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JOHN P. HEINS Sentimental Confusion: Art, Nature, and Aesthetic Autonomy in Goethe's Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit If in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers of 1774 Goethe produced the ultimate sentimental text, he also provided the ultimate anti-sentimental text in Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit. Eine dramatische Grille.1 Written between September and December of 1777, this play was first performed at the celebration of Duchess Luise's birthday in Weimar on January 30,1778, and first published in the collected works of 1787. Though no longer dismissed by critics as Gelegenheitsdichtung, the play tends to be interpreted biographically , as marking a stage in the development of Goethe's psyche or artistic sensibility, rather than being appreciated for the fascinating literary critique that it expresses.2 And indeed, as the richness of recent critics' readings attests, the biographical matrix of this text is quite compelling, as Goethe draws (perhaps both consciously and unconsciously) on his own emotional life and social circumstances to build this complicated comic text, a text in which he clearly distances himself from the literary movement of Empfindsamkeit and from the figure of Werther. Yet this play is not only a biographical document but also a complex and sophisticated engagement with the movement of sentimentalism, particularly that movement's conception of the relationship between the artistic realm and the empirical. As Werner Vordtriede postulated over fifty years ago, the play's central theme is indeed the difference between art and nature, but (contrary to his suggestion ) that fact does not render sentimentalism merely the temporal garment of that eternal theme.3 In fact, the play engages the question of the difference between art and nature through its engagement with sentimentalism, a discourse that (for its critics) tends to forget that difference.4 The tendency to forget the difference between art and nature we might generally refer to as the quixotic problem.5 Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit presents the sentimental Prince Oronaro as a disturbed, quasi-quixotic individual : Oronaro substitutes the literarily inspired products of his imagination for reality. Whereas the literature of sentimentalism, from Geliert's Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin (1747/48) through La Roche's Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771) to Goethe's Leiden des jungen Werthers, constructs the sentimental individual as a sincere and emotional character type, the critique of Empfindsamkeit in general attempts to unmask Goethe Yearbook XIV (2007) 84 John R Heins sentimentalism's notions of sincerity and emotion as affectation, solipsism, narcissism, and projection.6 Generally following this tendency, in this play Goethe suggests that the "triumph" of sentimentalism is the logical extension of sentimentalism's valorization of subjective experience: complete and incurable Schwärmerei, the inability to distinguish between objects of one's imagination and empirical reality.7 Here in Goethe's satirical revisit of Werther, Prince Oronaro's failed perception of the object world is explained as a function of the particular psychology associated with sentimentalism. Goethe's critique, however, differs in complexity and depth from that of the rationalist camp as expressed most prominently by Nicolai's Freuden des jungen Werthers (1775). After observing the general comic portrayal of the sentimental individual, we will understand more fully the ways in which Goethe's play criticizes sentimentalism if we observe the play's approach to the issues of landscape gardening, onanism, and fictionality.The connections between these three apparently disparate artistic, psychological, and poetological issues will emerge as we explore Goethe's sophisticated reassessment of the relationship between nature and art, or between the materials of real life and their artistic reworking, in sentimentalism. To put the matter briefly, in this play Goethe criticizes simplistic forms of the belief that the task of the arts is to mimic nature, a belief marked by a failure to understand the complicated process of mediation involved in artistic creativity. Goethe's participation in the development of the notion of aesthetic autonomy in his later "Classical" period represents a complex movement away from the focus on Nachahmung der Natur, and the centrality of sentimentalism to this problem emerges distinctly from this "pre-Classical" play. By focusing on this play's themes in their function within the discourse of sentimentalism, I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-9087
Print ISSN
0734-3329
Pages
pp. 83-101
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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