Conversations Of GoetheConversations Of Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


For those of us who come from the English-speaking world the best initial path of approach to Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe is to think of it as the German equivilant to James Boswell’s epic biography, The Life of Life of Samuel Johnson. Both works are hailed as not only invaluable accounts of their respective great men of letters, but have come to be valued as great masterpieces of literary biography and independent literary works in their own right. In addition, for those of us with a special interest in World Literature, Eckermann’s Conversations also records Goethe’s definitive delineation of his concept of the emergence of World Literature, using the German term he coined to define his concept “Weltliteratur.”

Johann Peter Eckermann, like James Boswell came to his calling as a witness and literary biographer of Goethe as a young unknown man encountering a long-renown literary titan towards the end of his life and career. Boswell met Johnson in a London bookshop owned by a mutual friend in 1763, when Boswell was just twenty-four years old and Johnson was internationally famous at the age of fifty-four. Eckermann met Goethe at Weimar in 1823 when he was just dropping his studies in law at the University of Gottingen at the age of thirty-one in hopes of finding a literary career, and Goethe was at seventy-four the acknowledged universal genius of European letters for half a century. Both men became intimate friends and scrupulous recorders of the conversations of their principals, in Boswell’s case for the next 22 years until Johnson’s death, and in Eckermann’s case for an ensuing 9 years until Goethe’s death in 1832 of which he gives a moving account.

Both are sometimes chided for looking on their respective great men with the idolizing eyes of comparative youth, rather than the more seasoned eyes of a true contemporary of similar age and equal experience. While undoubtedly true in some respect, even this supposed fault may be seen as a strength rather than a weakness as their sense of awe fixated and concentrated their energies over many years and imbued each with a weighty mission charged with a sense of responsibility to history and the world, inspiring them to keep meticulous verbatim notes of conversations, records of life events and intimate recordings of their own impressions and observations of their subjects and their respective milieus.

Eckermann’s first meeting with Goethe was both dramatic and the most fateful event of his life. He came from a poor family and served as a soldier in the Napoleonic wars. After mustering out of the army with little education he obtained a scholarship that allowed him to complete the Gymnasium and enter the University of Goettingen to study law at his father’s urging. Like Goethe, however, he discovered that literature and not law was his personal calling and he abandoned that career when his scholarship moneys came to an end. Having written his first unpublished book on poetry, including Goethe’s contributions to German poetics, he send the manuscript to Goethe seeking assistance in its publication. After waiting long months and having no response and his money coming to a final end he sold his possessions and abandoned his flat and set out on foot to seek a personal interview with the sage in Weimar, sending a letter in advance but receiving no appointment. It was for Eckermann a reckless last chance.

Upon arrival he gained entry to Goethe’s home and was told to wait in the common room. After two hours, the seventy-three year old European icon entered the room in an elegant blue frock coat and sat opposite him, saying: “I have just come from you!”—–meaning that he had just come from reading Eckermann’s manuscript which he had not had time to look at before. Eckermann began to try to explain his work, but Goethe stopped him, saying “There is no need to explain—-I have been reading your work all morning and it needs no recommendation—it recommends itself and I accept both it and you.”

Forthwith, without having made any request of him Goethe informed Eckermann that he was not only arranging for his book’s immediate publication but offering him a position as his private secretary and putting him in charge of his library and managing his literary papers and records. He informed Eckermann that he had already sent to the town to arrange housing and effects for him, effectively taking charge of his life! For the next nine years until Goethe’s death he would be in daily contact and conversation with the great Sage of Weimar and record not only their own conversations, but the long literary conversations Goethe undertook with his endless visitors, many them the greatest minds and writers of the age, producing an invaluable near verbatim record of innumberable historic dialogues with the faithfulness and fervor that Plato recorded the words of his revered Socrates.

I deeply recommend reading this seminal work, hailed by even a mind as profound as Nietzsche as the finest work he had read. Here are Goethe’s thoughts on Byron, Carlyle, Delacroix, Hegel, Shakespeare, and Voltaire, as well as his views on art, architecture, astronomy, the Bible, Chinese literature, criticism, dreams, ethics, freedom, genius, imagination, immortality, love, mind over body, sculpture, and much, much more. Eckermann’s Conversations allows Goethe to engage the reader in a voice as distinct and authentic as it is entrancing, along with the not inconsiderable insights, observations and reflections of the biographer himself.

World Literature Forum also recommends the Conversations from its special perspective, as one of the most seminal and influential works in our canon introducing and delineating the very concept of World Literature, or “Weltliteratur,” as Goethe termed it.

Speaking to his young disciple in January 1827, the seventy-seven-year-old Goethe first used his newly minted term “Weltliteratur,” which upon publication of the Conversations passed into common international currency:

“I am more and more convinced,” Goethe remarked,”that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men . . . I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

Indeed, for Eckermann Goethe becomes the living embodiment of world literature, even of world culture as a whole. In the same passage he records Goethe’s remark that “the daemons, to tease and make sport with men, have placed among them single figures so alluring that everyone strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them”; Goethe names Raphael, Mozart, Shakespeare, and Napoleon as examples.”I thought in silence,”Eckermann adds, “that the daemons had intended something of the kind with Goethe–he is a form too alluring not to be striven after, and too great to be reached”

Notwithstanding all his pride in his own achievements and those of his countrymen like Schiller, Goethe had an uneasy sense that German culture was in fact provincial, lacking a great history, and as he lived before German unification after 1870,lacking political unity. He can’t afford to grant “national literature” too much meaning, since he didn’t even live in a proper nation at all, and he saw all of Europe and the world globalizing rapidly beyond even that anticipated acheivement.

He urged his fellow German writers to be more international and global in their perspectives: “there is being formed a universal world literature, in which an honorable role is reserved for us Germans. All the nations review our work; they praise, censure, accept, and reject, imitate and misrepresent us, open or close their hearts to us. All this we must accept with equanimity, since this attitude, taken as a whole, is of great value to us.”

Going even further, Goethe was one of the first great Western minds to take a truly global perspective. Eckerman records one episode:

“Dined with Goethe. ‘Within the last few days, since I saw you,’ said he, ‘I have read many things; especially a Chinese novel, which occupies me still and seems to me very remarkable.'”

“Chinese novel!” said I; “that must look strange enough.” “Not so much as you might think,” said Goethe; “the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that we are perfectly like them, except that all they do is more clear, pure, and decorous, than with us.”

“With them all is orderly, citizen-like, without great passion or poetic flight; and there is a strong resemblance to my Hermann and Dorothea, as well as to the English novels of Richardson.”

“‘But then,’ I said, ‘is this Chinese novel perhaps one of their most superior ones?'”

It was then in reply to this reservation that Goethe shared with him the concept of Weltliteratur quoted above:

“By no means,” said Goethe; “the Chinese have thousands of them, and had when our forefathers were still living in the woods……………I am more and more convinced,” he continued, “that poetry is the universal possession of mankind . . . the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

Eckermann’s final entry in the Conversations centers on discussion of the Bible. He had just bought a copy but was annoyed to find that it lacks the Apocrypha. Goethe commented that the Church erred in closing the canon of scripture, as God’s creative work still continues, notably in the activity of great spirits like Mozart, Raphael, and Shakespeare, “who can draw their lesser contemporaries higher,” an observation perhaps applicable to other self-enclosed fundamentalist sources such as the Koran, Torah and Sutras. Following these words–the last words of Goethe’s that Eckermann records–a one-line paragraph appears: “Goethe fell silent. I, however, preserved his great and good words in my heart.”

What then does Goethe, speaking through Eckermann’s Conversations have to teach us in the English-speaking world of the 21st Century?

Just as he tried to teach the German-speaking world of the 19th Century, he urges us to outgrow our national provincialisms, join in forging a global perspective, an openness to the traditions and genius of all the world’s cultures and literatures while preserving the unique roots and inherent genius of each and our own, and to take intellectual leadership in forging a common World Literature as the common heritage of mankind and a central contribution in our era of Globalization, to the forging and participation in the Universal Civilization and common culture of our planet.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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