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MLN 119.3 (2004) 409-430

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From Goethe's Weimar to Hess' Zion:

Remapping a Literary History Through Textual Configurations of Sexuality

University of Colorado, Boulder

Although the relationship between German Jews and the German literary canon would seem to be ambivalent at best, a selection of remarks by German Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century might suggest otherwise. "Above all, through a study of Goethe one discovers one's Jewish substance."1 This observation by Ludwig Strauss in 1914, an observation shared as well by Walter Benjamin, underscores the complex but equally rich role the Weimar poet played in attempts by German Jews to arrive at some form of self-definition. The Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld proposed that a Jew "who had made Goethe a part of his life would soon thereafter acquire a Jewish national consciousness."2 The oddness of these positions is underscored when we consider that Goethe had on occasion voiced some rather unkind comments about the Jews of Frankfurt. That Blumenfeld, in his enthusiasm for Goethe, also throws Fichte, a German but certainly not a Jewish nationalist, into the mix only accentuates the highly paradoxical, if not troubled, relationship of this group of [End Page 409] German Jewish contemporaries to the German cultural canon. The curious terms of that relationship are most enigmatically framed by Gershom Scholem, who asserted in 1915 that "Hölderlin is the only authentic Zionist."3 Writing to Scholem in 1917, Benjamin began to unravel the mystery of that relationship. He posited that Jew and German relate to each other through genius, whether poetic or philosophical, "from opposed but related extremes."4 In other words, the historically divergent fates of these two groups must nonetheless intersect somewhere or someplace.

In his short but seminal work German Jews Beyond Judaism, George Mosse attempts to trace and map out those extremes. His starting point is roughly that of Benjamin's: the late eighteenth century, when the concepts of "genius" and "Bildung" are introduced into the German cultural vocabulary to indicate moments or spaces when and where cultural and religious differences are overcome by appeal to a transcendental or Kantian subject. "Bildung" for Mosse is what transports Jews beyond Judaism, but for certain German Jews this going beyond is a "Bildung" or building up of a different sort. A new horizon of early Zionism appears that defines Jewishness in terms of a national consciousness. What is needed to understand this formation, which is paradoxically both beyond and central to Judaism, are geographical coordinates to delimit the political imagination and situate the "opposed and related extremes" of Zion and Germany. Once "Bildung" can no longer be considered a vehicle of trans-nationalism, it must be tied to a particular place. Its ties are not necessarily racial, nor must they invoke notions of blood and soil. Nonetheless, "Bildung" remains curiously geographically situated. More than just situated, it persists in being oriented somewhere.

No orientation is possible, however, without extremes. And there is no more prevalent definition of the extremes of "cultural orientation" than "orientation" itself suggests: East and West, or, in the [End Page 410] charged but relevant terms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Aryan and Semitic. If, as Benjamin states, those extremes are indeed related, they must meet somewhere. And the topography of that relation, which like all extreme relations never loses its sexual character, is the subject of this paper. Where does that which is beyond Judaism, and is fostered by the "German" tradition of Goethe, Fichte and Hölderlin, encounter that which is outside Germany?5

My answer, which is less an answer and more a guide for research, is that the site of this encounter is the very space outside Germany that gave it access to Hellenism and simultaneously fostered the opposition of the Hellenic to the Hebraic, the same site that affirmed "Bildung" not as a possession but as an on-going activity, as striving. Or, in short, Italy.

My paper thus presents an analysis of Goethe's Italian journeys and...


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