The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press – £27.95
He was committed to empirical observation, but he disliked the mental and physical apparatus that accompanied science: contrived experimental conditions, doctrinaire theoretical models, and arid mathematical methods, as he saw them. His allergy to the formal scientific method limited his progress but also inspired some of his more interesting ideas.
The above, rather like much of this inviting and at times, complex anthology of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers and writers, reads like a modern day assimilation of the most acute comprehension. It’s as if Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, perhaps the most profound artist of the German Romantic period, were waxing lyrical only yesterday – for such is the translation, not to mention the interpretation of (t)his vast body of work.
And what an unquestionably vast, cohesive and pertinent body of work it continues to remain. As given its sheer dexterity and enormity, is what fundamentally accounts for the work itself successfully alluding to the fact that The Essential Goethe is a one-off.
A one-off, definitive representation like no other.
One of the prime reasons being, it provides English language readers with easier access than ever before, to the widest range of work by ”one of the greatest writers in world history.” Amid these 1007 pages, Goethe’s work as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and an autobiographer, is more than confidently and comprehensively revisited by Matthew Bell – himself a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, whose previous books include Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology and Melancholia: The Western Malady.
As he has written in the book’s Introduction: ” The volume has been produced first and foremost with the general reader in mind, though we hope it will also prove useful for students of European and comparative literature, where Goethe is an important but often inaccessible figure. Readers will find many of Goethe’s canonical works here.”
Indeed, from ‘Selected Poems’ to the Shakespearianesque Egmont (translated by Michael Hamburger), from Faust. A Tragedy (translated by John R. Williams) to the second of Goethe’s novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; from ‘On Literature and Art’ (which includes ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute (1771),’ ‘Simple Imitation, Manner, Style (1789),’ ‘Response to a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1795),’ ‘Winckelmann and His Age (1805)’) to ‘On Philosophy and Science’ (which among others, includes ‘A ‘Study on Spinoza (c. 1785),’ ‘Observation on Morphology in General (c. 1795),’ ‘The Influence of Modern Philosophy (1817),’ ‘Colours in the Sky (1817-20),’ ‘Problems (1823),’ ‘Analysis and Synthesis (c. 1829)’ and ‘A More Intense Chemical Activity in Primordial Matter (1826)’); this utterly breath-taking appreciation, can only be described as something to behold, appreciate and what’s more, be inspired by.
Where else might one read: ”For all that he abhorred chaos, he knew it could be creative. For an opponent of the revolution, he invested a remarkable amount of creative energy into trying to come to terms with it. What alienated Goethe most from his fellow Germans was the advent of Napoleon, whom Goethe admired and the young generation of German nationalists demonized. But Goethe had long since abandoned any thoughts of German nationhood or even a unified national culture. After Italy, Europe and the wider world mattered more to him.”
Whether ‘drunk on exaltation’ or ‘brimming [with] tears’ amid ‘the mordant storm,’ the Frankfurt-Am-Main born Goethe, was a both a poet and a philosopher of pristine brilliance and, given the era, urgency; a facet I believe the opening quote of this review rather substantiates.
There again: ”Like his father, Goethe took academic study and scholarship very seriously, and both were avid art collectors. Goethe was well read in art history and aesthetics, philosophy, theology, and science. He firmly believed that any creative work, even the very direct and life-orientated poetry that is one of his hallmarks, had to be informed by ideas from these fields; in this broad sense he was a determinedly philosophical writer. This is the Goethe whom the reader will meet in these pages: a lover, a thinker, a scholar, a practical man, a controversialist, a writer of very diverse moods and urges.”