Any discussion of Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe ends up focusing, inevitably, on Goethe. The poet commands our fascination; we are grateful the record-keeper put in the work but eager to get past him and meet the celebrity. Yet Eckermann, in an age before audio and video recording, had a central role in creating the Goethe we encounter. Eckermann’s book is not a photograph but a portrait, as Ritchie Robertson makes clear in his introduction to Allan Blunden’s new Penguin Classics translation. Eckermann himself offers that image of his role in the first pages.

The grown man would “harvest” the ideas that Goethe let fall in his last decade.

An aspiring poet, playwright, literary theorist, and painter, Eckermann had no shortage of artistic ambition. His pursuit of Goethe was itself a manifestation of that. So was his record of it. Eckermann’s self-conscious artistry extends to the obliquely symbolic autobiographical vignettes that open the book. We see little Johann—he shared the same first name as his idol—as he spends late-autumn afternoons collecting acorns in a bucket and selling them to local farmers. This image presages, vaguely, how the grown man would “harvest” the ideas that Goethe let fall in his last decade. In another vignette, young Eckermann, “fully engrossed,” draws something he observes—not live horses, but the painted horses on a cigar box—and what he copies comes out uncannily accurate. This is the crucial vignette, and Eckermann dilates on it for a reason. In the Conversations, he does not just record what Goethe said; he presents Goethe’s presentation of himself. Rather than hide his creative aims, Eckermann explains how he has collapsed, reshaped, salvaged from scattered notes, and reconstructed what we read. He makes no pretense of faithful transcription. This book is a collaboration, with equal contributions from Goethe and Eckermann throughout.

The book remains compulsively readable. Many of Goethe’s works have not aged so well. Some did not appeal to his contemporaries in the first place; the Wilhelm Meister novels have often bored and baffled readers, then as now. The second part of Faust, given the decline in classical learning, is fast on its way to disappearing behind a thicket of footnotes. Too old in content, too ahead of its time in form, its visions are ready for modern computer-generated imagery. Yet to the culture that it consummated, it grows more incomprehensible by the decade.

“This is my Goethe,” Eckermann declares. That emphasis on “my” is his. He may have written this to preempt the criticism, from others who knew Goethe, that the Conversations excluded Goethe’s wilder, coarser sides. We find that Goethe in abundance in his own works: the garrulity of the Walpurgisnacht scene in Part I of Faust, the erotic elegies that scandalized Weimar, or “The Diary,” his five-pager about an episode of erectile dysfunction. The real man was known to swear, throw the occasional tantrum, and crack dirty jokes. He fathered children out of wedlock with a stout homebody who did not care to read books. A harrowing encounter with Napoleon’s soldiers, who burst into his home and found the great man in his nightgown, goaded him to marry Christiane Vulpius in his old age. Dutiful Christiane is mostly missing from this book: Goethe kept her in the back of the house, and Eckermann kept her out of the portrait.

Although Goethe wasn’t always so Olympian, Eckermann’s portrait is closer to how both Germans and non-Germans imagine Goethe. Yet even this redacted Goethe gives an illusion of infinitude. Everything interested him, and he lived at a point in history when one could conceive of mastering multiple fields of knowledge. He certainly tried: the poet believed some of his finest intellectual work was scientific, but the experts in the field saw him as an interloping dilettante—and, more woundingly, as wrong.

Eckermann’s Goethe is always worth listening to. Unlike the late-life Tolstoy, Goethe never developed a hectoring style or fanatical streak. He seems to have remained level-headed, thoughtful, kind, and universally curious to the very end. Some objects of his literary awe may seem dated (he adored Byron’s plays, for example), and on occasion he discusses completely forgotten writers and painters, but if nothing else these moments give us humbling insight into how taste shifts over time. Eckermann’s book is also a treasury of Goethe’s practical, writerly advice. In their first year together, 1823, Goethe regrets his own early-career pursuit of longer works; he advises Eckermann that the best way to “produce something good” is to write small-scale, spontaneous poems from his daily life. By the end of the decade, though, Eckermann records a neat reversal as he coaxes Goethe into resuming work on Part II of Faust, the biggest of his big works.

“Mark my words,” he mutters in reference to a contemporary, “the politician will consume the poet.”

Goethe’s nature rejected political fanaticism, too. This was not a popular move in the Romantic age, which rewarded strident radicalism as generously as our own. “Mark my words,” he mutters in reference to a contemporary, “the politician will consume the poet.” Eckermann records the clearest statement of Goethe’s political philosophy on record. Goethe begins, “And as for politics, don’t get me started!”—then explains, at length, what he believes and the ways he has been misunderstood. Supporting neither the Robespierres nor the autocrats of the world, preferring slow change to upheaval, he irritated the young radicals of his day. Goethe was cursed, or blessed, with too firm a grasp of reality. Explaining why he refused to join other writers in their enthusiasm for the French Revolution, he says that “Its atrocities were all too real to me.” That clear-eyed gaze ensured him a surprisingly accurate sense of the future, both literary and political. Goethe casually predicts both the Panama Canal and the development of comparative literature as a discipline.

At no point, though, does Goethe speculate on the future of his own literary reputation. Today he is more revered than read, even in Germany, which prefers, I suspect, the intimate intensity of Rilke to the synoptic serenity of Goethe. Though some educated Americans might recognize the name (and wonder if they’re pronouncing it right), only a few have read the work. Swallowing the classical tradition (for, say, Iphigenia in Tauris) and medieval Middle European history (Egmont) is good preparation for reading much of Goethe; both strains braid together in Faust, which requires a large amount of prior knowledge to enjoy. The novelist is another author still, just as restless as the poet-playwright, swinging from sentimental (The Sorrows of Young Werther) to digressive and philosophical (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) and even scientific (Elective Affinities). Goethe had the rare problem of being universally competent. Most writers do one thing because that one thing is all that they can do; Goethe had choices, and he chose them all.

Goethe’s oeuvre now serves as a kind of ark for the West’s heritage, on the eve of the deluge. On this massive boat Goethe boarded Persia (The West–Easterly Diwan) and China (The Chinese–German Book of Hours and Seasons) as well. Is it any wonder that the contemporary West reads him less and less? Goethe, in a lineage that passed through Nietzsche, grandfathered Oswald Spengler’s idea of the “Faustian man.” Goethe’s hero exemplified the restless, infinity-seeking mindset that distinguished the West in its long heyday from Magellan to moonshot. Today, that mindset strikes many as suspect, anachronistic, maybe even evil. The contemporary West’s instinctive revulsion toward its own Faustian past dovetails with the animus, in certain quarters, toward everything from Shakespeare plays to Elon Musk. Why does the billionaire keep sending rockets into space instead of using his money to “end world hunger”? Faustian man, according to Spengler, is drawn to any distance that goes on forever. Once it was the Atlantic; now it is the night. Hunger, it might be countered, is its own kind of infinite. But it’s not the kind with livable galaxies in it.

Xi Jinping knows entire passages of Faust by heart.

This tendency, and the writer whose career culminated in its symbol, may be migrating east for safekeeping. Pagan Europe’s heritage wintered the Dark Ages in Arabic. In 2015, Goethe’s Gesammelte Werke began its journey into fifty Chinese volumes. Everything—even the correspondence of more than fifteen thousand letters—will be translated, published, and made accessible as an online database. (Goethe’s totality is not available in English; the closest we can get is Princeton’s twelve-volume set.) Xi Jinping knows entire passages of Faust by heart; as a teenager, he walked thirty kilometers to borrow a copy.

The Chinese would be wise to add Eckermann’s book as a fifty-first volume. Conversations with Goethe works equally well as an appendix or an introduction to this writer, whose value exceeds the sum of his writings. Someone, somewhere, will always be seeking infinity, and one of the best places to find him is here.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 68
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