathetic ‘hero’ in world literature; to the point, where his author, through Mephisto – Satan – often sides against him. Curiously (for us who have gone through structuralism, and see precisely this as the ultimate tragedy) this is largely on account of his almost non-existence, his puppet-like place in the narrative. This utter subjugation is best summarized in Mephisto’s own words: ‘Fool easily misled, that is the magic art’. Unlike other literary accounts of a confrontation with Satan, where the hero awakes at the sight of that charming face, Faust is at his intelligent peak before his wager, after which, or better, during which he morphs into little more than a cart on a track – he is merely ‘acted upon’, with little to no resistance. Is Faust a tragedy, is a question hinging on whether we read his dealings with the devil as a pact or a wager. Read as a wager, Faust is a tragic figure, for he must lose if he is to win, and in order to win he must ultimately lose. That is, to escape damnation he must suffer unremitting dissatisfaction and disappointment in life, while a crumb of happiness or even mere content reveals itself frivolous in face of its cost, eternal damnation. Is it any wonder that both Hegel and Nietzsche would come to utter Pontius Pilate’s words for Goethe - as Napoleon did too; or as Bulgakov repeated, in his meeting with the devil?
Goethe reveals a paradox, or better, a paradox exchanged for tragedy, between the human and the ontological. In the opening scenes, Faust - at his peak – sits in angst questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Mephisto, on the other hand reveals to Faust the utter incommensurability of that symbiotic duality, which he comes to unblinkingly accept, to the point where the ultimate outcome of his wager seems of little importance. The homunculus, which Faust father’s as his third child, is a theatrical image for the human work, or specifically the work of art itself: a form, an objectification of something miniscule and human, which keeps its form for but a blink of a eye, before collapsing again into a stupid primeval flux. As the form to the flux, so man to the form, does not act but is acted upon until he is desiccated and discarded. Words, Mephisto reveals, make and unmake the images of all creatures, with no goal or benevolence: ‘They do not see you, they see only patterns’. Man, for Goethe, is lured and stimulated by objects of desire, which assume their place in embodiments of the Eternal Female, first Gretchen, and then Helen, but in the end, of course, neither. These lures, are what form forms from the formless, as women birth children by accident. In Faust women incarnate shadows into real things, forming labyrinths of acts and objects, deceiving men into positing some real, stable substance behind them, when in fact there is nothing more than stupid, primordial flux.
Over the course of the next decade Goethe would begin work on Faust: part II, and publish a collection of poems, entitled, West-Eastern Divan – written for his new love, Marianne von Willemer, as much as the Roman Elegies were for his last.
In 1821, Goethe would publish Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travel. In 1823-4, now in love with Ulrike von Levetzov, Goethe would write the poems, Trilogy of Passion. The remainder of the decade, Goethe largely spent work for and finishing Faust: part II.
On March 22, 1832, Goethe died.