Goethe: Conversations and Encounters
This excellent compilation happens to be dedicated to me, but I am not going to allow this honor to stop me from log-rolling.
Many authors, composers, and painters have become internationally famous during their lifetimes, but Goethe is the only one I can think of who became, and for the last twenty-five years of his life remained, an international tourist attraction. For anyone making a European tour, male or female, old or young, German, French, Russian, English, or American, “visiting” Goethe was as essential an item on their itinerary as “doing” Florence or Venice.
This seems all the odder when one remembers that, to most of his visitors, he was the author of a single book, The Sorrows of Werther, written when he was a young man. Even inside Germany, only a few of his later writings, Hermann and Dorothea, Faust Part I, had enjoyed great success: some of his best works, The Roman Elegies and the West-Oestliche Divan for example, were read by few and liked by even fewer, and when the Second Part of Faust was published post-humously, a reviewer said: “Just as this book has physically appeared after the end of Goethe’s bodily life, so also its intellectual content has survived his genius.”
How and why Goethe should have acquired the reputation, among people who knew so little about him, for being a sage and public oracle is to me a mystery, and it is not the only one. What I find really surprising about Goethe’s character is, not that he should have treated some of his visitors with icy formality, that some who arrived, expecting to receive pearls of wisdom, came away with nothing better than an Umph! or a Do you really think so?, but that Goethe should have consented to see them at all. Now and again a stupid visitor might be accidentally entertaining, like the Englishman who, having misread das ächzende Kind (the sobbing child) as das achtzehnte Kind (the eighteenth child) told Goethe he was surprised “that the father in the Erlkönig ballad was described as being so excessively concerned about the boy, when after all he had been blessed with so large a family”; but how many of them must have been plain crashing bores.
HOW ON EARTH did Goethe stand it, year after year? Perhaps a passage from Dichtung und Wahrheit, which Messrs. Luke and Pick quote in their Introduction, offers a partial explanation:
When I was alone I would, in imagination, summon some person of my acquaintance into my presence. I would request him to be seated, and discuss with him the subject that I happened to have in mind. He would then occasionally reply or express his agreement or disagreement by the usual gestures…. The strange thing was that the persons whom I selected for this purpose were never those of my closer acquaintance,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.