Peter J. Burgard. Idioms of Uncertainty: Goethe and the Essay. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. Pp. x + 250. $35
Deirdre Vincent. Werther’s Goethe and the Game of Literary Creativity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp. 268. $40
Thomas P. Saine, ed. Goethe Yearbook: Publications of the Goethe Society of North America, vol. 7. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. Pp. vi + 305. $56.95
Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Essays on Art and Literature, ed. John Gearey, trans. Ellen von Nardroff & Ernest H. von Nardroff. Vol. 3 of Goethe: The Collected Works, ed. Victor Lange, Eric A. Blackall, & Cyrus Hamlin, 12 vols. New York: Suhrkamp, 1983–89. Vol. 3, 1986. lst paper-back edn., Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. xix + 344. $14.95
Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller. Vol. 12 of Goethe: The Collected Works, ed. Victor Lange, Eric A. Blackall, & Cyrus Hamlin, 12 vols. New York: Suhrkamp, 1983–89. Vol. 12, 1988. lst paper-back edn., Princeton University Press, 1995. Pp. xxi + 344. $14.95

What is the state of scholarship on Goethe in North America? A survey of databases tells us that it is a remarkably active field of research. The MLA Bibliography lists over a thousand studies on Goethe written since 1981, 495 of them with titles from journal articles, 23 from dissertation abstracts, 21 from source collections, 223 from articles in books, and 303 from books, of which 122 are in English. This profile of Goethe is largely literary and primarily shows traditional habits of philology, with some variety found in studies that follow major ideologies of the nineteenth century, the latest trend in literary theory, or the voice of politically correct perspec- tives. This database includes many items across foreign languages and geographical regions; and while it can hardly be considered comprehensive, it does serve as a subjective reflection of topics and approaches considered important to scholars of North America, at least to that community that feels comfortable with an electric cell that favors a literary view of Goethe.

Goethe across academic disciplines is quite another question, for databases such as Psychlit or Historical Abstracts show a much different profile. As one would expect, these put more emphasis on his expository writings, attending to studies that address contributions to the natural and social sciences, to philosophy, art, and history. In Historical Abstracts, for example, there are 91 titles in lists from the last decade, [End Page 93] of which 67 titles come from articles (25 written in English and 21 in German), and 16 come from books (11 in English and 5 in German). There is overlap in the selection of titles defining these various databases, but it is not sufficient to disclaim the argument that the state of Goethe scholarship in North America is fragmented, specialized, and apparently unwilling to avail itself of a cyberspace in which both open and closed parameters of search and exploration are possible.

The Art of Translation

In the literary profile of Goethe from the last decade, one can recognize little innovation that could be called American in origin, save that scholarship that translates Goethe into English. When the studies from the MLA Bibliography are compared to more complete bibliographies, for example, to those from the Goethe Jahrbuch published in Weimar over the same period, American departures from European inspiration seem similar to those of other geographical regions, particularly to those of Japan or Italy, where translations and a version of the French “Explication de texte” also define the scholarship. North Americans share with scholars of other foreign cultures an enthusiasm for Goethe’s writings, and with them participate in transmission of Goethe across cultures with traditional habits of interpretation and translation.

The state of Goethe scholarship in North America is perhaps as it should be: 1) grounded in a range of theoretical styles informed by the European experience; and 2) unique primarily in the translation of Goethe’s texts into English. And what’s new on this front? According to Stuart Atkins, not much, except that by his count certain works, especially Goethe’s Faust, are being translated more than ever, forty times since 1972 (Goethe Yearbook, 7:211). And while he finds that the “reviews of new translations of Goethe’s Faust are largely impressionistic and subjective,” the translations themselves seem to have “considerable or even great literary merit, despite any misunderstanding of Goethe’s German and despite a proclivity for discursive expansion avoided by only one or two translators” (p. 211). Atkins observed, for example, that Martin Greenberg did his recent translation (1992) in a “felicitously idiomatic English” and with it ushered in a “post-recent period of Faust translation” (p. 211). Atkins considers departure from literary merit more the exception than the rule, listing as an example the way Greenberg had Mephistopheles use standard American English, which on occasion he mixed with idiomatic English, as in the use of “ways” for “way” in the line “We’ve got a ways to go” (p. 220).

Atkins has endorsed the state of the art in American translations of Goethe’s Faust. And as master of the art it is his translation of the work that we find in the new edition of Goethe in English, Goethe: The Collected Works, first published in hardback (Suhrkamp, 1983–89), and now available in paperback (Princeton University Press, 1994–95). Guided by an editorial board of senior scholars, Professors Victor Lange, Eric Blackall, and Cyrus Hamlin, the project marks the end of an era that had been dominated largely by German emigrant scholars with little of the English language facility needed for the translation of German texts into English. By measures that respect a scholarship independent from European schools of thought, this collection might be considered the crowning achievement of a scholarship unique to North America.

The twelve-volume collection includes most of the literary works for which he is best known, even though it only scratches the surface of his opus, which in the Weimar edition (1887–1919) includes four parts with a total of 143 volumes, now [End Page 94] also available on CD ROM. 1 Beyond this Weimar edition there are special collections of letters, essays, drafts, outlines, sketches, reviews, drawings, notes, and fragments that continue to expand the source material on Goethe, define the mind of Goethe, sharpen the skills of graduate students, and support scholars with theories of literature. Views about Goethe have become an amorphous collection, which is, as Goethe observed about studies on the Bible in an essay on “Transmission,” 2 an organic composition and at the same time a tradition without order, except for that imposed on it from the outside. What Goethe observed about biblical scholarship seems to mark Goethe scholarship. Especially broad, theoretically organized studies seem eternally one-sided and partisan, to use his favorite expression for scholarship, for each reader knows of another fragment that tells a different version of the same story.

Standing in the Shadows of Phantoms

Burgard’s book about Goethe’s essays follows the theoretical framework of European critics of the essay, including definitions of the genre by Georg Lukacs (1885–1971), Max Bense (1910- ), and Theodor Adorno (1903–69). In a “Digression,” he notes that for all these men the essay is defined as a “predominantly open-ended quality” (p. 18). Uneasy about leaving it to authorities of the past, Burgard asks whether a “system” should be left “open-ended” (pp. 18–21), and appeals to a more recent critic, Manfred Zahn, for whom “open systems are closed after all” (p. 20). Unable to clear himself entirely from the shadows of the past, Burgard takes the path of least resistance and leaves the question, not the genre, open as a “concern” that surfaces regularly in attempts to define the essay as a genre (p. 20). But since the critics cannot agree, we might ask what Goethe had to say about classifications schemes, opened and/or closed?

Goethe discusses “systems” extensively in his scientific writings, particularly where he addresses the notion of defining genres of plants and animals. Indeed, one could even argue that his entire scientific project was designed to explore alternatives to systematics. 3 To this end he wrote an essay on the essay, emphasizing in the title to the work that “der Versuch,” the German word both for an “essay” and an “experiment,” and beyond that for a “venture” or an “endeavor,” namely, that the experiment-essay, was the “mediator of the object and the subject” (Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt). 4 In Goethe’s view, authors of literature and science are a part of their project, be it objects studied in the laboratory or at the desk.

Confusion about the essay begins in the translation of the title to this essay. Indeed, Douglas Miller, editor and translator of Goethe’s Scientific Studies, rendered the title with popular impressions of scientific practice, in which “The Experiment” serves “As Mediator between Object and Subject” (Collected Works, 12:11). Miller removed the “essay” from the “experiment,” substituted the preposition “between” for “von” (of), and with these two sleights of hand introduced a point of view into the essay that suggests the possibility of scientific distance between the author-scientist and the subject under investigation. Goethe’s essay does not say that “The Experiment” is a “Mediator between Object and Subject,” rather that it is “Mediator of Object and Subject,” namely, that the experimenter and writer are one, and as authors they very much become a part of the essay and the experiment. 5 In the particle “of” (von), Goethe protected his science from Newtonian reductionism and saved it for the twentieth-century debate on the place of experimenters in the [End Page 95] results of lab work, both in the technical procedures used and in the ethical obliga- tions deemed implicit in scientific exercises. 6

Beyond Goethe’s essay on the essay, we find in his scientific writings extensive discussion on “systems,” particularly on how they are inadequate to descriptions of an organism because they tend to freeze and exclude objects in time and place. To meet this inadequacy, he invented morphology, the study of form in motion, for in his view “Nothing stands still” (Nichts ist stillstehend [LA, I, 6:vii]), an opening line to his History of Color Theory (Geschichte der Farbenlehre [1810]). Goethe’s search for elusive sutures between bones, for transitions in rock types, patterns of plant growth, and for borders between colors, led him to the discovery of morphology across activities of scientific and artistic expression, including literary genres, which, like scientific ones were always in change. This experience Goethe set to paper in the poem “Permanence in Change” (Dauer im Wechsel [Collected Works,1:168–69]), written in 1803 and translated into English by John Frederick Nims.

But what can we learn from Goethe’s critique of genres that takes us beyond Burgard’s book on how Goethe’s essays function, and on the ways in which they illustrate current theories of deconstructionism? It might be instructive to note that Goethe’s study of form was not functional, and more than cautiously opposed prescriptive approaches to the study of life. 7 Goethe’s way of thinking is usually described by Germans as “graphic thinking” (gegenständliches Denken), in other traditions it is described as phenomenology; in either case Goethe’s interest is understood to lie in a language that is visual.

In Goethe’s postscientific years after 1810, when he practiced more philosophy of science than science, Goethe argued that morphology, the study of form in motion, was a talent that could not be transferred because of the paradox that existed between the constructs of our mind and the continuity of nature. In a short essay called “Problem and Response” (Problem und Erwiderung [LA, I, 9:295–306]) included in his notebooks on morphology from 1817, Goethe reflected on the process of extrapolating form in nature, observing that the study of morphology could not be systematized, because “nature has no system” (Natur hat kein System [p. 295]). In his view life processes emerge “from an unknown center” (aus einem unbekannten Zentrum) and they evolve “into an unrecognizable border” (zu einer nicht erkennbaren Grenze [p. 295]). He had developed the idea of morphology as a means to study the elusive forms of nature, but that did not mean he believed he had found reality in this approach. He thought morphology was the art of bridging the gap between constructs of our mind and the real world. Goethe did not pretend that his images of nature were real; he knew they were virtual.

In this essay on the paradox of morphology, he proposed that it was an art grounded in a “gift” (Gabe [p. 295]) which the scientist used to give shape to chaos and disorder. With this “gift” Goethe had defined borders and transitions in nature, but this did not mean the paradox between form and matter was solved. Indeed, in this essay he argued the opposite, namely, that a talent for extrapolating form was “a dangerous gift” (eine gefährliche Gabe [p. 295]), because of the human inclination to move from nature to systems in a denial of the paradox, and often with the destructive belief that the image was more real than virtual. Here, in a reflective mood, the older Goethe was skeptical about formalizing an approach to morphology, observing that the reduction of talent to an “artificial procedure” (künstliches Verfahren [p. 296]) was in itself recourse to an abstraction and a departure from reality. And, he continued, even if one could arrive at “a symbolism” (eine Symbolik [p. 296]) for a doctrine of morphology, who besides the author would recognize it, much less act it out?

Goethe did not see a resolution to the paradox, but he did offer a response to [End Page 96] the problem. In the closing lines of the essay, he advised that, rather than formalizing the procedure for extrapolating form, that is, rather than systematizing a visual process for understanding life, individuals should learn to listen to nature (ablauschen [p. 297]), for only in this way do we avoid making her obstinate by our “prescriptions” (Vorschriften) and being led astray by her “caprice” (Willkür [p. 297]). This is the lesson framed in the poem “Permanence in Change” (Collected Works, 1:168–69), where change is as much in us as around us and in the end leaves us grateful for only one thing, the muse that moves us to shape and form a world without borders. If there is a programmatic message in Goethe’s writings on form and function, it would be that we avoid the imposition of formal abstractions and invite the anxiety of form in motion.

Re-dreaming the Poet’s Dream

Deirdre Vincent’s book examines the sources of Goethe’s inspirations for writing, and rewriting, Werther (1st edn., 1774, 2nd edn.,1787), following a trend in German scholarship to look more closely at the biographical and aesthetic evolution of Goethe’s literary works. As background analysis Vincent lists traditional beliefs and assumptions about the personal life of Goethe and his story about Werther, including the notion that he “wrote the whole Werther-trauma out of his system in 1774,” that in Weimar Goethe “swiftly came to endorse and actively support the value system of the aristocracy,” and that Göschen publishers wanted a new version (1787) “because of the proliferation of inferior, pirated editions” (p. 8). Vincent sees a much more detailed process in the similarities and differences between the two stories, both from a biographical and a literary point of view.

For her analysis Vincent proposes to study: 1) Goethe’s relationship to Charlotte von Stein, which began after the first version was written; 2) his penchant for writing and rewriting, a habit of origins early in life; 3) the changes he made in the second version of the story; and, finally, 4) the instruction for writing as a process gained from study of how Goethe wrote Werther. She hopes in these chapters not to argue for one version over another, but to suggest a “new reading” that would “open our minds to possibilities,” such as the possibility of a “sound aesthetic evaluation of the later version” (p. 13). Added to the four chapters of the book there is a short appendix of textual changes found in the second edition of Werther (pp. 259–60), and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources used for further study (pp. 261–68). For a quick overview of the question of Werther’s evolution, one might also review the Doris Bonz edition of Die Leiden des jungen Werther (Stuttgart: Klett, 1979), a textbook version well suited for German-language classroom use in the American college. This edition includes “Materialien” with background on the study of comparative versions of Werther taken from Georg Jäger’s essay on “Die Werther- wirkung. Ein rezeptionsästhetischer Modellfall” (1972). 8

Vincent argues that the author played “hide and seek with his readers and critics” by interpreting his own works with misleading comments (p. 4), and that in his “love of secrecy were very specific notions about how he wished to be read” (p. 5). It may be that Goethe was very secretive about his love life, especially in the days of his youth and in the early stages of his career in Weimar, but he hardly ever hesitated setting forth clearly documented parameters of how he wanted his works organized, published, and understood. Beyond the intertextuality of literary texts that have been examined with ruthless precision, one might look at the linkages among illustrations from the Corpus der Goethe Zeichnungen (1958–76), 9 Essays on [End Page 97] Art and Literature (Collected Works, vol. 3), and Scientific Studies (Collected Works, vol. 12), in this way finding new ways of harmonizing the whole person of Goethe as poet, artist, and scientist. Thus, literary scholars might benefit from the research of Hermann Bräuning-Oktavio, who demonstrated that factors other than playing hide-and-seek with his audience were at work in Goethe’s publication record, 10 particularly in his scientific writings. Delayed publication, rewritten versions, and the transformations from outlines to drafts to print were conditioned by new demands of professional expertise, expectations of the guild, techniques for visual illustration, and generally by an emerging community of specialized technocrats, who he at times thought conspired against amateurs not privileged with the support of an emerging class of professionals positioned in the academy. In some cases Goethe delayed publication of research for over thirty-five years, as in his analysis of the puzzle of the temple at Pozzuoli near Naples, for which he kept notes, worked on sketches, and procured artists for illustration from 1787 to 1817 before publishing the results in an essay on an “architectonic-natural history problem” (Architektonisch- Naturhistorisches Problem [LA, I, 8:333–39]).

Dissecting the Author

Writers for the Goethe Yearbook (vol. 7, 1994) follow the general scholarly trend to pose clearly, sometimes narrowly, focused questions about an author’s literary works. In the first three of the twelve essays in this volume, scholars examine Goethe’s works from the perspective of social history, including Becker-Cantarino’s view of “witches” and “infanticide” in Faust, Mahlendorf’s study of “child abuse” in Wilhelm Meister, and Tantillo’s essay on “balancing the budget” in Die Wahlverwandtschaften. The next four essays, by Rindisbacher, Hillenbrand, Lillyman, and Elsaghe discuss the literary practices of specific works by Goethe. Beyond this research on the literary life of Goethe, there are five studies on the works, events, and people around Goethe, some from the same period, such as Rowland’s essay on “Autotextuality in Wieland,” Hammerstein’s study of “Dichterin Mereau als Frau der...Liebe und Revolution,” Otto’s transcription of a letter from an “Urfreund.” And finally there are a couple of studies of Goethe influence: McCarthy’s essay on “Emerson in Germany,” and Bahr’s discussion of “Havel’s Faust Drama.”

The quotations in the Yearbook are given in German without English translation, and nearly half of the essays are written entirely in German, including one by a native speaker of English. In the “Editor’s Note,” writers and readers of the Yearbook are encouraged to understand the acronyms for the various editions, and are explicitly discouraged from using (HA), the popular student edition commonly referred to as “the Hamburger Ausgabe.” No advice is offered for quotations in translation from single or collected editions.

For all their impressiveness, the essays in this volume fragment the writings of Goethe, and neglect his personal concerns as an author, scientist, critic, and poet. Had witches been of interest to Goethe as a problem of social history, he would have addressed the question in some form of expository writing, as he did the meta- phoric value of money as gold, silver, copper, and paper. Also, a narrowly focused essay on child abuse obscures the larger picture of dysfunctional family life that he portrayed across his masterpieces. Hillenbrand’s discussion of sexual freedom as in one particular work of Goethe’s, the Roman Elegies, is not only separated from discussion of other kinds of freedom in Goethe’s writings, but also bears the implicit suggestion that such freedom was Goethe’s invention. Yet Goethe’s Roman Elegies, [End Page 98] dating from 1786–88, derive from his experiences in Italy, at the dawn of the French Revolution; hence his sense of sexual freedom seems connected to other kinds of freedom, kinds expressed in his drama on Egmont, for example, or his understanding of Palladio’s Rotunda as an embodiment of the principles of democracy. And beyond this we wonder about more significant and powerful treatments of freedom by contemporaries such as Herder and Schiller, especially as formulated by the latter in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, where he advocates freedom from the marketplace and the church square.

The special interests of Goethe scholars in North America follow very specific fault lines, often leaving gaps that distort the whole Goethe. One line of inquiry seriously in need of study is the connection between Goethe and the Naturphilosophen that the transcendentalists once framed, and now, with our renewed interest in holistic, organic perspectives, again needs examination. Properly understood, Goethe might add much to our appreciation of “Green Romanticism.” Our histories of environmentalism are narrowly anglocentric and in need of scholars able to read German, or at least willing to look across the disciplines embedded in the twelve- volume edition of Goethe: The Collected Works. Here the literary scholar will also discover a Goethe who did not isolate his Werther from nature, and one who found more ways of integrating than separating thoughts about human connections to art, poetry, and science. With the low cost of this edition and the various databases that list research across disciplines there is hope for new ways of examining the author as a whole person. It was from this perspective that he wrote his dictum: “If one has claimed: the style of an author is the whole man, how much more should not the whole person contain the whole author,” or phrased more poetically, “If you wish to understand, / Travel in the poet’s land.” 11

Karl J. Fink
St. Olaf College


1. Goethes Werke, 4 pts., 133 vols. in 143 (Weimar: Böhlau, 1887–1919), also on CD ROM (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995).

2. See his essay on “Uberliefertes,” in Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre, ed. Dorothea Kuhn, in Die Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft, ed. R. Matthaei, W. Troll, and K. L. Wolf, 2 pts. 11 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1947- ), I, 6:88–92. This edn. is commonly called the Leopoldina-Ausgabe and abbreviated as LA.

3. See James Larson, Interpreting Nature: The Science of Living Form from Linnaeus to Kant (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ., 1994), for discussion of the transition in 18th-century biology from classification schemes of natural order to the dynamics of form in diversity and variety.

4. Goethe, “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt,” in Naturwissenschaftliche Hefte, ed. Dorothea Kuhn (LA, I, 8:305–15).

5. See, e.g., James van der Laan, “Of Goethe, Essays, and Experiments,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 64 (1990): 44–53, who followed the standard translation but emphasized the subjectivity embedded in the philosophy of this essay.

6. See David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1989).

7. Maura C. Flannery, “Goethe and Arber: Unity in Diversity,” American Biology Teacher 57 (1995): 544–47, makes the point that Goethe, like Agnes Arber (1879–1960) after him, was “what E. S. Russell (1916) called a ‘formal morphologist,’ that is, interested in the study of form for its own sake,” which Russell contrasted with 1) disintegrative morphology that focuses on a single isolated organism and with 2) functional morphology where emphasis is on “how” the structure is used (p. 546).

8. In Historizität in Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft. Vorträge und Berichte der Stuttgarter Germanistentagung 1972, ed. Walter Müller-Seidel (Munich: Fink, 1974), pp. 395–97.

9. Gerhard Femmel, ed., Corpus der Goethe Zeichnungen, 10 vols. in 7 (Leipzig: Seemann, 1958–76).

10. Bräuning-Oktavio, “Goethes Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften und die Freiheit von Forschung und Lehre,” in Jahrbuch des freien deutschen Hochstifts 1982, ed. Detlev Lüders (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1982), pp. 110–215.

11. Trans. by the author from Goethe, Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre: “wenn man behauptet hat: schon der Stil eines Schriftstellers sei der ganze Mann, wie vielmehr sollte nicht der ganze Mensch den ganzen Schriftsteller enthalten” (LA, I, 6:ix), and from Goethe, Noten und Abhandlungen zu besserem Verständnis des West-östlichen Divans, in Goethe. Poetische Werke (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1979): “Wer den Dichter will verstehen, Muß in Dichters Lande gehen” (3:161).

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