Friday, June 10, 2011

Goethe: A telling anecdote

In 1826, the Bavarian historian Karl Heinrich von Lang was passing through Weimar and thought he might like to meet the great man—who had a reputation for being not particularly hospitable to strangers. Here is how Herr Lang tells the story: "On my journey I stopped at Weimar, where dazzled by the devil, I sent a note that spared no subservient obeisances to the city's old Faust, Master von Goethe, in hopes of meeting with him. I was received at half-past noon. A tall, old, ice-cool, stiff, imperial councillor came toward me in a dressing gown, gestured to me to seat myself, accepted everything I told him about the King of Bavaria and then barked: "Tell me, no doubt you have a fire insurance office in your Ausbach region?" Yes, indeed. —Then came the invitation to recount to the last detail the procedures that were followed when fires occurred. I responded that it depended on whether the fire could be extinguished or the town or the house actually burnt.—Let us, if I may say so, permit the town to go up in flames.—And so I fanned my blaze and let it consume everything, with the fire engines rushing around in vain; set out on my inspection the next day, obtained an estimate of the damages and pared it down as much as possible; made some superficial sketches of the buildings that will remain neglected by the Munich supervisors, while the poor burnt-out wretches languish in shanties; and finally in two, three years paid out the compensation sums after they have been reduced to almost nothing. The old Faust listened to this and said: I thank you. Then he continued: What is the population of such a district in your area? I said: Something over 500,000 souls. — So! So! he intoned. Hm! Hm! That is indeed something. (To be sure, more than twice the entire Grand Duchy of Weimar.) I said: Now, as I have the honor of being here with you, there is one soul less. However, I shall get myself hence and take leave of you. —Whereupon he gave me his hand, thanked me for the honor or my visit and accompanied me to the door. I felt as if I had caught a cold while putting out fires."

What does this story tell us? It tells that Goethe, that old Faust, is indifferent to human suffering and the rule of law—which as readers of the Faust poem we have already guessed. Imagine how different the history of modern Europe—or even the world— might have been had this man been a thinker instead of an esthete. Herr Lang had him pegged. Like Werther, Goethe was entirely self-absorbed. I can't think of any other Great Man of the romantic period who counts for so little.

[This story is recounted in Peter Boerner's biography, Goethe published in 2005.] 

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