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The Best Goethe Books

recommended by David E. Wellbery

A New History of German Literature by David E. Wellbery

A New History of German Literature
by David E. Wellbery


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) has been described as ‘the last true polymath to walk the earth’. A defining figure in German literature, Goethe coined the concept of world literature. And his literary and dramatic achievements are matched by his scientific work. David E. Wellbery, Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and recipient of the Golden Goethe Medal, introduces us to the life and work of Goethe. He explores why figures such as Beethoven and Napoleon were magnetised to him, how Rousseau influenced Faust, and why Goethe’s Faust does not sell his soul to the devil.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

A New History of German Literature by David E. Wellbery

A New History of German Literature
by David E. Wellbery

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To begin, before we get to the books you’re recommending: if you were introducing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to someone who knew nothing about him, what would you say?

The best way to think of Goethe is as the last great universal figure in European history. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th we find ourselves at a historical cusp where that universality is still possible, but about to disappear. It’s really hard to find a figure in the modern world that can compare. It goes without saying that Goethe is one of the major literary figures of world history, but then there’s also his tremendous scientific contribution.

In many respects, Goethe is the creator of the science of morphology—this broad interdisciplinary scientific investigation into the shape and sizes of organisms. His most important scientific work is probably in plant morphology where he developed his own method for the description of plants, their changes, and variations, a method still discussed today. He also looked at the morphology of animals and human beings. Goethe is the discoverer of the so-called intermaxillary bone in human beings—the bone between the mandibles in the jaw. There will be a passing reference to Goethe in almost every book on the history of evolutionary theory. The important feature of this discovery is that people thought it was the absence of such a bone that distinguished humans from the upper animals. Goethe felt that it couldn’t be a bone or the absence of a bone that distinguished human beings, but a whole pattern of organization. So, he looked and found the traces of that bone and reported the discovery in one of his first scientific publications.

There’s also the matter of art history, which was one of Goethe’s passions. In the last fifteen years of his life, he edited and wrote almost all the contributions to two periodicals. One was his morphological notebooks, and the other is a journal called On Art and Antiquity, in which discoveries regarding ancient and medieval art and literature are discussed. We might confidently say that Goethe is a major figure in both humanistic and scientific scholarship.

“We might confidently say that Goethe is a major figure in both humanistic and scientific scholarship”

At the same time, the last decade of Goethe’s life coincides with the beginning of the 19th-century transformation of science and the development of what we might think of as a disciplinary world. This goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of industrial capitalism. Goethe is right at the cusp of that moment; he sees it coming from the perspective of an older world. He observes and participates in this transition to our modernity. Such transitional figures are deeply intriguing. Rather than being ensconced in one period, they must shed the skin of one mode of life and slip into another. It’s a semantically exciting thing to go through in your life because your vocabulary, your way of thinking, is under constant revision.

Goethe is also a genuinely international figure. It is no accident that he coined the concept of World Literature, which has become so important in discussions today. He was admired by Madame de Stael, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Eliot, and Flaubert, to name just a few. His lyric collection West-East Divan draws on the Persian poetic tradition; he wrote lyrics inspired by the Romans (Roman Elegies) and by Chinese poetry. Major works are in dialogue with Shakespeare, Calderon, Dante, Byron, Homer, and the Bible. If we view world literature from the perspective of what sociologists call network theory, then Goethe is a nodal point in whom countless pathways of influence and inspiration intersect.

Another transitional feature of Goethe’s life and work is that he stands at the cusp of the historical transformation that relocates cultural production to urban centres. Think of the literary innovators of the mid-19th century: Balzac makes Paris into a modern literary cosmos. Dickens will do the same for London. Baudelaire will make Paris the locale of modern lyric poetry. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky make Moscow and St. Petersburg crucial sites in their novels. But for Goethe, who moved to Weimar in 1775, we’re at a small court-centred capital city of a dukedom in Thuringia in the eastern part of Germany. He avoids Berlin, which was growing rapidly at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and never sees Paris. His major urban experience is in Rome, but it is for him less a contemporary city than the site where the ancient and Renaissance worlds could be experienced. However peripheral, Weimar becomes the cultural centre of Germany due to Goethe’s presence there, and visitors from throughout the world travel there to seek him out.

We must not see Goethe alone, of course. His age is perhaps the richest in the history of German culture and Goethe is at its very centre. Think of the revolution in music brought about by Beethoven, of the philosophical revolution set in motion by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel; think of the travels of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt or of the pioneering work of the literary critics Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel; or consider the literary universe that revolves around Goethe in such writers as Schiller, Hölderlin, Jean Paul, Kleist, Novalis, Tieck, and Brentano. Goethe knew and influenced all these people and they all oriented themselves around him in various ways. It is no mere hyperbole to refer to this epoch as the Age of Goethe.

A non-trivial fact about Goethe, though it doesn’t enter into the discussions a lot, is that throughout most of his life he held administrative positions. In his capacity as Privy Counsellor he was the government official responsible for the University of Jena, one of the most famous universities at the time. At the same time, he organized and directed the theatre in Weimar, creating a theatrical culture that set national standards. His portfolio included such crucial economic matters as mining. Although he is certainly to be counted among the major Romantic poets, he bears–in contrast to his literary creations Faust and Werther–no traits of an outsider. Civic engagement, remarkable efficiency and organization, meticulous observation of social obligations, and a prodigious capacity for work are hallmarks of his life activity.

Yes, but he didn’t have Twitter to distract him. Goethe is often described as the ‘German Shakespeare’. In what sense is this true and in what sense is it limited?

From the beginning to the end of Goethe’s creative life, the writer who influenced him most and whom he most revered was Shakespeare. In a certain sense, though, he’s the opposite of the Bard. We really do not know that much about Shakespeare. The brilliant biographical studies that we have of him are based on documents from his time, but apart from his works, documents from Shakespeare himself are fairly rare. For Goethe, we can account for almost every day of his life. There are diaries, there are letters, there are recorded conversations and there’s a huge body of autobiographical writing. Most people who met him wrote reports of the encounter. One can say that his life in all its richness is available to us as a unique artwork and there is evidence that artistic self-shaping was essential to his mode of being.

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One thing that’s crucial to understanding Goethe is to see how he internalised the work of others. Let’s just focus on literary artistic work here. He could take the work of others and metabolise it, allow it to become productive within him. So, to speak of Goethe as the German Shakespeare has a certain pertinence in the sense that he read Shakespeare early on, his imagination was inflamed by Shakespeare, and even his earliest essay on Shakespeare displays penetrating insights into the working of the plays. For Goethe, Shakespeare is not so much a source as he is a creative resource, a kind of power station of the imagination.

Let me just give you one example of that. Goethe’s 1795-6 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship is generally regarded as the paradigmatic Bildungsroman—the story of the growth of an individual to maturity through all the chance encounters, the aspirations, the illusions, the loves and losses that one passes through, the unfolding of an internal agenda of growth in a complex and contingent world. The turning point in the novel is a performance of Hamlet in which Wilhelm plays the title role. And so what might be called the ‘Hamlet problem’—the ghostly presence of the ‘father’ in one’s life—becomes the crux of a life story. We could also make the same point regarding the opening scene of Faust, Part II in which Ariel appears and we are suddenly invited to think of the Faust drama as a meditation on the magic of poetry in the tradition of The Tempest.

Finally, we can say that Goethe is to the German language what Shakespeare is to the English language. Goethe’s is perhaps the most capacious German vocabulary on record. More important than word count, however, is the creativity of his language, his knack for finding the phrase that captures the contours of shared experience. Like Shakespeare’s English or Pushkin’s Russian, Goethe’s German lives in the ears of the people.

Let’s take a look at your Goethe book choices. First on your list is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Jeremy Adler. It’s also the most recent book on your list, published in 2020. Tell me about this one and why you’ve recommended it.

This book came into my hands very recently and I’m really glad that it did, so that I was able to include it on this list. I think it is an excellent introduction to Goethe. It gives you a view of his life, the contexts of his activity, and the major influences on him. It offers a rich and insightful account of the full spectrum of his literary work. The focus is primarily literary, but not exclusively by any means. There’s a wonderful introduction that tells us about Goethe’s ongoing influence into the 20th and 21st centuries. We also get an outline of his biography, since the book is chronologically organized.

One of the things that I particularly like about this book is that it is not a book for specialists. It is written for people who have broad interests and whose reading is, let us say, European in scope. The references run to several literatures—to British and American literature, but also to French literature and to the Italian Renaissance. It is a book that makes clear Goethe’s indispensability to our contemporary self-understanding. Moreover, the book is wonderfully written and broadly accessible. It provides translations of all the passages and draws pertinent connections to contemporary culture. So, this is the book to pick up if you want to find out something about Goethe. It’s a tremendous achievement. There’s nothing more difficult than to take such a complex and rich writer and give us a compelling sense of his contribution.

For those who then want to read more, we have the first two large volumes of Nicholas Boyle’s great biography, Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Volume I is called The Poetry of Desire and Vol II is Revolution and Renunciation. These take us up to 1803, and the world waits for Vol III to take us to Goethe’s death in 1832.

Just picking up this idea of Goethe’s life, reception, and his appeal. His admirers are in very esteemed company. We have Beethoven, as well as Napoleon who presented him with the Legion of Honour in 1808. There’s also Hegel whom you mentioned, and later on Emerson, Mahler, Berlioz, and Freud. The list is really endless. Why do you think people are so magnetised by Goethe?

As far as Napoleon is concerned, we can’t imagine that Goethe was his pal, but Napoleon indeed belongs to the admirers. He was an admirer in particular of the most widely read of Goethe’s four novels: The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774). This is a novel that comes out of and transforms the epistolary sentimental novel tradition. It takes that form in a different direction. If you’re familiar with Richardson’s Clarissa, it’s about 950 pages. Pamela is a little bit smaller. Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse is also a compendious, rhetorically effusive novel in letters. Goethe then comes along and writes an incredibly thin and powerful novel. It’s just one writer sending letters of vibrant intimacy that take his character through a failed love into suicide. And Napoleon is gripped by that. I forget the exact number, but I think Napoleon claimed to have read it thirteen times.

Then we have people like Beethoven. Here we have a musician who is inspired by Goethe’s literary works and by the revolutionary energy that he finds in them. So, if he focuses in particular on a figure like Goethe’s Egmont, he is focusing on a figure of great energy. The core features of Egmont’s character are radical independence, on the one hand, and contagious vital energy, on the other. And that radical independence, even though it has a tragic outcome, is something that inspired the entire artistic generation that followed Goethe. Goethe was born in 1749 and Beethoven in 1770, along with, for example, Hölderlin and Hegel. The generation of 1770 sees Goethe as its guide. In 1825 Hegel wrote in a letter to Goethe:

“If I look at the course of my intellectual development, I see you interwoven with it everywhere and I may call myself one of your sons; from you my inner life drew strength to resist abstraction and oriented itself on your works as its guiding beacons.”

What is the source of Goethe’s impact? I think a key factor is Goethe’s focus on human experience in its immediacy, on the individual human world encounter and the formative world-shaping and self-shaping character of that encounter. The world makes me and I make my world in the immediacy of this experience. That’s what I think ignited in the minds of the Romantic generation that followed upon him. Goethe broke off from the rhetorical and generic norms of aristocratic culture and sought to capture experience in its emergence and freshness. His own experiential response was the touchstone of all his inquiries.

Let’s consider the example of Freud, who draws scientific inspiration from Goethe’s literary works, his scientific works (his studies of morphologies and change, growth, and development), and his autobiographical writings. What could Freud, a scientist, find, say, in the Faust drama or in the autobiography Poetry and Truth? I think that if we review all Freud’s references to Goethe what we find as the common factor is his belief in the authenticity of Goethe’s testimony as to the nature of experience. In 1930, Freud received the Goethe Prize awarded by Goethe’s home city of Frankfurt, an opportunity for him to express his intellectual debt to a predecessor who had shown him the path of intellectual independence.

“Goethe broke off from the rhetorical and generic norms of aristocratic culture and sought to capture experience in its emergence and freshness”

So, Goethe has a huge intellectual impact. And we’re only beginning to understand that intellectual impact right now. Goethe’s influence on 20th-century thought across a broad spectrum is a recent and lively research topic in Goethe studies.

Your next Goethe book choice is his Italian Journey, translated by W. H. Auden. Tell me why you picked this one. Why was his sojourn in Italy such a transformative experience?

I felt I had to choose one of Goethe’s autobiographical works. The obvious choice would have been Poetry and Truth, the volume of his autobiography that treats his childhood and youth. But I chose the Italian Journey because his Italian sojourn in 1786-7 was the crucial turning point in Goethe’s life. It’s the experience that takes Goethe outside the German cultural milieu, outside the German climate, outside a certain social and moral rigidity.

One feature that one should know about Goethe is that he was not a poor man. He was not a struggling writer. He had financial means; he could set himself up in a nice apartment; he could buy a huge amount of artwork; he could hire an artist to make drawings for him as he travelled around Italy.

The journey transformed him in many ways. In fact, the Italian Journey is the diagram of an intellectual and artistic rebirth. Throughout we feel this sense of self-transformation, the release from certain psychological problems, the gradual acquisition of a different understanding of the world. In Italy, Goethe achieved a kind of clarity in his relationship to the world and to other human beings. That’s one of the dramas that’s taking place in the Italian Journey, which includes diary entries and letters to his friends in Weimar.

As readers, we can follow Goethe from city to city. We can view, through his eyes, architectural masterpieces, works of art, festivals; we can accompany him as he sails to Sicily and stare with him into the steaming depths of Vesuvius. Life in Italy is public, a sort of festival life beneath the sun and in the openness of urban space.

Intellectually speaking, there are two fundamental streams to follow. One of them is Goethe’s engagement with art and cultural practice. I would label his interest ‘anthropological’—attentive to how human communities form their lives. An important product of this interest is a study of the Roman Carnival that deserves recognition as the founding document of rigorous cultural-anthropological analysis. It is an attempt to disclose the structural logic inherent in the practice. Goethe wrote it up in a brief treatise that he had published while still in Italy. It’s a wonderful little book with some lovely illustrations.

This interpretation of a mode of life is expressed in Goethe’s engagement with art and architecture. One of the decisive influences is his encounter with the architecture of Palladio. The engagement with Palladio’s faithful and yet transformative inheritance of antiquity becomes a guiding beacon for Goethe’s own art and thought. The Italian Journey is often referred to as the journey that led to Goethe’s so-called ‘classicism’. That term is too rigid. The important thing is to see that the art of antiquity and the Renaissance provided Goethe a pathway to his own artistic project.

The second stream for readers to follow is the course of Goethe’s scientific development. The man’s curiosity knows no bounds. He gathers stones, looks at fish, studies atmospheric effects, peers into volcanic depths. It was in Italy that Goethe formulated the key idea of his scientific studies. It appears here as the idea of the archetype according to which all plants are formed: the ‘primal plant’ or Urpflanze. This is the key notion of Goethe’s morphology, which in the course of his life will develop into an encompassing vision of natural process.

So, the great thing about the Italian Journey is that we accompany Goethe through a twofold intellectual revolution. As soon as the pandemic is over and we can travel again, I recommend taking this book to Italy and comparing your own experience with Goethe’s.

Just before we move on to your next Goethe book, can you just say a little bit more about the tone of his writing in the Italian Journey? Is it all intensely cerebral? Or can he be comic? Does it change between the letters and the more diary format?

That’s a really good question. First of all, I would say it is writing that maintains a high degree of immediacy because of its day-to-day narrative form. In large part, it’s based on what he was writing for his friends in Weimar so there’s great immediacy in the account. It’s quite supple and fresh and rich in introspective insight. What we’re seeing is the actual process of discovery, rather than an objective depiction of what’s discovered. I think that is crucial. There is great variety in the writing, which sometimes stretches out into novella-like sequences. And unforgettable figures appear, for example, Emma, Lady Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson and for Goethe a figure of great fascination.

Let’s go on to Elective Affinities. This was published in 1809 to significant controversy. Goethe was about 60, I think, when it came out. Can you tell us about this one? And in terms of his treatment of relationships and intensity (or deterioration) of love, why did you pick this one over Werther?

Goethe’s literary work cuts across all genres. He was a great dramatist, a great lyric poet, and he wrote four important novels. Elective Affinities is what one might call a novel of manners. It is the depiction of a very, very closed society. Its repertoire of characters is basically four. There are some others, of course, who enter in and exit, but the core repertoire consists in the four characters. You have the married couple, the Baron Eduard and his wife Charlotte. You have Eduard’s friend, the so-called Captain, whose given name is Otto. The Captain has just been let off military duty; he is scientifically trained, an engineer of sorts, an overseer. And then there is Ottilie, a young, enchanting, wounded, and fragile girl. The plot involves an amorous crossover: on the one hand, Eduard and Ottilie fall in love, on the other hand, Charlotte and the Captain are drawn to one another. This leads to a number of complications, including the death of a child and later the death of Ottilie herself.

The novel is meticulously constructed. It depicts a social sphere in which everyone is unfailingly polite and tolerant and where unconscious motivations of an almost demonic energy hold sway. The characteristic feature of the core group of four is the thoroughgoing self-delusion in which they live. The aristocracy appears here in a frozen state, a historical dead-end devoid of purpose and creativity.

“Goethe’s literary work cuts across all genres. He was a great dramatist, a great lyric poet, and he wrote four important novels”

If I were to compare Elective Affinities with the work of another novelist, I would choose Henry James. James portrays a society that exists in the mode of sophisticated conversation, beneath which currents of desire, resentment, and anxiety flow. His novels likewise exhibit an artfulness of structure and a density of symbolization that is similar to Goethe’s style.

Staying with this point, let’s say something about the unusual title ‘elective affinities’. In a characteristically interdisciplinary way, it’s an analogy borrowed from chemistry.

Yes, Goethe creatively exfoliates a scientific metaphor. The term ‘elective affinities’ refers to a chemical phenomenon. If we take a compound A-B and a compound C-D and we bring them into proximity to one another, a strange thing can happen. A pulls away from B and bonds with C, and D pairs with B. This crossing of the elements is the organizing metaphor for the pattern of love and affection that unfolds across the novel’s plot. The chemical metaphor brings out the fact that human relations are often governed by patterns of unconscious attraction and rejection, that there is something deeply natural, almost ‘magnetic’, in our affections.

This is a novel about the social and psychological unconscious and the chemical metaphor as well as its formal rigor lend the work a very modern, let us say: experimentalist quality, even as it depicts a way of life that from our vantage seems long gone. That’s another charm of the novel. It portrays an aristocratic social sphere–the scene is a Baron’s country estate–but that life form is captured in the phase of its historical decline. Its mode of authority, its rituals, its art, and its eros are all gradually being transformed. The center of paternal sovereignty no longer holds, genealogical succession comes to an end. Eduard, the Baron “in the best years of manhood,” is a captive of adolescent fantasy, his moral compass spins, he is impetuous, spoiled, and at the end morbidly melancholic.

The novel is symmetrically composed and often self-reflective. Due to its unabashed artfulness, its profound ambiguities, and its psychological complexity, the novel may be considered the most modern and the most troubling of Goethe’s prose works. It inspired Walter Benjamin to write what might be the deepest and most tortuously difficult of his essays on literary works.

Can you say a little bit about why this was so controversial when it was published? Why was there a backlash?

I think that has principally to do with the novel’s systematic subversion of the idea of marriage. No divorce takes place in the novel, of course, but divorce is discussed. There is even a scene in which it is suggested that marriages should not be thought of as life-long bonds, but as contractual unions of limited duration. The novel shakes the foundations of marriage in another way by depicting an act of dual adultery in the imagination of the married couple. Conjugal union issues in a male offspring who bears the features not of his parents, but of the partners each parent imagined embracing at the moment of conception. This is quite literally monstrous! And it all ends, needless to say, tragically.

Elective Affinities should be seen together with such nineteenth-century novels of adultery as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Indeed, it may be the most troubling of the three. I have recommended David Constantine’s translation for Oxford World Classics. I advise reading the novel twice, the second time slowly, so that its intricacies come fully into view.

Let’s turn to Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II. Now, Faust really is the project of a lifetime. He was working on preliminary stuff as a teenager and then completed the work in his 80s. Tell me why you’ve chosen it.

Well, that’s part of the reason. It unfolds over an entire lifetime and, in that sense, it is a document of Goethe’s life. Perhaps the more important motivation, however, is that Faust is unquestionably Goethe’s most masterful and encompassing poetic achievement. It is a grand synthesis and in its grandeur it exceeds the limits of genre. Even to call it a drama doesn’t capture the achievement; it has epic and lyric qualities as well.

Faust is unquestionably Goethe’s most masterful and encompassing poetic achievement. It is a grand synthesis and in its grandeur it exceeds the limits of genre”

The time covered in Faust extends from the beginning of the world all the way to Byron’s death in 1824 following the siege of Missolonghi. The work has a theological frame, a cultural-historical frame, and an artistic frame. It draws on the imaginary forms of bourgeois tragedy, Shakespearean drama, Renaissance lyric, the folk song, Calderon’s theatre, and Dante’s poetic vision. It combines the classical and the romantic, the high and the low, the mystical and the burlesque. Remarkably, all this holds together. If one were to search for a literary work that could genuinely be called a Gesamtkunstwerk–a total artwork–then Faust in its two parts would be the leading candidate for that title.

Re-reading it recently, I was struck by how different it is to a lot of Faust lore. Ask the person on the street what Faust is about and they might say: someone sells his soul to the devil to acquire knowledge or some other good (e.g., artistic mastery, as in Thomas Mann’s version). But that’s not what happens in Goethe’s Faust. Can you tell us what the pact actually is?

That’s a very difficult question. In a sense, it is the central question with which every interpretation of the drama must contend. Let’s start with the basic facts, with the Faust story as it is inherited from the 16th century. Our text is the so-called Volksbuch, a shrewdly conceived pamphlet that mythologizes the tale of a historical necromancer and con-man. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, this Faust makes a contract with the devil in order to be able to experience things otherwise inaccessible to humankind. The major thing is, of course, knowledge, but that knowledge takes various forms. It includes, for instance, carnal knowledge enjoyed with Helen of Troy. The Volksbuch makes its way to England where Christopher Marlowe comes across it and recasts the tale in tragic form as Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s play, which includes a Helen episode (recall “the face that launched a thousand ships”) is the artistically most important rendition of the Faust material prior to Goethe.

Into the 18th century and then after Goethe as well, the core idea remains that by entering into the pact, Faust makes a morally and spiritually disastrous choice. He turns away from God and toward this world in a fruitless effort to quench his thirst for knowledge, his curiositas. And the result of the pact he makes, of course, is that he forfeits an afterlife in heaven and the devil drags his soul off to Hell.

Goethe transforms the contract (24 years and then I get your soul) into a wager. Faust bets that there is something Mephistopheles can’t provide and thus challenges him to provide it. That means that the ending of the play is an open question. The interaction between Faust and Mephistopheles becomes a sort of competition. Let’s take a look at the content of the wager. Faust sets the condition that a victorious Mephistopheles would have to meet with these words:

“Werd’ ich zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch! du bist so schön! Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen.”


(If I should ever say to a single moment: Linger on! You are most beautiful! Then you [Mephistopheles] can put me in chains [= ‘have my soul’].)

Now, that’s a very strange wager. What Goethe has Faust say is something like this: Show me absolute fulfillment in time. Give me a moment of such perfect delight that I could wish it might never end. In saying this, Faust is actually quoting Rousseau.

In the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau employs a thought experiment in order to explain what happiness is. If you can say of the present moment that it should last forever, then and only then are you genuinely happy. For then there is no past that you long for, no future that could make your present condition more complete. Happiness is that which is fully present to you and absorbs you in that present in such a way that desire falls away, regret and longing fall away, and you are completely there. It’s the achievement of eternity within time–therein lies the sense of Faust’s wager. He is saying to Mephistopheles: if you can give me that, then you can have my soul. How could I possibly give a damn? I don’t believe in an afterlife anyway.

Faust is a figure whose drive is such that he cannot imagine happiness. He cannot imagine fulfillment. His link with the devil is a link that is predicated on the unappeasable nature of his desire. Such desire is intrinsically transgressive. It is transgressive in the sense that Faust recognises no law, no norm or convention, but also in the sense that it must always go beyond, it must always seek something more. The Faust drama makes salient the boundlessness of desire as the condition of modern subjectivity. That is what Faust is about. This wager takes us to the core of the Faustian character.

I have a way of thinking about this that I’ve inherited from a colleague who was very important in the early stages of my career, the literary scholar Ian Watt. Watt thought of the Faust story as a characteristic modern myth. Modern myths are not like those of classical antiquity. Their defining feature is that they are centred on an individual character. There are three such individual characters who generate mythical versions across multiple literary works, pictorial works, operas, poems, and now even comic books. Their stories are constantly being retold and reinvented. They tell us something of our modern, post-Renaissance world. Who are they? The one is Don Quixote, another is Don Juan, the third is Faust.

“The Faust drama makes salient the boundlessness of desire as the condition of modern subjectivity. That is what Faust is about”

My way of thinking about these modern mythic figures is to see each as rendering a certain human capacity absolute. They experience that human capacity as the driving force of their life. In the case of Don Quixote, it is the imagination. Don Quixote is in quest of a fantasy world that transcends reality. He lives in the mode of constant imaginary transgression. In the case of Don Juan, the absolutized capacity is, of course, erotic love, acted out in serial transgressions. Finally, with Faust the crucial issue is epistemic transgression, an insatiable desire for knowledge that strives beyond the limits of the human. Those are the three paradigmatic modern myths. And this makes clear what is implied in the wager. Through this ingenious dramatic device, Goethe gives us an account of our modern world in which happiness in the sense of fulfillment in the present is impossible. Our condition is transcendental homelessness. There is no state of the world in which we are complete.

Let’s talk about the structure. We have two parts. But they are incredibly different. The second part has always struck me as more experimental and it has been comparatively neglected compared to the more famous Part One.

The second part is the work of a person who is looking back on an entire life and an abundance of scientific, intellectual, philosophical, and literary experience. It is remarkably different from the first part. The first part centres on a very tight, quickly moving drama of seduction and disaster; the seduction of a young girl, abandonment of her, and her persecution by society. And, of course, it centres on this wager with the devil. To be sure, there’s a prologue in heaven and so forth; there’s a framework to the whole thing that gives it a larger scope. But the wager is the centre of it and Gretchen is Mephistopheles’ first ploy. Anyone can read Part One and just be carried along by it. Part Two is a different kettle of fish altogether. It consists of five acts, each of which is quite long, and each of which has a kind of inner unity.

“Anyone can read Part One and just be carried along by it. Part Two is a different kettle of fish altogether”

The first act of Part Two takes place at the court, into which Faust and Mephistopheles introduce infernal powers. The first such power involves the invention of paper money, which undermines the economy of the imperial court. Second, the pair pull off a tour de force piece of entertainment. Faust descends down into the so-called realm of the mothers–the mythic domain of creative fecundity–and brings forth the image of Helen of Troy. Then, himself entranced by that simulacrum, Faust reaches out for her, causing an explosion that ends Act One.

Act Two takes us back to Faust’s study at the University, where we had started off in Part One. Faust is lying unconscious following the explosion. A scientific experiment is taking place: the production of a homunculus figure, a human spirit in a beaker. That spirit will lead Faust in a dream through an incredibly complex world of ancient mythology that culminates in the conception of Helen of Troy. This is the Leda and the Swan moment that readers of Yeats will appreciate.

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In Act Three, we suddenly find ourselves in Greece and, indeed, Helen appears and marries Faust. It is the marriage of modernity and classical antiquity, dramatized within an enclosure that is shielded from the violence of history. A child named Euphorion, for whom the timeless enclosure is not a satisfactory abode, issues from the union. He seeks to break out of the Arcadian fiction of perpetual love and to participate in the great emancipatory work of history, but his romantic-revolutionary enthusiasm finally crashes and he dies. Helen follows Euphorion to the underworld and Faust is left alone.

The fourth act stages a gigantic military campaign in which Faust and Mephistopheles deploy their magic and secure victory for the Emperor. There is a good bit of military technology employed here and it alerts us to the fact that Goethe himself experienced war and, after the defeat of Austria and Prussia, met Napoleon himself. The victorious Emperor rewards Faust with a piece of land at sea’s edge where he can carry out his colonial project. The fifth act then stages the disastrous outcome of that colonial project and leads us up to the moment of Faust’s death with Mephistopheles attempting unsuccessfully to snag Faust’s soul. That’s the end of the play.

But then there’s a coda in which Faust’s spirit is drawn upward in a spiritual ascent that feels Dantesque. He’s drawn upward not by Beatrice, but by the power of Gretchen’s unconditional love, neatly fusing Parts One and Two together. That’s where it ends.

Continuing with Faust, last on your list of Goethe books is Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe by George Santayana. This was originally published in 1910, but was reissued in 2009. Tell me about this.

The book is not only about Faust, but it places the drama in what I think is the appropriate context. Santayana discusses Faust together with Lucretius’ De rerum natura and Dante’s Divine Comedy. We are invited to compare three great poetic works each of which offers an encompassing philosophical vision. Each gives us a poem that embraces an entire world. In the introduction I wrote for the Princeton translation of Faust, one of the things I say is that the best kind of work to compare it with is an encyclopaedia. Goethe absorbs virtually his entire cultural knowledge into the play.

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The poems of Lucretius and Dante have the same universal scope. Santayana’s thought was that, by juxtaposing the three, we can acquire a synoptic understanding of the materialist worldview of classical antiquity, the theological worldview of late medieval Europe, and then, in Goethe’s work, the Romantic conception of life, love, striving, and historical change. Santayana’s study affords us then a profound appreciation of what Goethe meant by world literature.

“The best kind of work to compare Faust with is an encyclopaedia. Goethe absorbs virtually his entire cultural knowledge into the play”

Santayana’s book was first published in 1910. It’s based on a lecture course that he regularly gave at Harvard University. This book highlights the place of German culture in the American mind at the onset of the 20th century. With the beginning of the First World War in 1914 (which the United States entered in 1917) we can observe an abrupt demise in the perceived importance of the German literary and cultural heritage in the United States. That is only aggravated with the Second World War. But if we look at the history of 19th-century America, if we look at figures like Emerson, who was deeply influenced by Goethe, or his collaborator Margaret Fuller, the brilliant editor of The Dial, we can see that German thought and literature were at the core of Americans’ efforts to shape an indigenous cultural self-awareness. With the great wave of German immigration to the United States after 1848, that cultural inheritance is deepened. Santayana’s beautifully written and deeply thought book, therefore, reminds us of cultural ties that are complexly entwined with American history.

One final recommendation. Another path to Goethe runs through music. Regarding Faust alone, we have the operatic dramatizations of Berlioz and Boito and Schumann’s Faust Music, just to mention three prominent examples. My particular recommendation, however, is the conclusion of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. The verses sung are from the Dantesque coda that concludes Act Five. I believe that Mahler’s music and Goethe’s words convey the experience of spiritual transcendence and transfiguration with incomparable immediacy and tenderness. Readers who have begun to master the complexities of Goethe’s drama will find here their own timeless moment.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

April 9, 2021

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David E. Wellbery

David E. Wellbery

David E. Wellbery is Chair of the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on German Literature and Culture. Among his numerous publications, two of his books are considered classics in the field of German literary history: Lessing’s Laocoön. Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason and The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism. In 2020, he was awarded the Golden Goethe Medal in recognition of his field-defining scholarship.

David E. Wellbery

David E. Wellbery

David E. Wellbery is Chair of the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on German Literature and Culture. Among his numerous publications, two of his books are considered classics in the field of German literary history: Lessing’s Laocoön. Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason and The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism. In 2020, he was awarded the Golden Goethe Medal in recognition of his field-defining scholarship.