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  • Goethe's Backpack
  • Roberto M. Dainotto (bio)

Overload. noun. a. An excessive load or burden; too great a load.

The civilized man... has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory: his libraries overload his wit...

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

The peasants at the Italian border, who saw him coming one sunny day of 1679, might have taken it for an understatement. But for John Cecil, Fifth Count of Exeter, it was simply "my luggage": seven coaches, 80 suitcases, one wife, little heir John aged five, two tutors, two bodyguards, a chaplain, five maids, 14 waiters, and around 30 horses well curried and fed (Pagano de Divitiis 127). If such procession was meant "not so much as a safety precaution, but as ostentatious display of the traveler's social standing and wealth" (De Seta 33), the message for those Italian peasants must have then been loud and clear: the count was a wannabe, a social climber still far from the elevated condition of the famous Bishop of Bamberg, who, pastoral humilities aside, "had brought from Germany, at his following, one hundred and thirty servants; throughout Italy, he had then collected fifty more" (Maczak 120). Accustomed to such images of touristy showiness, a following generation of peasants, sitting slothfully at the same Italian border, was, quite obviously, unable to fit the 37-year-old stranger, so "unprepared and alone" (Goethe, Journey 123), into their preconceived image of "The Tourist": they "looked me over," Johann Wolfgang von Goethe recounts, and "showed some signs of indignation" (ibid., 44).

The historical sympathy between the middle and the rural classes, which had so proudly been accomplished by a young Werther on vacation in the countryside,1 was not working, for some reasons, in Italy as well: "I can boast of being, like yourself, the citizen of a republic" (46), [End Page 6] we hear Goethe imploring in search of empathy—to no avail. Language—the Italians "spoke Venetian dialect which I hardly understand" (44)—must have been the problem, because far from Goethe's mind was the idea of stirring their indignation. When he had left Carlsbad on the "misty, calm and beautiful" morning of September 3, 1786, still "under the influence of the iconoclastic movement that Rousseau had unloosed" (Naumann 191), convinced of "the natural goodness of man spoiled by culture" (Neumeyer 187), and imagining Italy as "the last Thule of European civilization, both for geographical and for cultural reasons" (De Seta 199), Goethe, in fact, was looking for nothing other than those very rustic men—"simple realities of human beings" (Journey 54), true "children of Nature" (145)—whose idyllic simplicity he had long cherished and dreamed of in the books of Theocritus and Rousseau.

"The idyllic dream of the first men living out of doors and retiring to caves only in an emergency is a reality here" (123), Goethe was to notice soon about Italy. Idyllic peasants were the object of his admiration, and—if only they could understand!—he had come as their sympathetic friend and student, they had nothing to fear or be indignant about...After all, their pastoral humility was the positive antithesis to all the "environmental mediocrity" (Placanica 23) he had had to endure at Weimar's ducal palace. "It is necessary that I leave," he had written to Charlotte von Stein with a sense of urgency and inevitability on September 2 (quoted in Chiusano 148). He left that mediocrity on the next day, making sure that the way he left it would not replicate mediocrity's own logic. He left, in other words, not like yet another peer of the realm,2 but like a modest—if suspiciously so—Romantic wanderer. A representative and respected member of a rising German bourgeoisie, Goethe was no...


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