Strategies of Monumentalization. Goethe and the Augustan Love Elegy
Goethe is a monument. Around the entire world, statues of him adorn the parks of large cities. Squares, streets and buildings are named after him. Schools and theaters, even contemporary cinema continues to attend to this ›Olympian‹. The divine figure from Weimar and his »singlehanded reign over German literature« already preoccupied Heinrich Heine in his Romantic School (1836). According to the judgment of this self-described ›last Romantic‹, the establishment of »Goethe’s Empire« was predicated upon the individualization and literal nominalization of an epoch: »One no longer spoke of Romanticism or classical poetry, but instead only of Goethe and, again, of Goethe.« This assignment of monumental status to the author by others derived from Goethe’s own self-styling as the foremost literary authority of his time. To this day he continues to be a cultural monument, with whom authors working in various literary styles cannot help but engage. He is part of German cultural memory. In the words of Aleida Assmann, »to speak of culture as monument means to speak of the side of culture that wants to stage itself, to be seen, to be preserved, to be remembered«. When related to literature, this take on the staging of one’s own literary-historical status can be understood as an attempt to postulate immortality. This trope was foundational to Antique texts (by authors such as Horace and Ovid) in which the confrontation between permanence and individual historicity was considered to be an essential reflexive element of poetry.
In my dissertation, I intend to investigate the strategies that Goethe deployed for this staging. Rather than pursuing a deep archival investigation of letters, or Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (1836), I will address his Roman Elegies (1795). It seems worthwhile to explore the implications of Goethe’s new aesthetic direction after his trip to Italy from this point of view. This body of work examines the appropriation of Rome, a common literary topos. Goethe goes about it by transforming the Augustan amores into a modern love elegy through the appropriation of structural elements that he either ironically, affirmatively, or simply modifies. My argument is that the poetry of the Augustan era becomes a tool that Goethe uses in order to stage a poetic reflection over the immortalization of poetry and the poet. In doing so, he founded what would come to be widely known as the Goethezeit. The Roman Elegies are thus a foundational element of the Goethe monument. The cycle can, therefore, be understood as an expression of a cultural politics of appropriation that provides a different perspective on the project of Weimar classicism. But if one considers, on the other hand, the fragmentation effects inherent to the elegiac couplet, or the polyphonic »I«, or the intense interest in Goethe’s time for fluid metamorphoses, we can see how the Roman Elegies not only stage permanence, but also play with contradictions and opposites. Can a monument be founded upon this ›unstable terrain‹? And what does this monument actually stand for? Do we witness, here, the creation of a national author prior to the founding of an imaginary nation, or do we observe an attempt to construct a sort of ›world author‹?
Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein: Goethe in der Campagna (1786/87)