Rüdiger Safranski in conversation

Defying Convention

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is very likely the most prominent customer in the long history of Gebrüder Weiss. In his recent biography, “Goethe. Das Kunstwerk des Lebens” (Goethe. The Art of Life), Safranski has not only illuminated the poet's travels but his entire spectrum of interests and activities – and shown how the poet successfully turned his own life into a work of art.

When Goethe was returning from his trip to Italy in 1788, he linked up with the “Lindau Courier” service which guided him across the Alps. In this way Goethe became part of the identity of Gebrüder Weiss. Can Goethe generally be described as a mobile person?
Yes, most certainly. Goethe liked travelling, and he travelled a lot, far in excess of 10,000 kilometres. Given the modes of transport available at the time, he was widely travelled. Amazingly, considering the bumpy coaches and bad roads, he was able to read while en route. Not only that, he could even write on the road. For example, he drafted the “Marienbad Elegy” in the coach he had taken from Marienbad back to Weimar.

What was it that interested him about Italy at the time?
Italy was the Promised Land of art for Germany in those days – because of its paintings, because of its famous Mediterranean light, and also because of its supposedly less rigorous morals. Besides, Italy was the land of classical antiquity. Educated people in Germany were greatly in awe of the art, drama, and philosophers of antiquity. But he also had a personal reason: his father had been to Italy, and had written a book about it, a tame travelogue. And at a very young age little Goethe, who saw everything that his father had brought back with him from Italy, knew he would have to visit the country too. He wanted to catch up with his father and achieve the same level, so to speak. There's actually a well-known book by Kurt Eissler, a psychoanalyst and Freudian, who found yet another reason for this journey: he maintained that Goethe only became sexually potent after he had “caught up” with the father in Italy. But that is pure speculation, and I don’t think much of it. I mention it only because the ruminations on why Goethe travelled to Italy have spawned some strange theories.

The journey to Italy as the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream?
That, too. Besides, Goethe embarked on this journey at a critical point in his life. When he started out in 1786, he had risen to a high position in Weimar; he was a high-ranking official, one of the Duke's closest advisors. He was extremely busy with matters of state and was afraid that his poetic vein might dry up. So he went to Italy to rediscover himself as an artist. It was really an existential journey, you might say, during which he wanted to answer the question: “Am I still an author, or am I a has-been author?” He took a huge stack of manuscripts along with him so that he could get a lot of writing done and finally complete all the works he had started but left unfinished. So it wasn't just a vacation, nor just an art tour, but a journey aimed at finding out whether he, as an author, could bring his works to completion.

A very modern concept, really: a sabbatical, as it were. And the Duke was even persuaded to continue paying his full salary in Italy, even though he wasn't enthusiastic about Goethe's trip. And Goethe not only stayed away much longer than originally agreed. Upon his return, he even demanded a higher salary. Can we deduce from this that he had become very important to the court in Weimar?
Goethe took a considerable gamble. He hardly informed anyone of his plans, not even his mistress at the time, Frau von Stein. He told the Duke at the last moment that he needed a vacation and wanted to head south. No more than that. And the Duke granted him leave. Goethe travelled to Italy incognito so that he could not be summoned home. And there was no doubt about his first port of call: he wanted to get to Rome. From there he wrote to the Duke, pleading with him not to abandon him, even at the risk that the Duke might say: “That wasn't the agreement we made.” But Goethe was often fortunate in life, and his luck held here as well. How did the Duke react? At first he was angry. But Goethe had found somebody to deputise for him before his departure, and this colleague, Voigt, was doing an excellent job – for Goethe was good as a civil servant but not irreplaceable. The Duke appreciated that, too. And he realized that Goethe was not merely important to him as an official, but also as a companion and friend. So when Goethe returned after 18 or 19 months, his duties were halved and his salary doubled. In the interim, Goethe had been able to reinvent - and moreover reassure - himself that he was still an author and not just a Geheimrat, a privy councillor. During this journey he had completed some of the works that had hitherto existed only as fragments. He had fallen in love and most likely also experienced a number of other erotic encounters; he had immersed himself in the stunning countryside and familiarised himself with the world of antiquity and numerous artists. In short, his wishes had been fulfilled.

It appears that Goethe retained a strong attachment to his first Italian journey for the rest of his life. Wouldn't it have been possible for a new dream to take its place?
Yes, it sustained him for a long time, but after that he took a succession of new trips. He never stayed put for too long in his provincial home of Weimar: time and again he felt the lure of the outside world. He was always glad to get back home, though. Because he allowed himself regular break away, Weimar never became too claustrophobic for him. Reconciling competing needs was a life skill that Goethe had mastered. Sedentariness and mobility. He wasn't merely mobile. He wasn't merely sedentary. He was both – in alternation. We shouldn't forget that travelling was real strain back then. But Goethe stood up to this challenge, even in old age: as late as 1824 he still travelled to Marienbad. He was 75 then – veritably ancient for that time.

Even then Weimar was anything but a bustling metropolis. What other places could Goethe have imagined as a focal point for his life?
More than once he felt attracted by his native city of Frankfurt, and more than once he ultimately opted against it. The people of Frankfurt, of course, would have loved to have him as a councillor of their impressive city. But Goethe did not want to retreat back into his own past. Another city he liked very much was Leipzig, where he had been a student as a young man. A splendid city, relatively new at the time, a hub of intellectual activity - with a large annual book fair. There were lots of attractions there. And when he was in Italy, he had considered remaining in Rome. He himself was surprised that he always returned to Weimar. But in the end he preferred being the brightest star in a lesser firmament.

He was, nevertheless, viewed as acting in a manner not befitting his station by setting up home with the lower-class Christiane Vulpius. He was never forgiven for this. He even had to move outside the city gates for a while. Why did he put up with that?
It would have been socially acceptable for a privy councillor to keep this woman as a mistress. According to the moral code of the time, however, the fact that he moved in with her was the ultimate scandal – both within the court and society at large. I think it is impressive how Goethe stuck to his guns. He quietly accepted that vacating the rented house on Frauenplan in the heart of town was the price he had to pay. The Duke probably told him the equivalent of “I personally don’t have any objections, but we can't have this, my courtiers are all strictly opposed, it just won’t do. So pack your bags and off you go to the house outside town.” That was actually a very attractive house, too, it just wasn't situated as centrally. Then came the campaigns of 1792, where Goethe accompanied the Duke in the campaign against revolutionary France and became quite embroiled in the war – as an observer but nonetheless very much on the front line and in dangerous situations. The Duke was so grateful to him that he gifted him the house on Frauenplan. So Goethe moved back in with Christiane, in full public view, and into the very centre of town. And more than ten years were to pass before he officially married her.

Yet as a married couple they were never fully accepted at the heart of society. Christiane Vulpius was always shunned slightly.
Goethe loved Christiane Vulpius in full public view, but she never accompanied him at court. That was a lifestyle he could only assert for himself. But the correspondence between the two shows that she did not regard this as a problem. For one thing, she loved her Goethe; for another, she was fulfilled by everything he had given her. And conversely, she happened to be the perfect match for him as well. She was exactly what he had been searching for. She was his type – worldly-wise, vivacious, pretty, erotic and devoted. From reading their letters one has the impression they were a happy couple, with each of them having a part to play. Yet Goethe did get annoyed at times, as in his friendship with Germany's premier dramatist Friedrich Schiller ...

… who himself had married a woman from the aristocracy ...
… and who Goethe expected to be more accepting of his Christiane. But Schiller behaved very conventionally in this respect. He all but ignored Christiane and remained very standoffish and reserved with her. Goethe was not pleased. He would have wanted him to take the initiative more. So Christiane's integration into his world was not a great success. What did work well was the marriage itself and the relationship they had.

In Weimar this unexpected partnership even sparked an unusual cultural phenomenon. For example, Johanna Schopenhauer, the mother of the philosopher, opened her own literary salon and proved successful not least because she invited Christiane Vulpius along with Goethe ...
She said: “If Goethe embraces this woman in his life, I can surely treat her to a cup of tea.” And she invited her.

Did that remain the exception – or can a general change in values be discerned over time?
Well, above all it took some getting used to. Besides, Christiane was a bubbly, extremely vibrant woman, who forged her own circle of friends that was full of actors and other interesting people – you could speculate whether she was always faithful to Goethe. She wasn't the type of woman who sat around waiting at home. No, she was sociable, alert, and didn't want to be in Goethe's shadow all the time. She had her own set, liked her drink and loved to dance. We don’t need to grant her absolution or rehabilitate her in retrospect. She was quite capable of looking after things herself.

Was the Weimar of that age a good biotope for Goethe also because, while culturally attractive, it was of a manageable size and thus an ideal environment for a measured life, a life of moderation?
Moderation and structure were very important to him. Moderation was essential. Goethe hated uncontrolled growth and proliferation. And too much moderation was suffocating. He was constantly searching for stimuli – as long as there weren't too many! A city like Berlin or Paris, where Napoleon would have rolled out the red carpet, would have been far too restless for him, too frenetic. And Weimar, though small, was by no means a backwater. Goethe saw to it that something cultural was always going on. But always in a way that allowed him to keep it under control. He did not want to feel overwhelmed; he always wanted to maintain an equilibrium. He knew perfectly well that he sometimes had ideas when he was writing, and that he sometimes didn't. And if he didn't make progress on something, he let it lie for a while, so as not to force anything, not to cramp up. He preferred to let things come in their own good time. He might work a little on his Faust, then he might tend to his mineral collection, and then he might resume his scientific studies or return to his ministerial obligations. He always sought to arrange things in such a way that everything could function smoothly. Then, in the evening, after the day’s work was done, it was time for recreation and a visit to the theatre. This rhythm allowed him to maximise his energy. For Goethe was not only a man of action; he was also an expert in laissez-faire.


Frank Haas is head of brand strategy and communication at Gebrüder Weiss and editor-in-chief of Atlas.

Rüdiger Safranski was born in 1945 and studied Philosophy, German Studies and History. He first made a name for himself with his biographies of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Arthur Schopenhauer and Martin Heidegger. In January of 2002, he became the moderator of the “Philosophical Quartet” on Second German Television (ZDF), together with Peter Sloterdijk. One of Germany's leading thinkers, Rüdiger Safranski is a member of both the German Academy for Language and Poetry and the German PEN Club. (Image: Peter-Andreas Hassiepen)

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