Administration and its Vicissitudes: Contingency, Crisis, and Failure in Justus Möser’s “Kurze Geschichte der Bauerhöfe” and Goethe’s Faust II


This essay argues that Möser’s “Kurze Geschichte der Bauerhöfe” in Patriotische Phantasien (1774) provides Goethe with a literary model of administration that he reverses with the land reclamation project in Faust II, where Faust’s individual ambitions counter Möser’s example of collective effort on behalf of the common good. The sea is central to both texts. In Möser’s story, property owners prudently protect their land from watery encroachment. Faust, on the other hand, famously seeks to win land from the sea at any cost. The texts also differ in their approach to contingencies—judicious in Möser, violent in Faust II—as well as their critique of administrative practice. With respect to the latter, Möser focuses on administration in general, while Goethe emphasizes Faust’s role as the senior administrator. In the end, however, both texts find common ground in the catastrophic failure of their respective projects. Drawing on correspondence, literary texts, “political fables,” and official writings as well as the discourses of mining and political economy, this article examines Möser’s contribution to the representation of contingency, crisis, and failure in Faust II in order to show how Goethe combines the practical with the aesthetic and the economic in his “Hauptgeschäft.” (WHC)