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The Genius as Toady

November 12, 2000|STEPHEN VIZINCZEY | Stephen Vizinczey is the author of "In Praise of Older Women," "An Innocent Millionaire" and "Truth and Lies In Literature." His new novel "Wishes" will be published next year

Ever since the 18th century, without ever suffering a decline in his reputation, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) has been considered the greatest German writer, a universal genius, the embodiment of German culture. The German state's cultural embassies around the world are all named after him; almost every big city has a Goethe Institute. He was undoubtedly a great poet: Auden, a great poet himself, spoke of "Goethe's amazing command of every style of poetry, from the coarse to the witty to the lyrical to the sublime" and believed that "no translation can give a proper idea of it." Yet Goethe's immense reputation always had a lot to do with his reverence for authority. No oppressive regime or blinkered public had to feel uncomfortable with his work. He is the supreme example of the artist who sells out.

He had the gifts of a great poet and the character of a toady. The author of "Egmont," the play about the hero who is willing to die for his nation's freedom, which inspired Beethoven's stirring overture, was a high official of the ducal court of Weimar and a close personal friend of Duke Karl August. Rank, authority and the attitudes of the ruling class always held greater sway over him than the dictates of his talent. Thomas Mann said the same thing in a more complimentary vein when he remarked that Goethe's work was "informed both by his genius and a sense of propriety."

It was the kind of propriety that involved hypocrisy and deceit. According to Daniel Wilson, professor of German at UC Berkeley, who has spent more than a year exploring the 18th century state archives in Weimar, Goethe, as minister of war, drafted convicted prisoners against their will into the Hanoverian army fighting on the British side in the American War of Independence. Wilson says, "It is bizarre that a figure such as Goethe who held enlightened views on human rights in his writings should have supplied troops for an army that was fighting to crush Americans' right to self-determination." German scholars can't have looked very hard in the last 170 years if they left anything to uncover in the year 2000, but in fact Wilson has unearthed many important facts about this hallowed figure of the Enlightenment. Among his other unsavory duties, Goethe was in charge of silencing teachers at the University of Jena who espoused the ideas of the French Revolution and ran Karl August's secret police, keeping tabs on radical students, infiltrating their meetings with his spies and even turning poor Schiller, who thought of him as a friend, into his unwitting informant.

His vilest crime was performed in public. Goethe used his reputation to denigrate Heinrich von Kleist, the young genius whose eight stories say more in fewer words than any other work in Western literature. (The absolutely faithful American translation by Martin Greenberg is a work of art in itself; it is out of print can be found in better-stocked libraries.) The object of Goethe's jealous spite, ignored and humiliated, unable to earn a living, Kleist committed suicide at the age of 34.

In "Faust," Goethe wrote moving lines of protest against the execution of Gretchen, a poor girl who is seduced and abandoned by Faust and drowns their child to hide her shame. But since these lines could be construed as a criticism of the death sentence, he suppressed them when he produced the play at his theater in Weimar. Mann notes that "when in the presence of opposition or negation, Goethe always thought of himself as the grand seigneur and representative of the government. 'If I had the misfortune to be in opposition,' he once said."

Indeed, he was often more heartlessly ministerial than he needed to be: In his capacity as privy councillor, he signed the death warrant of another Gretchen, a servant girl accused of killing her baby, even though the duke himself favored clemency.

None of this would matter to the reader if Goethe's hypocrisy and deceitfulness did not also infect his writing. "Faust" is full of striking scenes and marvelous lines, but it tells a wickedly false story. Goethe's Faust makes a pact with Mephistopheles, takes everything the devil can give him and then ends up in heaven. Officially considered the greatest work of German literature, Goethe's "Faust" enshrines the notion that you can deal with the devil, commit vile acts and still remain essentially a noble person who will come out on top in the end. This notion had more to do with the educated classes' support for Hitler than all the works of Nietzsche. Goethe constantly misled people to avoid upsetting them, to make them feel safe, comfortable and good, but the history of Germany demonstrates that when writers betray their calling as truth-sayers, they do no favors to their readers.

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