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  • Goethe and Twentieth-Century Theory: An Introduction
  • Angus Nicholls

The purpose of this special section—originally conceived as a series of panels sponsored by the Goethe Society of North America and held at the 2007 German Studies Association Meeting in San Diego—is necessarily more modest and less sweeping that its title may suggest. Its central research question is Goethe’s impact and influence upon twentieth-century “theory,” with that term being broadly understood to encompass not simply literary theory but also philosophy (at least in its continental, in this particular case German, manifestations). An explicit aim of the panels was deliberately to avoid readings of Goethe’s works according to various theoretical paradigms. An extensive examination of the twentieth-century German (not Anglophone) reception history of Goethe’s works, including some but not all of the theoretical dimensions of this reception, has already been undertaken by Karl Robert Mandelkow in the second volume of his Goethe in Deutschland: Rezeptionsgeschichte eines Klassikers.1

Unlike the approach of Mandelkow, these panels aimed to explore not how Goethe was interpreted by, but rather how he shaped twentieth-century theoretical discourses. It soon became clear, however, that the question of Goethe’s impact on theory cannot be separated from his reception through it, since these two questions constitute two sides of the same coin. Nonetheless, the predominant emphasis here is on impact and influence rather than on reception. Selected from the three panels that were convened—the first devoted to “The Life of Goethe and Its Relation to the Canon,” the second to “Goethe and Twentieth-Century Philosophy” and the third to “Debates in Twentieth-Century Theory”—the four papers in this special section can present only key instances of a subject which would require one or perhaps even several volumes to be treated exhaustively. What follows is thus a modest contribution to an important research question in Goethe studies.

Since a good deal of the twentieth-century German theoretical reception of Goethe has been covered by Mandelkow’s study, in this introduction I shall confine myself to the question as to what the term “theory” actually meant in late twentieth-century Anglophone Goethe Studies. Or, to put this question another way, how did it resonate? One of the most direct late twentieth-century Anglophone engagements with the question of Goethe’s relation to theory can be found in the inaugural lecture delivered at Oxford University in 1989 by the current President of the English Goethe Society, T. J. Reed.2 [End Page 163] The title of this lecture—“Nobody’s Master”: Goethe and the Authority of the Writer, With a Reflection on Anti-Literary Theory—already functions as something like a statement of intent. The first part of its title is of course taken from one of Goethe’s best known contributions, if not to “literary theory” in our modern or post-modern senses of that term, then at least to the subject of literary composition: his “Ein Wort für junge Dichter,” which the editors of the Münchner Ausgabe describe as a “Resümee und Testament zugleich” (MA 18.2:988). As Reed’s title notes, the elderly Goethe (writing in 1832) insists in this short statement that, in terms of his own place within the then still nascent national literature of the German–speaking territories, he was a “Meister von Niemand.” A Meister, writes Goethe,

ist derjenige unter dessen Anleitung wir uns in einer Kunst fortwährend üben, und welcher uns, wie wir nach und nach zur Fertigkeit gelangen, stufenweise die Grundsätze mitteilt, nach welchen handelnd, wir das ersehnte Ziel am sichersten erreichen.

(MA 18.2:219)

Such a definition of mastery would have suggested to Goethe the prescriptive aesthetics of Neo-Classicism against which the Sturm und Drang movement had rebelled. As Katrin Kohl also notes in her contribution to this section, Goethe insists that he was the Befreier of German literature rather than its Meister, since the junge Dichter of his age

sind an mir gewahr geworden, daß, wie der Mensch von innen heraus leben, der Künstler von innen heraus wirken müsse; indem er, gebärde er sich wie er will, immer nur sein...


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