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  • Goethe’s Ghosts: Reading and the Persistence of Literature ed. by Simon Richter and Richard Block
  • Elizabeth Powers
Goethe’s Ghosts: Reading and the Persistence of Literature. Edited by Simon Richter and Richard Block. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013. Pp. 315. Cloth $85.00. ISBN 978-1571135674.

Goethe studies in the United States have been much enriched in the past half century by scholars born in the Americas. Jane K. Brown ranks very high in that cohort. Especially in recent years, as theory has insinuated itself into the field, Brown has resolutely gone her own way, with deep explorations of the European literary heritage as it was transmitted and transformed by Goethe. This volume is thus a tribute both to this Goethe scholar as well as to Brown’s uncovering of the literary “ghosts” that haunt, so to speak, Goethe’s oeuvre.

Among such ghosts is the tradition of allegorical representation, which has interested Brown at least since Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy (1986). In The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner (2007), she portrayed its afterlife in drama into the late nineteenth century, when it was finally “discredited” by the mimetic principle. Most recently, Allegories of Interiority: Goethe and the Modern Subject (2014), appearing too late to be discussed in the introduction to the present volume, considers the persistence of Goethe’s ghost, especially in the writings of Melville, Freud, Norbert Elias, and Foucault. In this book Brown argues that [End Page 163] a “paradigm shift” took place in the last part of the eighteenth century, producing “a subjectivity that locates meaning within the individual,” accompanied by “a profound change in the way in which emotion was understood and represented” (Interiority 3). Goethe’s contribution was in developing “a specific allegorical technique to represent the unconscious, … and the transmission of his new style through his Romantic contemporaries to the most influential formulators of the modern notion of the unconscious” (4). This “modernized version of allegory” (9) transformed it from “a tool of moral analysis to one of psychological analysis” (17).

The introduction to Goethe’s Ghosts by its editors, Richard Block and Simon Richter, is well worth reading for its elucidation of Brown’s scholarly approach. It begins with the appearance of Goethe’s Mephisto in an apartment in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Moscow on Walpurgis Night, as Margarita, serving as hostess, welcomes “the ghostly souls who rise from hell for the festive occasion” (1). The specter of Goethe’s Faust in Bulgakov’s novel is not simply a case of the persistence of literary forms of representation. Ghosts, of which there are plenty in Goethe’s own works, must have a place to inhabit. Thus, the editors introduce the metaphor of “the house of literature,” which allows them to contrast Brown’s methodology with contemporary approaches, which, while multiplying subjects and objects of study, tend to do so “at the expense of literature as literature” (2).

Brown’s close reading of literary texts (erudition combined with “remarkably swift and deft analyses of passages, plots, and plays”), once the heart of literary scholarship, is contrasted with Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” (6). Moretti, seeking to account for the now “voluminous production of texts,” might contend that Brown relies on too few works, canonical ones at that (Calderon, Shakespeare!), “which she is forced to designate as representative” (10).

Moretti’s method, however, “not only attenuates the participation of the reader’s subjective consciousness in interacting with textual material, [but] it [also] makes a gesture in the direction of an abandonment of subjectivity in the hopes of receiving in turn a defamiliarized and objective experience of the house of literature” (7). Such “robotic” reading, versus a “sensitive” one (8), may teach much about “the architecture of the house of literature,” but is unable “to register the presence of ghosts” (7). Still, the editors are unwilling to admit that Moretti’s method is necessarily at odds with Brown’s: “all of us [are] in the process of learning how to balance the conflicting demands of allegiance to a language and a literature against the multilinguisticality and globality of the world” (11).

The editors also distinguish Brown...


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