Goethe at the Height of his Creation
Seen in the Light of Benedetto Croce
Having found in Croce's 'Goethe' the clear and penetrating thoughts about Werther, and reading on, we come to the chapters where he deals with Faust. At this point our deep enjoyment of the book first turns into confused astonishment. Portrayed in Croce's thought, the earlier scenes still have the charm of Goethe's living poetry. But his further creations in Faust appear like abstract schemes of thought in Croce's description. We lose our breath, in our artistic feeling, as we follow it.
Croce's peculiar insight, which he applied so well to Werther, still guides him through the scenes of Faust written by Goethe in his youth. He says: 'Goethe, when he presented Faust in the manner in which he presents him in these early scenes, had not yet become a conscious critic of "Faustism," but rather agreed with it; and for this part, too, his true and effective criticism (if it may be called criticism) is entirely poetical, similar to that which we have already noticed in the case of Werther and Wagner, consisting, namely, in the very sincerity and fulness of the representation.'
But all that flowed from Goethe's spirit into Faust when he lifted his humanity stage by stage to an all-embracing outlook on the world, — all this, for Croce's way of thought, loses its life and inner substance. Discerning as he is, this escapes him and falls away into a realm of lifeless, threadbare concepts.
Goethe himself, when he left the spheres of existence accessible to outer experience, did not fall into kingdoms of cold allegory or remote symbolism. His sure and certain instinct carried him into the real spiritual world, wherein alone Man in his full and true manifestation is to be found. He succeeded in portraying with poetic vitality and substance not only the external life, but the inner world of Man. When he did this, the result was no shadowy phantom-world of ideas, but the creative reality of the Spirit — able to make manifest even in the outer picture the fulness of its inner content. Such was Goethe's power. His poetic genius did not desert him when he ascended into spiritual realms. Thus his Faust remained alive and real, when — time after time as he returned to this work — he raised him one stage higher into that World which is revealed to seership alone.
Into these high regions Croce will not follow Goethe. So the full life in Goethe's Faust creation eludes his grasp. He sees cold allegories where Goethe presents living reality of Spirit. To Croce, only the part of Faust composed in Goethe's youth is a vital work; not so the portions created by the poet in his later life. This alone makes it possible for him to say: 'The sublime Faust of titanic strivings is quite forgotten in the new character, and hardly the identity of the name is sufficient to call him to mind. We might call him "Heinrich," as. poor Gretchen called him, some kind of Heinrich or Franz. And such he is and had to be for the greater unifying force of the tragedy which he causes, but of which he is not the protagonist.'
We are driven to ask, why is it that Croce's Goethe leads us to this dramatic entanglement in thought. It is that Croce lacks the power to penetrate to a full grasp of Goethe's nature. How did Goethe himself rise to the height of what Poetry — and all Art — was to him? — He carried his search for knowledge in the realm of Natural Science to the point where he could exclaim: Art is a making manifest of hidden Laws of Nature — Laws which would remain unmanifest for ever, but for the creative work of the Artist. By this perception, Goethe became the founder of a Science of Nature worthy of spiritual standards. True, this brought him into conflict with the 'recognised' Science which has become established in the last three or four centuries. Yet it was this his insight into Nature which carried him into lofty spheres of creation, where the Poet freely lives and moves in the World of the Spirit.
Here Croce does not follow Goethe. Wherever he meets him as scientist, in his researches into Nature, he finds him wanting. Croce is still entangled in the commonly accepted view of Nature. In this respect he says of Goethe: 'It may be (or rather it is certain) that in his idea of a Science of Nature which in the various species of phenomena should search for the primitive phenomenon (Urphänomen), which is an idea that can be thought and seen at the same time, he was wrong and did little honour to either science or poetry, as was the case, moreover, with all contemporary "natural philosophers." It may be (and it certainly is) that he was much mistaken in his bitter criticism of Newton, and in rejecting the use of mathematics in physical sciences The man who speaks thus cannot really fathom the depths of understanding where Goethe leads his Faust. Indeed from these passages we begin to understand why Croce feels 'a certain tenderness' for Wagner the famulus, while he inclines to criticise the character of Faust so harshly.
The sureness of touch which Croce shews in his treatment of Werther leaves him already when he comes to Goetz von Berlichingen. 'When dealing with Goetz too,' he says, 'it is necessary to set aside the prejudices handed down to us by the passionate utterances of Goethe's contemporaries… Goetz is very different from the Räuber of Schiller. Goethe could not breathe into his work the thrill of political passion and rebellion which he always lacked even when he was young and enthusiastic. He read the autobiography of this small feudatory and soldier who lived in the time of the Reformation, became fascinated by the events and customs described in it, and set himself to reproduce them by a process of condensation and dramatisation, following the method used by Shakespeare in the latter's historical English dramas.'
Croce fails to see that in dramatising the life-story of Gottfried von Berlichingen Goethe was striving for a dramatic style according to his own vision of the world. Indeed, the wrestling for adequate forms of style in Goethe's creation remains a hidden world to Croce. Hence he fails to do the poet justice where with all the power of his striving Goethe cannot bring his work to full formal perfection, — as in the case of Wilhelm Meister. To anyone who really enters into Goethe's nature, his efforts in form are all the more significant where for their very greatness the aims he sets himself are unattained. But to appreciate so 'Faustian' a striving in the poet, Croce has after all too much tenderness for Wagner the famulus.
If we were thus thrown into dramatic perplexity of thought while reading the middle parts of Croce's 'Goethe,' we find ourselves in the very catastrophe of the tragedy when we come to the chapter on the Second Part of Faust. Be it granted unreservedly: — Croce maintains throughout the book his greatness of style, which makes it a certain pleasure in the reading even where he drives us to exasperation. But our annoyance however gracefully evoked may none the less grow strong, when the scenes, where in the ripeness of old age Goethe leads his Faust on to the loftiest heights of humanity, are thus described: -' What was this? The play of imagination of an old artist, … master of innumerable figures and situations drawn from reality and from literature, who is glad to make them pass through his mind again, toying with them; and the wisdom of the mail, experienced in the world and human thought, who has already witnessed so many mental and moral vicissitudes, and without for this reason becoming sceptical or callous, has rather saved for himself a strong faith of his own. He is no longer roused to excessive enthusiasm or to violent contempt. His wisdom is often softened by a smile. Even his faith he expresses discreetly, sometimes borrowing a jesting tone… Neither must we think that there is, on the other hand, great philosophical depth in Faust II…' And from this height of his criticism, Croce recommends us thus to read the Second Part of Faust: 'After having gained some familiarity with Faust II, by means of a first reading, which should partake of the nature of a study of the text, it is advisable, when re-reading it, not to read it from beginning to end, as one does in the case of Werther or the story of Gretchen, but to open it here and there, in order to witness a phantasmagoria, to enjoy a little picture, to smile at a satirical description…'
I on the other hand would say: Having read Croce's book to the end, turn to Eckermann's 'Conversations with Goethe,' that you may bear the calamity.