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Goethe

Category: Genius

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) was a German writer, artist, and politician. To sum up his achievements in only a few pages is impossible, but, for example, his body of work includes epic and lyric poetry ; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour; and four novels.

In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, and over 10,000 letters written by him are extant, as are nearly 3,000 drawings.  Goethe also had the largest private collection of minerals in all of Europe. By the time of his death, he had collected 17,800 rock samples.  Goethe sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in  Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar's botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace.

So a busy talented genius.  Perhaps a little on the manic side.  With a photographic memory...

I had from childhood the singular habit of always learning by heart the beginnings of books, and the divisions of a work, first of the five books of Moses, and then of the 'Aeneid' and Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. . .

Goethe had a persistent dislike of the Roman Catholic Church, characterizing its history as a "hotchpotch of fallacy and violence" Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian."

Essentially his beliefs were spiritual.  Read the attempts to classify him and there is mention of  ‘pantheism’ (heavily influenced by Spinoza), ‘humanism’, and various elements of Western ‘esotericism’.  But these are silly labels, concocted by those who have no spiritual understanding.  He was extremely spiritually inclined and you can see it in his poems, books and drama especially Faust. According to Nietzsche, Goethe had "a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism" that has "faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified."  So he believed in the Great Work.

He was naturally gifted spiritually, but there were times when simple outstanding ability became genius.  What tipped the balance?  The answer appears to have been his love life.  He appears to be perpetually in love, or losing love or suffering unrequited love.  His whole life appears to have been one traumatic and passionate love affair after another.  All his best poetry and artistic works coincide with these affairs.  His scientific achievements appear to have been reserved for the quiet times.

For example, he adored Charitas Meixner, a wealthy Worms trader's daughter and friend of his sister, who would later marry the merchant G. F. Schuler. 

He fell in love with Anna Katharina Schönkopf and wrote cheerful verses about her in the Rococo genre. 

In October 1770, on a trip to the village Sessenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, but, after ten months, terminated the relationship.  Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.

The short novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable.  It describes an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process.

Its central hero is an obsessive figure, driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte.  The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeral – a funeral which "no clergyman attended" – made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication.  Werthe was Goethe.  And what set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a “joy beyond possibility”.  He sought spiritual Divine love through earthly human love.

In 1776, Goethe formed a close relationship to Charlotte von Stein, an older, married woman. The intimate bond with Frau von Stein lasted for ten years, after which Goethe abruptly left for Italy without giving his companion any notice. She was emotionally distraught at the time. 

Meanwhile he had a mistress Christiane with whom he had several children.  He lived with her for 18 years until they eventually married. Christiane von Goethe died in 1816.

There is the possibility that Faust was written whilst he was dying from heart diseaseFaust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The Faust tragedy/drama would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation.

In 1823, [at 74 years old] having recovered from a near fatal heart attack, Goethe fell in love with the 18 year old Ulrike von Levetzow whom he wanted to marry, but “because of the opposition of her mother, he never proposed”. Their last meeting in Carlsbad on 5 September 1823 inspired him to the famous Marienbad Elegy which he considered one of his finest works.

In 1832, Goethe died in Weimar. So he loved to the end.

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