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Walter Benjamin - Goethe, The Reluctant Bourgeois

Walter Benjamin - Goethe, The Reluctant Bourgeois

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Walter Benjamin, Goethe
Walter Benjamin, Goethe

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Published by: aileverte on Aug 26, 2013
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Walter BenjaminWhen Johann Wolfgang Goethe came into the world on
inFrankfurt-am-Main, the town contained
inhabitants. In Berlin, thelargest town in Germany at the time, there were
, whereas both Parisand London had already surpassed
. These figures are an importantsignpost to the political situation in Germany, for throughout the whole of Europe the bourgeois revolution depended on the big cities. On the otherhand, it is a significant fact about Goethe that during his entire life he never losta powerful feeling of antipathy towards living in big towns. He never visitedBerlin
and in later life he paid only two reluctant visits to his native Frankfurt,passing the larger part of his life in a small princely town with
inhabitants.The only cities he ever became more familiar with were the Italian centres,Rome and Naples. Goethe was the cultural representative and, initially, thepolitical spokesman of a new bourgeoisie, whose gradual rise can be clearlydiscerned in his family tree. His male ancestors worked their way up fromartisan circles and they married women from educated families or families
Goethe: The Reluctant Bourgeois
otherwise higher in the social scale than themselves. On his father’s sidehis great-grandfather was a farrier, his grandfather was first a tailor andthen an innkeeper, while his father Johann Caspar Goethe began as anordinary lawyer. Within a short time, however, he acquired the title of Imperial Councillor and when he had succeeded in winning the hand of Katharina Elisabeth Textor, the daughter of the Mayor, he definitivelyestablished his position among the ruling families of the city.The youth which Goethe spent in a patrician household in a Free ImperialCity developed and consolidated in him a trait traditionally found in theRhenish Franconian region: reserve towards any political commitmentand a correspondingly lively appreciation of what was appropriate andadvantageous to the individual. His immediate family—Goethe had onlyone sister, Cornelia—soon permitted him to concentrate on himself.Despite this the attitudes prevailing in the household prevented him fromcontemplating an artistic career. His father forced him to study law. Withthis end in view he went first to Leipzig University at the age of sixteen,and in the summer of 
, to Strasbourg. He was then twenty-one.
I. The
It is in Strasbourg that we first get a clear picture of the cultural milieufrom which Goethe’s early poetry emerged. Goethe and Klinger fromFrankfurt, Bürger and Leisewitz from Central Germany, Voss andClaudius from Holstein, Lenz from Livonia. Goethe was the patrician;Claudius was a burgher. There were the sons of teachers or parsons, likeHoltei, Schubart and Lenz; members of the petty bourgeoisie, like MalerMüller, Klinger and Schiller; the grandson of a serf (Voss); and, finally,noblemen like the Counts Christian and Friedrich von Stolberg. They allworked together in an effort to ‘renew’ Germany by means of ideology.However, the fatal weakness of this specifically German revolutionarymovement was its inability to reconcile itself with the original pro-gramme of bourgeois emancipation, the Enlightenment. The bourgeoismasses, the ‘Enlightened’, remained separated from their vanguard by avast abyss. The German revolutionaries were not enlightened and theGerman enlighteners were not revolutionary. The ideas of the firstcentred on revolution, language and society, those of the latter focusedon the theory of reason and of the state. Goethe subsequently took overthe negative side of both movements: together with the Enlightenmenthe opposed revolution, while with the
he resisted thestate. It is in this division within the German bourgeoisie that we find anexplanation for its failure to establish ideological contact with the West;Goethe, who subsequently made a detailed study of Diderot and Voltaire,was never further from an understanding of France than when he was inStrasbourg. Particularly revealing is his comment on that celebratedmanifesto of French materialism, Holbach’s
 Système de la Nature
,a bookin which the icy draught of the French Revolution can already be felt. Hefound it ‘so grey, so Cimmerian, so lifeless’, that it startled him as if he hadseen a ghost. He thought it ‘unpalatable, insipid, the very quintessence of senility’. It made him feel hollow and empty in ‘this melancholy atheisticgloom’.
Benjamin was in error here: Goethe visited Berlin
These were the reactions of a creative artist, but equally of a Frankfurtpatrician. Goethe subsequently presented the
move-ment with its two most powerful manifestoes,
Götz von Berlichingen
But it is to Johann Gottfried Herder that these two works owethe universal form which made it possible to fuse their disparate elementsinto a single ideological whole. In his letters and conversations withGoethe, Hamann and Merck he provided the programme for themovement—the ‘original genius’; ‘Language: the revelation of the spiritof the people’; ‘Song: nature’s first language’; ‘the unity of human andnatural history’. During the same period Herder was busy assemblingmaterial for his great anthology of poems,
 Stimmen der Völker in Liedern
Voices of the Peoples in Song 
),a collection of poems from Lapland toMadagascar which had the greatest influence on Goethe. For in his ownearly poetry we find him using the folk-song as a means of revitalizing thelyric in combination with the great liberation that had been effected by thepoets of the Göttinger Hain. ‘Voss emancipated the marshland peasantryfor poetry. He expelled the conventional figures of the Rococco frompoetry with pitch-forks, flails and the Lower Saxon dialect which onlyhalf doffs its cap to the squire.’ But since the basic mode of Voss’s poetryis still descriptive (just as Klopstock poetry is still conceived in terms of the rhetoric of the hymn), it was left to Goethe’s Strasbourg poems(
Willkommen und Abschied, Mit einem gemalten Band 
)to liberate German poetry from the realms of description, didacticmessage and anecdote. This liberation, however, could still not beanything more than a precarious, transitory phenomenon and one thatwould lead German poetry into a decline in the course of the nineteenthcentury, whereas in the poetry of his old age, in the
West-Östlicher Divan
,Goethe himself had already introduced conscious restrictions. In
,together with Herder, Goethe produced the manifesto
Von deutscher Art und Kunst 
with his study in praise of Erwin von Steinbach, the builder of Strasbourg Cathedral, an essay whose very existence made Goethe’s laterfanatical classicism an additional source of irritation to the Romantics intheir efforts to rehabilitate the Gothic.This milieu also supplied the matrix for
Götz von Berlichingen
. Thedivided nature of the German bourgeoisie is clearly dramatized in thiswork. The towns and courts as the representatives of a principle of reasonwhich has been reduced to a coarse expression of Realpolitik, stand forthe host of unimaginative Enlighteners; they are opposed by the
in the person of the leader of the insurgent peasantry.The historical background to this work, the German Peasants’ War,could easily convey the impression that Goethe had a genuine revolution-ary commitment. That would be a mistake, for at bottom what Götz’srebellion expresses are the grievances of the old seigneurial class, theImperial Knights, who are in the process of surrendering to the growingpower of the princes. Götz fights and dies in the first instance for himself,and then for his class. The core idea of the play is not revolution, butsteadfastness. Götz’s actions are redolent of reactionary chivalry; they arethe fine, charming deeds of a seigneur, they are the expression of anindividual impulse and not to be seen in the same light as the brutaldestructive deeds of the peasant robbers with whom he joins forces. Wesee in this work the first instance of a process which is to become typicalfor Goethe: as a dramatist he repeatedly succumbs to the seduction of 

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