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Space and Place in Goethe’s “Alexis und Dora”

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 23-38 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Space and Place in Goethe’s “Alexis und Dora”

In a letter to Schiller of August 16, 1797, Goethe describes how the

Raum meines großväterlichen Hauses, Hofes und Gartens, der aus dem beschränktesten, patriarchalischen Zustande, in welchem ein alter Schultheiß von Frankfurt lebte, durch klug unternehmende Menschen zum nützlichen Waaren- und Marktplatz verändert wurde. Die Anstalt ging durch sonderbare Zufälle bey dem Bombardement zu Grunde und ist jetzt, größtentheils als Schutthaufen, noch immer das doppelte dessen werth was vor 11 Jahren von den gegenwärtigen Besitzern an die Meinigen bezahlt worden.1

[space of my grandfather’s house, yard, and garden was changed by clever, enterprising people from the most limited, patriarchal condition in which an old mayor of Frankfurt lived into a useful commodity- and marketplace. The establishment was destroyed by strange coincidences during the bombardment [of July 1796] and is now—for the most part as a pile of rubble—still twice the worth of what the present owners paid to my family 11 years ago.2]

Goethe traces how, in a relatively brief period of time, the nature and value of a place was transformed. Despite its demolition, his grandfather’s house managed to double in economic value. And its change in value was not only financial, for the transformation of this place also reflects a transformation in social and value systems. Before it was sold, it represented patriarchy and authority, a limited (“beschränktesten”) or retrograde way of life, yet after its sale, individual authority in a restricted realm gave way to the authority of commodity exchange on a larger financial market. A personal connection to place—memory of the grandfather—gave way to a perception of space as impersonal and economically determined. The home of Goethe’s grandfather became not only a site of exchange (“Waaren- und Marktplatz”) but also an object of exchange itself (he refers to its resale value after the bombardment of late July 1796).

The changed perception of a personal place into an impersonal space intimates larger changes within society such as the transformation from a feudalistic to a capitalistic order. It indicates that with changes in social structures, conceptions of place and space were changing as well. Goethe’s texts reflect the changing conceptions of place and space around 1800. They reflect an important transitional moment in the shift from place to space, in which the distinction between the two concepts becomes fluid. [End Page 23]

Place and Space circa 1800

The end of the eighteenth century witnessed the transformation of concepts of place and space, where place is a unity of human experience and locale and space is a more abstract, impersonal conception, such as Cartesian space. In the gradual move toward modernism, the relation to locale in terms of place gave way to a focus on space, a move that the later nineteenth century would attempt unsuccessfully to reverse. Connection with and immediate experience of locale yielded to displacement and abstraction.

The move toward space at this time is evident in German Romanticism. For example, Bruno Hillebrand describes the idealistic tendencies of Romanticism “als Höhepunkt aller Realitätsferne und damit auch Raum-Entfremdung” (as the culmination of all distance from reality and thus of alienation from space as well).3 In a more recent study, Andrew Cusack argues that from “the metaphysical idea of a world in flux and the insecure and frequently nomadic nature of their lives grew the tendency of the romantics to conceive of themselves as wanderers.”4 In Romanticism, the motif of wandering binds metaphysical insecurity to a tenuous relationship to place. Romanticism reflects a distancing from or defamiliarization of actual places in favor of ideal or abstract spaces.

Kate Rigby links the romantic experience of place to “dislocation, largely in connection with the modernization of agriculture and the beginnings of industrialization at home.”5 Clearly, new developments in the material and conceptual worlds were transforming the concept of place around 1800. Specifically, Germans were becoming more mobile and less bound to a specific place. This was enabled by the comparatively late removal of feudal laws in German lands, laws that reinforced the...