Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Monsieur Göthé"

Such is the title of a new book published by Die Andere Bibliothek concerning "Goethes unbekannter Grossvater" (as per the subtitle). For those who like archival research, and that includes me, this is a book for you. The authors are Heiner Boehncke, Hans Sarkowicz, and Joachim Seng, all respected Goethe scholars. (For German reviews, go to Perlentaucher). The subject is the paternal grandfather, Friedrich Georg (1657–1730), who died long before young Wolfgang came into the world, but whose considerable fortune allowed the Goethe family to live so comfortably in Frankfurt. The French-accented last letter of the name comes from his residence in the leading French textile center, Lyons.

Friedrich Georg is a somewhat shadowy figure, in contrast to the maternal grandfather,  Johann Wolfgang Textor, one of the leading citizens of Frankfurt and a member of the city's oligarchy. Goethe mentions grandfather Textor in his autobiography, but deals with Friedrich Georg very quickly, not even mentioning his name. Of this forebear, Nicholas Boyle writes only that the was "a Thuringian tailor of peasant stock, who, after years of wandering that had taken him for a time to Paris and Lyons," settled in Frankfurt after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). In Frankfurt, he proceeded to make a fortune with his tailoring and through his second marriage to the widow of an innkeeper. It was the hundreds of barrels of wine from the inn that made Caspar Goethe a rich man. The authors of Monsieur Göthé spell out the details of his inheritance: approximately 12,000 liters of wine flowed into the cellar of the house on Hirschgraben. They go on to say that young Goethe came into the world with an immense "Weinvorrat, der gepflegt, umgefüllt, mit Kennerschaft und in ziemlich großen Mengen getrunken wurde," especially of the premier Mosel wines of the years 1706, 1719, and 1726, which Wolfgang's mother affectionately referred to as "die alten Herren."

Friedrich Georg was born in a Thuringian town, Artern, and indeed all the previous Göthes (so spelled) lived and died in that area, in towns with names like Berka and Kannawurf, not far from Weimar. The first one recorded in Monsieur Göthé is a Hans Gothe, a stone carver, born in 1500. Goethe may have known of this family origin, but appears never to have been interested in researching it in his Thuringian travels. The authors are of the opinion that Wolfgang, following his father's lead, obscured his paternal grandfather's working-class origins by ignoring them, especially in the autobiography.

They discuss the episode in the autobiography (book 2), when Goethe was very young and attended school. He reports of the strict discipline of the teachers and of the necessity of enduring the physical punishments they meted out, since to respond would have brought more of the same. But because he flaunted his endurance, several of his classmates, rough, less genteel boys, tested him, attacking him with switches. He managed to turn the tables on them, however, and defend himself. Another time, he was taunted by some boys who suggested that his paternal grandfather could not possibly have made so much money as an innkeeper and that Goethe's father was actually the illegitimate son of a man of rank ("der Sohn eines vornehmen Mannes") who had talked the innkeeper in pretending to be the father.

Whether this account in the autobiography is a true version of what happened, Goethe goes on to report of the strange effect this rumor had on him ("eine Art von sittlicher Krankheit"). It did not offend him to be thought to be the grandson of a noble personnage, even if illegitimately so. In fact, he was quite flattered. This is where he references grandfather Friedrich Georg (though not by name), whose portrait had once hung in the drawing room of the old house but was now stored in the attic of the new one! So, in the absence of knowing nothing about this grandfather, young Goethe started looking at paintings of famous men and seeking resemblances to himself. When visiting friends in Frankfurt with high connections and with portraits of famous men decorating their walls, he would study them carefully to see if he could discover any similarities with himself or his father. Goethe's own estimation was that his self-conceit was fueled by these speculations, and not necessarily in an estimable way.

This particular account enraged Goethe critic Ludwig Börne who lambasted Goethe for mentioning only that he was the grandson of Schultheiss Textor, which allowed him to attend the imperial coronation. Börne continued "Ein Kind ehrbarer Eltern entzückte es ihn, als ihn einst als Knabe ein Gassenbube Bastard schalt, und er schwärmte mit der Phantasie des künftigen Dichters, wessen Prinzen Sohn er wohl möchte seyn. So war er; so ist er geblieben."

 Even Heinrich Heine weighed in on this episode of Goethe's childish pretensions, while thoroughly mixing up the two grandfathers. Frankfurt's chief magistrate thereby became the father of Caspar, while Goethe was criticized for not mentioning with one word that his mother's father was a "ehrbares Flickschneiderlein auf der Bockenheimer Gasse" who repaired "die alen Hosen der Republik."

To be continued. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jane Austen and Madame de Stael


Collection of Geri Walton
I am sure that most readers will find the title of this post somewhat puzzling, although (as will be seen) there is a Goethe connection. Since we are now officially in 2018 (I begin writing this post late on New Year's day), an earlier posting would have been more appropriate, as the death year of both writers was 1807. I didn't notice that there was much commemoration last year, in the Anglo sphere in any case, concerning Madame de Staël. It was a piece online by M.D. Aeschliman connecting the two writers under a horrible title –– "Two Great Literary Women in Light of Today's Sexual Harassment Scandals" –– that drew my attention to this confluence. (It seems typical of our time that historical figures are drafted to serve as exemplary of contemporary concerns.)

Paula Byrne's recent book on Jane Austen and the theater brought out Austen's considerable knowledge not only of theater and theatrical practice but also of the plays of the German playwright Kotzebue and of his English translator's works. In an earlier post, I wrote about Austen's knowledge of The Sorrows of Young Werther and speculated that she may have been familiar with Hermann und Dorothea. The first time I read Elective Affinities, many years ago, I suspected that Goethe may have been familiar with her novels of manners. As far as we can tell, however, he seems not to have directly mentioned her name, although his library in Weimar did contain a copy of a novel by Fanny Burney, a major influence on Austen.

Goethe of course knew Germaine Necker de Staël. Initially, before he met her, one of her writings found favor in his eyes. He translated her Essai sur les fictions of 1795, which appeared in Die Horen in 1796. Later, after her banishment by Napoleon and because of her anti-Napoleon activities, one imagines that he might have ignored her completely, except that she made a point of visiting Weimar at the end of 1803 and setting up a salon there. His diary entries indicate that they met, but Nicholas Boyle gives the impression that he tried to avoid her invitations.

As I wrote in an earlier post, she was also in Weimar in 1814 with Benjamin Constant, who was squiring her around Europe. Constant was one of the first Europeans to articulate a right to freedom of speech and argued –– unlike most of the philosophes –– that it was not the role of government to regulate morals or to mold public virtue through education or to "improve" or "enlighten" citizens. Goethe sent back to Karl Ludwig von Knebel Benjamin Constant's anti-Napoleonic treatise De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation. In his letter to Knebel Goethe said that he had not been able to read it; indeed he resisted the ideas in it.

I just read Goethe's translation of the 1795 essay by de Staël, entitled "Versuch über die Dichtungen."  She makes some very interesting observations, especially about the difference between tragedy, historical writing, and the modern novel. Tragedy and historical writing are about larger-than-life figures, and even tragic figures are taken from history. True, writers of tragedy can select characters from outside the higher classes of society, but the aim is the presentation of "strong conditions." There is no room for the "Schattirungen einer zarten Seele."

Denn wenn die Geschichte uns bedeutende Umstände bewahrt, so bleiben doch dazwischen ungeheure Lücken, in welchen vieles Unglück, viele Fehler Raum haben, woraus doch die meisten Schicksale der Privatpersonen bestehen. Dagegen können die Romane mit so viel Gewalt und so ausführlich Charaktere und Empfindungen mahlen, daß keine Lecture einen so tiefen Haß gegen das Laster und eine so reine Liebe für die Tugend hervorbringen könnte.

As demonstrated by the above quote, there is a strong moralistic element in her analysis. Good novels allow readers to draw a purer, higher moral lesson than can be achieved by a try, didactic work. And while love has always been a favorite subject of novelists, it is the portrayal of those troubling passions –– ambition, pride, greed, and so on –– that can even bring a change of heart to a person who is not very moral. She has closely read the novels of Fielding and Richardson, along with Godwin's Caleb Williams, and awaits a "new" Richardson who would portray the other passions. In 1795, of course, the new Richardson was waiting in the wings, namely, Jane Austen.

A couple of amusing quotes from Madame de Staël's visit in 1803–1804 to Weimar. Schiller wrote to Goethe, who was in Jena, as follows: "The only defect is her quite extraordinary volubility. One must be turned  into a listening machine to be able to follow her. I get on very badly with her in consequence of my want of facility in the French language, but you will find it easier to carry on conversation, as you have more practice in it ..." She finally met Goethe on Christmas eve of 1803, at Anna Amalia's. According to the  testimony of Bottiger, she was disappointed by Goethe's outward appearance, as she had imagined a Werther, grown perhaps a little older. She is supposed to have said "Je voudrais mettre son esprit dans un autre corps."