Jenseits der Bilder: Goethes Politik der Wahrnehmung

With last year’s congratulatory essays and volumes in honor of Goethe’s birthday at a peak, the sardonic remark a highly esteemed colleague once made comes to mind. When asked to contribute to a Festschrift on Goethe, he replied to the young and eager editor: “Of course, the honoree is my friend; but, does the world really need another book on Goethe?” The book was published but the question persists with haunting insistence. Put to this test, Fritz Breithaupt is one of those rare books that merit an unqualified “yes.” This book opens entirely new possibilities for Goethe scholarship, possibilities that come closer to the spirit of the time then the spirit of those rendering an account of it. True, the author arrives at arguments that parallel those current in contemporary literary theory but the authority of its most recognized professors is never invoked. Instead, Goethe’s own pronouncements and practices are meticulously examined within their own contemporary context. The novelty of this approach, which avoids the boredom of re-plowing this well-plowed terrain, lies in the originality of vision the author has gained from taking Goethe’s theoretical and philosophical concerns seriously. This Goethe is finally taken at his own words and not at Schiller’s rather self-serving ones that celebrate him as “naïve” in contrast to a modern attitude of supposed reflective distance termed “sentimental.” Goethe was never “naïve” in any sense, other than that attributed to him by the naiveté of scholars who for generations thought him so. The insight that Goethe the thinker is equal in originality and depth to Goethe the poet has slowly become more evident in recent scholarship and Breithaupt not only builds on these beginnings but spearheads an entirely new advance. His is a holistic approach that shows convincingly how Goethe the poet cannot be read to full advantage, unless he is read as Goethe the scientist and philosopher.

The book opens with an eminently useful preview of the course the argument will take. It is useful in preparing readers for an entirely unaccustomed encounter with texts they may have thought they knew well. For centuries, Goethe’s Iphigenia on Tauris has stood as an acknowledged beacon of the humanist ideal’s unifying power under which the passions of individual strife and divisiveness must succumb to mutual understanding. This traditional position will be difficult to defend in the future because Breithaupt lets the text speak a language quite different from the Grecophile commonplaces we have come to expect. At most, Iphigenia’s tale allows for a negative accommodation of the other, hospitality granted on a temporary basis, but not for the celebration of unity under a common concept of humanity.

Even though Iphigenia is a product of the 1780s, before Goethe conducted his intensive Kant studies (see von Molnár’s Goethe’s Kantstudien, Weimar, 1994), Breithaupt’s arguments turn on the same fulcrum that occasions Goethe’s shift in perspective, and both parallel the one proposed in Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.” Iphigenia is the outcome of Goethe’s Italian journey, and at this time, sense perception is of notable concern for Goethe. No longer able to account for his morphological insights in terms of a phenomenology based on the traditional concept of things in themselves given to consciousness, Goethe begins to ascribe an active part to the senses in the production of their objects. That seeing is a productive rather than purely passive activity for Goethe is fairly well known; however, the straight connection to his Kant studies has never been made, and Fritz Breithaupt fills this obvious gap with admirable lucidity. His detailed analysis of Iphigenia is followed by a stunning treatment of Goethe’s “Fairy Tale,” unquestionably one of the most difficult texts in German literature, for which he relies largely on Goethe’s reading of the first and third Critiques. Other than Goethe’s reflections on plant morphology, his concepts of colors also contribute to the discussion, because the scientist is identical with the thinker and the poet, and the inextricable nature of their interdependence is strikingly evident in the brilliant reading Breithaupt affords this “tale.”

Throughout the book Goethe’s continued reception and reformulation of contemporary philosophy is taken into account. Fichte is mentioned very appropriately. Unfortunately, the author could not yet have known about Goethe’s close reading of Fichte’s first draft of the Wissenschaftslehre because the pencilled markings that trace his efforts have lain largely forgotten in the Weimar archives, until just recently. Other than my own very brief publications on the topic accompanied by partial reproductions of the most telling marginalia, Goethe’s Fichte studies have been noted by almost universal silence. It is all the more to the credit of Fritz Breihaupt’s acuity that the treatment of his topic is fully borne out by the notations Goethe made in his copy of Fichte’s work.

The book closes with a presentation of the Elective Affinities that will hold a place of equal importance with Walter Benjamin’s influential essay, and the final chapter on “Helena” in Faust, Part II, serves as an apt conclusion. Goethe’s collaboration with Schelling marks the last stage in Goethe’s continued appropriation of Critical Philosophy, and, again, Breithaupt is exemplary in tracing the process by means of which Goethe gained the theoretical ground he needed for the expanse of his poetic horizons. In his analysis of “Helena,” Breithaupt has drawn the sum of his presentation. It is also the summary statement Goethe renders of his phenomenology, which he formulated in conjunction with his scientific and philosophical insights and could not have conceived had he remained as “naïve” as most of his admirers would have him.

I have purposely refrained from compressing Fritz Breithaupt’s argument into an abstract. It deserves to be read in its entirety: it is elegantly and clearly phrased, and, for all its breadth and range, it is extremely well organized; above all, it is an inordinately suspenseful narrative because the reader is led onto an intellectual adventure that never relinquishes its hold.

Sure, there are also faults, but they are essentially the publisher’s. The editing could have been more exacting; here and there misspellings creep in, but they are few. More irritating is the consistency with which German publications refrain from offering an index. It would have been an especially valuable asset in this case. The book is written in German and this makes sense since its audience is probably more numerous in Germany, or so it would seem. Also, scholarly texts written in English tend to be ignored in German scholarship, and the same may in all likelihood be said of German texts and the English-speaking public. All the more reason that this particular book ought to appear in English, as soon as possible.