Last summer, I read simultaneously Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, his autobiography up to the time of writing Werther, his collected travel diaries, and his life by Emil Ludwig. Of the three biographical works, my unhesitating judgment is that Ludwig’s book is the disappointment: it compares to Goethe’s own narrative of his youth as the description of a garden compares with the actual fragrance and colors. Although Ludwig was an excellent biographer of Napoleon and Bismarck, the poet Goethe seems to have been too much for his powers. He keeps exclaiming, “What a genius!” or “This friend, that mistress felt at his contact that they were dealing with a genius!” Distracted, we read on, and remain unconvinced—by Ludwig. We read Goethe himself—and we know.

But it is not this much-abused word that matters. It is the je ne sais quoi of Goethe’s work, although, mind you, Dichtung und Wahrheit was written some 40 years after the events he recollects, from notebooks, copies of letters, but mostly from reminiscing. Yet the diary is superbly alive.

What is in Goethe that all modern writers lack? They lack it, by the way, not because of some personal deficiency, but because the past 200 years have emptied us of the direct experience of things—of colors, tastes, smells, rocks, trees, of slow-moving time, space not seen through a car or plane window, of real objects instead of plastic, of real life instead of life-on-TV or the subway car—and given us only abstractions instead. Thus the first and greatest difference between Goethe and contemporary writers is that Goethe used all his senses, and poetry for him was the mastery over actual experience. How far from him the erudite and recondite verses of Mallarme or Eliot who chiseled words to perfection and weighed them down with layers of meaning! Goethe walked through the Harz Mountains or Italy, sat down when tired, and wrote what he saw and felt.

Years ago, I visited Goethe’s family house in Frankfurt. It is a museum of Goetheana, well-kept, airy, spacious. Now I read the obvious, namely that he rode out on horseback often, visiting his beloved. So the house in Frankfurt must have had a stable, and stable smells of horses and manure. This in itself sets Goethe off from the modern world and the meticulous museum. Can you imagine Valery or Auden riding a horse and taking their poem’s rhythm from the galloping animal?

Goethe’s poetry and prose breathe this contact with things. Then there was the second thing that was real for Goethe, lost for us. Chateaubriand, 20 years his junior, who also lived on that side of the threshold of modernity, notes in his Mémoires that future generations will live vicariously: they will experience things less than they will read or hear about them. Life once removed from the real. And Chateaubriand did not dream that it was going to be twice removed: in front of the TV screen, through newspapers, through Great Books Programs. Ungenuine throughout.

An episode of Dichtung und Wahrheit illustrates frighteningly well what the French confrere meant. Goethe is 24 years old and is everywhere acclaimed as the author of Sufferings of the Young Werther. (Napoleon was to read Werther seven times.) Letters to Goethe arrive in large numbers; young men strike the Wertherian pose and wear his blue waistcoat. Some even commit suicide, imitating the young melancholy hero. One letter strikes the author with its disagreeable insistence to meet him. The poet does not answer, but some months later a second, complaining note arrives with the same insistence: offer of friendship, exchange of souls, impatience. Goethe remains silent. He is repelled, sensing behind the letters a lonely abstraction-monger, a man afraid to live. Another year passes. Then, in the course of a travel, Goethe stops at the village where the letters were posted. He inquires, and without unmasking his own identity, presents himself at the young man’s house. The latter receives him with passionate reverence, then tells him the story of his vain efforts. His personality is fully revealed to the poet, who flees. The next day he leaves town, sending only a note of excuse.

One evening’s conversation made clear to the poet that this passionate and somber young man was living through others, fictional figures or their authors. An advance messenger of the new age, romantic and subjective. Goethe indeed was to make remarks similar to those of Chateaubriand about the new age in which experience will dry up and people live as behind a screen. From Italy, where his hungry senses were filled to the brim, he wrote to Fran von Stein these sober lines: “The new age will transform society into a huge hospital, and all of us into patients and nurses.” The welfare state, human rights, social protest, psychoanalysis—everything is there, anticipated in this single observation.

He also foresaw the fashionable philosophies, phenomenology, existentialism. The first was an effort to prove that, although I do not know the real, I know myself in the process of knowing; the second was an effort to prove that I am so much I that I must regard the world as hostile—and feel nausea when it intrudes. Goethe had no such problems, for, as Claude] said of Rimbaud, for him, too, the “outside world exists.” Such a statement is today the greatest scandal for writers, philosophers, and the ubiquitous “artists.” Even students in their very first philosophy class in college are taught, not that the world exists, but that they must doubt even their own existence—in-the shadows of Descartes, Kant (whom Goethe could not stand), and Wittgenstein.

Yet, Goethe was incurably an “inner man,” struggling all his life, until about 70, to achieve the state of a “balanced man,” to incarnate the harmony between the lyrical and the severe. Ludwig quotes Schiller, the only friend of his mind, who said of Goethe at 50 that he was equilibrium personified, an Apollonian statue. Quite rightly, the biographer berates the witness, and we know why from Goethe’s notes. Forever torn, yet making the correct choices; everything always sacrificed for the creative work, for penetration into secrets: of the nature of light, the life of plants, conciseness in exposition, the human heart.

With all that, discretion, withdrawal, form imposed on content, sense of duty, measure. These aspects are perhaps most in contrast with today’s fashion defined by prizes given according to the number of copulations and defecations on page, stage, and screen. Ludwig tells us of torrid love affairs in young and older Goethe’s life, something you would never guess from the poet’s own diary. Fifty years later, he is still protecting reputations. Here and there a personal remark, although his soul and dreams are otherwise open to the reader. Always, he is simple. He writes about the campaign against the revolutionary French armies: “They gathered around me eagerly [the German soldiers just defeated at Valmy] knowing I would cheer them up with good-natured stories, pertinent remarks.” “The young man [himself, in third person] had little to recommend him to the ladies, except perhaps his dark, intense eyes and his ability to write poems anywhere, any time, on any subject.” “I left Frederike [a great love of his twenty years] on the road, I on horseback, kissing her hand. We both knew that it was the last time.”

People, and students in “creative writing” classes, no longer write like this—or do they now only use tape recorders? It used to be not Goethe’s style alone, it was that of his age: Voltaire and Dr. Johnson, the sentimental Rousseau and the Rousseauist/Wertherian Chateaubriand, the eroticising Choderlos de Laclos, Stendahl—they all wrote like this; with ease, flowing sentences, the well-tempered word. In music, Mozart.

How did they do it? Well, for one thing, by writing many letters, then recopying them, reading them later in intimate company, publishing them in volumes for the like-minded. Today, we regard the epistolary novel as a bore, yet letter-writing taught people how to measure sentences on an internal metronome, choose the one effective word, catch the fitting tone. In short, the method and the objective, in writing as in portrait or landscape painting, adjusted to the concrete world, neither runaway subjectivism, nor experience filtered through other people’s lives. This is how simplicity was mastered.

Once at the top of mastery—of oneself and one’s style—a barely breathed poem may express the entire human cosmos. At 28, Goethe carved this in the wooden wall of a log cabin, in the mountains:

Alles ist Ruh in dem Walde,
Warte nur, Balde
Ruhest du auch.


All is quiet in the woods.
Wait a little.
Soon You too will know rest.

A dream at 28, achieved by 70. Between the two, he was paying the price.