Goethe: Life As A Work of Art

Rudiger Safranski

Liveright £27.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THERE is a compelling beat at the heart of this extraordinary biography of one of the greatest of artists, one of the most fascinating of men.

It is this: can we not only admire genius but replicate it, even though we may lack the intellectual power, creative drive or even instinctual recognition of what life both demands and proffers?

Can Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose 82 years on earth stretched from 1749, not only offer us the consolations of philosophy, the significance of art, and the lessons of science but also a simple but profound way of existence? In short, can we live the life of a genius?

It is a substantial proposal and one must first pause to admire the ambition of Rudiger Safranski, a philosopher and author, who has already written biographies of Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

One must also pay tribute to the elegant and engaging translation by David Dollenmayer, though someone in the editing process should have noted that Sir Walter Scott is not English.

But, above all, one must gaze at the wonder that was Goethe. “We thought we were seeing an Apollo. I’ve never seen such a union of physical and intellectual perfection and beauty in a man as I then saw in Goethe,” says a contemporary witness.

Safranski captures this phenomenon. Goethe as a boy had a command of Italian, French, English, Latin and Greek and could read Hebrew. By his early 20s, he had written the great novel of his age and a great novel of all ages in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

He was also the most powerful civilian in the duchy of Weimar. He was a privy counsellor, finance director, chairman of the military commission, supervisor of road building, director of recreation, court poet, organiser of ballets, theatre and operas, lecturer on osteology, actor, dancer and factotum.

His life was further informed by escapades on the battlefield, love affairs of profound intensity but general disappointment, friendships with such as Schopenhauer and Schiller and an artistic life that produced majestic poems and at least one further masterpiece in Faust. He was also a scientist who investigated the theory of colour and had divined early the principles of metamorphosis in plant life.

This is all covered extensively by Safranski who has the occasional lightness of touch to leaven all of the above, particularly with the deployment of affecting scenes. The reader can thus appreciate the external reality of Goethe.

This is a young man who swims naked in Lake Zurich, incurring the wrath of members of the reformed church who throw stones at him. This is the young prodigy who lies under a tree as others discuss his works. This is the middle-aged man who sits by his hearth reading, with sleeping cap on head, while his wife sews, and finds a banal, pleasant contentment. This the old man whose eyes freeze at the prospect of imminent death. This, too, is the father who writhes on the floor in unspeakable anguish at the death of an infant daughter.

Indeed, a life of astounding achievement and unrelenting inquiry was haunted by death. Four of Goethe’s siblings died in infancy, with a solitary survivor, Christiana, also pre-deceasing him. He lost his wife and his only son. He survived to old age but he carried the burden of sorrow that makes his ability to find salvation, even peace, all the more remarkable. Goethe could not avoid suffering but he found a way of living that allowed him to march on despite the brutal blows.

Safranski is precise on the philosophical questions that dominated the life of a genius and his illustrious peers but the lessons for the many are outlined in a simple, engaging style. This is the zen of Goethe, the tao of Johann.

He instinctively cultivated mindfulness. “Behaviour and action in the practical sphere should be pure even to the bite,” he said of his propensity to eat slowly. He believed in action, but not of the displacement variety. He did not rush about mindlessly but worked practically in his garden, on his writings and on his administrative work. He could be found lost in the mystery of a leaf in his garden. “Truth emerges from the practice of life,” he said.

He extolled the power of poetry: “Like a balloon, it lifts us and the ballast we carry into higher regions, leaving earth’s tangled paths lying spread out before us in a bird’s eye.” But that poetry was not just the matter of rhyme but of the meditation of life itself.

The tortured young artist, who with immature drama kept a knife by his bed lest he felt a sudden urge to suicide, became committed to pursuing life even as it threatened to devour him. He acknowledged despair but never embraced it. He found solace in beauty, physical, natural and artistic. He constantly developed an inner life that allowed him to weather the external storms.

He sourced the divine in nature itself, not in any Christian God. The world itself was his saviour. This couplet was his constant companion:

"To rejoice in your own worth/

You must give worth to life on earth"

The most marvellous aspect of his character was his occasional fallibility and fecklessness and his ultimate acceptance of his power to be absurd. This was a genius who could be naive in his pursuit of women, pompous in argument and chilly in manner to those who loved him most. Yet he recognised most of this and attempted to change what he could for the better.

When challenged on an apparent inconsistency of thought, he replied: “Eh, have I gotten to be 80 years old in order to always think the same thing? No, I strive to think something new every day so I won’t become a bore.” He was, of course, incapable of inducing tedium.

Safranski’s achievement is to stir the most poignant of contrasting emotions. There is joy in knowing that one can still read Goethe but there is an ache that one can never meet him.