The superb Michael Hofmann

by on June 18, 2017 at 12:39 pm in Books, History | Permalink

…the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.

1 Ray Lopez June 18, 2017 at 12:44 pm

I visited Goethe’s house in Austria as I recall, forget the city. He had a chess board in his house and was a chess player. Good man.


2 Florian June 18, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Goethe never lived in Austria.
I visited his (quite astonishing) house in Weimar.
It’s designed and furnitured so as to inspire the mind as much as possible. Great house and a must see.
Didn’t see a chess board, though.


3 Ray Lopez June 18, 2017 at 6:45 pm

Oh, you’re right. It was Frankfurt, Germany not Austria, but I confused the two since I took a Eurotrain from Frankfurt, all the way to Italy.
Goethe House – Wikipedia – Frankfurt


4 Ray Lopez June 18, 2017 at 6:49 pm

And he did have a chessboard. Also for some reason since they always say Goethe is a genius, I used to confuse Goethe with this genius: who lived in Brunswick, Germany, and is truly underrated, especially among literature majors, who probably don’t know any better what his contributions are (Wikipedia: “Sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum[1] (Latin, “the foremost of mathematicians”) and “greatest mathematician since antiquity”, Gauss had an exceptional influence in many fields of mathematics and science and is ranked as one of history’s most influential mathematicians.”)


5 Barbara June 18, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Ray, Gauss was a mere recreational mathematician. Euler is the guy you are thinking of when you want to think of a mathematical genius. Gauss (like Kolmogorov, a Gaussian level guy, by the way) was tempted by philology. Euler was not. Both Gauss and Euler, sadly, were what we now call “on the spectrum”, as was Goethe, except each of them lived in a society that catered to the needs of those like them, so we do not notice the sacrifices they made for their incrementally astounding but nevertheless not unique levels of talent. I am not being mean: I merely would like to point out they (Gauss, Euler, and Goethe, not to mention poor Kolmogorov) did not enjoy their intellectual skills the way a person not “on the spectrum” might have enjoyed such skills. It is sad to live as long as Goethe did and never really love anybody with all one’s heart.


6 "Barbara C." June 18, 2017 at 8:47 pm

Of course being not “on the spectrum” is no guarantee of a good life at that level of intelligence either – just to stick with the Austro-Hungarian-German biographical theme, both the uber-gifted philologist Nietzsche and the even more gifted von Neumann – neither one of whom was remotely autistic (well, von Neumann a little, but that is neither here nor there) – experienced last chapters of life that nobody could envy. “Imagine the squared negative root of the real substance indicated in the old Spanish phrase cor ad cor loquitur.” “Someone should have been there for them – hopefully, at the last moments, Someone was.” (phrases in quotes sound much better in the original languages).

7 Barbara June 18, 2017 at 8:53 pm

Of course Gauss was obviously not a mere recreational mathematician. And Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov was obviously neither Austrian, Hungarian, or German. Reliqua vero….

8 Ray Lopez June 18, 2017 at 9:15 pm

Vladimir Arnold once said: “Kolmogorov – Poincaré – Gauss – Euler – Newton, are only five lives separating us from the source of our science”.

Euler (pronounced as “Oiler”) has a very cool equation: e ix = cos x + i sin x where i = SQRT(-1)

Bonus trivia: Euler was very prolific, and some of Euler’s works still have not been translated, possibly because nobody understands them or has the time to (they don’t quite do mathematics the same way anymore).

9 "Barbara C." June 18, 2017 at 9:42 pm

More bonus trivia – both Max Braverman (the kid from the 2010 version of Parenthood) and several elderly writers in the 1970s sported hairstyles closely resembling Goethe’s youthful and elderly hairstyles. And, this is not trivia: In defense of Professor Nietzsche, it is easy to picture his younger self honestly and good-heartedly befriending a Lenny and a Squiggy, or a Laverne and a Shirley, or a Pottsy and a Ralph Malph, or even Betty and Veronica and their friends: who can say the same of the admirable Goethe and the admirable Gauss? Whoever found the cure to syphilis was a great benefactor of mankind. And yes, they do not do mathematics the same way anymore (well if they did I wouldn’t know it. But if they are they sure aren’t getting the word out very well….)

10 "Barbara C." June 18, 2017 at 9:52 pm

One last comment, this one in praise of Goethe, who really was admirable in so many ways – one of the best lines ever in a Top 40 song was “I can’t believe the loveliness of loving you” – this line, and about 5 or 6 other lines from the same song (sung by Archie on main vocals with Betty and Veronica on back-up voices), if properly translated into German, would sound more like undiscovered lines of Goethe than like undiscovered lines of any other male German poet (Annette von Droste-Hulshoff would be the guessed-at likely composer of one or two of the other verses – if properly translated, to be sure).

11 uair01 June 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm

I’m reading the Heidegger biography by Rüdiger Safranski: “Ein Meister aus Deutschland”. It is excellent. – Notice the great title, it’s from a Paul Celan poem: “Death is a master from Germany”.


12 Sam Haysom June 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm

The most overrated poet in history as a title for the most overrated philosopher. That is appropriate.


13 anonymous June 18, 2017 at 10:07 pm

All philosophers that anyone has heard of are overrated


14 A clockwork orange June 18, 2017 at 10:15 pm

The hydroids, on jupiter’s sulphur mines.


15 Thiago Ribeiro June 18, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Goethe is particularly famous in Brazil (as opposed to Schiller and Fitche, almost unheard of outside universities) because some of his verses have been used as the epigraph to a poem that had some of its verses used in Brazil’s Narional Anthem:


16 Ray Lopez June 18, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Goethe was Brazilian then! 🙂
PS–I told you Operação de lavagem de carro would affect your president…


17 Thiago Ribeiro June 18, 2017 at 9:41 pm

He has been cleared of any wrondoing by the highest electoral court of Brazil (4 votes vs 3 votes) and retains a confortable Parliamentary majority.
“Goethe was Brazilian then!”
Some researchers believe Goethe and Virgil predicted Brazil’s rise.


18 Thor June 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm

What with his omnicompetence and contributions to many cultural fields, including some of the most cutting edge of the day (politics, reality television, real estate, beauty pageants, gambling, lodgings, entertainment-sports [golf, e.g.], peace in the Middle East, Saudi-Qatar foreign relations) etc., I wonder if our own polymath Donald J. Trump isn’t the Goethe of our day? Sans the literary ability perhaps, but then again as with The Sorrows of Young Werther, Trump has inspired angst and suicidal thoughts in snowflakes and flakes.


19 Jessica Chastain June 18, 2017 at 9:16 pm

The reason I rebuffed, rebuffed and rebuked I should say, Art Deco was that during Man From Elysian Fields, he pondered instead Napoleon Symphony and agonized over the parapet, when I instead felt rather in a mundane fashion the carpet. In either instance, had there been a rainbow placed like on Asgard, in a place where prepositions may or may not exist, the experiment of our company may have been saved. But it was not the case, and instead the proposal left wanting a sincere apology as in such a form.

Butterflies and zebras
Moonbeams and fairytales
All she ever thinks about is riding with the wind


20 Jack June 18, 2017 at 3:17 pm

I wonder if anyone outside of academicians really reads Goethe. He seems to have been a man of a time that has long passed.


21 dearieme June 18, 2017 at 6:16 pm

I read his Travels in Italy, in an English translation. Golly, it was dull. But unlike some we could mention, I finished it.


22 anonymous June 18, 2017 at 10:23 pm

I am reading an MIT press edition, with fantastic pictures from some professor in Seattle, of Goethe’s “On the Metamorphosis of Plants”, it is really good, imagine a good New Yorker article but much better and without the snark. His poems need to be read in German, or maybe translated into some language more like German than English is. There was a nice scene in an old rom-com (circa 1985) where the sadly parting apartment-mates argued over who got what, there was some lingering doubt over who would get the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau records, and neither the male nor female actor seemed to want to give up the Fischer-Dieskau records (many of which were no doubt lieders on words of Goethe, so there’s that). I have no idea if it was on TV or a movie but I remember it. In several big cities there are places called Goethe-Haus, these are nice places for young people to learn German and meet interesting people. “Young Werther” is one of the few novels that stays in print in the little world of mass market paperbacks (Signet Classics, Bantam Classics, and now Barnes and Noble Classics being the main purveyors in this country). Wikipedia is fairly weak on tracking the phenomenon of which classic novels have been consistently available in mass market editions, but , take my word for it, next to All Quiet on the Western Front there is nothing written by a German that has been more available for a longer time than “Young Werther”. And of course there was the great “Barney Miller” episode where Dietrich argued with the guy from Serenity over who would get the weekend off – Detective Dietrich wanted to go to the yearly Goethe festival in Pennsylvania and the Detective who later starred in Serenity wanted to get on line for his one chance at an apartment with a balcony in Manhattan. On the other hand, if you google image “Goethe quotes” you would think the guy really did not have all that much to say, it is mostly banal stuff. Even Calvin Coolidge seems to have better quotes, at least it in the Google Image search world.


23 mkt42 June 18, 2017 at 4:03 pm

‘Goethe … was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.’

Okay, I must admit that line is golden, if the rest of the review is as good as that it may indeed be the review of the year at Tyler says.


24 charlie June 18, 2017 at 10:49 pm

Whatever was the novel about blue flowers?

I’m still trying to track down the story — set in hollywood, mostly about the value of non-completion of sex, and lost and burned movies and ends with blue flowers.

Or perhaps it was like that damn choose your own adventure were the ending was in the middle, where you had to stumble on it.


25 Jeff June 19, 2017 at 12:49 am

Whoever found the cure for syphillis…”

That would be Dr. Noguchi Seisaku (aka Noguchi Hideyo), if memory serves. His portrait will be found on the face of the Japanese 1,000|¥ note. Actually, he didn’t cure it, he isolated the organism Treponema pallidum, in 1910-1911, which eventually led to effective treatment when penicillin became routinely available. (T. pallidum had been discovered in 1905 by Fritz Schauinn and Erich Hoffman).
This is according to Atsushi Kita’s “Dr. Noguchi’s Journey” (2003, Kodansha International, Tr. by Peter Dufree).
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the cure was found by whoever demonstrated that penicillin (and other antimicrobial agents) would eradicate T. pallidum.
However, this might or might not have helped Nietzsche, depending on when he was diagnosed, and the efficacy of his immune system (25% of secondary cases are self-cured, 50% lead to the results the great philosopher experienced).


26 Anonymous Reply to Jeff June 20, 2017 at 12:53 am

Dr Seisaku is buried in the Bronx in a cemetery that is accurately described as “rural”. (Imagine that – so many of us have recurring dreams where New York City has quiet tree lined suburban streets, even in the middle of Manhattan, with the living room lights casting domestic light on the snowy front yards in winter and on the green green grass in summer, and where Greenwich Village still has easy to walk to coffeehouses where, at 2 AM, for some unknown reason, folk songs and real poetry are not for sale but are on offer for free, in neighborhoods where lots of other dreamware is for sale. These dreams are of course, in their way, mere fantasy, but the fact remains: Dr Seisaku, the devoted researcher who established an effective treatment for syphilis, is buried in the Bronx in a cemetery that is accurately described as “rural”). Next time I am in the Bronx I will pay a visit to his gravesite. (Maybe Nobody reads comments like this, but if They do, and if They is You, say a prayer for Izy’s son or daughter. Thanks, it is appreciated).


27 Anonymous Reply to Jeff June 20, 2017 at 12:53 am

‘cor ad cor loquitur’


28 Anonymous Reply to Jeff June 20, 2017 at 12:55 am

“living room lamps casting domestic light on the snowy front yards”, to be as accurate as possible (lamps)


29 Tom T. June 19, 2017 at 7:19 am

“he buried his one surviving son….”

German parental authority was harsh back then. The kid kept clawing his way back out, though.


30 M June 20, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Hofmann’s NYRB review of Franzen’s ‘The Kraus Project’ is no longer gated and is, as Tyler says, superb.


31 M June 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm

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