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Imagining the Age of Goethe in German Literature, 1970–2010 by John D. Pizer (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 297-298 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0015

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It is not often that a study provides us with such a winning examination of the underpinnings of authorial thinking and literary movements that so directly connect two centuries as distantly separated as the eighteenth and twentieth happen to be. Yet John Pizer has managed to elucidate something new about the Goethezeit and its direct relation to the literature of our time. To be sure, there are a few nuts to crack here. For example, while the title of this book seems to indicate that its scope reaches well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, its primary focus actually is the literature of pre-unification Germany and particularly that of pre-unification DDR literature.

The linchpin for Pizer’s study is the so-called Wolf Biermann affair. Biermann was a dyed-in-the-wool communist who expressed his views in such outlandishly nonconformist ways that in 1976 the authorities finally summarily stripped him of his East German citizenship. The result was an intellectual revolt on both sides of the iron curtain on his behalf. Artists of every stripe, particularly in the East, balked at the DDR’s patriarchal attitude, which increased rigid oversight of intellectuals and dissidents—real or imagined. The result, Pizer insists, was a blossoming of completely new fiction and nonfiction literature in which the Eastern artists found rebellious kindred spirits in romantic writers of the past such as Kleist, Günderrode, Brentano, Hölderlin, and others. Perhaps to complete the literary metaphor, their natural nineteenth-century antipode became Goethe, who seemed to represent the authoritarian status quo and whose portrayal in newer works collectively took on ever more sinister overtones as time went by.

Pizer argues that the trend toward using the lives of the romantic authors in order to articulate the Left’s complaints in the seventies and eighties was not solely a political initiative but rather encompassed all manner of nonconformist social views, especially including feminist ones. In fact, the new literature universally championed works as diverse as those of Günter Kunert in the East and Günter Grass in the West. To Pizer’s mind, Christa Wolf’s Kein Ort, Nirgends in particular is the apotheosis of what the literature hoped to achieve. Be that as it may, what actually resulted was an intriguing reimagining of the lives, loves, and peccadilloes of romantic novelists, playwrights, and poets through the prism of the modern socialist Left, particularly in the DDR before its collapse.

As noted too, Goethe was portrayed in increasingly negative ways and sometimes rather savagely. In short, he seemed to represent the more conservative, aristocratic perspective in nineteenth-century German society. What people had historically considered as an otherwise noble personage devolved into a convenient foil in the minds of the new writers—an authoritarian figure of power and stature who perfectly reflected the authoritarian powers that suppressed them. Then too, of course, Goethe was always an easy target for criticism because of his well-known personal failings as the distant brother to his sister Cornelia, the perfidious lover to Charlotte von Stein, the tyrannical husband to his wife Christiane, and the aloof father to his son August. Thus, while authors such as Thomas Mann and Peter Hacks viewed him more positively in the years immediately following the Second World War, others consciously chose not to see him in the same light. Johanna Hoffmann in Charlotte von Stein, for example, portrays Goethe as a tactless egoist. Sigrid Damm in Cornelia Goethe pictures him from a feminist point of view as something of a cold, uncaring, and perhaps even evil brother. Martin Walser strikes a similar tone in In Goethes Hand and shows him to be an egotistical manipulator of poor Johann Peter Eckermann, as does Jens Sparschuh in Der große Coup, where Eckermann’s diary entries and correspondence would have us believe that the great man was little more than “an insecure, cynical, deeply pessimistic, often petty tyrant” (133).

Chapter 5, the last chapter of the book, engages other Enlightenment literature in the same manner, but frankly it seems the weakest chapter of the book since it takes on too great a topic in too little space and...



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