Don't be put off by the strange title or the irrelevant cover of this book. This is a very readable life of Goethe (in commendable short and attractively illustrated chapters), independently of the rather personal agenda which prompted Armstrong to write it. Armstrong wants, through his commentary on Goethe's writings, to reveal the significance of Goethe's thought for us today; and in the process we also learn what Armstrong's own philosophy of life is. (His two earlier books are on the philosophy of beauty and on the philosophy of love.)
I have read very little by or about Goethe myself, so I cannot say to what extent Armstrong's interpretations are original or whether he has picked out what is most significant about Goethe's writings; but what he says seems to me very convincing. According to him, Goethe's central preoccupation and his ever introspective aim to turn himself into a rounded human being was the need to combine the life of learning and contemplation with involvement in the practical world, whether it be the administration of a state or something as apparently humdrum as an efficient household. The central characters of his early plays - Götz von Berlichingen, Werther, Tasso, and Egmont - are, according to Armstrong, portraits of admirable people who, however, are unable to strike this necessary balance and are therefore defeated. Goethe wants to see the real world for what it is, without either the cynicism or pessimism of the cloistered intellectual. In general, he has a sunny disposition, and when he is confronted with a bad state of affairs which he can do nothing about, his attitude is not to spend his time deploring it, but to accept it and to make the situation as bearable as possible - unlike Werther.
A certain amount of compromise may be required in practical matters, and in this respect one of Goethe's heroes was the architect Palladio who, in his desire to create new harmonious facades for old buildings, had to some make concessions to the old buildings that ideally he would have preferred not to have had to make.
And Goethe sees no contradiction between high-mindedness and a swift and natural yielding to sexual impulses - an interpretation from which, Armstrong suggests, many writers about Goethe's life recoil.
Over and over again we get the idea that Goethe's many areas of activity and interest are not separate facets of him but are integrated into a harmonious whole. That is precisely the quality for which Schiller admired him so much. The reconciling of apparent opposites and the expansion and maturing into what a fully rounded person should be is the central theme of Wilhelm Meister, the work in which Goethe articulates what he considers to be the aim of life most clearly.
A rounded person would also address himself as much to the sciences as to the arts. Goethe was constantly observing his subjective and emotional inner world, and he attached importance to the close observation of the objective outer world as a necessary balance; and in science it was the observation of `how' rather than the theoretical work on `why' that attracted him.
Admirable as it is consciously to develop a philosophy of life that may enable one to become a better person, I could not help feeling - from this account - that Goethe was something of a narcissist (though Armstrong is so taken with Goethe that I doubt whether he would agree). So much of his life seems to have been devoted to perfecting himself as a human being, almost as a work of art.
As the book progresses, there is a less about the events in Goethe's life, and it is more and more densely about his ideas, and therefore makes for more difficult reading. Part of the reason for this is, I suppose, that Goethe's own thoughts become steadily more complicated, more allusive and more difficult to grasp. Accordingly Armstrong's chapters on Faust, the play on which Goethe worked until the last year of his life, are fairly forbidding.
Just as Goethe tended to draw large implications from his everyday observations, so Armstrong regularly sees deeper implications in Goethe's sentences than their surface would suggests.
A small niggle: Armstrong admits that no translation of Goethe's poems can do justice to the original; and in Goethe's case in particular, any translation is simply banal. So I wish he had quoted Goethe's poems in the original German and then adding his own English translations.
on 3 July 2010
What on earth is a life of Goethe doing masquerading as a self-help book, and what is a Fellow in the philosophy of art doing writing it? This is actually an old-fashioned work on an old-fashioned cove whose LIFE (as distinct from the work, naturlich) has nothing to teach us (we should all have his advantages!). As simple bio, failure and flaws would speak more to the contemporary sensibility; as a guide to the Good Life it's a joke - we're invited to admire Goethe's amorous escapades (something of a theme for Armstrong) yet in this respect he is uncomfortably close to Byron, from whom the author is early on at pains to distinguish him; and it is the Gretchens we feel for in this day and age. I would love to have Germaine Greer's take on this totemic figure, or Clive James's - now there are two lives well lived! Scientists' lives, too, seem more admirable; yes I know Goethe dabbled in science (could he do no wrong?) but Darwin, anyone? or the lesser known polymath Humboldt, Goethe's contemporary indeed - whom infuriatingly I can't look up in the nonexistent index because the author 'rarely makes use of one' - what? that's like being offered a peanut because the author rarely eats lunch.