Today we celebrate the 267th birthday of the most profound modern poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He is perhaps the foundational figure of our explorations of the interior, since his oeuvre opened the door to articulating the interior publicly. His work is the bridge from Shakespeare’s inexhaustible psychological savvy, which he gained through linguistic mastery, to Sigmund Freud’s attempt to systematize inner experience quasi-scientifically and psychologically.
It could be argued that with Goethe women gained access to the public sphere, not as prostitutes, as the case had been before the modern age, but as co-creators and co-designers of its culture and aesthetics. Goethe’s deep lifelong friendships with women like Katerina von Klettenberg, a pious Christian he commemorated in the chapter “The Beautiful Soul” of his Shakespearean novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” to Charlotte von Stein, whom he loved passionately and who taught him the habits and morals of courtly society, to Bettina von Arnim, his stormy relationships actively shaped the basic tenets of modern literary culture. It could be argued that women have exercised no greater influence on the design of the modern world than through Goethe’s enormous and to this day unsurpassed legacy and influence on literature.
I will dedicate a separate post on the legacy of modern German literature, its culture of self-reflection, and aesthetic of interior design, but suffice to say at this point that Goethe was the founding father of the modern literary tradition as a profoundly subjective experience. It is safe to say the service Literary E-Spa provides, its endeavour to educate an engaged literary audience in the arts and design of individual interiors, and quest to shape more sophisticated religious, cultural and consumer practices would be impossible without Goethe. We owe him our grateful hearts today, even as we contemplate the contemporary relevance of his crowning work “Faust.”
Goethe’s crowning masterpiece is “The Tragedy of Dr. Faust,” a long two-part dramatic poem based on medieval allegorical material, much like Shakespeare’s own plays, and a chillingly prophetic abstraction of the political future of modernity. Goethe worked on this drama his entire life. He began composing it at 18 and finished it in his 70s shortly before his death.
The main character is a suicidal scholar who avails himself of the legal and scientific apparatus of the modern age, allegorically represented by Mephistopheles, to become not only young again and engage in a tragic romance with the pretty, innocent village girl Gretchen, only to abandon her to a cruel fate of single motherhood and eventually prison and death, but also to become the supreme global ruler of all nations and design an infallible totalitarian social system that provides for the basic needs of all constituents. Naturally his plan of solving the world’s problems once and for all fails. Faust is condemned to hell for all eternity. This is the end of the medieval story of the Dr. Faustus. Goethe, however, adds a twist and grants the scholar-statesman grace and mercy by bringing Gretchen’s ghost back to mourn his passing and thus preserve his memory and legacy from the flames of hell. It is the ultimate tale of Christian grace, bringing the loving and forgiving victim back to embrace and save her ravisher.
If we consider the fact that modern German scholarship did develop the global bureaucratic system that keeps trying to seize control of the world, first through National Socialism, then again with the USSR, and now with globalism, is it perhaps time to let Gretchen rest in peace? Could Goethe not have foreseen the destruction of his own legacy if we are unable to let Gretchen rest and monumentalize her modern legacy in order to move on?
The dramatic poem is very rich and superbly executed. You will find the entire repertoire of American pop culture contained in its allegorical tableaus and fantastical visual-poetic language. We will explore it together with the help of Heidegger and Freud’s interpretive tools, in the specific contexts of contemporary art available on the net and in galleries, but feel free to familiarise yourself with the text now, if you haven’t done so already: http://www.iowagrandmaster.org/Books%20in%20pdf/Faust.pdf