7 – Goethe

Nietzsche is one of the few participants in German literature who prefers his Goethe without Faust. He scorns Faust, preferring Conversations with Eckermann. Nietzsche cannot forgive Goethe for Faust’s final apotheosis which tricks the devil while it transforms the overreaching professor into a repentant sinner as a result of the love of a young, “pure” seamstress. Romantic love saves Faust from tragedy, romance defeats the tragic possibility that Faust could know something beyond the reach of ordinary human experience i. e. how to suffer exile and triumph in it, and how not to recant. Nietzsche writes with exasperation:

The Faust idea. A little seamstress is seduced and made unhappy: a great scholar in all four branches of learning is the evildoer. Surely that could not have happened without supernatural interference? No, of course not! Without the aid of the incarnate devil the great scholar could never have accomplished this.
Should this really be the greatest German “tragic idea” as it is said among Germans? But for Goethe even this idea was still too terrible. His mild heart could not help putting the little seamstress, “the soul who forgot herself but once”, close to the saints after involuntary death; indeed, he even brought the great scholar to heaven at just the right time — the “good man” with the “darkling aspiration”! And there, in heaven, the lovers find each other again.
Goethe once said that his nature was too conciliatory for the truly tragic. 11

Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian may not be derived only from the tragic. And it is possible because of Goethe’s example Nietzsche began to alter the meaning of the god Dionysius so as to incorporate Apollonian measure, or sublimation. He finds in Goethe an, “audacious realism, a reverence for everything factual”60, as opposed to romantic cloudiness. Goethe immersed himself in, “practical activity; he surrounded himself by limited horizons”. Goethe “disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself.” 12 The poet-realist overcomes himself, using his art as a bridge to self-making which exceeds the conventions of his time, his nationality and the inertia of vague sentiment. Goethe dedicates himself to actuality. It is this affirmation of the concrete, this will to achieve embodiment that Nietzsche finds consummated in Goethe. And this theme became central to Nietzsche’s concept of poetry:

In the middle of an age with an unreal outlook, Goethe was a convinced realist; he said Yes to everything related to him in this respect — and he had no greater experience than that ens realissimum called Napoleon. Goethe conceived a human being who would be strong, highly educated, skillful in all bodily matters, self-controlled, reverent toward himself, and who might dare to afford the whole range and wealth of being natural, being strong enough for such freedom; the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength, because he knows how to use to his advantage even that from which the average nature would perish; the man for whom there is no longer anything that is forbidden — unless it be weakness, whether called vice or virtue.
Such a spirit who has become free stands amid the cosmos with a joyous and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only the particular is loathsome, and that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole — he does not negate any more. Such a faith, however, is the highest of all possible faiths; I have baptized it with the name of Dionysius. 13

The stylistic transition from Werther, from the romantic suicide and Goethe’s practical life apart from the romantic deux ex machina of Faust’s rise to heaven, is a classic example of self-overcoming, of affirming the value of the earth. The negation of concrete activity is a part of the resentment against one’s own fate which is characteristic of reactive sentiment. Goethe eventually affirms the concrete, the earth and earthly pursuits. It is this “trusting fatalism” or Amor Fati which Nietzsche understands as worthy of admiration, as a will which affirms itself through creativity and grounded self-mastery.
Poetic realism became the Dionysian affirmation of the earth. The specificity which is “proof” of the immediate, sensual experience of life embodies itself as style, as tempo, and finally as grand style — as concrete poetry and imagistic prose. This self-accepting openness is characteristic of strength, of wholeness, of a cheerfully expressed naturality. It is “a garrulousness due to the delight in good words and language forms … ” 14 Nietzsche writes later in The Gay Science: ” … bright and gracious like Goethe”, which ” … spreads a Homeric light and glory over all things.” 15
Also, Nietzsche contrasts Beethoven’s lack of control with Goethean sublimation:

If you want to imagine the human being that goes with this music, merely imagine Beethoven as he appears beside Goethe — say, at their encounter at Teplitz, as semi-barbarian beside culture, as the people beside nobility, as the good-natured human … as the visionary beside the artist, as the man in need of comfort next to the man who is comforted, as the man of exaggeration and suspicion next to one who is fair-minded, as the mope and self-tormentor, who is foolishly ecstatic, blissfully unhappy, guilelessly extravagant, presumptuous and crude — and in sum, as the “untamed human being”, that is what Goethe felt about him and called him — Goethe, the exception among Germans. No music of his rank has yet been found. 16

The Dionysian impulse is not a mere wildness or drunkenness. It is not only the tragic vision but also the sublimated, cultured embodiment of delight in nuance and control. Beethoven can neither manage nor resist emotional states which destroy his self-relation and his relation to the world; his ecstasis is that of a manic-depressive throttled now by supernatural happiness, now by irascible and embarrassing self-torment. Goethe, however, is the Dionysian man. He is “fair-minded”; he spreads a, “Homeric light and glory over all things”. In short, the Apollonian is not now in contrast with but has been subsumed into the Dionysian.
For Nietzsche, Goethe represented both the Romantic impulse and its overcoming. His life was a triumph of actuality over reactive emotionalism. His was sublimated Dionysiac joy transformed into concrete style. The grand style reflects the self-confidence and mastery of an intense gift for sensuality and spontaneous joy, feeding a calm sense of nuance and delicacy set in play by a mature imagination. Nietzsche allows that Goethe the Dionysiac need not express the brazen sexuality and drunkenness of an Archilochus nor rise from tragedy alone but from a lyric impulse transformed into a self-making of a more refined synthesis of Apollonian measure and Dionysiac intoxication. This is best exemplified by Goethe’s poem, “Natur und Kunst”:

Natur und Kunst sie scheined sich zu fliehen,
Und haben sich, eh man es denkt, gefunden;
Der Widerwille ist auch mir verschwunden,
Und beide scheinen gleich mich anzuziehen.

Es gilt wohl nur ein redliches Bemühen!
Und wenn wir erst in abgemessen Stunden
Mit Geist und Fleiss uns an die Kunst gebunden,
Mag frei Natur im Herzen wieder glühen.

So ist’s mit aller Bildung auch beschaffen:
Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister
Nach der Vollendung reiner Höher streben.

Wer Grosses will, muss sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meisser,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben. 17


Nature, it seems, must always clash with Art
And yet, before we know it, both are one:
I too have learned: Their enmity is none,
Since each compels me, and in equal part.

Hard, honest work counts most! And once we start
To measure out the hours and never shun
Art’s daily labor till our task is done,
Freely again may Nature move the heart.

So too all growth and ripening of the mind:
To the pure heights of ultimate consummation
In vain the unbound spirit seeks to flee.

Who seeks great gain leaves easy gain behind.
None proves a master but by limitation
And only law can give us liberty. 18

In this poem, the romantic notion of nature is rejected in favor of a this-worldly realism seeks neither ultimate consummation or unbounded transcendence, but only the competence of hard, honest work that recognizes limitations and stresses embodiment in detail. The “law” of poetic practice wins us freedom. Thus, there is no difference between nature and art. Both reach fruition in the giving of style to one’s life. Recall above the quote from Nietzsche, ” … it is the weak characters without power over themselves who hate the constraints of style …” 19 Precisely this concept is found in this poem, “Natur und Kunst”. There should thus be no mystery that Nietzsche found inspiration in Goethe’s work.
Goethe’s Homeric light offers more than the moping irascibility and moodiness of Beethoven’s romantic sentiment. In Goethe’s grand style the Apollonian film of appearances fuses with Dionysiac intoxication. The opposition between these two art tendencies is now merely apparent. The monism of the will to power surfaces in Nietzsche’s mature concept of style.
Here, then, in poetry, is Nietzsche’s concept of style. Goethe’s revision of the Dionysiac transformed the onslaught of sexual and emotional impulses into art and thus gave his life its gracefulness and wisdom and allowed him his legendary cheerfulness and tact. In an early poem entitled “Kunstler’s Abendlied” Goethe writes:
Ach, dass die innre Schöpfungskraft
Durch meine Sinn erschölle!
Dass eine Bildung voller Saft
Aus meinen Fingern quolle! 20


To have creation’s inmost power
Resounding through my mind!
A shape of things, in vivid flower,
Issue from my hand! 21

We can almost visualize the shaping of the energy which incarnates itself as style and the joy in competence surfacing into the world from the author’s hand. Goethe thus provided for the overcoming of romantic sentiment by his example and served as a model for Nietzsche’s thought on the grand style. But as a philosopher, Nietzsche felt compelled to embrace an iconoclasm that would shatter the dominance of Christian values. He was motivated not by a nostalgia for pagan innocence but by the hope of founding a godless humanity which overcomes itself in the sacrilege of self-mastered individuals. There is, then, a tension between the Goethean calm of the grand style and the elemental defiance which would change civilization, which would persuade and act as a beacon for a post-Christian European culture. Informed by the tempered fire of Goethe’s neo-classicism, Nietzsche nevertheless also sought to overwhelm the Goethe who flinched from tragedy, to require both for literature and philosophy a modern European Prometheus as an archetype of change and a creative conflict that would finally overcome the “transcedent” past.