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Goethe was probably the greatest universal genius who ever lived. Although known primarily as a poet, playright, and novelist, he was also known for his work in anatomy, botany, color, art criticism, and jurisprudence. Many people are deterred from attempting to read anything by Goethe because of his extremely penetrating intelligence and dense prose. But his travel diary, Italian Journey, is by far easier to digest than anything else by him.
The journal is a straightforward account of his sojourn to Italy as a young man between 1786 and 1789. The book has a modern ring to it, and indeed Goethe seems to foreshadow the coming of many of the things we consider "modern" today: intense self-examination, scientific methodology, and anthropology. But that's not what makes this a great book. Long after you finish it, you will be contemplating the wealth of pithy, insightful comments he makes about Italians in particular and humans in general. You will revisit portions of this book many times, and you will mark passages in it, so you can pull it down and quote it to your friends. Goethe is a fabulous feast for the intellect and a balm for the spirit.
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A Tedious Journey
This was a tedious journey. Sure, the tour lasted a long time, at almost one and a half years (or 19 hours), but the narrator’s voice drew it out, all the more besides! I wish I could say one got into it once one unwound and acclimatised, but both the journal and the narrator are consistent throughout in wearing one out. I could only take little excursions into the Italian Journey at a time..
A distinguished voice, it makes a good match at first, one thinks. An RP accent surely must suit the noble poet/dramatist/scientist/traveller and what's more... But his vowels are just too distinctly pronounced in a pre-war, news-reel, Queen’s English, with the effect of completing the picture of Goethe as a snob and pedant.
However, in retrospect, this fuddy voice may be the only fitting one. True, it became incredibly annoying in parts and sometimes, even, distracting, but it may serve to remind us, as a subtext in itself, that Goethe was not the 38 year old traveller when he actually wrote the journal up in its published version. It was a work he composed 30 years post travelling. This raised some arguments regards its authenticity and honesty from contemporaries already, and in the audio version it may recreate a similar response. Which is not all bad for literary effect, just tedious.
Adding to the tedium, however, possibly, at times, is how the journal is interspersed with literary criticism on then contemporary, and now often obselete literary and scientific writers and quotations or referencs to Greek and Roman Classics and reviews (by himself) of his own works, which he is, furthermore, perpetually putting out as he travels. (Iphigenie, Elwin and Elvira, Egmont - the opera). How he manages to find the focus at all, is beyond me, but he, too, complains incessantly that it wasn't easy going. He continues to worry about the reception of it back home, too. Is he ever entirely in Italy, I wondered?
For a man looking for something new and inspiring, he brings a lot of his past along with him including ideas for future projects (Tasso, Faust). Italy is stripping him from cultural convention and social expectations, as he hoped it would, but no sooner does one layer fall away than he packs on a new layer of hautain opinion. Even his lyrical descriptions of landscapes and buildings especially (deemed practically extensions of the architect's moral virtues and errors) seem intended to create a reserved and dignified impression of himself as an objective observer. But this is pre-psychoanalysis and confessional literature, 1786.... It is not that he is not interested in how people tick. He does hope, for example, that the science of physiognomy will help him understand the nature and motivations of others better. There is always some reason or science behind reality for Goethe (but he is a Virgo, afterall.)
A day not spent on high culture seems a waste. Fair enough! But along with all the stuff he collects (souvenirs including lumps of rock, busts and statues, and works made of himself) it can become quite a repetitive list of things seen and done and procured every day anew. He frequently goes to the opera or other musical recitals, choirs, street performances and describes these at length, seldom, though, with much appreciation. (Bei uns ist alles besser?). Another on-going occupation are the endless letters written home. It's not that he doesn't fall in love with bits of Italy, but he remains scientific about it.Above all , driven to discover great new things, he is a right-fighter and invests his dry wit heavily to keep the upper mental hand at all times. He could be rather Stephen Fry or Umberto Eco, but maybe less of a fact collector and ironic commentator and more of a cramped soul looking for a passionate outlet while justifying his lack of success therein. Beneath the self-mockery there is much drive for perfection and not a little fear of failure.
He does get a little homesick at times, and that is when we have to plough through the lavish praise of German Greats, like Herder. Throughout there is the continued support, encouragement and descriptions of the eternally sketching companion, Kniep. Goethe is nothing if not unambivalent in his disappointments with people (as also with Tischbein once they meet in person), but not very forthcoming about his ardour for - at least - one young lady he clearly fancies the pants off, but with whom he shares no more than a mutual fondness (to which he confesses marginally, at the very, very end). He seems to go without intimate female company, that year and a half, appreciating light dinner-table conversation only - if you have to believe the Journey. However, we may know better if we take the wide speculations that he kept a more than luke-warm sexlife outside these pages. His argument interjected somewhere, that he is too old for any such passions may then sound a little disingenuous.
The Italian Tour was, of course, back in the day, all about the pompous euridite finding himself and improving his artistic sensitivity. (Or to dispell boredom.) It makes therefore for a very German historical-biographical document in this case with a mildly self-indulgent overtone. Goethe sounds very young or naïve (pre-Napoleonic?) in places textually, but the narration is that of an older man. It can be confusing but also consolidating, since Goethe feels himself to be running out of time at 38. (He will live into his late eighties, though how could he know...)
It is kind of quaint, this recurring grievance - which sounds terriby conceited after a while - that Goethe doesn’t seem to find a moment’s peace with all the attention he gets (since his fame rocketed after the best-seller, Der Junge Werther). It was why he escaped Germany in the first place, but even in Italy they’ve heard of him (or there are too many Germans who journeyed there in his footsteps, or were already residing in Rome). A case of you can run but you can’t hide!
The fun parts are when the Italians, who don’t know who this smug celebrity is, treat him suspiciously as a foreigner (he gets threatened by indignant locals with criminal prosecution for allegedly spying when he is sketching a castle ruin, in a tiny mountain village at the beginning of the trip). Or when he upsets an ominously potent and prominent Sicilian govenor by forgetting an appointment and then subsequetly arriving too late.
Your main reason for reading this Journey will most likely be academic, I suspect. For me it was to trace the grass roots of Goethe’s famous plant morphology and the observations that lead to his developing other “scientific” theories, e.g. on colour and geology and a deeper study of architecture. They all seem prompted by the new sights in Italy. Charlton Griffin gets you there. This recording is admittedly reserved for the discerning listener (as an “audio-connoisseur” production - it states so at the end itself) and it either gives Goethe a truer voice than I could have lent the 18th C. traveller, or pins him as a somewhat jaded, emotionally aloof pedant, for ever more, to my memory.
It remains critical but often near impossible to get the right voice for any biographic work. I might have preferred Nigel Graham (similar, but more animated - to be found reading Lord Jim). It could be that these types of work just never work in audio for the irreversable effects of identification narrator/author.
If you have the time and inclination, it is fun to try and identify the places and artworks Goethe describes, and follow the route with maps and pictures to bring it back to life. There are (German afficionado) sites to help you out - not to mention authoritative biograpies. But this also means adding on more of your own time to this Journey. It can thus becomes a valuable refresher art-history course.
The Journey was informative on many levels, but it’s not a piece of writing I think you can really enjoy, maybe because something gets lost in translation (either in the German or in the interim centuries). But I found the German version even more tedious! (And I had to abandon it before arriving at Padua).
You may have to deepen your knowledge of German literature, history and philosophy to appreciate the many long-winded passages better than I could. ( And I probably need to re-listen in a few years' time.)
But you cannot fail to appreciate how travel was at all possible and how goods arrived anywhere at all, by the modes of transportation described. In fact, the postal services and cargo transportation systems seemed pretty much as reliable and effective as they are now!
For the rest, it remains a recognisable description of Italy, and just when you feel like dozing off a vibrant illustration may shake you awake. I found it odd, however, that I kept on forgetting which era the writer was in (and hence finding him all the more pompous for it). On the whole he was not giving me much of anything new (or different) I didn't already know. He stresses a north-south Europe divide that possibly still exists for the religious-cultural differences (notably the Catholic/Protestant discrepancies).Hopefully, the poor aren't as poor any longer and the women have a better taste in fashion (see the part in Verona).
- Aquilina Christophorus