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PAUL FLEMING The Promises of Childhood: Autobiography in Goethe and Jean Paul The observation and inscription of one's own childhood always comes too late. Unlike the study of child development or child behavior, the writing of one's own past necessarily falls under the rubric of belatedness. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy exemplifies one dilemma of this law of autobiographical belatedness: as Tristram fiercely strives to write to the present, each stroke of the pen dedicated to the past and each detail secured only further remove him from his goal. In writing his past, Tristram only falls further behind the present time. Goethe's Aus meinem Leben. Dichtung und Wahrheit and Jean Paul's Selberlebensbeschreibung avoided Sterne's paradox of the ever-proceeding present: Goethe commenced his autobiographical project in 1811 and intended to write only up to his move to Weimar in 1775; time relieved Jean Paul of this problem—he died before he could finish writing the twelfth year of his life. Both Goethe and Jean Paul were confronted, however, with a series of other questions intrinsic to the belatedness of autobiography, particularly of the childhood years before one could write, before one kept a record of oneself , and before the thought ever arose that one, in the words of Goethe,"sich selbst historisch wird."1 Where does recollection end and fiction or fantasy begin? How does historical narration relate to literary narration, especially when a certain claim to accuracy is made? More decisively, what does childhood —especially when it may well be one's fiction of childhood—signify for the now adult writer? That is, how does one read and interpret one's own childhood into one's present self-understanding? At stake in Goethe's and Jean Paul's autobiographical efforts is not merely the hermeneutic question concerning the continuity of the self, but also the attendant question of the literary form required for presenting such a self with all its promises—both broken and kept. Dichtung, Wahrheit Both Goethe and Jean Paul culled their diaries and called upon friends to provide them with information, memories, descriptions, arid insights into their lives and surroundings. With all his materials in place, Goethe industriously brought the first three volumes to a robust completion, beginning with the Goethe Yearbook XIV (2007) 28 Paul Fleming cosmic constellation over his birth and moving through the stages of his life in the anticipated autobiographical I-form. Goethe, however, was all too aware of the public's expectations regarding such a project and, more so, of their doubts. In a letter to Zelter from December 17, 1829, Goethe directly addressed the fears associated with autobiography: Was den freilich einigermaßen paradoxen Titel . . . Wahrheit und Dichtung betrifft , so ward derselbige durch die Erfahrung veranlaßt, daß das Publikum immer an der Wahrhaftigkeit solcher biographischen Versuche einigen Zweifel hege. Diesem zu begegnen, bekannte ich mich zu einer Art von Fiktion, gewisserma ßen ohne Not, durch einen gewissen Widerspruchs-Geist getrieben, denn es war mein ernstestes Bestreben das eigentliche Grundwahre, das, insofern ich es einsah, in meinem Leben obgewaltet hatte, möglichst darzustellen und auszudrücken. Wenn aber ein solches in späteren Jahren nicht möglich ist, ohne die Rückerinnerung und also die Einbildungskraft wirken zu lassen, und man also immer in den Fall kommt gewissermaßen das dichterische Vermögen auszuüben, so ist es klar, daß man mehr die Resultate und, wie wir uns das Vergangene jetzt denken, als die Einzelnheiten, wie sie sich damals ereigneten, aufstellen und hervorheben werde. The famous disjunctive title of Goethe's work announces a kind of confession , an admission, which wards off possible critiques and doubts regarding the truthfulness of his autobiographical endeavor. Goethe readily admits to the role of fiction in narrating anything, especially one's own life; an autobiography will always be "contradictory," oscillating between poetry and history , not necessarily as opposites but as mutually informing forms. The "Grundwahre" should shine through the work, lifted up and expressed in part by poetry, in part by history, which Goethe underscores in the preface to Dichtung und Wahrheit, where he calls what follows a "halb poetische, halb historische Behandlung" (14). Even as one grows old...


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