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  • "Sie hat den Gegenstand":Rahel Levin Varnhagen's Subliminal Dialogue with Goethe
  • Renata Fuchs

In her essay "Rahel und Goethe" (Rahel and Goethe), Käte Hamburger (1896–1992) observes that "Rahels Gespräche, damals weit über Berlin hinaus berichtet, sind verklungen. Aber sie klingen nach und wieder auf in einem Briefwechsel" (113; Rahel's conversations, at that time talked about all over Berlin and beyond, faded away. But they resound time and again in an exchange of letters). In her response to Rahel Levin Varnhagen (1771–1833), Hamburger not only reacts to her writings, emphasizing the letter form as a supplement and extension of salon conversations, but also highlights the continuation of the dialogue that Levin Varnhagen had begun. The dialogue continues through time and space, as more authors and literary critics engage with this topic, thus keeping it alive and conforming to Levin Varnhagen's aspiration: "Dann ist und bleibt eine Korrespondenz lebendig" (Then the correspondence is and remains alive).1 Levin Varnhagen's lifelong correspondence project celebrates the connectedness and bringing people together according to Romantic symphilosophy, the optimal condition for literary and artistic creation.2 This article, based primarily on my interpretation of selected materials from the Varnhagen Archive concerning Levin Varnhagen's reception history,3 examines her dialogues about and with Goethe while shedding more light on her cultural and literary legacy in the context of her identity as a woman and a Jew. With her epistolary writing, Levin Varnhagen contributed to philosophical and cultural engagement through the creation of a network of people corresponding with each other and generating knowledge dependent on dialogue. In this article, I examine two forms of dialogue as they pertain to Goethe's role in Levin Varnhagen's life: Levin Varnhagen's "dialogue within the dialogue"4 about Goethe, and what I call her "subliminal" dialogue with Goethe. Specifically, Levin Varnhagen's interaction with Goethe and his work warrants reexamination of her emerging identity as a literary critic and a creator of diverse forms of dialogue. To make this point, I first revisit the immediate reception of Levin Varnhagen as a public persona and her place in society as a woman, a Jew, and a writer and the struggle with the gender-role division as it pertains to the aspiration of being published. I continue with the Romantic idea of sociability and dialogue and then discuss Levin Varnhagen's innovative communicative network. In the second part of the article, I discuss Levin Varnhagen's and Goethe's intellectual connection [End Page 101] through the notions of die Wahrheit (the truth), their interest in the philosophy of humanity, and, most prominently, through Levin Varnhagen's unwavering support for Goethe's work. At the end, I focus on Levin Varnhagen as a "grosses weibliches Genie" (great female genius) and "schöne Seele" (beautiful soul).

Epistolary Engagement

From the reception immediately following her death, we know that Levin Varnhagen's engagement in social life (the salon, literary criticism, involvement in politics), her ideas disseminated through the salon, and her writing influenced not only those in direct contact with her but also had a profound bearing on general public opinion in Prussia, in other German states, and abroad. In particular, her foreign reception is well-documented in the Varnhagen archive.5 Accordingly, during her lifetime she was widely known as an active figure in intellectual life and also wielded enormous influence as an example for emancipated women as well as independent and assimilated Jewish women. In 1835, Karl Gutzkow compared Levin Varnhagen with Lessing, the critical authority on theater (Seibert 404). Shortly after her death, Theodor Mundt summed up her contributions to various fields in which she was active, and not only reaffirmed her popularity and prominence but also argued that her engagement with Goethe's works and recognition of the universal relevance of his oeuvre transformed her into a literary critic.6

Levin Varnhagen built what we might consider one of the most valuable collections of letters in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany and became known as the leading Berlin salonnière and a great thinker of her time.7 While her work was always lauded for its unique quality, it was...


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