Goethe the refugee – Read more
Three years previously (1816), his wife, Christiane Vulpius had died. His home life was chaotic and filled with dissension. Although he lived with his son, August, and daughter in law, Ottilie, and her sister, Ulrike, he could rely on no one. August was useless. Ottilie had no idea of housekeeping. Everything got dustier and dustier. Initially endearing herself to Goethe by her cultural aspirations, her instability soon turned her to a life of serial promiscuity. The marriage in pieces, August did the same. And amid the chaos, Goethe suffered—although in great style. Weimar had become the Goethe shrine. Visitors came daily to see him. He felt like a piece of statuary, a tourist attraction. Inspiration being out of the question, it seemed, he turned to putting his papers in order. He assembled his Italian Journey, using his old letters; he edited his Campaign in France from his old diaries; finally he dictated the two volumes of his Annals, the dry day-by-day account of his life. When he did write poetry, it was mystical and obscure.
In this mood, he began summering in Marienbad, now his favorite spa since he had exhausted the geology of Karlsbad. But it was not only Marienbad’s geology that drew him thither. In 1821, by apparent chance, he stayed in a pension run by a retired Prussian officer, Herr von Brösige, whose daughter, Amalie von Levetzov, he had met years before in 1806 when she was nineteen. Mysteriously, he had then noted in his diary: “Pandora.” Now she was thirty-five, separated, but not divorced, for her husband was a Catholic—and she had three daughters. Her partner, a Count Klebelsberg, had built the pension where Goethe stayed for her parents.
Goethe took to the daughters immediately. They had just the freshness and youthful vitality that he needed. He was particularly taken with Ulrike, the middle one, who was seventeen. She had just returned from finishing school in Strasbourg, where Goethe too spent his student days. They spent hours together, chatting about the town where both had spent student days and about which Goethe had written at length. Much of this, however, was lost on Ulrike, who did not really know who the old man was. She called him “the great scholar.” Yet Goethe appreciated her innocence. He spent his days geologizing and botanizing, and his evenings with Ulrike, telling of his finds. Since she did not make much of his stones, he slipped a piece of chocolate amongst them: that got her attention. After that, he brought her flowers.
The following year, Goethe reunited with the Levetzovs. As usual, he attended the receptions, promenaded, went to the balls, and flirted with all the pretty girls, but clearly faraway his favorite was Ulrike. Soon, everyone was jealous of her: only through her could one gain an introduction to the Great Man. Meanwhile Goethe began to observe her with increasingly great emotion, carefully noting all the different attitudes that she presented. Gradually, but not unexpectedly, what began as a mere “love interest” turned into a great passion—though the lover was now seventy-three, and the beloved but eighteen.
Returning home to Weimar, Goethe’s mood became tumultuous. He swung daily from ecstasy to depression. He fell ill. Some said he nearly died. In January, he noted in his diary: “I am imprisoned! As if in a deep, deep tomb.” He was caught. Around the same time, he wrote:
If only I could flee from myself!
The cup is overfull.
Why is it that I always strive
For things not meant for me?
Ah, if only one could be well again!
What insufferable pains!
Like a wounded serpent,
It turns and twists in one’s heart.
In February, a darker mood seized him, lamenting the “masses of psychological stuff” that “have burdened me for three thousand years.”
By the summer, his feelings overwhelmed him. “In an impassioned state,” as he puts it, he conceived the idea of marriage and consulted a doctor to discover whether the institution would be detrimental to his health. The doctor, with a smile, said it would not. Goethe then took the Grand Duke Karl August into his confidence and told him of his plans. At first, the Grand Duke teased his old friend, but then, seeing he was deadly serious, was moved by the sight of this white-haired old man—the greatest man in Europe—begging him to be an intermediary. Accordingly, he paid a formal call to Frau von Levetzov and presented her with Goethe’s offer of marriage, even going so far as to assure her that Ulrike would always be taken care of financially. Gently, but firmly, she turned him down.
Somehow, even though the matter had been handled with the utmost delicacy, everyone knew of it. Letters flew in all directions. Goethe even wrote to his daughter-in-law, darkly alluding to his passion, and hinting at the possibility of the addition of a “third” or “fourth” person to their household.
On the same day, amazingly—for the tragedy had yet to run its course—Goethe heard the beautiful Polish pianist Symanowska play. He fell in love with her, too—so unstable was his “impassioned state”—and wrote in her album the verses on “reconciliation” that would conclude the “Trilogy of Passion”:
Passion brings suffering. Who, anxious heart,
Can soothe you, who have lost so much?
Where are the hours, so swiftly flown by?
In vain was the greatest beauty chosen for you.
The spirit is clouded, the undertaking confused;
How the glorious world disappears from the senses.
Then the music soars on angels’ wings,
Tone upon tone, a million notes intertwining,
Penetrating the core our innermost being
And filling it with eternal beauty:
The eyes moisten, and you feel with higher longing
The divine value of tones and of tears.
Thus, the heart is made light and quickly sees
It still lives and beats and would still beat more
In purest gratitude for this given gift,
That it would return in willing offering of self.
Then you feel—o that it would last forever—
The double joy of Music and Love.
Reconciliation was not yet however Goethe’s present state. He would still propose marriage to Ulrike again himself. Again, gently, he was rejected. Hastily, the Levetzovs left Marienbad for Karlsbad. This was August 17. Three days later, Goethe noted in his diary: “A quiet night. Conciliatory dreams.” Then, on the 23rd, he too left Marienbad, supposedly to visit his friend Grüner in Eger, stopping on the way to gather more mineralogical samples. He is after “undulatory slate rich in flint” and “pyrotypical stones of several kinds.” From Eger, he sent Ulrike a poem saying that she dwelled so much in his heart that he cannot understand how she is elsewhere. Meanwhile, he talked with his friend Grüner about the mineralogy and geology of Bohemia and visited the pharmacy to view its “weather glass.” All seemed fine, but in his diary he also noted “work on the poem”—the poem of his agony. Finally, he arrived in Karlsbad, taking rooms at the same Inn where the Levetzovs were staying—his immediately above theirs.
On the surface, things still went smoothly. August 28 was Goethe’s seventy-fourth birthday. He told no one of it. It would be a secret—he would organize an excursion for that day. But when he came down to breakfast, he found in his place a cup on which a garland of ivy was painted. “Why the pretty cup?” he asked. “To remind you of our friendship,” he was told. “Ivy is the symbol of friendship.” Later, at the picnic, he was given a glass on which the names of Frau von Levetzov and her three daughters were engraved. “Despite it all, “she said, “We don’t want to be forgotten. Remember us always and also this occasion.”
The days following unfolded like those at Marienbad, social events punctuated by mineralogical expeditions. Ulrike read to him from Sir Walter Scott. In his dairy he noted: “On the whole she reads well and without affectation, but she ought to read with more energy and vivacity.”
On the morning of September 15, after a “tumultuous farewell,” Goethe left, and as the carriage rolled along he began to compose to its rhythm and with perfect objectivity the main section of the “Trilogy of Passion,” “The Marienbad Elegy.” Goethe knew well, as he had written in his play Torquato Tasso and echoed in the first poem of the Trilogy, “To Werther”: when a person is speechless in his pain, a god will help him speak his suffering.
By October, the god had spoken. On October 23, Goethe asked his amanuensis, Eckermann, to stay a little later than usual. As the gloom of dusk grew deeper, Goethe asked him to bring in and light two exquisite wax tapers. Eckermann would read something. Goethe brought in “The Trilogy of Passion.” It was calligraphed in perfect Roman characters on the finest vellum paper and fastened with a silken cord into a red morocco case. When Eckermann had finished reading, Goethe said, using Frankfurt slang, “Gelt?”—that is, “Well, ain’t it so? Haven’t I shown you something pretty good!”
The next month, November, the pianist Madame Symanowska played in Weimer. Goethe was asked to propose a memorial toast. He cried out:
I do not suffer memory in the sense you mean. Whatever enters our life that is great or beautiful or important is not to be remembered merely from without, hunted down as it were, but from the start it must be woven into the very heart of our being, united with it, so that it might create within us a better self and thus live on in us eternally active. There is no past for which we have a right to long, there is only what is eternally new, formed from the expanded elements of what has gone before; true longing must always be productive, must always create something new and better.
After La Symanowska left, Goethe collapsed. Word was that he was near death. But when his friend Zelter visited him, he saw the truth, noting in his diary: “I stand at the door… Is there death in the house? …August comes: ‘Father is not well, ill, very ill.’… I approach closer… What shall I find? What do I find? Someone who looks as if his body is racked with love, all the love of youth with all its agony. Well, if that is what it is, he will get over it! No! He must keep it, he must burn like quicklime.”
Burn he did, and rise from the dead he did, and the poem—ritually unveiled for Eckermann with candles like a sacred text—remained for him a numinous thing, a gift of the gods.
He gave it three parts. The first part, “To Werther,” was written to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of his famous early work The Sufferings of Young Werther, which had made him celebrated throughout Europe and set off a rash of sympathetic suicides for love’s sake. For Goethe, this is not an occasion for looking back, for once again he is himself in the same situation as Werther was: still in love with nature, in love with love, and, “caught in love’s magnetic lure in a woman’s form,” separating, dying, in a—very particular—particular love. Confused strivings between inside and out still tear him apart. Perhaps, after all, Werther took the right decision:
I chose to remain, you to depart,
You went ahead—and have not lost much.
After all, as always for Goethe, yet again, “the farewell awaits”—as if there were no higher life without death, as if life were, if rightly lived, a continuous dying and becoming. He ends:
You smile, friend, full of feeling, as befits you:
A horrible separation made you famous;
We celebrated your wretched ill-fate,
You left us behind for better or worse.
Then once again an uncertain path
Of passion drew us into its labyrinth;
And, entangled in repeated need, we end
Once more in separation—separation is death!
But how stirring it sounds, when the poet sings
To avoid the death that separation brings!
Half guilty and caught up in such torments
May a god give him to say what he suffers.
What the god gives him is the “Marienbad Elegy” itself. It is an astonishing performance. Hardly Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” it is the thing itself, not subjectively, but in its own suchness. After beginning with his act of gratitude—:
Though in their torment most people fall silent
A god has given me the power to say what I suffer.
Goethe continues almost theologically:
What can I now hope for from this reunion,
From this day’s still closed blossoms?
Paradise and hell stand open before me;
How fickle-mindedness rules in my heart!
But enough of doubt! She steps to heaven’s door,
She lifts me into her arms.
And I was received into paradise,
As if I deserved eternal, beautiful life;
No wish, no hope, no desire was left me—
Here was the goal of my inmost aspiration;
Beholding this singular beauty
The source of my yearning tears was overcome…
The day passed in gentle bliss until, with a chaste, last kiss, “cruelly sweet,” the “splendid tissue of intertwining love” was ripped apart. It was as if a fiery cherub drove him out of Paradise. The gate closed. His heart—filled with self-reproach, remorse, and despair—likewise shut, as if never opened. Yet the world’s beauty—nature in all her fecund glory—was still there; the canopy of the cosmos still poured its invisible powers upon the earth. Even, in the blue ether, she floated toward him seraphim-like, “the loveliest of loveliest forms.” But perhaps that was a fiction: better hold her in his heart. How she had welcomed him! How each act had inscribed her in his heart, which would preserve itself for her and preserve her forever in eternal gratitude! He had thought love was lost until she appeared. Then, within his heart, she became a sign of hope renewed, and faith, and peace:
In the purity of our heart a striving stirs
To surrender ourselves in voluntary gratitude
To a higher, purer Unknown,
Unriddling the eternally Unnamed:
We call this state: piety, a blessed height
I feel in part when I stand before her.
Before her, all self-seeking melts away. In her presence, all self-interest and self-will disappear. She teaches only the goodness of life, as it exists moment to moment. One need only look each moment in the eye, be childlike, then you will be all things and invincible.
Yet she is gone! What does that moment demand? Tears, frenzy, a heart split open, and a life-and-death struggle: pain, solitude, more tears. And he ends:
Leave me here, true companions,
Leave me alone with the rocks, marsh, and moss.
Hold to your paths: to you the world is open,
The earth is wide, the sky sublime and great.
Observe, research, and gather the details,
Nature’s secret will be stuttered out.
I have lost the All. I have lost myself,
I, who have been the darling of the gods,
Who tested me and gave me Pandora,
Who is so rich in blessings and richer still in dangers.
They pressed me to bountiful lips,
Cut me from them and destroyed me.
“In every great separation,” Goethe wrote in his Maxims and Reflections, “lies a seed of madness; one has to be careful not to foster its growth.” Such partings are death and one could die. Goethe, of course does not: there is reconciliation; there is always a higher longing still, dying into which we are reborn.
Goethe’s great theme—in poetry, in science, in fiction, in drama, in human relations, as in life—was always unity in multiplicity (or division) and multiplicity in unity. As he put it: “To divide what is united and unite what is divided is the very life of nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal syncresis and diacresis, the rhythmical breathing of the world, in which we live and move and have our being.” (Theory of Color)
Like the old alchemist Maria, Goethe knew that creation and consciousness arise as Primal Love between One and Two, Unity and Duality. He understood that in the moment that Unity looks at itself it sexualizes or polarizes and begins the sequential processes of expansion and contraction whereby, reuniting, it becomes conscious of itself. Years of patient observation and study of nature, society, and his own heart had taught him how unity divided to become a field of love that unfolded through embodied affinities. Over and over again he had seen how these affinities, through their perpetual self-transcendence, determined the harmony of the relationships specifying the individualized powers of the universe—all yearning to be brought together again in unity. In everything Goethe did—whether in science, poetry, drama, or fiction—he sought to realize the famous adage attributed to Ostanes: “Nature rejoices with nature; nature conquers nature; nature restrains nature.”
For Goethe, the name of this nameless One-Many/Many-One is Nature. Goethe’s great love was always Nature, and Nature was love and Nature was the All. For him, the love that was Hildegard’s greening power of nature, Dante’s “love that moved the stars,” and the love that brought two human beings into unity, was a single love.
One sees this clearly in his famous early poems “May Song” and “Ganymede”:
How the sun glitters,
How the meadow laughs!
From every twig,
A thousand voices
From every bush,
Joy and delight
From every breast.
O earth, O sun!
O happiness, O desire!
O love, O love,
As the morning clouds
On yonder hill…
How I love you
How your eye glances!
How you love me!
As the lark
Loves singing and air
And morning flowers
Love heaven’s fragrance
So I love you
With warm blood:
You give me youth
And joy and courage
For new songs
How in the morning’s radiance
You glow all around me,
Spring, my beloved!
How, with love’s thousand delights,
Your eternal warmth,
Your holy feeling,
And unending beauty,
Press upon me.
Oh if I could hold you
In these arms!
At your breast
I lie, I languish.
Your flowers, your grasses
Press on my heart.
My breast’s burning thirst,
Sweet morning breeze!
Where the nightingale calls out
Amorously to me from the misty valley…
Nature was always and everywhere for Goethe one with the “eternal womanhood” celebrated at the end of Faust:
Is only a symbol;
Here become event;
Here is done:
Draws us on.
Nature, for Goethe, was all. As he wrote: “Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to step out of her, and powerless to enter deeper into her…” Unceasingly, she shapes new forms. Whatever she does is new, yet always the same. She is the only artist, working up “the simplest material into utter opposites and arriving, without a trace of effort, at the greatest perfection, at the most exact precision, always veiled beneath a certain softness. Each of her works has its own distinct essence, yet all form one eternal life. Becoming, and movement, are in her, but she does not advance. She changes eternally, and never rests…” She has always thought and always thinks; though not as a human does. Above all, he claims:
Her crown is love. Only through love can one come close to her. She makes abysses between all beings, and all desire to intermingle. She isolates all in order to draw all together, holding a couple of draughts from the cup of love to be fair compensation for the pains of a lifetime.
In his Metamorphosis of Plants, he showed that from seed to seed a plant was only “leaf” metamorphosing through a seven-stage process of contraction and expansion. While his Treatise appears to be purely botanical, Goethe alludes at its beginning to its being something more. He calls the complete process—whose summit is reached in the union of sexes—“a spiritual ladder.” Elsewhere, he refers to “metamorphosis in the higher sense,” saying that it had already been excellently portrayed by Dante. Both of these metamorphoses are processes of purification (the progressive spiritualization of matter), renunciation (death and resurrection), and ennobling, around and creative of a central point. The endpoint, the seed, described as “the highest degree of contraction and development of its inward self,” comes after the hermaphroditic union of male and female in the corolla, from which fruit and then seed emerge.
It is in fact clear that, just as the old alchemists saw all processes as essentially those of sulphur and mercury, so Goethe understood the metamorphosis of plants as an unfolding sequence of conjunctions or unions, deaths and resurrections, between male and female elements.
As in nature, so in poet, who is nature too (with something “more” as she is likewise.) In his Divan, Goethe writes a poem called “Reunion”:
Can it be? Star of stars,
Do I press you to my heart again?
Then the night of separation:
What abyss, what pain!
Yes, it is you, my friend,
Sweet, beloved counterpart:
I recall past sufferings,
I shudder before the present.
When the world lay in deepest depths
In God’s eternal bosom,
He ordained the first hour
With sublime creative desire
And spoke the word: Let it become!
Then a painful cry rang out,
As the All in a gesture of power
Shattered into separate realities.
Light opened; shyly
Darkness separated from it,
And straightway the elements,
Dividing, flew asunder.
Swiftly, then, in wild chaotic dreams,
Each pushed to the distances,
Becoming rigid in unmeasured spaces,
Without longing, without tone.
All was mute, still, and empty:
For the first time, God was lonely!
So he created the dawn,
Who took pity on the torment of separation,
And developed through the gloom
A sounding play of color,
So that what had fallen apart
Could now love again.
Then with hasty striving
Those belonging to each other sought each other,
And feeling and gaze
Returned to immeasurable life.
Let each one seize and even snatch the other
If they can but grasp and hold!
Allah needs create no more:
For we are now creating his world.
Thus, with wings of dawn,
I was drawn to your lips.
Star-bright night with its thousand seals
Now empowers our union.
Exemplary are we two on Earth
In joy and pain:
No second “Let it become”
Will separate us a second time.
Goethe, here, is amazingly prescient. Whoever the Dawn is, she is clearly an intermediary, and a figure of Sophia or Wisdom. It matters little whether we call the two terms she mediates heaven and earth, spirit and matter, God and humanity, or God and creation. She is in-between, a veil that conceals and reveals, both the medium of theophany or revelation and sheer human creativity itself.
There is a hadith or saying that the Prophet Mohammed attributes to the Creator: “I was a hidden treasure and yearned to be known. Therefore I produced creatures, in order to be known in them.”
Perhaps Goethe knew this and knew how the Sufis, interpreting that saying, told the story of how the Creator suffered the solitude and sadness of not being known; and how his sadness and anguish at being unknown because unnamed, unseen, un-embodied—his desire to be known, which is the secret of his creativity—unfolded in a Sophianic “sigh of existentiating compassion,” an all-surrounding cloud that receives and gives beings their form. Henry Corbin calls this being, “the absolute unconditioned Imagination,” the creative, active Imagination.
She is certainly that. But above all, she is Sophia, Divine Feminine Wisdom, the sole path to wholeness who, as Solomon writes:
…Rises from the power of God like a fine mist,
A clear effluence from the glory of the Almighty;
…She is the radiance that streams from everlasting light,
The flawless mirror of the active power of God…
She is but one yet can do all things,
Herself unchanging, she makes all things new.
Age after age she enters into holy souls,
And makes them friends of God and prophets,
For nothing is acceptable to God
But the person who makes his home with Wisdom.
Dawn, Nature, Wisdom, the Feminine Divine: Goethe above all made his home with these.
As for “Eros,” he was certainly her servant, ultimately teaching devotion to her alone:
He does not fail to come! He plunges down from heaven
Whither he flew from the ancient void,
To hover upon us on airy wings
Round our brow and breast the whole spring through,
Now seeming to flee, now returning from his flight,
Mixing anguish in our wellbeing, sweetness and anxiety—
The heart wanders lost in the many
But the noblest devotes itself to one alone.