Goethe in a web of words:

a brief essay on intertextuality

and Goethe's Wirkungsgeschichte

by Malcolm Potter-Brown

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"

-  Ausford, 2004/2011  -

Copyright Malcolm Potter-Brown, 2004

Like any great writer Goethe does not stand alone and unconnected. He drew on past writers and influenced future writers. Goethe's debts to the past are obvious: his Faust is part of a German tradition originating in late medieval folktales and already having found expression in a German puppet play and in Marlowe's Dr Faustus. His play Iphigenie and many of his poems borrow from classical Greek literature, while in Tasso he takes as his theme the life and love of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso.

Goethe's own life has been the subject of other writer's works, most notably in Thomas Mann's Lotte in Weimar and, more recently, Peter Hacks' Ein Gespräch im Hause Stein über den abwesenden Herrn von Goethe, in which Charlotte von Stein justifies her relationship with the poet.

In a letter to the composer and architect Zelter, a life-long friend and correspondent, Goethe expressed a hatred of parody, which, he said, drags down and debases what is noble and valuable. The occasion of his displeasure was Friedrich Nicolai's parody of his first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers which unleashed a wave of romantic sensibility among young people in Europe, and even an avalanche of suicides among lovelorn young men. Nicolai took the ending, in which Werther, after agonising in a series of letters about his love for Charlotte and its conflict with his loyalty to his friend, Albert, to whom she was betrothed and then married, finally shoots himself, and rewrote it in Die Freuden des jungen Werthers. Here Albert, suspecting Werther's intentions, has loaded the pistol with blanks and a bladder of chicken blood. The stricken Werther falls and agonises until Albert tells him what has happened and offers to resign Charlotte to him as the most rational solution. From then on Werther has to face a number of difficulties, each of which he meets, not with romantic sensibility and despair, but with rationalistic common sense, which inevitably finds a solution. (Die Freuden des jungen Werthers; Freuden und Leiden Werthers des Mannes).

Werther, with its excesses of emotional sensiblity, found many imitators and many parodists. The best known English parody is the short poem, Sorrows of Werther, by W.M. Thackeray, which describes how Werther first met Charlotte when she was cutting bread and butter for her six orphaned younger siblings. to whom she acted as mother, and concludes with his suicide, when Charlotte, having seen his body / borne before her on a shutter / like a well-conducted person / went on cutting bread and butter.

Faust as we have already observed, stands in a German tradition of Faustdichtungen, and while those that come after Goethe cannot, of course, escape his influence, they can claim to form part of the tradition. Some, of course, are purely parodic in nature, most notably Faust, der Tragödie dritter Theil, von Deutobald Allegoriewitsch Simbolizetti Mystifizinski (i.e Friedrich Theodor Vischer. After Faust ascends to heaven accompanied by a Chorus mysticus, he is set to work as tutor to a class of selige Knaben, boys who have died in childhood. But, blessed or not, boys will be boys, and faced with the unwelcome continuation of their schooling, with a schoolmaster who is forbidden to beat them, and with the encouragement of Mephistopheles, they soon get up to all sorts of tricks, e.g. coating their teacher's chair with pitch so that he sticks to it and only frees himself by ripping the seat of his breeches. Vischer's verse mocks and parodies Goethe's original, working itself up to a triumphant Chorus mysticus in the metre of the original :

Chorus mysticus.
Das abgeschmackteste
Hier ward es geschmeckt,
Das Allervertrackteste,
Hier war es bezweckt;
Das Unverzeihliche,
Hier sei es verziehn;
Das ewig Langweilige
Zieht uns dahin!

All that is tasteless
Is licked up and savoured,
twisted contortion is
what is here favoured;
What can't be forgiven
may here be made right;
th' eternally boring
attracts us like light

Another intertextual relationship is that of the creation of an independent work of literature that makes reference to or is based on an original. Goethe's Werther received such a tribute from Ulrich Plenzdorf, whose Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. has his protagonist, the apprentice Edgar Wibeau, finding in a lavatory an old book with its cover and title page missing. Edgar begins to read and is soon enthralled in a story that seems to parallel his own. So impressed is he, that he includes long quotations in his tape-recorded letter to his friend Willi.

It was from Ireland that Die Wahlverwandtschaften received similar treatment. John Banville, in The Newton letters took up the scientific analogy of chemical affinities, and even used the same names for his characters. So little known is German literature in the English-speaking world, that at least one of the major reviewing journals praised Banville for the boldness of his conception, and picked out in particular the "spiritual adultery" scene as something new and original. A more recent treatment of the same themes is Robin Gordon's Leaves in the Wind, in which the scene is transferred from the milieu of 18th-century German nobility to that of late 20th-century middle class English people. The spiritual adultery is still there, the gardening theme becomes even more important, and the plot is ironically subverted when it becomes apparent that the character through whose eyes events have been seen, has been mistaken throughout.

One final example of Goethe's position as both a receiver and giver of influence is his Westöstlicher Divan. Inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz (1325-1389/90), a devout Sufi whose poems can be read on three levels but are notable for their use of simple language and everyday images, Goethe's Divan is an expression of western orientalism. Althought not strictly a parody we find a clever comic reference in the Palmström poems of Christian Morgenstern. Palmström, the poet tells, was suffering from a nervous affliction until he heard that it was essential in the northern hemisphere to have one's bed pointing north-south, with one's head towards the pole. As a result of this rearrangement he slept well and dreamed he heard the barking of the Arctic fox.

Als er dies von Korf erzählt
wurde dieser leicht erquält
denn für ihn ist selbstverstehung,
dass man mit der Erdumdrehung
schlafen müsse, mit dem Pfosten
seines Körpers strickt nach Osten,
und so schmerzt er Kaustisch-köstlich:
"Nein, mein Divan bleibt - westöstlich."

Now when he told Von Korf about
his bed the latter was put out.
"It's plain," said he, "one ought to station
oneself along the Earth's rotation.
It's obvious, to me at least,
one sleeps best pointing firmly east.
It pains me, but I think it best
that my divan should stay east-west!"




All the texts quoted above are available:
Iphigenie auf Tauris  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2054
Die Leiden des jungen Werther  Bd.1: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2407 ; Bd.2: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2408
Torquato Tasso   http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10425
Die Wahlverwandtschaften   http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2403
Westöstlicher Divan  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2319


Banville, John : The Newton letters

Gordon, Robin : Leaves in the wind, available at http://auksford.co.uk/rg/Short/leaves.html

Hacks, Peter : Ein Gespräch im Hause Stein üben den abwesenden Herrn von Goethe

Hafiz (Shamsuddin Mohammed) : The Divan, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10315

Mann, Thomas : Lotte in Weimar Some works by Thomas Mann included in Project Gutenberg but at the time of writing these did not include "Lotte in Weimar"

Marlowe, Christopher : Dr Faustus:  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/779

Morgenstern, Christian : Palmström:  http://www.textlog.de/17431.html

Nicolai Friedrich : Die Freuden des jungen Werthers, Freuden und Leiden Werthers des Mannes 

Plenzdorf, Ulrich : Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.

Thackeray, William Makepeace : "Sorrows of Werther" in Ballads and miscellanies:  http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924013562073/cu31924013562073_djvu.txt

Vischer, Friedrich Theodor : Faust: der Tragödie dritter Theil:  http://projekt.gutenberg.de/buch/1298/1

Other Essays by Malcolm Potter-Brown

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