Goethe: The History of a Man
G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1928. 8vo. v+647 pp. Illus. $5.00.. Translated from the German by Ethel Colburn Mayne. New York and London:
Is this book all adequate exposition of the life work of a great master of literature? How could it be, when not even an attempt is made to analyze, for instance, the style or the characters of The Sorrows of Werther? Is it an authoritative interpretation of the intellectual message of a world-embracing sage? How could it be, when there is hardly a hint in it about Goethe’s relation to other great intellectuals, such as Plato or Spinoza, or Voltaire or Kant?
And yet, to those of us who delight in the portrayal of living beings, this is not only a fascinating but a great book. No other writer on Goethe, not even Hermann Grimm or Gundolf, has succeeded as Emil Ludwig has in what he himself calls ‘reconstructing the genuine man who really lived from the æsthetic divinity’ or in making us eyewitnesses of the ‘sixty years’ battle which his Genius fought with his Dæmon and from which he finally wrested a kind of tragic victory.’ Here indeed is the first book in which Goethe has been brought out, not primarily as an author, or a type of a particular age or race, but as a unique and enigmatic individual swayed by elemental, timeless, and supraracial emotions. It is not an accident that this book should have been written by an internationally-minded Jew.
As an emotional biography, it is a product of supreme workmanship. Ludwig has steeped himself in the whole of Goethe’s soul life. He has himself lived over all of Goethe’s moods, illusions, frivolities, strivings, passions, disappointments, despairs, cynicisms, longings, exultations, ravings, inspirations, aspirations, visions of the infinite. Every circumstance, every situation that called forth all these conflicting outbursts of feeling, are present to him as if they were a part of his own experience. Every word of Goethe’s about himself, every observation of contemporaries about him, seem to be stored up in his mind, ready to leap forth spontaneously at the right moment. Thus there is produeed an organic whole which in unity, rhythm, and intensity of effect can be compared only to some great orchestral masterpiece.
And what a world it is—this soul life of Goethe as reproduced here! How infinitely superior to the traditional conception of the youthful Apollo and the aged Zeus, of the sacrosanct incarnation of harmony and beauty, is this life tossed about from first to last by the tempests of passion, but also ’forever dedicated — as in one of his early letters he said he wanted to be — ‘to that sacred thing called Love which gradually drives out, by its own pure influence, the alien elements within, so that at last the whole is pure as virgin gold’! To have shown how this man of turbulent spirit, a Faust and Mephisto in one, ever at war with himself, ever conscious of the ‘two souls within his breast,’often succumbing to the lower instinct, derived from this very duality of his nature not ennui, despondency, or distrust of the world, but an abiding and ever loftier enthusiasm, an ever wider conception of humanity and the universe, and an ever more ardent zeal for constructive activity, is to have done a service to an age still suffering from the paralyzing effects of a world catastrophe.
This book rises far above the level of mere scholarship into the realm of creative art.