restricted access Constructions of Goethe versus Constructions of Kant in German Intellectual Culture, 1900–1925
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Constructions of Goethe versus Constructions of Kant in German Intellectual Culture, 1900–1925

Reconfiguring Goethe

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Goethe scholarship found itself in a charged and complex state of affairs.1 The defining philological undertaking of Wilhelm Scherer and his generation reached its culmination in 1919 with the completion of the monumental Weimarer Ausgabe of Goethe’s works, yet for an emerging generation of critics, the driving conviction of Scherer’s positivist school—namely that empirically founded philology would yield the most valid and authentic insights regarding Goethe and his work—had gradually lost much of its power to convince. “Eine Fülle von Tatsachen und Material ist aufgehäuft worden,” went one critic’s response, “aber das Vermögen zur Synthese hat in keiner Weise damit Schritt halten können” (A wealth of facts and material has been amassed, but the capacity for synthesis has in no way been able to keep up).2 As the ethos that had produced this philological landmark was declared inadequate, a vocal set of critics in Germany began instead to embrace the diametrically opposed, highly speculative and vitalistic sensibilities of Neuromantik (neo-Romanticism). Rather than an emphasis on text, one witnessed the emergence of a post-Nietzschean interest in mythical, heroic constructions of key symbolic historical personalities—one may think, for example, of the George Circle’s lionizing of individuals such as Caesar, Frederick the Great, and, of course, Nietzsche himself.

Hand in hand with these changes in literary scholarship, the figure of Goethe underwent extraordinary transformations starting around 1900. Having become an irreplaceable symbolic pillar of the new German nation-state after 1871, Goethe was now energetically refashioned into an icon for an ever bolder yet deeply unstable Wilhelmine Germany. As literary criticism became less empirical, as philosophy (especially under the rubric of Lebensphilosophie) became more irrationalist, and as political sentiment gained ever greater influence over intellectual culture, Goethe, as a paragon of post-Enlightenment thinking, emerged as a model for the new postpositivist mind-sets. Literary critics became openly disdainful of thought that limited itself to what was merely documentable and invested themselves in what could or should be discerned in such foundational personalities; at the [End Page 157] same time, Goethe commentary began to be intellectualized in ways that decidedly overstepped the strictures of literary scholarship: “Die wissenschaftliche Beschäftigung mit Goethe,” writes Karl Robert Mandelkow, “war . . . aus dem Ghetto der Philologie entlassen und wurde zum Gegenstand aller Wissenschaftsdisziplinen” (Mandelkow 2:23; The scholarly treatment of Goethe was freed from the ghetto of philology and became subject matter for all scholarly disciplines).

To be sure, some updating may well have been due, for by the turn of the twentieth century, the figure of Goethe had come to look precisely the way the late nineteenth century had chosen to construe him: as an imposing figure from the past. In 1899, neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband articulated this sense vividly:

Wer aus den Thoren Roms hinauspilgert in die Campagna, den Bergen zu, der sieht alle die Mauern und Türme, die Kuppeln und Spitzen mehr und mehr verschwimmen und verschwinden: und schließlich, wenn die ewige Stadt nur noch wie eine einzige Masse daliegt, dann wölbt sich über ihr, allbeherrschend, die Eine gewaltige Kuppel von St. Peter. So geht es uns mit der zeitlichen Entfernung von Goethe. Je weiter wir von jener größten Zeit der deutschen Kulturgeschichte abkommen, in der um die Wende des vorigen und dieses Jahrhunderts unser Volk seine verlorene Nationalität sich geistig neu geschaffen hat, um so beherrschender erhebt sich daraus für unsern Rückblick in unvergleichlicher Mächtigkeit die Gestalt Goethes—eine Welt für sich, die alles umfaßt und alles überragt.3

[Whoever makes the pilgrimage from the gates of Rome out into the Campagna and toward the mountains sees all the walls and towers, the domes and steeples, blurring and disappearing more and more into the distance. And finally, when the Eternal City has become an indistinguishable mass, there looms imperiously over it the one mighty dome of St. Peter’s. So it is for us with the temporal distance from Goethe. The further...