Goethe's Allegories of Identityby Jane K. Brown
A century before psychoanalytic discourse codified a scientific language to describe the landscape of the mind, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explored the paradoxes of an interior self separate from a conscious self. Though long acknowledged by the developers of depth psychology and by its historians, Goethe's literary rendering of interiority has not been the subject
A century before psychoanalytic discourse codified a scientific language to describe the landscape of the mind, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explored the paradoxes of an interior self separate from a conscious self. Though long acknowledged by the developers of depth psychology and by its historians, Goethe's literary rendering of interiority has not been the subject of detailed analysis in itself. Goethe's Allegories of Identity examines how Goethe created the essential bridge between the psychological insights of his contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the psychoanalytic theories of his admirer Sigmund Freud.
Equally fascinated and repelled by Rousseau's vision of an unconscious self, Goethe struggled with the moral question of subjectivity: what is the relation of conscience to consciousness? To explore this inner conflict through language, Goethe developed a unique mode of allegorical representation that modernized the long tradition of dramatic personification in European drama. Jane K. Brown's deft, focused readings of Goethe's major dramas and novels, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Elective Affinities, reveal each text's engagement with the concept of a subconscious or unconscious psyche whose workings are largely inaccessible to the rational mind. As Brown demonstrates, Goethe's representational strategies fashioned a language of subjectivity that deeply influenced the conceptions of important twentieth-century thinkers such as Freud, Michel Foucault, and Hannah Arendt.
Read an Excerpt
Il fallait Freud pour penser les sentiments de Rousseau.
—Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l'obstacle
European culture underwent a paradigm shift in the last third of the eighteenth century that, depending on point of view and disciplinary focus, goes by various names—the displacement of classicism (or Enlightenment) by Romanticism, a fundamental change in literary style, the emergence of historicism, an epistemological shift from surface to depth, and above all the emergence of a subjectivity that locates meaning within the individual. It has become clear in the last fifty years that the issue is not just the period's focus on emotion, its "cult of feeling," but a profound change in the way in which emotion was understood and represented. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, identified by Hannah Arendt as the first "theorist of intimacy," and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, often seen as the father of modernity and creator of the iconic heroes for the nineteenth century (Werther, Wilhelm Meister, and Faust) have long been acknowledged as the major players in this shift, which was then fully conceptualized by Sigmund Freud, such an effective theorist and popularizer of the unconscious that it is practically synonymous with his name. This book focuses on Goethe's contribution to this history between the beginning and end points so cogently identified in my epigraph. Not a study of Freud or Rousseau per se, the argument here addresses Goethe's trajectory between the asymptotes defined by his great predecessor and successor.
Why come back, yet again, to a narrative that has been told often and well? There are two reasons. First,Goethe's role is widely acknowledged but has not been the subject of detailed analysis. And second, the topic has been treated largely as one of the history of psychology or of general intellectual history. But it is also an issue of literary history and will be treated here as such, by focusing on Goethe's rewritings of important works of Rousseau (the topics of Part I, especially Chapters 2 and 3), his struggle to develop a specific allegorical technique to represent the unconscious (Part II), and the transmission of his new style through his Romantic contemporaries to the most influential formulators of the modern notion of the unconscious (Part III). Let me comment on each of these points in turn.
Goethe's Role in the Emergence of Psychoanalysis
It is widely accepted that Goethe contributed immensely to the depth psychology that corresponds to the shift to interiorized subjectivity. According to Henri Ellenberger, historian of psychoanalysis, Freud intended "to incorporate into scientific psychology those hidden realms of the human psyche that had been grasped intuitively by the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Goethe, and other great writers". But none of the early psychoanalysts identified with the Greeks or Shakespeare in the same way as they did with Goethe, who served many as their ego ideal. Freud said he was inspired to study medicine by an essay on nature attributed at the time to Goethe, and he cited Goethe (particularly Faust but also other works) so frequently that only two of the eleven volumes in the Fischer Studienausgabe do not include him in the index. Theodor Reik echoed Goethe's famous phrase about his own works in the title of his autobiography Fragment of a Great Confession, which begins with his adolescent obsession to read every word Goethe wrote in the authoritative 144-volume Weimarer Ausgabe of Goethe's works. And Carl Gustav Jung, who "quoted from Faust on almost any occasion," begins his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by denying the rumor that he was an illegitimate grandson of Goethe—a rumor that the denial, of course, did much to propagate.
This impact was part of Goethe's overwhelming status as adopted cultural father of the German Empire beginning in the 1870s (though the fathers of psychoanalysis came, strikingly, from outside the empire—from Vienna and Zurich and Budapest). The first half of the nineteenth century had turned its back on him as too cosmopolitan, too radical, too hostile to the ideals of Biedermeier calm, the tight family, religion, and daily morality; in a phrase, he was too modern. But for the newly unified German state aiming to become a modern power the figure once considered pagan, immoral, and un-German was made its cultural model. The ensuing Goethe cult crystallized primarily around "the young Goethe," the youthful rebel, and secondarily around the dignified humane classicist. Focusing on the lover of young women, the genius, the Lebenskünstler (artist of life) it dealt as much with Goethe the person as with his works. Plaster and marble busts still visible in antique stores, on Longfellow's desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or towering over the nineteenth-century hall of the Quai d'Orsay Museum in Paris, reproduced in the frontispiece to this book, testify to the magnitude of this influence.
Indeed, the difficulty with the topic is that Goethe's influence at the turn of the twentieth century, the foundational period for depth psychology, has seemed so diffuse. Despite their obvious devotion to Goethe and his poetic writings, Freud and the other depth psychologists wrote remarkably little about Goethe's works per se—especially compared with their output on Shakespeare and on the Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Goethe wrote scholarly essays in many fields of science, but psychology was not among them. Even so, direct scientific transmission of this generalized Goethe for psychology has been traced through Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)—gynecologist, psychologist, Naturphilosoph, painter, and important contributor to the emerging scientific formulation of the unconscious still being read by the first generation of psychoanalysts. Carus proselytized enthusiastically for Goethe's scientific method (morphology) and for his work in general in the first decades after the poet's death. He wrote three books about Goethe and also referred to him repeatedly in Psyche, his treatise on psychology. This explanation of Goethe's Lebenskunst from Goethe: Zu dessen näherem Verständnis (Toward Better Understanding of Goethe, 1843) illustrates the typical generality of such transmissions:
It is on the one hand the first and purest task of man to renounce all disruptive influences and to keep building the pyramid of his own existence without discouragement and without hesitation from base to peak ever larger and more complete, and yet, under certain circumstances, there is something so mighty and so beautiful in risking this whole existence, in being so captivated by love, that the entire building might collapse into ruins, all renunciation be given up, and the self be entirely delivered over to what is loved.
(Dem Menschen ist es einerseits allerdings die reinste und erste Aufgabe, durch Entsagung gegen alle störenden Einflüsse die Pyramide seines eigenen Daseins unverdrossen und unverzagt von der Basis bis gegen die Spitze hin vollständiger und größer auszubauen, und andererseits liegt wieder etwas so Mächtiges und Schönes darin, dies ganze Dasein unter gewissen Umständen dran zu wagen, von Liebe so ergriffen zu sein, daß auf die Gefahr hin, daß dieser ganze Bau zu Trümmern gehe, alle Entsagung aufgegeben werde und die volle Hingebung des eignen Selbst an das Geliebte erfolge.)
Goethe represents here the ideal example of developing one's full potential, for Carus the task of every individual; so important and concrete is it that Carus reifies it with his pyramid metaphor. For all his devotion to Goethe's morphology, probably the more important object of Carus's transmission was this focus on self-development, which remained the central preoccupation of much of modern psychology.
Two points follow from the diffuseness of Goethe's influence. First, it translates into general more than specific impacts. When the name "Freud" or the term "psychoanalysis" appears below, both are to be understood as placeholders for a widespread notion of depth psychology that varied considerably in its details in different places at different times. I do not seek to trace Goethe's influence on the specifics of Freud's or anyone else's terminology; my goal is rather to identify what in Goethe's writing led to this enormous yet vague attribution of influence and thus to specify Goethe's contribution to the modern subject. Second, the diffuseness has left a blank spot in discussions on the history and origins of psychoanalysis, in the significant psychoanalytic interpretation of Goethe by biographers and scholars, and, in the last twenty years, important discussions of the development of the modern interior self in the eighteenth century—namely the specific language of his literary works that made them seem so pregnant with psychological meaning to his contemporaries and later admirers. The issue here is not what psychoanalysis can tell about European cultural history or about Goethe, nor how Goethe anticipates psychoanalysis. Rather, this book will show his contribution to the language that made it possible to formulate the tenets of psychoanalysis in scientific terms; in effect, the discourse of modern psychology owes much to a literary language of depth psychology that Goethe developed in his response to Rousseau.
Despite the importance of Carus and the Goethe cult, the transmission from Goethe to the early psychoanalysts was also direct, through his great literary works—especially Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship), and Faust, all of which were widely read at the beginning of the twentieth century. Werther has been generally recognized as a landmark portrayal of the modern psychological subject. Together with the Lehrjahre it pervasively shaped the conception of selfhood in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Werther offers the most lucid and complete picture of eighteenth-century melancholy, but also of its rationalist psychology. Iphigenie presents an early version of a talking cure, Wilhelm Meister and Faust forms for describing and analyzing the development of the individual psyche that were at the heart of the psychoanalytic project. Not only do all these texts involve a notion of personhood with depth psychology, with a subconscious or unconscious part of the psyche whose workings are largely inaccessible to the conscious or rational part of the mind—the notion of subjectivity described scientifically a century later by Freud—but more important, they invent a language for discussing and eventually conceptualizing it. If Rousseau was the first to think the thoughts later conceptualized by Freud, as the epigraph suggests, it was Goethe's achievement to find a new language independent of the conscious and (as Freud taught) censoring self for representing and exploring the first traces of the unconscious identified by Rousseau in his Confessions and Reveries. As a result this book will point both forward and back; in order to lay out Goethe's achievement in making the unconscious accessible to language, it will need to examine first how he came to terms with the legacy of Rousseau.
Depending on scholars' disciplinary background and particular national foci, the emergence of modern subjectivity has been narrated in a variety of mutually complementary forms, ranging from broad social focus (character and morality) through largely philosophical (more epistemological, with more emphasis on consciousness and unconsciousness as such) to psychological and psychiatric. The various discourses engaged by these studies as a group were not so clearly distinguished from one another in the eighteenth century as they are today, and they all came together in literary texts: the argument of this book is predicated on the idea that many issues are, if not thought through, at least talked through in literature before they are clearly conceptualized in scientific discourses—of whatever stripe. From that point of view it makes sense to discuss the emergence of modern depth psychology by analyzing Goethe's response to Rousseau, and the specifically literary methodology distinguishes my work from the broad and distinguished assemblage of discussion on which it rests. But it is important to show not just how concepts were thought through or talked through or anticipated in nonscientific texts. This book demonstrates furthermore how Goethe actually developed important parts of the language in which the concepts of modern identity could be conceptualized. That the first generation of psychoanalysts mined literature and mythology for their psychological insights is well known, as is also the powerful influence of their hermeneutic techniques on much contemporary critical practice.
As a literary historian I have formulated the problem in the terms of my discipline, and approach it in terms of what I understand to be literary methodology. First, it involves taking individual examples as typical for larger trends: Rousseau, Goethe, Freud stand in here for intellectual developments going on all around them. One can claim that they were geniuses, or less dogmatically that they happened to be particularly sensitive figures who formulated what those around them were thinking and feeling less articulately—it doesn't matter. We are at sufficient historical distance from all three to see them as paradigmatic for their times, and on that basis we understand trends. Second, as a literary study this book is interested in parallels, underlying patterns, and conversations between texts. It is interested in intertextuality (in literary terms) and morphology (in analytical terms). It seeks to understand relations among phenomena and implicit patterns rather than causality. It follows then, that Rousseau is represented here only by the aspects of his work that absorbed Goethe's attention—his novels and biographical texts, and these only piecemeal. The last century has learned from Freud ways to read both Goethe and Rousseau not open to earlier scholars; the reading here explains why Freud works so well on both. Third, I operate on the premise that telling stories is a way to focus on issues not yet identified in conceptual terms by a culture—that, in effect, literature can do intellectual work as much as philosophy does. Because it deals with intuitions, perhaps notions, it narrates rather than conceptualizes. As a literary critic rather than as a historian, I see my task as teasing the notions out of intuitions, and perhaps occasionally teasing concepts out of notions. I seek not to define terms, but in a sense to undefine them, to elicit the polysemy of a discourse not quite sure of its object or, consistently in Goethe, of an object that loses its significance when pinned to a single spot.
The notion of text used in the argument that follows is deliberately expansive. Ultimately, I describe a stylistic development in Goethe's work between roughly 1790 and 1810, the period of his "classicism." By the time he began publishing his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) in 1811 it was already an obvious point to be made only in passing that the central function of poetry was "the representation of manners, characters, passions, in short, the interior self" (die Darstellung der Sitten, Charaktere, Leidenschaften, kurz des innern Menschen). Because, however, Goethe constantly returned to certain themes and elaborated his meanings in major sequels to the two most important works of this period, Wilhelm Meister and Faust, I have found it necessary to document the presence of the images and techniques of this classical period in other works in order to justify my assertion that the shift is pervasive and central to Goethe's impact on his later readers. Furthermore, the analysis is intended not only as a summary reading of Goethe's major work, but deliberately includes his life as an interpretable part of his oeuvre. As Chapter 4 will demonstrate, Goethe operated at times with a theatrical notion of personal identity—that one's life was a role that one played, shaped, and even changed from time to time. Imitation of Rousseau became a role that Goethe took on, explored and tested, and, like an imitated text, eventually reshaped and rewrote. Similarly, something our century has certainly learned from psychoanalysis is how the different parts of the psyche compete with one another to shape and control our identity. Our lives are our life's work, especially for a thinker like Jung, the achievement of our own applied creative powers. Rousseau advocated a new standard for sincerity in autobiography, but one of the things Goethe learned from him was the need to shape the life that would be read by his future audience. Hence the argument here will offer not an explanation of Goethe's works in terms of his life, but a parallel reading of works and life that treats both as texts in statu nascendi.
Finally, a word about allegory is in order here. This book argues that Goethe's solution to the stylistic problem of representing the part of the psyche that lacked its own voice was a modernized version of allegory. Goethe still worked comfortably in the tradition of allegorical world theater that I have analyzed in an earlier book. It descended ultimately from morality drama and reached its peak in the seventeenth century. In this form of dramatic allegory the focus was not on the discrepancy between the allegorical tenor or meaning and its vehicle (as in the medieval theological and poetic allegory most familiar from Dante), but rather on truth made concretely visible via allegorical representation: what you see is what it means. It traded in characters with names like "Hypocrisy," "Faith," "Understanding," even "Vision" or "Smell." It worked so long as the cosmic (religious) referent of its semiotic system was universally understood by its audience. Under the pressure of secularization, the system started to break down. In The Persistence of Allegory I analyzed the interplay between this mode of drama and the rising tide of Aristotelian mimetic drama. Apart from a few outliers in Vienna in the first half of the nineteenth century, Goethe was the last European writer who still understood and used the older allegorical mode. But he understood that it meant something different in a Kantian world in which the transcendent order of the cosmos, what the late eighteenth century in Germany liked to call "the Absolute," was by definition unknowable. The older form of allegory, largely trivialized in the eighteenth century, takes on a new life in Goethe's use under the name "symbol," in which a sign combines within itself its concrete reality and its ineffable referent. Goethe used this new technique to suggest what cannot be known (the first scene of Faust, part 2, as I have argued elsewhere, offers an excellent example). In this book I argue that he learned from this older tradition of moral allegory to substitute the inner self, or what we now call the unconscious, for the former cosmic referent. In effect, it relocates God into the human breast. Readers of Goethe are surely all familiar with the famous assertion in Iphigenie auf Tauris that the gods speak only through the human heart (HA 5:494; in effect Goethe turns this assertion into a principle of style.
The need for this allegorical technique has little to do with our contemporary knowledge of Rousseau; it rises rather from the general enthusiasm for him as the consummate writer of feeling in Goethe's circles, manifested not in analysis but in the urge to imitate and, increasingly, to rewrite. The Rousseau that interested Goethe and his friends first was not the political theorist but the author of Julie and of Emile, and then, second, the autobiographical work—the Confessions and the Reveries. These works posed in particularly cogent form what was coming to bother most eighteenth-century writers, the problem that the new self of the eighteenth century was unconscious, not known to itself. Although the insight has become so obvious today that we gloss over the problems, there is the real question of how to represent in language what by definition cannot be known rationally. Goethe justifies his allegorical approach to representing the new subjectivity in capsule form in one of his late aphorisms:
Nothing can be easily represented with complete impartiality. One might say the mirror offers an exception to this, and yet we never see our face quite accurately in it; indeed, the mirror reverses our form and makes our left hand the right. Let this be an image for all observations about ourselves.
(Nichts wird leicht ganz unparteiisch wieder dargestellt. Man könnte sagen: hievon mache der Spiegel eine Ausnahme, und doch sehen wir unser Angesicht niemals ganz richtig darin; ja der Spiegel kehrt unsre Gestalt um und macht unsre linke Hand zur rechten. Dieß mag ein Bild sein für alle Betrachtungen über uns selbst.)
On the surface the representation of the visible self seems to be at issue: normally a mirror is understood to reflect reality exactly. But Goethe shifts away from the common mimetic understanding of the mirror to its unavoidable reversal of the image. In effect the mirror alienates the self from itself; it is the same but different. The effect of representation and yet alienation is what I attribute to Goethe's transmutation of older forms of allegory.
The ramifications of my argument are more complex than would first appear. For a general audience interested in the roots of modern psychology, it demonstrates the importance of Goethe's works in specific terms. Because it demonstrates how Goethe's psychological writing developed explicitly as a reaction to Rousseau, the book also fills in a long incomplete analysis of the interaction between these dominant writers of European Romanticism. Because, finally, the primary development of this language turns out to take place in the 1790s, the discussion also forces a reconsideration of Goethe's classicism in more psychological terms.
As background to the analysis the remainder of this chapter describes how the problem of subjectivity developed in belles lettres to reach Goethe in the late eighteenth century. Because the topic has elicited much discussion for the last several decades, I will focus here only on the issues relevant to the unconscious as a specifically literary problem for Goethe. It can in fact be summarized in the following three characteristic statements:
- "Ego cogito ergo sum" (Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1644)
- "Le premier sentiment de l'homme fut celui de son existence" (Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1754; The first sentiment of man was that of his existence)
- "Der Handelnde ist immer gewissenlos, es hat niemand Gewissen als der Betrachtende (Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, 1820; One always acts without conscience; only the observer has a conscience)
Descartes offers the obvious starting point for seventeenth-century anthropocentrism by grounding identity in the self rather than in a cosmic frame of reference. Rousseau grounds selfhood not in thought, as in Descartes, but in feeling. Indeed, in his Discourse, Rousseau has already attacked Descartes's Meditations when he writes, "the state of reflection is a state against nature and the man who meditates is a depraved animal" (ŒC 3:138; l'état de réflexion est un état contre Nature, et l'homme qui médite est un animal dépravé, 22). If Descartes and Rousseau reveal the shift from thought to feeling, Goethe pinpoints the moral question that was to dominate his struggles with Rousseau: what is the relation of conscience to consciousness? The sequence raises in capsule form the twin issues of the new nature of selfhood and the problematic relation of the self to the world caused by the change.
Two main categories characterize subjectivity in this context, interiority and consciousness. Interiority is the sense clearly visible in Descartes and increasing throughout the eighteenth century that the real self is inside, underneath the public self. Increasingly this selfhood was grounded less in thought than in the new, less rational categories of feeling and then consciousness. This is the development outlined in the three quotations. But as selfhood became divorced from thought and receded beneath the threshold of sensory perception, it also became less of an ontological issue and more of an epistemological one, less something that knowably exists and more a psychic construct.
Goethe found the genealogy of identity as interiorized consciousness of one's being in the English novel and in Rousseau, but not in a simple direct line. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe stands in the seventeenth-century tradition of self-examination: it focuses in Cartesian fashion on the inner self defined by what itself thinks. Crusoe lives isolated on his island from all normal social contacts and from most outer constraints. Shipwreck has reduced him to pure selfhood thinking in the middle of nowhere; only gradually does he recover contact with the world, first in the basic conditions of life, then in rudimentary human contact, finally in returning to his accustomed outer world. His closing resumption of effective functioning in society becomes paradigmatic for novels of this tradition, most obviously, of course, as the model of the bildungsroman. With their shared conversion structure Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa continue the tradition of self-examination. Clarissa ends as a kind of saint as she withdraws from the world, obsessively prepares for her death, and seems to have become a being of a different order. Pamela's conversion is more secular, but after fleeing B. for most of the novel she finally converts to being Mrs. B.; at the same time she becomes the humble wife who no longer tries to withstand temptation on her own without the help of father or husband. Beyond this religious structure the novels develop an increased sense of interiority. Letter writing implies the isolation of letter writer from receiver, a situation dramatically heightened by the abduction element in both plots, which separates Richardson's heroines from everyone who can help them. Because their being is contained entirely in writing, they seem to possess a new form of psychological depth.
The identity of Richardson's protagonists is tied to their writing. Pamela is stripped at one point in a search for her letters: the motif suggests, first, that the real Pamela is her letters, and, second, that her exterior must be removed to locate that real self. In Clarissa the motif is more abstract: there the heroine has to deal with letters forged in her name and with letters forged in others' names sent to her. Both types test her integrity. Yet the letters often contain unreasoned outpourings of feelings. The heroines do not always seem to know exactly what they mean, especially whether they love or hate their abductors. Nor do they always seem to mean what they say. We might even speak of a primitive unconscious here. But there is also a strong ethical element, as when Robinson Crusoe returns to the world. Despite their social isolation and their strong interiority, acting properly is crucial for both Clarissa and Pamela. They worry constantly about the correctness of their decisions and of their actions; they worry about whether their actions will be properly understood. While the novels build up a cult of interiority and subjectivity, at the same time they are preoccupied with action and with externalizing the self. The balance between conscience and consciousness is an unsolved, indeed, barely recognized, problem.
Interiority is yet more obvious in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which began to appear around 1760. Despite the apparent balance of the title, the focus in the novel is entirely on sentiments and mental activity. Its Greek epigraph means "It is not actions, but opinions concerning actions, which disturb men." Much of the book records meandering conversations between Tristram's father, Walter, who pins his faith on words, and Tristram's uncle Toby, who depends more on things. As it turns out, neither is really adequate to the vagaries of human thought, which find their most telling expression in the actions—strategic silences and gestures—of its sentimental heroes Trim and Yorick. Words and things, thought and action are problematically separate in the novel; the whole first half is devoted to setting up the oppositions and exploring the comic ways they impinge on one another. The novel originally defines thought and thing as the poles between which all issues can be defined, but this opposition gradually modulates into one between mind and body, cerebral and sexual, and becomes ever fuzzier. Thus the gap between oppositions is increasingly bridged (bridges are an important motif), nowhere more cogently than in the delicate expressions of sentiment that grow in importance as the novel progresses. While the hyperintellectual Walter loses status as spokesman to Uncle Toby, Trim, and Yorick, the vaguer in-between realm of heart and feeling comes increasingly to the fore: the bridge becomes the significant locus of human activity, and sentiment becomes the real motivator of human action, not logic or physical drive. Identity is notoriously diffuse in Tristram Shandy, not just because the hero doesn't even manage to get born until book 3, chapter 23, but because of the difficulty of connecting thought to action and word; identity is so interiorized as to be almost inaccessible.
Contemporary with Tristram Shandy, Rousseau's Julie, ou La nouvelle Héloïse (1761) established the rhetoric of sensibility, that is, of selfhood grounded in feeling, and simultaneously explored the kind of society (as always a necessary evil) that can preserve most of what is natural to mankind. In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) there was already a strong sense of the natural self being superior, as the following typical examples suggest: "ce que nous serions devenus, abandonnés à nous mêmes" (ŒC 3:127; what we would have become, left to ourselves), "dépouillant cet Etre . . . de tous les dons surnaturels qu'il a pu recevoir, et de toutes les facultés artificielles, qu'il n'a pu acquerir que par de longs progrès (ŒC 3:134; stripping this being . . . of all the supernatural gifts that he might have received, and of all the artificial faculties he could have acquired only through slow progress). As Ernst Cassirer argued, the sole source of knowledge of natural man in the Discourse is self-knowledge and self-examination. So deeply buried is the self even in early Rousseau that natural cataclysms (enumerated ŒC 3:168) are required to bring about the origin of speech in the Discourse. Furthermore, Rousseau repeatedly redefined the Cartesian cogito by setting feeling above reason: for Rousseau feeling is both anterior to and superior to reason, which is associated with the origin of society and therefore of evil. To be sure, feeling does not belong to natural man either, but it at least only accompanies an earlier, less pernicious form of existence between natural man and society. Indeed, to the end of his life Rousseau considered any kind of rememberable mental activity, anything beyond the pure consciousness of existence described in the fifth of the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, to be imperfect, if not downright evil.
Rousseau was deeply concerned with ethics: what kind of society is appropriate to man and what is proper action were always burning questions for him. It is not surprising that he so admired the moralist Richardson. The tension between pure selfhood and right action developed into a central paradox in Rousseau that Goethe later struggled with at length. For Rousseau's new subjectivity contains a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand it involves the drive toward what Jean Starobinski called "transparency," the pure visibility of truth, manifested in the Nouvelle Héloïse as an ideal to be realized in the world, but also as pure, completely open, communication between souls; in the Confessions it appears as the insistence on revealing the entire truth about the autobiographical subject. But, as Rousseau himself repeatedly recognizes, transparency cannot ever be achieved—it is always interrupted by the inherent opacity of the world, what Starobinski calls "l'obstacle." In the Confessions this opacity takes the form of an inevitable discrepancy between intention (one's inner true self) and action (the self visible to others). Over and over again Rousseau justifies himself by the purity of his intentions, which may, however, be incommensurate with his incomprehensible, irrational actions. The episode in book 2 of the Confessions, in which the young Rousseau spontaneously steals a ribbon and, when caught, blames the theft on the innocent fellow servant to whom he intended to give it, is only the most famous example. In the fourth promenade of the Reveries of the Solitary Walker Rousseau goes so far as to ground his "professed truthfulness" in the Confessions "more on feelings of integrity and justice than on factual truth." Thus he can say in an essay devoted to establishing principles of truthfulness, "I have hardly ever acted according to rules—or have hardly ever followed any other rules than the promptings of my nature" (Reveries, 73). Abstract moral truth has been so fully internalized that it risks becoming totally invisible. Some version of this paradox underlies many versions of what scholars have found interesting about Rousseau, whether they have formulated it as a problem of language, of psychosocial positioning, or of the nature of existence.
In Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774) Goethe critiqued the extreme cult of subjectivity around him in the 1770s. The name of the main character, Werther, which means "valuable one," and the central love triangle obviously derive from the Nouvelle Héloïse, whose hero is named Saint-Preux. The novel alludes repeatedly to other important texts of sensibility by figures such as Oliver Goldsmith, Ossian, and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Werther portrays the cult of sensibility with great sympathy: the famous moment is Charlotte putting her hand on Werther's arm and saying "Klopstock" during a thunderstorm on their first evening together. Indeed, the novel communicated so much sympathy that Goethe was distressed that it was first misunderstood only to be glorifying sentiment, and indeed that suicides were committed in its name. Goethe thought he had intended—and he clarified it when he revised Werther for the 1787 version—to reveal the dangerous solipsism of extreme interiority and the tragic outcome when sentiment loses contact with reality. For Werther's view of Charlotte has little to do with the real Charlotte, or with her own view of herself; Werther has created his own goddess. His selfhood has become so interiorized, so out of touch with the realities around him, that, as less urgently in Sterne, it has become inaccessible, and the world has become inaccessible to it. He is unable to act or even to live in the world, and the novel can only end with suicide.
Whereas Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne develop the novelistic subject from a tradition of religious introspection, Rousseau drives the discussion to its extremes both in the genre of the novel and also in genres closer to religious self-examination, the passionate essay and above all autobiography. In his autobiography he is particularly concerned about his own truthfulness, both as protagonist and as narrator. Rousseau's uneasy extremity links the general concerns about the truthfulness of the novel in this period of its emergence to new concerns about the validity (transparency) of all narrative prose, confessional or novelistic, spoken or written. After Werther Goethe did not publish another novel for twenty years; but the thematics of subjectivity suddenly emerged as a crucial theme in his plays. Furthermore, his next novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96), the paradigmatic bildungsroman, concerns itself largely with the theater. And in his plays Goethe transformed drama into just as important a vehicle for exploring subjectivity as the novel was, so that Faust, first published as a fragment in 1790, then in full as part 1 in 1808 and part 2 in 1832, is really the ultimate analysis of subjectivity in Goethe's lifetime.
There was considerable cross-influence between novel and drama in the eighteenth century that does not need to be discussed here. Suffice it to say that the discursiveness and sentimentality of the epistolary novel emerge as talkiness, much weeping, effusive and often incoherent emotionalism on stage, incoherent or virtually absent plotting in the genres known as bourgeois tragedy, comédie larmoyante, and Sturm und Drang (associated with names such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Denis Diderot, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, George Lillo). After some trendsetting experiments in this style, Goethe took a different, and, as it turns out, extremely important alternative approach to the relationship of drama to feeling. His new form is usually called "classical" and associated with his journey to Italy in 1786. It actually has more to do with his unique insight that the decisive development of European dramaturgy in the previous century had been the emergence of opera and that neoclassical plays resembled opera libretti more than Aristotelian tragedies. As a result, they were not mimetic or verisimilar; they did not represent humans as they appeared in the world, but rather created illusions of a truth not normally visible in reality. How Goethe understood it is best illustrated by the praise of Shakespeare's representation of character in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre:
The most secret and most complex creations of nature behave before us in his plays as if they were clocks, whose faces and housing were made of crystal; they would show the passing hours as they were meant to, and at the same time the wheels and springs that drive it are visible. (HA 6:192)
(Diese geheimnißvollsten und zusammengesetztesten Geschöpfe der Natur handeln vor uns in seinen Stücken, als wenn sie Uhren wären, deren Zifferblatt und Gehäuse man von Krystall gebildet hätte, sie zeigten nach ihrer Bestimmung den Lauf der Stunden an, und man kann zugleich das Räder- und Federwerk erkennen, das sie treibt.)
This passage seems already to have been drafted in 1784, just a few years before Goethe rewrote his classical dramas in the late 1780s. The capacity to let the interior show visibly through the exterior skin is precisely the skill Goethe honed in the 1780s. With this move Goethe shifted the psychology of the literary text from the language of passion and emotion accessible to rational discussion to an apparently de-psychologized, externalized representation. In effect, as the analyses below intend to demonstrate, Goethe transformed allegory from a tool of moral analysis to one of psychological analysis and thus enabled himself to lay out otherwise hidden, too interiorized, parts of the psyche to achieve a fuller representation of interiority not mediated by the thoughts of the characters.
Meet the Author
Jane K. Brown is Joff Hanauer Distinguished Professor for Western Civilization Emerita at the University of Washington and author of The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >