Conversations with Eckermann, 1823-1832

A young man meets and befriends the already legendary “father of German literature,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A devoted admirer, he copies down a diary of his visits and conversations with Goethe over the last ten years of Goethe’s life.

When he was fourteen, Goethe heard the seven-year old Mozart play. He met Napoleon, was friends with Schiller, and corresponded with Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and a host of contemporary philosophers, writers, scientists and other great men.

Eckermann’s style is elegant, and portrays the elder Goethe as a gentleman in an elevated society. The book produces a peculiar effect that you may find affecting you. You might find yourself becoming more gracious and considerate; more positive, and generally decent. Goethe was all about setting a good example.

Goethe was working on (and finished) the second part of his Faust toward the end of the period covered by the book, but while there is some discussion of the book and its theatrical presentation, it is not predominately about Faust.

There are several version of this text published, some with material from persons other than Eckermann. You may also find it with a different title and with either Goethe or Eckermann as the author, but Eckermann is the correct author.

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Selections, (Including Several Related to Faust)

Wednesday, February 25, 1824. “I had the great advantage,” said he, “of being born at a time when the greatest events which agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life; so that I am a living witness of the Seven Years’ War, of the separation of America from England, of the French Revolution, and of the whole Napoleon era, with the downfall of that hero, and the events which followed. Thus I have attained results and insight impossible to those who are born now and must learn all these things from books which they will not understand.”

Sunday, December 4, 1829. Today, after dinner, Goethe read me the first scene of the second act of Faust. The effect was great. We are once more transported into Faust’s study, where Mephistopheles finds all just as he had left it. He takes from the hook Faust’s old study-gown, and a thousand moths and insects flutter out from it. By the directions of Mephistopheles as to where these are to settle down, the locality is brought very clearly before our eyes. He puts on the gown, intending to play the master once more, while Faust lies behind a curtain in a state of paralysis. He pulls the bell, which gives such an awful tone among the old solitary convent halls, that the doors spring open and the walls tremble. The servant rushes in, and finds in Faust’s seat Mephistopheles, whom he does not recognize, but for whom he has respect. In answer to inquiries he gives news of Wagner, who has now become a celebrated man, and is hoping for the return of his master. He is, we hear, at this moment deeply occupied in his laboratory, trying to make a Homunculus. The servant retires, and the Bachelor enters–the same whom we knew some years before as a shy young student, when Mephistopheles (in Faust’s gown) made game of him. He is now a man, and so full of conceit that even Mephistopheles can do nothing with him, but moves his chair further and further, and at last addresses the pit.

Goethe read the scene quite to the end. I was pleased with his youthful productive strength, and with the closeness of the whole. “As the conception,” said Goethe, “is so old-for I have had it in my mind for fifty years-the materials have accumulated to such a degree, that the difficulty is to separate and reject. The invention of the second part is really as old as I say; but it may be an advantage that I have not written it down till now, when my knowledge of the world is so much clearer. I am like one who in his youth has a great deal of small silver and copper money, which in the course of his life he constantly changes for the better, so that at last the property of his youth stands before him in pieces of pure gold.”

We spoke about the character of the Bachelor. “Is he not meant,” said I, “to represent a certain class of ideal philosophers?”

“No,” said Goethe, “the arrogance which is peculiar to youth, and of which we had such striking examples after our war for freedom, is personified in him. Indeed, every one believes in his youth that the world really began with him, and that all merely exists for his sake.

“Thus, in the East, there was a man who every morning collected his people about him, and would not go to work till he had commanded the sun to rise. But he was wise enough not to command till the sun of its own accord was really on the point of appearing.”

Goethe remained a while absorbed in silent thought; then he began as follows:

“When old one thinks of worldly matters otherwise than when young. Thus I cannot but think that the daemons, to tease and make sport with men, have placed among them single figures, so alluring that every one strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them. Thus they set up Raffael, with whom thought and act were equally perfect; some distinguished followers have approached him, but none have equalled him. Thus, too, they set up Mozart as something unattainable in music; and thus Shakespeare in poetry. I know what you can say against this thought; but I only mean natural character, the great innate qualities. Thus, too, Napoleon is unattainable. That the Russians were so moderate as not to go to Constantinople is indeed very great; but we find a similar trait in Napoleon, for he had the moderation not to go to Rome.”

Much was associated with this copious theme; I thought to myself in silence that the daemons had intended something of the kind with Goethe, he is a form too alluring not to be striven after, and too great to be reached.

Wednesday, December 16, 1829. Today, after dinner, Goethe read me the second scene of the second act of Faust, where Mephistopheles visits Wagner, who is on the point of making a human being by chemical means. The work succeeds; the Homunculus appears in the phial, as a shining being, and is at once active. He repels Wagner’s questions upon incomprehensible subjects; reasoning is not his business; he wishes to act, and begins with our hero, Faust, who, in his paralyzed condition, needs a higher aid. As a being to whom the present is perfectly clear and transparent, the Homunculus sees into the soul of the sleeping Faust, who, enraptured by a lovely dream, beholds Leda visited by swans, while she is bathing in a pleasant spot. The Homunculus, by describing this dream, brings a most charming picture before our eyes. Mephistopheles sees nothing of it, and the Homunculus taunts him with his northern nature.

“Generally,” said Goethe, “you will perceive that Mephistopheles appears to disadvantage beside the Homunculus, who is like him in clearness of intellect, and so much superior to him in his tendency to the beautiful and to a useful activity. He styles him cousin; for such spiritual beings as this Homunculus, not yet saddened and limited by a thorough assumption of humanity, were classed with the daemons, and thus there is a sort of relationship between the two.”

“Certainly,” said I, “Mephistopheles here appears a subordinate; yet I cannot help thinking he has had a secret influence on the production of the Homunculus. We have known him in this way before; and, indeed, in the Helena he always appears as secretly working. Thus he again elevates himself with regard to the whole, and in his lofty repose he can well afford to put up with a little in particulars.”

“Your feeling of the position is very correct,” said Goethe; “indeed, I have doubted whether I ought not to put some verses into the mouth of Mephistopheles when he goes to Wagner and when the Homunculus is still in a state of formation, so that his co-operation may be expressed.

“It would do no harm,” said I. “Yet this is intimated by the words with which Mephistopheles closes the scene:

Am Ende hangen wir doch ab
Von Creaturen die wir machten.

We are dependent after all,
On creatures that we make.”

“True,” said Goethe, “that would be almost enough for the attentive; but I will think about some additional verses.”

“But those concluding words are very great, and will not easily be penetrated to their full extent.”

“I think,” said Goethe, “I have given them a bone to pick. A father who has six sons is a lost man, let him do what he may. Kings and ministers, too, who have raised many persons to high places, may have something to think about from their own experience.” p 271

Friday, April 3 1829. “But if a prince lacks personal greatness, and does not know how to conciliate his subjects by good deeds, he must think of other means, and there is none better, and more effective, than religion, and a sympathy with the customs of his people. To appear at church every Sunday; to look down upon, and let himself be looked at for an hour by, the congregation-is the best means of becoming popular which can be recommended to a young sovereign; and one which, with all his greatness, Napoleon himself did not disdain.” P. 251.

Tuesday, April 7. 1829. “We see with what difficulty the two million of Protestants in Ireland have kept their ground hitherto against the preponderating five million of Catholics; and how, for instance, the poor Protestant farmers have been oppressed, tricked, and tormented, when among Catholic neighbours. The Catholics do not agree among themselves, but they always unite against a Protestant. They are like a pack of hounds, who bite one another, but, when a stag comes in view, they all unite immediately to run it down.” P. 256.

Wednesday, April 15th, 1829. We talked of people who without having any real talent, are excited to productiveness, and of others who write about things they do not understand.

“What seduces young people ,” said Goethe, “is this – we live in a time when so much culture is diffused that it has communicated itself to the atmosphere a young man breathes. Poetical and philosophic thoughts live and move within him, he has sucked them in with his very breath; but he thinks they are his own property and utters them as such. But after he has restored to his time what he has received from it, he remains poor. He is like a fountain that plays awhile with water supplied but ceases to flow once the liquid treasure is exhausted.” P. 269.

Thursday, February 17, 1831. I asked about Faust, and what progress he had made with it.

“That,” said Goethe, “will not again let me loose. I daily think and invent more and more of it. I have now had the whole manuscript of the second part stitched together, that it may lie a palpable mass before me. The place of the yet-lacking fourth act I have filled with white paper; and undoubtedly what is finished will allure and urge me to complete what has yet to be done. There is more than people think in these matters of sense, and we must aid the spiritual by all manner of devices.”

He sent for the stitched Faust, and I was surprised to see how much he had written, for a good folio volume was before me.

“And all,” said I, “has been done in the six years that I have been here; and yet, amidt so many other occupations, you could have devoted but little time to it. We see how much a work grows, even if we add something only now and then!”

“That is a conviction that strengthens with age,” said Goethe; “while youth believes all must be done in a single day. If fortune favour, and I continue in good health, I hope in the next spring months to get a great way on with the fourth act. It was, as you know, invented long since, but the other parts have, in course of execution, grown so much that I can now use only the outline of my first invention, and must fill out this introduced portion so as to make it of a piece with the rest.”

“A far richer world is displayed,” said I, “in this second part than in the first.”

“I should think so,” said Goethe, “The first part is almost entirely subjective; it proceeded entirely from a perplexed impassioned individual, and his semi-darkness is probably highly pleasing to mankind. But in the second part there is scarcely anything of the subjective; here is seen a higher, broader, clearer, more passionless world, and he who has not looked about him and had some experience will not know what to make of it.”

“There will be found exercise for thought,” said I; “some learning may also be needful. I am glad that I have read Schelling’s little book on the Cabiri, and that I now know the drift of that famous passage in the Walpurgis Night.”

“I have always found,” said Goethe, laughing, “that it is well to know something.” P. 311.

March 25, 1831. “You see in my chamber no sofa; I always sit in my old wooden chair; and never till a few weeks ago have I had a leaning place put for my head. If I am surrounded by convenient tasteful furniture, my thoughts are absorbed, and I am placed in an agreeable, but passive state. Unless we are accustomed to them from early youth, splendid chambers and elegant furniture are for people who neither have nor can have any thoughts.” P. 326.

Monday, February 21, 1831. Schelling’s Cabiri brought the conversation to the classic Walpurgis Night, and the differences between this and the scenes on the Brocken in the first part.

“The old Walpurgis Night, ” said Goethe, “is monarchical, since the devil is there respected throughout as a decided chief. But the classic Walpurgis Night is thoroughly republican; since all stand on a plain near one another, so that each is as prominent as his associates, and nobody is subordinate or troubled about the rest.”

“Moreover,” said I, “in the classic assembly all are sharply outlined individualities; while on the German Blocksberg, each individuality is lost in the general witch-mass.”

“Therefore,” said Goethe, “Mephistopheles knows what is meant when the Homunculus speaks to him of Thessalian witches. A connoisseur of antiquity will have something suggested by these words, while to the unlearned it remains a mere name.” P. 315.

The above selections are from Conversations with Eckermann, 1823-1832 by J.W. Goethe ; translated by John Oxenford. San Francisco : North Point Press, 1984.

External links

There are a few as yet incomplete transcriptions of the English translation on the Internet.