Love, Life, Goethe by John Armstrong

Time to come down from the pedestal
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The Independent Culture

Of all the formative figures of European literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the most revered and yet - outside his native Germany - the least read. While his bust rests securely in the pantheon of the greats, it occupies a rather dusty niche there. Why should this be so?

This may partly be down to a resistance to German literature in this country, though the plays of his friend Schiller have been revived on the London stage with great success in recent years. It is also true that Goethe has not always been well served by his English translators. Though he had powerful advocates in 19th-century Britain, notably Carlyle and G H Lewis, they were hampered by the widespread view that key works - the Roman Elegies and the novel Elective Affinities - were immoral or even obscene; in Bayard Taylor's Victorian translation of Faust, the Walpurgis Night scene is peppered with dashes.

Worse still, Goethe's forceful, direct and often informal German was rendered into a stiflingly archaic literary English, reinforcing what was perhaps the greatest obstacle to his popularity: the notion that he is too "Olympian", too abstruse, and too aloof from ordinary concerns to engage the general reader.

In this lucid and engaging book, John Armstrong blows away the dust from this most misunderstood of major writers, and reveals a fascinating and often likeable figure whose work is of the utmost relevance to the problems we face today. And if Love, Life, Goethe is more of a straightforward cradle-to-grave biography than its subtitle might lead one to expect, Armstrong, a philosopher at Melbourne University, never loses sight of his central idea: Goethe's belief that the job of the artist is to help people to live happily and well.

It is ironic, then, that Goethe first shot to international fame, at the age of 25, with a novel that became the handbook for moody, alienated youth everywhere: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Yet Goethe's intention was not to glorify romantic disaffection but to warn against it. Werther loves a girl who doesn't love him, feels undervalued by his superiors at work, and suffers social humiliation at the hands of some tedious snobs. These are all quite normal experiences that can happen to most of us. We endure them, learn from them, and emerge the stronger for it; poor Werther borrows a pair of pistols and blows his brains out. It is Werther's outlook on life, Goethe is saying, rather than his experiences, that drags him down.

Somewhat chastened to find himself acclaimed the high priest of a cult he so vehemently opposed, Goethe joined the Privy Council of the small German duchy of Weimar, where he devoted himself very seriously to his administrative duties overseeing the army, roads and mines. This might seem an odd occupation for a writer, and it is clear that Goethe often found his duties tedious and frustrating, but it is entirely consistent with his view that it is a writer's business to engage with civil society, not to shun it.

This was also the driving force behind Goethe's fascination with science: he studied minerals and plants, and made significant, if minor, discoveries in the fields of human evolution and the properties of light and colour. And, while his lyric poetry includes some of the finest Romantic evocations of the grandeur and sublimity of nature, what he really valued was accurate, painstaking observation of the material world, from which we can infer something about our place in it.

This view of life finds its fullest expression in the central work of Goethe's career, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. The story of a young man's vacillations between the demands of business and the enchanting world of the theatre, it is the original Bildungsroman, the novel of a person's moral education in the school of life, and thus the progenitor of one of the richest seams in European literature that includes Flaubert's Education Sentimentale, Dickens's David Copperfield and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is not reasonable, the novel seems to be telling us, to expect the world to be arranged for our convenience; difficult and painful though it may be, it is up to us to fit ourselves for the world as it is, so that we can help, in no matter how small a way, to make it a better place.

It is precisely this aspect of Goethe's world-view, which on the one hand makes him so difficult for us to grasp, that makes him so valuable. The problem is not that it is hard to understand, but that it is hard to accept. Since the Romantic movement, we have wanted our artists to be damaged, dysfunctional and doomed. Byron, famously, was mad, bad, and dangerous to know; Goethe was eminently sane, and strove throughout his long and successful life to be a good and useful member of society. If cultivated people are too fastidious to dirty their hands with the compromise, he believed, intelligence will be impotent and power will be left in the hands of villains and fools.