Thursday, August 25, 2011


The blogger at Flowerville (see link to the right) wrote, in passing, about people who seek to bolster their reputation by quoting Goethe.

That has me thinking about my own relation to him and his works. To his works, of course, to his books. No real chance to have a relationship with the man himself (died 1832, if I remember correctly).

Here are his works, most of them. It's the Jubilaeumsausgabe, 40 volumes of leatherbound splendor, ranged along one of my shelves. It would make a good set for a lawyer's office, or anyone who wanted to appear to be highly literate. 

Although I think the edition is handsome, it is valuable to me because volume 40 is an index. I used it to find the essay on cloud formation I quoted from in the earlier post about clouds (and thus the empty space in the last photo where I took out one of the volumes of natural science).

There's a more comprehensive set called the Weimarer Ausgabe, which I wish I owned, but which I can use in the library.

So far so good.

But when I'm writing about a Goethe text (and I've published essays on "The Semiotics of Young Werther" (Goethe Yearbook) and "The Freemasonic Ritual Route in Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre" (Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift), I use editions I can work with, that I can write on, that I can mark up with notes and questions.

My working library, then, looks more like this:

And for the record, I've never (I hope I've never) taken Goethe's name in vain for prestige. He's too good a writer to be used that way.


The flowerville blogger has responded to this post (see the comment and see this site:

with a personal and photographic essay. Her thoughts made me reflect on my own history with Goethe. 

Needless to say, the poems we memorized in grade school and Jr. High were by Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg and Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. Not Goethe or Schiller.

I first encountered Goethe as the poet who seduced me from my undergraduate pre-med studies into a major in German literature. Later I travelled through East Germany to Weimar, anxious to see "Goethes Wohnhaus am Frauenplan" and all the other sites presented by a restrictive but culture-proud communist government. Although I had requested a cheap room in my application to travel in East Germany, I was assigned the very expensive Hotel Elephant (which I knew from Thomas Mann's novel "Lotte in Weimar"). Here a snippet of memory from that visit -- a surprising mashup of my Goethe/Handke interests three decades later):

The formality intimidates me.  In my traveling clothes I'm out of place, I know.  So does the head waitress, but when I show my hotel pass she has to seat me.  Begrudgingly she leads me to a small table already occupied by a man of 30 or so, half through with his meal.  The menu gives me something to do, and when the waitress finally returns I order some sort of soup.  The man across from me eats slowly while he looks through a small stack of brochures and a travel book he has taken out of a leather bag at his feet.  I look around at the groups of eating people, stare into the garden, listen to the civilized sounds of muted conversation and the clatter of silverware on china.  My dinner arrives and I begin to eat.  Then something occurs -- the accidental meeting of eyes, a dropped brochure, a comment on the carrots in the soup, something -- and suddenly we are talking with each other.

He says he is a psychiatrist, just at the end of his training at the University of Heidelberg.  He shows me his guide book and recommends it highly.  He is handsome, self-assured.  He talks expansively of the wonderful afternoon he has just had in Goethe's old pub Zum Weissen Schwan.  It was full of working people, he says, and intimates that he heard some wonderful stories.  I am appropriately jealous of his experience.

Our conversation continues while he drinks coffee and eats Kirschtorte.  I mention that I have just read Peter Handke's "Wunschloses Unglueck," hoping, I suppose, to impress him with my knowledge of contemporary literature.  With a condescending smile he says he once spent ten days with Handke:

It was a small group of students together for a seminar.  We lived with him in a hotel outside of Vienna.  Every night we drank together in the hotel bar.  The first night an old woman joined us, very short, stout, already well under the influence. She didn't belong there, her dress was a mess, her feet in slippers.  When she sat down with us the bartender came over to escort her out.  Handke stood up and asked her to stay.  She was as surprised as the bartender.  Her name was Wanda, she said, and after Handke bought her a few drinks, she explained that she was going to Paris the next day.

Night after night she returned, always in the same dress and slippers, and every night she claimed she would leave for Paris the following morning.  If she was late Handke would go out front to wait for her.  One night she didn't arrive at all and he drank heavily and refused to speak with anyone.  Just before midnight, when a waiter suggested that he might have had enough to drink, Handke jumped up, shook the table violently, and screamed at the waiter: "You fascist!  You bloody fascist!"

Again I admire his experience.  I try to counter it by telling him I know Handke's Serbo-Croation translator.  He doesn't seem impressed.

The dinner was in the Hotel Elephant and the mental images I gathered during those few days remain with me.

But the real encounters with Goethe remain the books.

I'm no photographer like the flowerville blogger, but here are a few additions to the ones above, inspired by her photos of Goethe books.

A beautiful little Insel edition from 1923 with illustrations by Chodowiecki

Original three-volume edition of Carlyle's translation with beautiful endpapers
 My friends Steven and Diana Epperson gave me the beautiful little copy of "The Sorrows of Young Werther." It had belonged to Diana's grandmother. I found the damaged but beautiful Carlyle translation at a book sale.
Early translation of Lavater's essays

In my phantasy, Goethe used this 1801 book

A growing work of good scholarship -- some of it mine

all 5 volumes with covers

two volumes undressed
to Korff;s students from Frankfurt to Columbia

I've had this set of the "Geist der Goethezeit" for years, bought at a library sale for $1 each. I've read parts of it, in awe at the synthetic genius of the author.

I undressed these 5 volumes and found a surprising difference in the volumes as they were reprinted over several years.

Even more interesting is the dedication by Korff to students in Germany and then (I suppose because of the Nazi takeover of Germany) in America.


* said...

i reciprocated....

that is one lovely edition you have there

and those beautiful insel ones, i love them, they make such nice books. very nice edition of the werther.

and the carlyle translation....

so you are reading Faust now?

generally i have a bit the same working habit with books, some pretty ones and then copies of them in which you can scribble...

Scott Abbott said...

not working on Faust at the moment. just opened to a page that had visible notes from earlier work.

* said...

of course they'd put you in their most expensive hotel, as an american...

that is a lovely story with handke and that woman in the pub.

and what lovely books you have. i must get organized and complete my korff one via ebay or so... and then really should read it, can't do any harm. wondered as well about the dedication, and it is a lovely one, pupils becoming friends... much nicer than that sometimes odd, but sometimes necessary pupil-teacher distinction...
and lavater. i haven't read any lavater. too many books....