Friday, May 25, 2007

Lili Schonemann (& JWvG)

As you can see from my Current Reading list, over on the right panel, I've given over historical research in order to ingest John Armstrong's Love, life, Goethe : how to be happy in an imperfect world. So far, it's pretty much what the publisher and reviewers say: an invitation to see Goethe anew, not as a distant and inapproachable component of the Western Canon of Literature, but as someone we can read for pleasure and learn from. Says Booklist: "Armstrong invites readers to appreciate Goethe as an eminently human genius perpetually striving toward personal growth and wholeness, balance and beauty." I'm one of those who find Goethe difficult to read. I like his Italian Journey, but find Werther, Faust, and the rest pretty tough going. Reading about Goethe is another matter and this is not a bad book on him; perhaps having read it, I'll do better then next time I tackle works by the man himself.

In reading Armstrong, I just got to an account of the love between the 23-year-old Goethe and 16-year-old Lili Schönemann. Armstrong says Lili was seductive with a look full of erotic knowledge and a passion for sharing little secrets with men who admired her. One of these secrets, she told Goethe, was a habit of gaining the love of men, and then showing her dominance by breaking off from them. She might have intuited that Goethe was similarly inclined. He too had loved and been loved in return, and then, like Lili, taken his leave. Armstrong says this affinity was the main reason that, having once bonded, neither wished to break off and, just as much, neither wished to marry the other.

Armstrong shows us this portrait of Lili and adds a provocative question.

The picture puts me in mind of a similar raised eyebrow in last fall's production of Hedda Gabler at Goucher College.


Ralph Waldo Emerson put Goethe on a plane with Shakespeare and celebrated both throughout his life. In his portrait of Goethe in Representative Men, he seems to be writing of himself as much as his subject:
His failures are the preparation of his victories. A new thought or a crisis of passion apprises him that all that he has yet learned and written is exoteric, — is not the fact, but some rumor of the fact. What then? Does he throw away the pen? No; he begins again to describe in the new light which has shined on him, — if, by some means, he may yet save some true word.

Scholars or writers see connection where the multitude see fragments, and are impelled to exhibit the facts in order, and so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns. {This is a bit of a paraphrase.}

[The writer] reports the doings of the miraculous spirit of life that everywhere throbs and works.

[Goethe] exists for culture; not for what he can accomplish, but for what can be accomplished in him.

An intellectual man can see himself as a third person; therefore his faults and delusions interest him equally with his successes. Though he wishes to prosper in affairs, he wishes more to know the history and destiny of man; whilst the clouds of egotists drifting about him are only interested in a low success.

Source: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men, Goethe or, The Writer

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