Goethe in his Growth
Seen in the Light of Benedetto Croce
Anyone knowing Benedetto Croce's Aesthetic as Science of Expression will look forward with eager anticipation to the study on Goethe by this distinguished man, published first in 1918 and available since 1920 in the delightful German rendering by Julius Schlosser. 1English Version: Goethe, by Benedetto Croce, with an Introduction by Douglas Ainslie, Methuen, 1923. — The passages which we take from this translation do not always convey quite the same shade of thought as in the rendering from which Dr. Steiner quotes.
The perusal of this book may perhaps be described as an experience of a dramatic nature. We pass from the Author's Preface through the chapters on 'Moral and Intellectual Life' and 'The Life of the Poet and Artist,' and come to the description of Werther. Throughout this portion of the book we are filled with expectation. Every page seems fraught with the promise: there will arise before us a highly individual and attractive picture of Goethe, conceived with open-hearted sympathy, portrayed with artistic skill.
The opening words already raise our hopes: — 'During the sad days of the world war I re-read Goethe's works and gained deeper consolation and greater courage from him than I could have gained perhaps in equal measure from any other poet. This inspired me with a desire to write down certain critical ideas which suggested themselves again during my reading of his works and which had always led me to a true understanding of them.'
Croce would like to enter into Goethe without that heavy burden with which, alas, inartistic learning has so long encumbered him. How few among our Goethe students seem to be aware that he too has the right to be seen in the picture which emerges from his Works — from the real gift of his spirit to the world. In the prevailing Goethe literature the Works are too often eclipsed behind the Life, with all the mass of biographical detail which is available in his case. In this matter Croce preserves his clarity of vision. 'He who said that if Goethe had not been a great poet in verse, he would yet have been a great artist in life, made a statement which cannot be defended in the strict sense of the word, as it is impossible to imagine the life he lived without the poetry which he produced.' Croce recognises that in Goethe above all the Work of the poet and his Life must be seen as one; for Goethe himself incessantly brings life and freshness, from a deep self-observation, to his great vision of the World. 'Nevertheless,' continues Croce, 'the author of the statement has traced in a rather picturesque manner the relation of Goethe's life to his poetry, a relation which is like that of a whole to one of its parts, a very conspicuous part. For is it not true that the greater number of volumes of Goethe's works (even omitting his letters and his "conversations ") consist of reminiscences, annals, diaries, accounts of his travels, and that several other volumes contain autobiographical matter interspersed or concealed, to which critics are still endeavouring to discover the keys?'
By the splendid clearness with which he sees this twofold aspect, Croce is enabled to place the picture of Goethe in such a light that we feel at first: Here we have Goethe's position in the history of culture most pregnantly expressed. 'His own biography, together with his works, offer us a complete and classic course in noble humanity, per exempla et praecepta. It is a treasure which in these days deserves to be used to a much greater extent by educators, and by those who would educate themselves.'
Croce would eliminate from his portrait of Goethe the 'wildness of genius' which is read into him by the fertile imaginations of some people.
For they, wishing to 'live' as they conceive it, scorn the 'banality' of real life — which, as it happens, cannot be without gravity and earnestness. '… the personality of Wolfgang Goethe consists of calm virtue, earnest goodness and justice, wisdom, balance, good sense, sanity, and, in a word, all those qualities which are generally laughed at as being "bourgeois." . . . He was deep but not "abysmal," as some critics of to-day would wish to consider him. He was a man of genius, but not diabolical.'
The fulness of an all-round human nature, to which Goethe in his whole life and work inclined, is powerfully stressed by Croce: — 'And what, in substance, did he teach? To be above all, whatever else one may be, thoroughly and wholly human, ever working with all one's faculties in harmony, never separating feeling and thought, never working on externals or as a pedant; a task which, in the turbulent years of youth and fascinated by eccentric minds like Hamann, Goethe may have conceived in a somewhat material or fanciful sense, but which he immediately deepened, and therefore made clearer and corrected, rendering concrete its mystical and ineffable totality by determining it more closely.'
Goethe in Croce's description comes before us as the man who would educate himself 'not to desire and to dream, but to will and to act.' And as Goethe stands before him in this light, Croce is able to place Werther, in a masterly way, both in relation to Art and Life. The life which Werther lives is far removed from that of the poet who creates him. Werther is ill. Goethe feels how possible it is for the Werther illness to take hold on life. For him it becomes a question of feeling the illness truly, and of truly describing it. It is as a healthy man that he undertakes the task. Croce calls Werther, in relation to Goethe's own state of soul, 'a vaccination fever rather than a real malady.' With clear discrimination Goethe's own inner condition is removed from all that drives Werther into the calamity. 'This explains the childishness which makes us smile and almost feel embarrassed when we read the account of, and the documents concerning, the relations of young Goethe with Charlotte Buff and with her betrothed and husband, excellent, patient Kestner. These are matters which biographers and anecdote-writers have in truth emphasized in much too gossiping a fashion, usually misunderstanding their psychological meaning and yielding to the bad advice of immersing again and drowning the work of art in biographical material, by exaggerating and perverting the legitimate ethical interest which Goethe's person arouses. . .
In Croce's eyes the creation of Werther takes place in Goethe's life as an artistic, ethical catharsis. Goethe wished to make the Werther fever an inner artistic experience, so that he might by this very means thoroughly cure himself of all attacks. 'Werther — "unhappy Werther" — was not an ideal for the poet as he was for his contemporaries. Goethe immortalises in Werther neither the right to passion nor nature versus society, nor suicide, nor the other ideas we have just mentioned; that is to say, he does not depict them as mental conditions which, at that moment, predominate in him. But he depicts the "sorrows," as the title expresses it, the sufferings and, finally, the death of young Werther; and just because he looks upon Werther's fate as sorrow, barren sorrow, and its unfolding calculated to lead not to the joy and delight of feeling oneself superior to and rising high above others, but to self-destruction, the book is a liberation or a catharsis…'
Unlike so many others, Croce will not see in Werther 'a sublime legend of love.' On the contrary, to him it is 'a book of malady,' and the Werther way of loving is 'an aspect or an acute manifestation of the malady.' When his mother and his friends urge him to bestir himself and take up fruitful work, Werther replies, 'But am I too not active now? And after all is it not all the same whether I count peas or lentils?' It is the answer of a man given to 'idling, day-dreaming, nay to passionate raving.' Goethe — as Croce very properly remarks — confronts this 'hero' of his book, not as one having ought in common with him, but as a calm and clear observer seeking the cure for a disease. Werther is 'the work of one who knows, of one who understands, and who, without being Werther, discerns Werther completely, and, without raving with him, feels his heart throb with his.'
When we have read thus far in Croce's book, our experience in thought has been not unlike the opening of a drama. With anticipation growing more tense from page to page, we ask ourselves, what will the author eventually have to say on Goethe?
Then comes the chapter 'Wagner the Pedant' — a real surprise, quite in keeping with the quality of drama. For Croce comes forward with a kind of vindication of Wagner's character in Faust. It is as though he had been annoyed once too often by the literary pedants who mock at Wagner in the words of Faust, and feel themselves, no doubt, with quite a touch of genius, nay of the Faust-nature, as they do so. Against these pedants wearing the mask of 'the Free,' Croce comes out with a kind of apologia for Wagner. 'I confess that I cherish a certain tender feeling for Wagner, the famulus, Dr. Faust's assistant. I like his sincere and boundless faith in knowledge, his honest ideal of a serious student, his simple straightforwardness, his unaffected modesty, the reverence which he shews … towards his great master.'
Indeed, a strange antithesis shines through in Croce's description. Faust with his whims and worries, his fancies, his indeterminate spiritual longing, seems like a half-unsteady dreamer and complainer beside the sterling Wagner who steers straight forward to the certain goal of his scholarship. And a curious touch of thought suggests itself to Croce: — 'Be careful what you do, when you resolve to take a wife: lest, if you do not happen to choose one of those timid silent creatures, such as Jean Paul frequently places beside his erudite maniacs, but there fall to your lot as a companion a Faust in petticoats, a female Titan, a Valkyrie, you receive no longer merely biting philosophical lashes, but find yourself the object (and this you hardly deserve) of aversion, hatred and nausea…'
Croce does not wish the tenderly loved Wagner so terrible a fate. 'For Wagner's ideal is neither more nor less than the humanistic ideal … the admiring study of ancient histories in order to deduce from them prudential maxims and rules, … and the search for the laws of Nature in order to turn them to social utility.'
Is this 'vindication' of Wagner no more than a dramatic interlude; will it but serve to reveal Goethe's Faust in his real greatness? — The reader feels impelled to ask the question. Great is the tension at this point.
The thickening of the plot — and the catastrophe — these I would describe in the next number.