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John Pizer GADAMER'S READING OF GOETHE In his essay "Celans Schlußgedicht" (1987), Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks of the complex and many-layered event of understanding poetic experience.1 His critical engagement with non-Greek verse is limited to a rather small circle of poets, and his attraction to these poets seems mediated by their ability to evoke new insights into the historical, linguistic, and social nature of experience itself. The methodology underlying Gadamer's poetic encounters is informed by the dialectics of the hermeneutic circle. The individual and personal dimensions of poetic experience are engaged to point to their universal, social purport, and vice-versa, though the historicity of this circular structure is always kept in view. Celan's personal encounter with the brutal reductionism and distortions ofcontemporary technology lead him to engage in a Sinnverhüllung ("veiling of meaning").2 Gadamer's reflections on Celan's individual response to such modern phenomena as mass rhetoric open up insights into the general, transpersonal necessity of a hermetic poetics and the frustration of a hermeneutic immediacy in the understanding of poetry in our epoch (Poetica, pp. 132-34).3 In connection with Rilke's verse, Gadamer likes to speak of the transformation of the experience undergone by the individual human heart into a mythopoetic realm. But the mythic dimension of Rilke's poetry is not governed by the harmonious confluences of the ancient mythic world. His poetry is the poetry of contemporary man's distance from God and the gods, and Gadamer finds that the challenge of a hermeneutic interpretation of Rilke's verse lies in the translation of the God-alienated mythic consciousness of Rilke's universe back into the personal experiential world of the human heart (KS 2, pp. 194-209). Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 268-277 John Pizer269 Though it has received litde in the way of focused attention, Gadamer 's reading of Goethe is particularly rich in its evocation of the dynamics of hermeneutically constituted personal/poetic experience. This richness is not surprising when one considers it was Goethe who, according to Gadamer, provided the modern foundation for the concept of Erlebnis. As Gadamer puts it in Truth and Method (1960): "Goethe more than anyone else tempts one to invent this word, since his poetry acquires a new kind of intelligibility from what he experienced" (TM, p. 56/GI^ 1, p. 67). In his readings of Goethe as both poet and philosopher , Gadamer views the sage of Weimar as the most profound example in modern literary history of an individual who was able to draw on personal experience and almost spontaneously translate it into poetic expressions with a universal, indeed binding, purport. Consistent with the historicity of his hermeneutic procedure, Gadamer avoids attributing this poetic immediacy solely to Goethe's individual genius. The "incomparable naturalness and effortlessness" of his verse are partly connected to the specific situation of the German language in the age of Goethe, as Gadamer notes in contrasting Goethe's "unaffected" style with Celan's hermetic complexity (Poetica, p. 132). In his essay "Goethe und die sittliche Welt" (1949), Gadamer goes so far as to claim that the living law of Goethe's poetry was the poeticizing of his life (KS 2, p. 99). Gadamer's readings ofGoethe's individual poetic works often focus on the need Gadamer finds therein expressed to translate tragic insights and personal suffering into comprehensive poetic structures. The balance of this article will focus on Gadamer's engagement with this and other characteristics of the poetic element in Goethian "experience," with a particular attention to the avenues this encounter opens into Gadamer's overall perspective concerning the poetic dimensions of the hermeneutic circle, the dialogue with a work of literature. Of course, in speaking of Gadamer's encounter with Goethian "experience ," we must take note of the critical distinction between the terms Erfahrung and Erhbnis. Both terms can be translated as "experience," but the distinctive difference between the German words acquires a particular resonance in Gadamer's vocabulary, a resonance highly significant for his readings of Goethe. The nuances of Gadamerean Erfahrung and Erlebnis have been explored by a number ofhis interpreters. Joel Weinsheimer has noted...


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