Goethe and the Twentieth Century

The Goethe Year/Das Goethe Jahr. Part I, 1949, 24-27

Running through the whole succession of Goethe’s entanglements, and indeed through his whole life, is that “x”which it is so difficult to name without begging the question—non-attachment, egotism, the will to self-development, the Renaissance or Faustian appetite for all experience, “self-culture.”

We ought to reflect that, whatever else “self-culture” may have been, it was Goethe’s way of dealing with a problem which faces humanity as a whole. I mean the awkward phenomenon of increasing self-consciousness. It is our problem too, this curious malaise of humanity; and it has grown rather worse than better since Goethe’s day. It was perhaps about the 18th century that men first began to take more serious notice of that queer intruder on the life of the soul, the detached Onlooker present in each one of us, and half instinctively to make provision for him in their ideas and their conventions. It was then that the word “psychology” was used for the first time in its modern sense. Alongside, and a little apart from, the impulses, passions and thoughts which are the true stuff of the soul, there has come into being this nothingness, this mere awareness, which looks on and says of each: “Yes, I wish it, I feel it—and yet this wisher and this feeler are not quite me. I am here, looking on all the time.”

It was not always so. Formerly, if there were conflicting impulses, yet the one which prevailed was felt as the whole self in action. The whole Augustine sinned, and afterwards the whole Augustine repented. The whole Dante loved, lapsed, and loved again after a different fashion. But for us, in varying degrees, there is the sinner and the one who observes the sinner, the lover and the one who observes the lover. It is not a question of whether it is a good thing or not, it is simply a fact. The only question is, what is the right way for men to deal with it, now that it has come to stay.

Naturally, it is nowhere more marked than in the sphere of the relation between men and women, for it is there that the experiencing soul behaves in the most surprising and fluctuant way. The device which the 18th century evolved for according recognition to the experiencing and to the observing soul in the same moment was the whole apparatus of archness and gallantry. Mark their significant use of the word “conscious.” In contemplating Goethe’s attitude to women we should always remember this. It is not simply that he accepted the conventions of his age (though we should not, either, forget that he does in fact belong to a quite remote one, having passed half his life before the French Revolution); he would instinctively feel the reason for, and the fitness of them.

Outmoded as all that apparatus to-day, before we dismiss it utterly, we might just ask ourselves whether out own way of meeting the problem is so very much more satisfactory; we detach ourselves from the little gambols of our souls by calling them “fixations” and “transfers”; they spoke of “pleasing pain” and eyes that “deal delicious death.” Which is better? But there is no doubt what Goethe’s choice would have been. He looked on the soul as he looked on Nature, as an inexhaustibly rich gift to be accepted with joy and treated with reverence and delicacy. And as with Nature, so with the soul, the problem was to grow more and more fully conscious of it without destroying it in the process. Both our scientists and our men of letters are for the most part indifferent to the destruction, provided they can get on with the consciousness. Witness the popularity of James Joyce.

We must also take into account the Germanity, if I may so call it, of Goethe’s own soul—that subtle distinction of colouring and emphasis which is best felt as untranslatableness. Goethe’s mother-tongue was one which can still, even to-day, employ the ineffable neuter gender, known also to the Greeks, in speaking of young females (feel the difference between “I saw her on a Sunday” and “Ich sah es an einem Sonntag”) and which at the same time trails about it the faint aroma of a mystical reverence for woman that is as old as Tacitus.

He found these things, he did not make them; just as he found the social conventions of an age, in which, though educated young women were appalled at the idea of going out unaccompanied, adulterous liaisons were nevertheless as common as they are to-day. The conventions were part of the air he breathed as he grew up. The only thing for which he can be accountable to praise or blame is the use he made of them. And in his hands they became that wholly untranslateable ewig-weibliche. Our “eternal feminine” has acquired a facetious overtone which puts it out of court; and yet Bayard Taylor’s rendering of the closing words of Faust:—

The Woman-Soul leadeth us
Upward and on.

is even more misleading, for it suggests the “ennobling” influence of one of Thackeray’s heroines, and I do not think that was at all what Goethe had in mind. Woman as a symbol on the one hand of Nature and on the other of the human soul, would be much nearer the mark. Thus Santayana, in relating the words specifically to Nature, says that the ewig-weibliche was, for Goethe, “the ideal of something infinitely unattractive and essentially inexhaustible.” I think there was also the underlying sense of something more than an allegorical relation, indeed of a real connection, in the foundations of the world, between Eva and the goddess Natura. Moreover, Woman has long been apprehended by the poets and myth-makers of Christian civilisation as a symbol of the soul, and of qualities of soul. I think that the ewig-weibliche stood, in Goethe’s imagination and feeling, first for some real woman, secondly for Nature, and thirdly for the human soul.

About Goethe’s relations with women, as recorded and as a whole, there was, underlying the poetic lightness of touch, a note of earnestness and reverence that is unmistakable.

We should look on Goethe’s poetry as one of the arsenals of the fortress of the human soul, now under attack from many different sides, and be thankful for any bit of ammunition or armoury we may find there. For the soul is the Cinderella of 20th century civilisation. She lives on sentiment: of which we are mortally afraid, preferring to rush out of it either to the physical extreme of violence or of appetite on the one side, or on the other to a rarefied and contentless spirituality; or perhaps to try both in turn, like Aldous Huxley. But the old man at Weimar grew wiser and wiser about all this. He knew well enough that the “nostalgia” of which our young politico-intellectuals spend most of their time accusing each other—and which he would have called Sehnsucht—so far from being a weakness, is the most precious sacramental wine of the soul, to be used by the spirit sparingly and with reverence for the purpose of making a man.

It is Goethe’s distinction, and his message to us, that he retained throughout his life both this reverence for the soul, which allowed him to surrender to its varium et mutabile without feeling an ass, and a deep and abiding sense of man’s responsibility of self-consciousness. Only, instead of allowing the consciousness to destroy the soul, he strove to maintain it as a golden thread of self-awareness and self-control passing through all her vicissitudes and growing stronger with the lapse of time and the accumulation of experience. He was in this respect a pioneer, and it is rather our weakness than his if we allow to a few fatuities any substantial weight in the scales on which we weigh the value of “self-culture.” No doubt he specialised somewhat in one particular brand of sentiment. What is infinitely more important is that the mind, which contained as formidable a detached Onlooker as is portrayed in Mephistopheles, yet never lost its faculty for simple and reverent feeling, or its sense of the greatness of man. For it is this that we are to-day in such great danger of losing.

But is it a danger? Might it not be rather a good thing? Do we not owe most of our miseries to this idea, promulgated at the Renaissance and confirmed with acclamation by the Romantics, that man is great? What signs precisely is he showing of it? Si monumentum requiris circumspice—at Guernica, at Warsaw, at Hiroshima, or, for that matter, at almost any bookstall. Is not all this because we have forgotten that man is not great; that only God is great? Has man in fact any such responsibility to be fully conscious as has been suggested, or indeed any responsibility at all except to be good and obedient?

Questions of this sort are being asked with some force in the 20th century by the sincerest and most devout Christians; they are being asked with uncompromising sincerity and often with great intellectual force; and they are being listened to.

There is no single production of Goethe’s pen—not even Faust—which overwhelms us with an unquestioned sublimity, as do the Divine Comedy, King Lear or Paradise Lost. It is the whole man, the life, character and works taken together, which weigh upon us, the even-balanced soul weathering its own storms, the deep earnestness and reverence apparent beneath whatsoever Leichtfertigkeiten (“an habitual reference to interior truth” Emerson called it), the wisdom of the head untired and untiring wielded by the ever-youthful heart.

No, this is not the kind of strength which would have failed to grapple with a tragic destiny had it been called to do so. And, in the eye of God, may that not be perhaps the easier task? Comfort, success, prosperity and adulation need some handling. Moreover, if Goethe’s external life was an easy one by our standards, we may reflect that we have no right to assume that the good life will always consist of that drab sacrifice punctuated by spasmodic heroism which we have learnt to accept and approve. As a teacher, even of a practical way of life, he may yet speak very pertinently, if not to our children, at least to our children’s children. For us, meanwhile, the lesson is, that such a man has in fact existed at all. There is strength to be drawn from the mere contact with his strength. We are reminded that the human soul has indeed the latent power and breadth and universality which are already beginning to be required of her in the discharge of responsibilities now dimly seen to be “global” and in fact cosmic; and that, as the light of art is put out, so neither is democracy well served nor God well praised by denying her greatness.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.