Simple Goethe

Last summer, I read simultaneously Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit, his autobiography up to the time of writing Werther, his collected travel diaries, and his life by Emil Ludwig. Of the three biographical works, my unhesitating judgment is that Ludwig's book is the disappointment: it compares to Goethe's own narrative of his youth as the description of a garden compares with the actual fragrance and colors. Although Ludwig was an excellent biographer of Napoleon and Bismarck, the poet Goethe seems to have been too much for his powers. He keeps exclaiming, "What a genius!" or "This friend, that mistress felt at his contact that they were dealing with a genius!" Distracted, we read on, and remain unconvinced—by Ludwig. We read Goethe himself—and we know.

But it is not this much-abused word that matters. It is the je ne sais quoi of Goethe's work, although, mind you, Dichtung und Wahrheit was written some 40 years after the events he recollects, from notebooks, copies of letters, but mostly from reminiscing. Yet the diary is superbly alive.

What is in Goethe that all modern writers lack? They lack it, by the way, not because of some personal deficiency, but because the past 200 years have emptied us of the direct experience of things—of colors, tastes, smells, rocks, trees, of slow-moving time, space not seen through a car or plane window,...

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