Germany's literary giant lives on


Goethe: After more than two centuries, the poet and philosopher's epigrams remain part of the common lexicon, and his life and work the subject of intellectual pursuits.

August 27, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The 250th birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is celebrated worldwide tomorrow, and though ecstatic readers no longer commit suicide in his honor, he remains a titanic figure in world literature.

Impressionable young Europeans once killed themselves mimicking the rejected lonely lover in Goethe's romantic novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," published in 1774 when the writer was 25. Unlike these idolaters, or Werther, Goethe rose above his sweet sadness to live another 58 years and find many other women to fall in love with.

Goethe's is a name few Americans even know how to pronounce. It rhymes with nothing in English. Start with a hard G, shape your lips in an O and softly sound the OE as a cross between "go" and "get," and end with a hard TE; the H is soundless.

Yet, the poet and philosopher has been so influential that for two centuries intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals have never stopped quoting him. You can amble down a Goethe Street in just about every German town. The worldwide German cultural society calls itself, simply, "The Goethe-Institute."

And Weimar, his hometown for most of his life, has become Europe's designated cultural capital this year. There, where Goethe died March 22, 1832, at age 82, and in Frankfurt-am-Main where he was born in 1749, there are readings and productions of his works, concerts, lectures, discussions and other celebrations.

Weimar was also the site of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, where more than 50,000 died from 1937 to 1945. In a program of reconciliation tomorrow, Zubin Mehta will conduct a joint performance of Mahler's Second Symphony by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bavarian State Orchestra.

Goethe's foremost literary achievement was the dramatic poem "Faust," elevating the old legend of the man who bartered his soul to the Devil to gain perfect knowledge. His lyric poetry is famously caught in "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluehn?" (Do you know the country where the lemon trees bloom?), the opening line of a romantic poem, "Mignon."

His fame lives on in a constellation of often optimistic quotations, cited by Germans who may not know their source, much as English-speaking people spout bromides without realizing that Shakespeare first penned them. Some of Goethe's epigrams:

"Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean."

"We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden."

"Whoever wishes to keep a secret must hide the fact that he has one."

"Whoever in middle age attempts to realize the wishes and hopes of his early youth invariably deceives himself. Every 10 years of a man's life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires."

"If a man writes a book, let him set down only what he knows. I have guesses enough of my own."

"He alone is great and happy who requires neither to command nor to obey to secure his being of some importance in the world."

"All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again."

And, perhaps presciently in the light of Germany's later history, there was this in 1806: "I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality."

Goethe is a universe for scholars. The legacy includes 12,000 letters by him, 20,000 letters to him, 4,000 printed pages of conversations with others, 3,000 sketches and drawings, four huge volumes of official papers, an autobiography and diaries, as well as a lifelong output of poems, plays, essays, novels, journalism and scientific investigation.

"More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about any other human being," wrote the English historian Nicholas Boyle in his intricately detailed 1991 study, "Goethe: The Poet and The Age."

According to the playful guess of one psychologist, Dr. Catherine Cox, Goethe had an IQ of 210, ranking him above, for example, Voltaire, Newton, Galileo, Da Vinci, Descartes, Kant, Luther, Mozart, Franklin and Rembrandt.

Thought to have stood just over 5 feet, 9 inches, Goethe was tall for his day and Olympian in stature. The lyrical German poet (and often-cynical journalist) Heinrich Heine had thought beforehand of many sublime things to say at his first meeting with Goethe, but when the moment came he could remember to mention only that the plums were delicious between Jena and Weimar.

"Goethe holds the mirror up to nature," Heine said, "or better, is himself the mirror."

Not only was he a poet, philosopher and student of human nature, but also a playwright, lawyer, scientist (who discovered a theretofore unknown skull bone), artist, journalist, landowner, director of a theater, university and art school, and a regional government official. A celebrated star in his mid-20s, he was the first German since Martin Luther to be recognized throughout Europe.

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