DEBUNKING GOETHE

One cannot deny that Johann Wolfgang Goethe is known as one who could not stand coercion and who championed freedom. Nevertheless his life was somewhat servile.

You might be gentle and allow him the will to escape from all this formal social compulsion, and try to exit into the Land of the Free Word. Or even, if that did not always succeed, to simply leave Germany and cross the Alps into sunny Italy where one might discover that out there lemons blossom and flourish. As a writer he was doubtless lord and master, even now – after all isn’t literature one of the really exist heavens, perhaps there for eternity.

As the son of a relatively wealthy citizen he made it all the way up to Geheimrat, a rather untranslatable German bureaucratic title. In the years between 1775 and 1786 he participated in more than five hundred meetings. It is said that his platonic mistress Frau von Stein did not really manage to make a true courtier out of him. However, this is in doubt.

Someone who survives ten years as a Geheimrat, interfering with everybody and everything, must have had a knack for the job and obviously tried to make the best of it. The realm of Goethe’s Prince, Carl August, amounted to 110 000 souls – dead ones of course not counting. Half of then were farmers, a quarter were real citizens and one tenth was a craftsman or a day labourer.

Which leaves us with one percent nobility, consisting in particular of smaller country squires? Carl August was an enlightened sovereign. While riding around on horseback, he tried to get to know his little nation personally. As a true German Don Giovanni he threw his body on many a beautiful woman, his eyes were on the other half of the subjects. Once again back home in the palace, he lived carnally chaste with his other half – separate that is, Carl August upstairs, she on the ground floor. The small town of Weimar was perfect for the petty aristocratic bourgeois, amongst whom Goethe took a prominent place. Imitating his Prince, he had his own Frauengeschichten.

There seems no misunderstanding Goethe’s spatial position in Weimar. In the park along the River Ilm he lived by himself in what he described as his Gartenhäuschen, surrounded by ein liebes Gärtchen – a little garden house with a sweet little garden. Goethe’s sickly sweet repeatedly used diminutives, by the way, really turned me to this slaughter of a genius. He used this retreat to clean himself of the dust of files and the foul fumes of court life. Out there he possessed a private servant – so in the end he could appear as some kind of lord in his own eyes.

Once you walk through that ‘little garden’, you discover how things really were. Johann Wolfgang has indeed degenerated into a real courtier!

Between his Gartenhäuschen and the garden palace of Carl August, quite some distance apart, our courtier gardener Goethe realized an uninterrupted perspective, the best one in the whole park. This line of sight is not bourgeois horizontal, but slavishly vertical, running diagonally from Goethe’s gazebo up to his Lord’s palace. Straight across the little Dux Bridge – why not call it the Führer Bridge – right over the fields of the Dux Garden. Thus, the Great Writer’s obedient gaze, while looking up from his writing, was led through his window towards his lofty majesty, Prince Carl August.

Now one understands better why the Great Bard did not like the French Revolution all that much. His desire for freedom was primarily theoretical, limiting himself to a humanist critique of a rather too absolutist principality. Practically this urge for freedom expressed itself in what was already touched on briefly, his ‘flight’ from Weimar to Italy, in order to learn more about ancient Rome and improve his painting.

In his double volume Italienische Reise time after time Goethe gives evidence of his remoteness from mob and multitude, an attitude certainly befitting a courtier. However, he became too much of a courtier, a Streber and an upstart who identified himself with the ruling powers. Prince Franz, Lording over another garden, the Wörlitzer Park, was not all that much impressed with him: Furthermore, Goethe was – I do not know how to properly word it – too grand, too measured courteous, often uncomfortably silent. And more generally, I sensed in him something of inhumanity.

Goethe visited these gardens of Wörlitz, the first English Garden in Germany – and he fell flat. He found them infinitely beautiful – how the gods have allowed the Prince to raise this dream around him. No height attracts the eye or one’s desire to merely a single point. One walks around a bit, without asking oneself where it started or where it may end. The purest loveliness.

Goethe took this Wörlitzer Park as the model for his own design for the gardens in Weimar. The point of any English Garden is a variation in shape and kinds of trees, of colour, of sudden perspectives achieved by serpentine lanes and covered areas, and of follies, sometimes called fabriques – odd or more solemn pieces of fake architecture and plaques with pensive texts on it. Wörlitz in all these respects is a magnificent success.

All this however is missing in the Weimar Park. Where in Wörlitz trees were and deforested by individualizing them or by placing them in contrasting groups, a pale, smooth green dominates in Weimar. Nothing indicates that this was not already the case at the time of Goethe. The Wörlitzer trees are monarchs in their own kingdom; in Weimar you cannot see any trees because of its forest. Now, according to a guide, this Park on the Ilm has become one of the most famous landscape parks in Germany. Famous for itself, one may ask, or famous because of its then Chief Gardener, the certified literary genius Goethe?

A wooden house, covered with bark – ein Borkenhäuschen in German, again a diminutive – was, according to the Baedeker from 1925 erected by the master’s own hand in only three days. In my notebook I commented: dilettante botch work. First I walked past it, assuming it was a closed-soda shop of sorts. But while reading my guide, the little thing turned out to be true piece of ‘garden architecture’, so during my second tour observed in silent awe.

 

Weimar, Goethe’s architecture

Later, when standing before the Wörlitzer Borkenhäuschen, I realized that Goethe’s fabrique not only is dilettante, but also an embarrassing mess.

The Wörlitzer version has an undeniable charm, with fine proportions. When in the late afternoon dusk falls, it even becomes mysterious as its branches protruding from the beam roof suddenly resemble deer-antlers. Thank goodness, Goethe has limited his architectural endeavours to this sole bark house.

 

Borkenhäuschen, Woerlitzer Park

There is a chance, though, that later in life Goethe considered its design as an early mistake. In 1799, together with Schiller, he wrote notes for a text on gardens that was, alas, never further elaborated. Its intended title: Ueber den Dilettantismus. Now, all of a sudden, the English Garden, the subject par excellence of all country aristocratic dilettantes, is rejected in these notes.

In his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften we find passages in which architecture and landscaping play an important role. The ideal gardener understands all too well the analogy between plant and wilful people. He manages, by treating each according to its kind, to preserve the best of both. A calm gaze, a silent consequence for all seasons, at all times doing all that is necessary. As a courtier, in short, who knows how to follow obediently.

At the end of Die Wahlverwandtschaften,  the protagonist Edward cries out: Oh, I am so unhappy in great bewilderment! My whole aim has been just mimicry. Now it turns out to be only misguided interference. Here we have the paradox of the courtier-gardener, the paradox of Goethe himself: To mimic Wörlitz, albeit in a deplorable manner and then, so many years later, to reject one’s own docility – albeit only by way of fiction.

To follow nature – too much, too little? To follow authority, – too much, to little? And also: What nature and which authority? Those were the questions.

Perhaps Goethe’s grave problem was that of being a German. While a human being elsewhere may simply be ingenious, in Germany one is also asked to become a Genius. Not only must the German make of his life a Gesamtkunstwerk, he is also supposed to be a uomo universale, even though the Renaissance is long gone. Goethe dabbled in evolution theory, but never was a real biologist. His drawings in Die Italienische Reise are just ‘nice’ and, for someone who was not a real artist, not without merit.

As a writer Goethe was indeed such a genius. In the field of garden architecture, he was a dilettante in that negative sense of that word. He wanted to be a uomo universale, but he was not.

From: Tropisch Noorden (Tropical North),  DUP 1995

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. He would not ind being a cat.

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