Friday, November 18, 2016

Why not earlier? Why at such cost? - Goethe's Italian study abroad

For all of Goethe’s status, for all of his writing, all of his learning, Italian Journey is a chronicle of firsts.  His first view of the sea, for example, which occurs in Venice:

Now, at last, I have seen the sea with my own eyes and walked upon the beautiful threshing floor of the sand which it leaves behind when it ebbs. (96)

He collects shells and watches, “for hours” the “bizarre and graceful performance of” of the crabs as they try and fail to hunt limpets (100).

Goethe has his first encounter with a Roman ruin, and with a Palladio building, and with any number of other things he had only read about.

I have spent the day looking and looking.  It is the same in art as in life.   The deeper one penetrate, the broader grows the view.  (109)

The trip really is something like Goethe’s college study abroad in Italy, a German major with a minor in art history, except that he is a highly non-traditional student.

How different all this is from our saints, squatting on their stone brackets and piled one above the other in the Gothic style of decoration, or our pillars which look like tobacco pipes, our spiky little towers and our cast-iron flowers.  Thank God, I am done with all that junk for good and all.  (95)

And Goethe has only reached, at this point, Venice!  Italian Journey has a great deal of interest as a pure travel book, especially its middle third covering Naples and Sicily, but the intellectual core of the book is in the fifty pages about Goethe’s first visit to Rome.  Everything about the classical world, Renaissance art, and to some degree living Catholicism creates a tumult.  Every idea is shaken.

Everything in me is suddenly beginning to merge clearly.  Why not earlier?  Why at such a cost?  (173)

Goethe is described a crisis point in his own development, his Bildung.  “I am not here simply to have a good time, but to devote myself to the noble objects about me, to educate myself before I reach forty” (137).  In his own work, the ideas from Italian Journey are most clearly expressed in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), where Italy is given enormous symbolic power as the nearly mythical “land of flowering lemon trees,” as Christopher Middleton translates the “Mignon” poem – go to p. 28 of Italian Journey to see Goethe meet Mignon and the harpist in the flesh – the land of fulfilment, aesthetic, intellectual, and sexual.  German readers thus knew about all this twenty years before Italian Journey itself was published; thus we see versions of the idea appear in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6), for example.

The Goethean juxtaposition of Italy and the repressed north recurs many times, and not just in German literature.  It is amusing to read E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) in this context, with the heroine finally able to cast off her Victorian chains via the influence of lively Italian murders and violets.  It took longer for Goethe to free himself, and the result was replacing a pursuit of fulfillment with an embrace of renunciation – classicism in place of romanticism, realism in place of idealism, and on like that.  German literature would never be the same.


  1. I'd sympathise a lot more with Goethe (and he's fairly endearing in this work, I must say) if he'd just stop talking about rocks. I never want to read another discussion about whether there might be Jasper in them thar hills...

  2. Goethe does the same thing in his autobiography, writing about the geology of wherever he was at each stage of his life. Geology as memoir.