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  • On the Logic of Change in Goethe’s Work
  • David E. Wellbery

From A Plenary Lecture delivered to a conference entitled “Metamorphoses: Goethe and Change” one might well have expected something new: a transformation of our views about Goethe.1 I hope it won’t seem like ingratitude toward the organizers if I disappoint this expectation and, rather than trying to be innovative, take up one of the oldest questions to have animated the study of Goethe. It is the question posed by Friedrich Schlegel in that section of his Gespräch über die Poesie (Discourse on Poetry) entitled Versuch über den verschiedenen Stil in Goethes früheren und späteren Werken (Essay on the Varying Styles in Goethe’s Early and Later Works). Of course, when the Gespräch appeared in the third volume of the Athenäum, the question Schlegel raised was very much a new kind of question. For he was not interested in applying traditional concepts of style to Goethe’s work, in assessing Goethe’s range or virtuosity, or in assigning works to categories that could be applied comparatively to other authors. Rather, Schlegel was after what he calls Erkenntnis, and the object of that Erkenntnis was not to be something describable with predicates like high or low, humble or grand, florid or plain. Rather, Schlegel’s self-declared project was “den Dichter selbst zu verstehen” (“to understand the poet himself”), and that is to say: “die Geschichte seines Geistes . . . zu ergründen” (“to discover the history of his spirit”).2 In 1800, this was a new object of knowledge: the logic of development that exhibits itself across the diachronic distribution of a writer’s works. It is not accidental that this object emerged into view and became the focus of attention and investigation with regard to Goethe’s literary career. Could Schlegel have written in the same way, say, about Wieland? The negative answer, I assume, is self-evident. And the inference I draw from this is that, with Goethe, the very nature of change, as it becomes intelligible across an author’s career, changed. It became something, perhaps the primary something, to be, as Schlegel put it, understood.

In what follows I want to place myself in the tradition that flows from Schlegel’s brief essay. My essay attempts to work out something like the logic of change immanent in the development of Goethe’s works. The project—and this too is continuous with Schlegel’s thinking—locates the level at which change is registered fairly deeply within the works’ structural complexion. I call this level of analysis the formative process of the work. Finally, like Schlegel, and like Georg Simmel, who later made a similar, although much more broadly based attempt of this kind,3 I shall distinguish three epochs, [End Page 1] three periods, if you will. For reasons that are perhaps not accidental, that number seems to be the most attractive result for anyone taking on a task of this sort.

My point of departure is a conceptual and textual nexus that brings to the fore both theoretical reflection (i.e., Goethe’s own efforts to articulate his experience of art) and poetic (in the main, lyric) production. The point of entry into this nexus may seem counterintuitive. It is Karl Philipp Moritz’s brief, pioneering treatise of 1788, Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen (On the Creative Imitation of the Beautiful). Goethe’s keen interest in and advocacy of this text are abundantly attested. In 1789, he published a review or announcement that precisely summarizes the treatise’s central line of argument (FA 1.18:256–60). According to the retrospective account given in the Zweiten römischen Aufenthalt, which also includes a sizable excerpt, the treatise emerged out of conversations—“Unterhaltungen”— between himself and Moritz and thus allows one to see “was für Gedanken sich in jener Zeit vor uns auftaten, welche späterhin entwickelt, geprüft, angewendet und verbreitet mit der Denkweise des Jahrhunderts glücklich genug zusammentrafen” (FA 1.15.1:572–73; what ideas appeared before us during this time, which, once developed, tested, applied, and disseminated, coincided with the general thinking of...


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