‘On Goethe’ (1847) by Karl Marx from the Daily Worker. Vol. 3 No. 204. September 11, 1926.

A deep cut from Marx, two fantastically rich paragraphs on Goethe from the Deutsche Brusseler Zeltung in 1847.

‘On Goethe’ (1847) by Karl Marx from the Daily Worker. Vol. 3 No. 204. September 11, 1926.

(From Deutsche Brusseler Zeltung, Nr. 95, November 28, 1847, on the occasion of a review of Karl Gruen’s “On Goethe from the Human Standpoint,” Darmstadt, 1846. The article was later reprinted in an article by M. Kriegel: Marx as a Journalist, In Die Zukunft (M. Harden), 1901, IX, 10; and still later in Max Gruenwald’s “Goethe und Die Arbeiter,” Dresden, 1912.—Avrom Landy)

Heinrich Christoph Kolbe’s 1806 painting of Goethe.

NATURALLY we cannot speak at great length here about Goethe himself. We only draw attention to one point. Goethe in his works, conducts himself in a twofold manner towards the German society of his time. Now he is hostile to It; he seeks to escape what to him is repulsive, as In Iphegenia and, In general, during the Italian Journey. He rebels against it as Goetz, Prometheus and Faust, and pours forth his bitterest derision upon it as Mephistopheles. Now, on the contrary, he is on friendly terms with it, “accommodates” himself to it as in the majority of the “Tame Xenia” and many prose works, extols it as in the “Maskenzuegen,” indeed, defends it against the onpressing historical movement as particularly in all the works where he comes to speak of the French Revolution. It is not merely individual aspects of German life that Goethe recognizes as against others to which he is adverse; it Is a continuous struggle within him between the gifted poet whom the misere of his environment disgusts and the cautious child of the Frankfurt counsellor, respective Weimar privy counsellor, who sees himself forced to conclude an armistice with it and to accustom himself to it. Thus Goethe is now a colossal, now a petty, now a defiant, mocking, world-disdaining genius, now a considerate, contented, narrow philistine. Even Goethe was unable to overcome the German misere; on the contrary, it overcomes him, and this victory of the misere over the greatest German is the best proof that it can-never be overcome “from within.” (1) Goethe was too universal, of too active a nature, too much of the flesh, to look for deliverance from the misere in a Schilleresque flight to the Kantian ideal; he was too keen not to see that this flight ultimately reduced itself to an exchange of the flat for the superabundant misere. His temperament, his powers, his entire spiritual disposition, directed him to the practical life, and the practical life which he met with was miserable.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein – Goethe in the Roman Campagna.

In this dilemma—to live in a sphere of life which he had to disdain and still to be chained to this sphere as the only one in which he could participate— in this dilemma Goethe continuously found himself, and the older he became the more the mighty poet, de guerree lasse, (2) withdrew behind the insignificant Weimar minister. We do not reproach Goethe for not being liberal, a la Boerne and Menzel, but for the fact that at times he could also be a philistine; not for being incapable of enthusiasm for German freedom, but for sacrificing his more correct esthetic sense, which broke through here and there, to a common philistine timidity before all great, contemporary historical movements; not for being a courtier, but for the fact that he could carry on the most insignificant affairs and menus plaisirs (3) of one of the most insignificant German courts with a solemn seriousness at a time when a Napoleon was cleansing the great Augean stable of Germany. We reproach neither from the moral nor the party point of view, but, at the most, from an esthetic and historical point of view; we measure Goethe neither by a moral nor by a political nor by a “human” standard. We cannot here enter into a portrayal of Goethe in relation to his time, to his literary predecessors and contemporaries, in his process of development and in his life-attitude. We therefore limit ourselves to simply stating the fact.

1. Von Innen Heraus, i.e., It cannot be reformed but must be shattered from without.—A. L.

2. Tired of war.

3. Revels.

The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.

Access to PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1926/v3n204-sep-11-1926-TDW.pdf

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