Just Finished Reading: Love, Life, Goethe – How to be Happy in an Imperfect World by John Armstrong (FP: 2006)
This is rather a strange one – not helped by the sub-title not exactly being 100% honest. On the face of it this looks like a kind of off-beat self-help book possibly using the works of the great 18th Century German author and playwright as examples. In a roundabout way that would be right. But only somewhat. What it actually turned out being was an off-beat biography of the man himself - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832).
Now I’d be the first to admit that all I knew of Goethe prior to reading this rather long but interesting book is that he was German and that he’d written some classic works of literature. I’m not even sure, prior to being immersed in his life, that I could’ve told you which century he lived in. My knowledge of German culture is, as you might imagine, rather sparse. I am now much more familiar with his works, nicely explained throughout, and with the time in which he lived. He was undoubtedly a very lucky man. He was lucky enough to be born into position and reasonable wealth and was being groomed, from an early age, to take up a position of power and prestige in his home city of Frankfurt. Sent away to study Law he developed other ideas and produced a novel which became a runaway best seller and made him the toast of European society and all whilst still in his 20’s. The novel, The Sorrows of Young Werter, made him a cultural superstar who everyone wanted to meet or befriend. One such benefactor was Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (based in the small town of Weimar) who managed to entice Goethe to move to his principalities capital and to stay there for most of his life. Whilst there Goethe produced a number of plays, including a very well received re-imaging of Faust in two parts (the 2nd part only publish after his death and, together, running for over 13 hours of stage time), several travelogues – he loved Italy – some poetry and even some scientific work (apparently getting involved in a huge row with Isaac Newton about the nature of light!) He also managed to become Karl August’s friend, a minister in his government and a companion on his military adventures (including against Napoleon himself). If that wasn’t enough Goethe had an eye for the ladies which was more than reciprocated. A handsome man into late middle-age, famous, connected and not exactly poor he was quite a catch in anyone’s book. All the stranger then when he fell in love with, had children with and finally married a pretty local girl with no education, no money and no position. Whilst not exactly staying faithful to her throughout her life they did stay together until her death late in his life.
So, where does the rather strange sub-title come in? The author, with some style I must admit, makes a good case for Goethe’s philosophical stance using evidence from his literally works, later autobiography and various letters to his many, many contacts throughout Europe. He did say some interesting, if potentially mundane, things. One of the most interesting I thought was his belief that it was simply not possible to know other people anywhere as well as you could, at least potentially, know yourself. He was certainly sure that no one would understand him after he died no matter what material he left behind (and he deliberately left a lot!). Something even more mundane was his belief in home comforts. The home should be your refuge and should be clean, tidy and orderly. With such a place to retreat to almost any trial could be overcome. He was though, above everything else, most concerned that people saw the reality of the world and did not spend their lives disappointed (or worse) that life in general or their lives in particular were not turning out the way they imagined they would. Projecting our wishes onto the real world and expecting some positive outcome was, he thought, simply asking for trouble. Whilst not exactly what I was expecting this was still an interesting (and often fascinating) delve into a world and an author I had previously know very little about. If you’re interested in Goethe, 18th century literature or European culture this is the book for you. Recommended.
[Next up in non-History non-Fiction: Our Dark Future]