Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, only published in full after his death, gives dramatic weight to a German fable about a man who sells his soul to the devil. One of the great “modern” myths, Faust has inspired responses in every artistic medium — most famously opera — and tempted throngs of modern poets to try their hand at a translation. Mingling psychodrama, allegory, satire, and philosophy, Faust's central themes of hyper-individualism and scientific and technological aspirations still resonate with contemporary readers. Goethe, like his tragic protagonist, personified the expansive intellectual achievement of the Enlightenment age. Despite occasional work-destroying tantrums, he left behind reams of writing that run the gamut from dense legal texts to Sturm und Drang melodramas. Here are five of Goethe's accomplishments, any of which might inspire one to sell their soul.
Goethe’s first major success, this semi-autobiographical account of a young artist’s development gave rise to the term Kunstlerroman, and spurred the development of Romanticism. In his later life, Goethe came to despise the work; it caused him to cringe in the same way that the agonies and angst of our ninth grade journals might. But millions of German youths identified with the passionate, suffering young artist Werther, who was condemned by the indifferent philistinism of bourgeois society. The Sorrows of Young Werther was credited with inspiring a slew of copycat suicides, and romanticizing self-destruction as a symptom of creative genius. The modern concept of the “artistic temperament” can be traced back to Werther, much to the dismay of generations of creative writing instructors. Admire the prose, but don’t emulate the protagonist.
After Prometheus was caught stealing fire for the good of mankind, an irritated Zeus punished him in a classically gruesome fashion: condemning him to an eternity of having his entrails torn out by eagles. This hapless hero is, quite understandably, an impassioned one. Because it was written during an age of revolutions, Goethe's poem "Prometheus" is generally read as a political and not a religious allegory. Either way, hurtling through this glorious torrent of rage and defiance is a hell of a lot of fun.
Goethe also has something to offer this age of scientific and technological zeal. He considered his collection of scientific writing on topics ranging from mineralogy to morphology to be his finest accomplishment. Ideas about adaptation expressed in 1790’s Metamorphosis of Plants prefigured the discoveries that
Goethe's travelogues move beyond the conventions of his age. Rather than recounting amusing anecdotes about cultural misunderstandings, or going into raptures about hilltops, Goethe maps out psychological territories alongside geographical ones. Italian Journey is deliberately marked by the author’s reconstruction of his travels, mediates on nostalgia, and explores the reverberations of the past on both personal and historical levels.
W.H. Auden once claimed that Goethe was the author he most wished he could tape-record. This hefty volume of Goethe’s conversations, transcribed by his secretary, will have to suffice. Given that Goethe was uninterested in wit, banter, or the opinions of the person with whom he was conversing, the author might not have been the best person to encounter at a cocktail party. Even so, the erudition and profundity of his day-to-day utterances will leave readers slack-jawed.