Especially intriguing is Goethe
's influence on German society
onwards. A direct result of this influence is the immense amount of books that have been written about his life. These books' authors didn't only investigate in Goethe's thoughts and speeches
, but also investigated in the books he read, whether or not he practised a sport, what clothes he may have worn, how he spent his birthdays, und so weiter
. It's mostly thanks to the efforts of those writers that the modern reader can form a detailed mental image of Goethe. With the help of Boudewijn Büch
's Goethe and no End
, (a nice play on words, referring to Shakespeare und kein Ende
, an article written and published in 1815 by Goethe himself), I've compiled a summary of what is known about the man.
Goethe had a diary. It is published under the name Tagebücher. It isn't his most interesting work, many of his notes mention nothing more than the appointments he made. One line, written in April 1777, catches the eye: 'Cörperliche Übungen aller ley Art' ('I did all sorts of physical practises today'). It seems somewhat disappointing that such a great and famed intellectual would be doing a nest hang. Another notable line (or rather, word) in Goethe's diary is '(May 22, 1816:) Turnbuch' ('Book of Gymnastics'). Hans Ruppert's Goethes Bibliothek. Katalog (1958) gives an explanation for the appearance of this word: author Friedrich Jahn had sent Goethe his book Die Deutsche Turnkunst for feedback.
Much has been written about Goethe's physical appearance. Some good books on the subject are
Goethes äussere Erscheinung literarische und künstlerische Dokumente seiner Zeitgenossen (1914) by Emil Schaeffer and Wie sah Goethe aus' (1932) by Fritz Stahl. Goethe's most famous body parts are his teeth, which have been a source of suspicion for a long time. A long and tedious thesis on the subject is Max Dietz's Goethes Zahnleiden und Zahnärzte('Goethe's toothaches and dentists'), which I mention just because of the ridiculous subject.
Things that have been written about Goethe's teeth:
Heinrich Heine (October 2, 1824): '(..) with a teethless mouth.'
Karl Vogel (Goethe's personal physician): 'after his death he still had all his teeth', '(..) partial prosthesis'
G. Parthey (1827): 'no teeth at all'
Whether or not Goethe had (false) teeth, there are two physical marks everyone agrees on: Goethe had sparkling eyes and impudent, crude lips.
It's often thought that Goethe was of noble birth. This is false, Goethe wasn't elevated to the nobility till 1782, and it cost him 362 Reichstaler, a fortune at that time. After his elevation he was allowed to wear a weapon and to put 'von' in front of his last name. His hereditary title was 'Freiherr', which means as much as 'baron'. Not many of his offspring got the chance to use this title though: the very last Baron von Goethe was grandson Walther, who died in 1885.
Around 1900 the question arose whether or not Goethe was homosexual. Especially in the belle époque (from 1900 till 1914) when people became more aware of their sexuality, many authors investigated in this matter. Magnus Hirschfeld, godfather of homosexuality, concluded in his Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes that Goethe had liberal thoughts about homosexuality, but wasn't an active homosexual himself. K.R. Eissler pretty much agreed with that in his Goethe, A psychoanalytic study. Eissler also put that Goethe hated the sexual act, because of what he had said on November 12, 1813 to his friend F.W. Riemer: 'the sexual act destroys beauty and nothing is more beautiful till that moment.' One can only feel sorry for Goethe's wife Christiane Vulpius, with whom he got five children. An odd poem Goethe wrote around 1790 may be a clue around his sexuality:
Knaben liebt ich wohl auch
Doch lieber sind mir die Mädchen
Hab ich als Mädchen sie satt,
Dient sie als Knabe mir noch.
(I like boys too ' but I like girls better. ' when I have enough of a girl ' she can still serve me like a boy).
Another clue would be from a passage from Goethe's Götz von Berchlichingen (1771), when central figure Götz screams: 'Surrender? (..) Tell your centurion that he can lick my ass!'
Psycho-analytical authors always saw this sentence as a direct reference to Goethe's homosexuality. Even Freud had his own opinion about all this. He put that Goethe was the opposite of his books: hence, since Goethe always bragged about his heterosexual escapades, Goethe was homosexual.
The link between Goethe and Fascism is easily and often made. In 1940 there were about ten books which stated that Goethe hated Jews, this number grew as the war progressed. This is not surprising: Goethe was indeed imbued with the spirit of his time and therefor he talked rather condescendingly about Jewish people. Goethe was also very fond of the German nature, culture and race. He was often quoted in fascistic literal works. An example is the title of a publication of Shirach in 1942: Goethe an uns, Ewige Gedanken des Grossen Deutschen, Eingeleitet durch eine Rede des Reichsjugendführers Baldur von Shirach ('Goethe to us, eternal thoughts of Great Germany, prefaced by a speech by State Youth Leader Baldur von Shirach'). Shirach ends his essay with the sentence 'Youth of Adolf Hitler! For you too count the eternal words ((of Goethe and Hitler)).' Goethe indeed wrote 'We Germans are superior and have no reason to let us blow around by the wind', and fitted therefore wonderfully well in the National Socialistic way of thinking, something that couldn't be said about two other ruling poets at that time: Heine (a Jew) and Platen (a homosexual). Finally it should be mentioned that even Adolf Hitler quoted Goethe in his controversial Mein Kampf. I'll save you the quotes, you can probably imagine what those were like.
Goethe was afraid of death. This is hardly exceptional, but Goethe's fear can be called neurotic. A good book on this subject is G. Schmidt's Die Krankheit zum Tode, Goethes Todesneurose (1968).
Some examples of Goethe's peculiar relationship with death:
When Charlotte von Stein (Goethe's friend for more than fifty years) died in 1827, Goethe forbade that her body would be carried out from the front of the house. Charlotte was then carried out from the back.
When Goethe's wife died he didn't go to her funeral: he stayed at home with a cold. Later a small poem was found, dated June 6, 1816 (the day she died). It read:
Du versuchst, o Sonne, vergebens,
Durch die düstren Wolken zu Scheinen!
Der ganze Gewinn meines Lebens
Ist, ihren Verlust zu beweinen.
(You try, oh Sun, in vain ' to shine through the dark clouds! ' The entire profit of my life ' is, to cry over your loss.)
When Goethe's friend Friedrich Schiller died in 1805, he didn't go to the funeral either.
Goethe never mentioned the loss of his four children in any of his books or diaries.
It's not like Goethe didn't care about all these deaths: the denial and refusal to go to funerals only confirm his extreme fear of death. In Goethe's beautiful, tragical Die Wahlverwandschaften there's a description of two buried lovers. Still Goethe doesn't mention death, only life: 'These lovers rest next to each other. Peace floats over their graves, happy, warm angel's faces look down on them from the vault, oh such a lovely sight it will be, when they'll wake up together.'
There's much more to be told about Goethe. I think of Charlotte Buff, the woman Goethe was in love with but who turned him down. The mysterious story behind Goethe's book Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Or Goethe's mental relationship with Mozart. Goethe's works are, of course, brilliant, yet equally brilliant are the books that have been written about him (but if you're going to read something he wrote for the first time, choose Die Wahlverwandschaften, not Faust).
Alphabetical list of books Goethe wrote in his life:
Belagerung von Mainz
Campagne in Frankreich
Claudine von Villa Bella
Des Epimenides Erwachen
Dichtung und Wahrheit
Die Laune des Verliebten
Die Leiden des jungen Werther
Die natürliche Tochter
Götter, Helden und Wieland
Götz von Berlichingen
Hermann und Dorothea
Iphigenie auf Tauris
Maximen und Reflexionen
Paläophron und Neoterpe
Sankt-Rochus-Fest zu Bingenq
Schriften zur Kunst
Schriften zur Literatur
Tag- und Jahreshefte
Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten
Westöstlicher Diwan: Noten
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung
Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre
Zur Naturwissenschaft im Allgemeinen