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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 630-637

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Book Review

Goethe über alles. Recent Books on Parallel Lives

Karin Barton
Waterloo, Ontario

Nicholas Boyle. Goethe. The Poet and the Age. Volume II: Revolution and Renunciation (1790-1803) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Pp. xiv + 949. $48.00 cloth.

Sigrid Damm. Christiane und Goethe. Eine Recherche (Frankfurt/M., Leipzig: Insel, 1998). Pp. 541. DM 49.80 cloth.

Rebekka Habermas, ed. Das Frankfurter Gretchen. Der Prozeß gegen die Kindsmörderin Susanna Margaretha Brandt (München: C. H. Beck, 1999). Pp. 304. DM 48.00 cloth.

Jochen Schmidt. Goethes Faust. Erster und Zweiter Teil. Grundlagen--Werk--Wirkung (München: C. H. Beck, 1999). Pp. 383. DM 39.80 cloth

Eugene L. Stelzig. The Romantic Subject in Autobiography: Rousseau and Goethe(Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000). Pp. 288. $45.00 cloth

The avalanche of publications in honor of his 250th birthday (in 1999) serves as a poignant reminder that more can be and has been known and recorded about the life of Goethe than most people would care to remember about their own. In his preface to the first installment of what threatens to become the largest Goethe biography ever, the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle aptly called the "secular sage" of Weimar the "supreme product" of the passing age of paper. Adding another substantial amount of printed matter to the 1991 Poetry of Desire (1749-90), the long-awaited second volume brings no closure. The request of an American journalist--"Make it three volumes! Goethe deserves it" (viii)--is a proposition Boyle reports as blithely as if he were announcing another Harry Potter. Much of the bulk of volume II can be attributed to the fact that Goethe's private and public life as poet, artist, stage director, scientist, politician, and cultural critic fully engaged in the social and political turmoil of the period, provide an almost endless supply of material. The aftermath of the political and philosophical revolutions in France and Königsberg are the focus of this volume. From the transformation of revolutionary France to its repercussions in the German states, and the impact of Kant's critical philosophy on German Idealism and Romanticism, Boyle sets the stage for Goethe by telling us who thought what, when, and why during this fourteen-year span commonly known as Goethe's "classical period." One of the strongest features of Boyle's approach is that he surmounts the various obstacles generations of German scholars have left standing throughout the entire sweep of Goethe scholarship. Boyle confesses to not having found the term "classical" particularly useful and dismisses it once and for all by never mentioning it again. Similarly, not everybody will appreciate Boyle's wickedly clever portraits of some contemporaries with whom Goethe shared some fortuitous affinities: Friedrich Schlegel appears as "Coleridge without the poetry," "gifted with a tongue sharper than his mind," and "angered perhaps by his lack of a last degree of brilliance which he could none the less envisage" (398). Obviously, much space is dedicated to the uneasy but productive relationship with Schiller [End Page 630] and its mutually "problematic, even predatory, undertones" (226). According to Boyle, Schiller inherited the role previously occupied by Charlotte von Stein, lacked Goethe's "subtle literary sense," and had his "intellectual perspective [. . .] limited rather than liberated by the Kantian system" (392).

The emphasis on Kant is heavy and even exaggerated at times throughout this volume: "the theory that goodness consists [. . .] in putting one's moral duty above any other consideration or inclination--is that of Kant" (319), Boyle concludes with regard to Goethe's Conversations of German Émigrés, where the chaplain supposedly "insists that morality must be understood in Kantian terms" (320). But with no idealist philosophy--Platonic, Christian, or otherwise--teaching anything else, it is somewhat difficult to share Boyle's surprise that Schiller "did not respond at all when Goethe gave Kantianism a dominant position in the Conversations" (319). It appears as if German idealism sprang fully formed from the head of Kant into the befuddled mind of Goethe, an awakening...


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