my emperor


Few writers did more to propagate the idea of a singular genius than the young Goethe, yet few can have done more than he to cultivate their relationships to others. As the studies by Rüdiger Safranski and Gustav Seibt remind us, Goethe’s interest in other people often entailed a highly conscious, indeed sometimes stylized, pose that helped him both to place himself in the world and to perfect his art. Whether dealing with writers, scholars, scientists or men of affairs, Goethe knew how to achieve the maximum mutual benefit. That he was so often able to form a productive rapport with the leading figures of his day, notably with Schiller, his only competitor as a writer, and even with the Emperor Napoleon, says much about Goethe’s culture – a self-culture or Bildung which he promulgated in his writing. Intriguingly, both Schiller and Napoleon sought Goethe out, flattered him, and won him over by literary-critical discourse. Anyone who today doubts the value of criticism could do worse than examine these instances. Goethe himself did much to foreground them. He consolidated the public image of the friendship with Schiller by publishing the Goethe–Schiller correspondence, and recorded the meeting with Napoleon in a brief sketch, as in some suggestive references to the man he liked to call “my emperor”.

more from Jeremy Adler at the TLS here.