Posted by Richard on  UTC 2017-09-20 10:19

We had some fun following the Werther tribute band on its summer tour of Switzerland in 1775 and following its lovelorn lead singer's ascent and descent of the Gotthard Pass.

We also had some fun watching Goethe and his duke trudging through deep snow in the winter of 1779 during their ascent to the Gotthard Pass summit via the Furka Pass.

From Goethe's third and mercifully final trip to the Gotthard Pass in 1797 there is no fun at all to be had.

What is he doing, yet again, panting his way up and down the Gotthard Pass? There is no easy answer to that question.

Third time lucky

On the first journey in 1775 Goethe was a 26-year-old just starting to make his way in the world. His novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers from the previous year had made him scandalously famous throughout Europe. In essence, the journey had been a youthful lark with the Stolbergs, Haugwitz and Passavant. He had also spent many days in the company of his then hero, Caspar Lavater.

On the second journey in 1779 he was a 30-year-old member of the administration of the Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach and the companion of its 22-year-old duke on that trip. His four years at Weimar had been busy but in literary terms relatively unproductive. The 1779 journey has been characterised in many different ways. We chose to characterise it as the egotist Goethe's attempt to introduce Carl August to his world; we chose to call that attempt a failure – even the immense ego of Goethe the genius cannot compete with the ego, rank and money of a feudal Duke.

Eighteen years later, now 48, Goethe stood on the Gotthard Pass summit once more. No Passavant, no Duke and no Hunter Hermann. Just Johann Ludwig Geist (1776-1854), the 22-year-old who had been brought along to scribble down the genius's thoughts as he uttered them, and the genius's new best friend forever, the art critic, Johann Heinrich Meyer (1760-1832).

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

It had been eighteen years since the second journey, twenty-two since the first. In such stretches of time we all change, some of us more than others. But surely Goethe had seen all that the Gotthard had to offer. He thought not:

I had become a different person and therefore things had to appear differently to me.

Briefe, to Friedrich Schiller, 14 October 1797.

Goethe had indeed changed dramatically: the once so revered Lavater, the once so revered Hotze were now despised; the Stolbergs and Haugwitz, the former jovial companions in their Werther costumes, he now detested for their piety; Merck had been decomposing in his suicide's grave for six years; Passavant was a preacher in Frankfurt.

The women from his previous journeys – Friederike, Lotte, Lili, Charlotte etc. etc. – were also put behind him. On his Italian journeys in 1786 and 1788 he had learned about classical fornication from those masters of the art Propertius, Catullus and Ovid.

Since his return from Rome he had been living scandalously in sin in Weimar for nearly a decade with Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816), now 32. She bore him five children out of wedlock, only the first, August, would survive infancy. She and her children were shunned by the Weimar court, a situation that continued, so little did he care for the quality of her life, until he finally married her in 1806.

His most significant publication from this long period was the series of Römische Elegien, twenty of which Schiller published in his literary journal Die Horen, 'The Graces', in 1795. Those twenty were the ones that were just about fit to print in those upright times – the randy little Frankfurter, in Rome far from the inhibitions of German Protestant life, had described his investigations into the curves of both marble and rented flesh. Herder, clergyman, preacher and satirist at Weimar, pointed out that Schiller only needed to change one letter in the title of his journal for Goethe's contribution to be completely fitting: Die Huren, 'The Whores'.

Nor had history stood still. The most dramatic event in the political history of Europe had taken place in 1789: the French Revolution. Its first two years had been confused and violent, its next three years utterly barbaric. By the time Goethe set off for the Gotthard in 1797 the reading on the barbarism scale had slightly reduced to 'occasionally barbaric' and Napoleon had begun his rise to power. Over this epochal event Goethe was deeply conflicted, as we say nowadays: happy to see organized religion getting its just desserts; not so happy about beheading aristocrats such as his employer. Goethe prudently kept his head down on the issue; his employer kept his head on and kept the patronage flowing.

So, at this personal and historical crossroads he decided to journey to the Gotthard Pass and collect rocks.

Big data, 18th century style

Goethe went there as the 'universal genius', obsessed above all with his pseudo-scientific speculations. He also took Ludwig Geist with him as an amanuensis to take his dictation, meaning that the account of the journey is much more voluminous than on previous occasions, but is filled with crashing detail concerning everything the master did and every observation, however trivial, that his magpie eye chose to record. On the two previous journeys, when time and paper were scarce, we might get a laconic remark about this or that meal, for example. Now that there is always a scribbler on hand we occasionally get substantial instructions on how to cook it.

On the third journey Goethe collected bits of rock from along the route as well as bits and pieces given to him or bought by him from other collections. Poor old Geist: when he was not scribbling down Goethe's stream of consciousness dictations he also had to label, catalogue and pack all these items. We can only imagine the logistical problems of transporting, sending and storing all these rocks.

On the road with the all-seeing eye

On 30 July 1797, a month away from Goethe's 48th birthday, he and Geist left Weimar. They arrived on Swiss soil on 16 September and left on 27 October. They finally got back to Weimar on 20 November, when he stopped dictating and Geist could put down his quill. The journey took three and a half months in total.

That was the executive summary. We are not going to follow this third journey in consistent detail, just pick out the more interesting points. The paradox being, of course, that whereas gaps, contradictions and deficiencies in the descriptions of the first two journeys – the interesting ones – caused us much annoyance, Geist's acribic record of Goethe's almost random observations as they moved through the countryside like a Google StreetView recorder leave us cold.

For those readers with tidy minds here is the route they followed in Switzerland:

A map of Goethe's 1797 travels in Switzerland.

Goethe's 1797 travels in Switzerland. The blue and the orange lines are the outward bound journey and the blue and the purple lines are the return journey. The lines are broad and diffuse: after 200 years of concentrated civilisation we can now only say that Goethe's route lay somewhere within their bounds. The home of Johann Heinrich Meyer in Stäfa was the base for the journey. There was quite a lot of water travel: boat journeys on the Zurichsee between Zurich and Stäfa, Horgen and Stäfa, Richterswil and Stäfa; on the Urnersee between Brunnen and Flüelen; on the Vierwaldstättersee between Brunnen and Beckenried, Stans and Küssnacht; on the Zugersee between Küssnacht and Zug.

The first part of the journey took them through Germany, finally ending up in Tübingen as the guest of Goethe's publisher, Johann Friedrich Cotta (1764-1832). Goethe and Geist left Tübingen in a small coach and entered Switzerland on 16 September at Thayngen (a customs post we have already encountered in the company of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), where they stayed overnight at the Adler.

The following morning they travelled to Schaffhausen, arriving that evening in the Krone. The following day, 18 September, they spent the whole day at the Rheinfall, the waterfall in nearby Neuhausen. This waterfall has been called a 'magnet' for Goethe: on each of his three Swiss journeys he visited it. On this journey in 1797 he spent a whole day circling it, viewing it from every angle, dictating copious notes to poor old Geist, until the September sun set and drove them back to the Krone for the night.

The next day, 19 September, they set off through Jestetten, Lottstetten, Rafz, crossed the Rhine over the wooden bridge at Eglisau, then on to Bülach, then Kloten, finally arriving at six-o'clock that evening in Zurich at – where else? – the hotel Zum Schwert, which had played a part in both the 1775 and the 1779 visits.

Zurich and Bäbe

There was just time to send a note to Meyer, his host in Stäfa, to tell him of his arrival in Zurich, then Goethe left Geist at the hotel and went off to see Barbara Schulthess (1745-1818) – after what appears to have been a year's silence, a completely unannounced visit.

Barbara Schulthess burnt all her letters before her death so we have no idea whether Goethe wrote to her beforehand. Even if he didn't, the visit would not have been a complete surprise, since he had asked Meyer in a letter from Tübingen on 11 September to pass on his 'warmest greetings' to her. Meyer, fully acquainted with Goethe's planned schedule, would have held nothing back. Was Goethe lax in keeping in touch with her? No idea. Was he looking forward to seeing her? Certainly: the gratuitous and warm greeting through Meyer leaves no doubt of this.

The peak of their relationship had occurred in Konstanz in June 1788. Goethe was returning from a visit to Italy and Bäbe was on her way to Esslingen in Germany. Their paths crossed in Konstanz, where they were together at the Hotel Adler from the 4th to the 10th of June. It was a week of great intensity – prurient readers will be asking questions no one can now answer – but that week was memorable enough in their relationship that she mentioned those days explicitly in one of her last letters to Goethe, on 28 October 1797.

Barbara 'Bäbe' Schulthess, 1781. A reproduction of a portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

Barbara 'Bäbe' Schulthess, 1781. A reproduction of a portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829). The original painting is well hidden from the public gaze in a private collection.

We have no idea what they spoke about on Goethe's surprise evening visit in 1797, just suppositions. Barbara – 'Bäbe' [pron. 'baby'] – a longtime friend of Lavater's and a longtime friend of Goethe's, may have attempted to bring Goethe to some kind of reconciliation with Lavater but the massive ego of the genius was not to be moved.

Not agreeing with Goethe about something was doom to all relationships and in this case even the mediator, Bäbe, was now doomed. He took his leave and she noticed only then, it seems, how annoyed he was. She sent a note to his hotel, but it was too late, the damage had been done. The two had known each other since Goethe's first Swiss journey in 1775, when her husband was still alive. Twenty-two years of friendship and literary collaboration ended that night.

In contrast, Meyer managed to stay friends with Goethe for the rest of his life. He appears to have had a talent for formulating objections in a way that did not brush them against the genius's mimosa-like psyche.

Zurich and Lavater

On 20 September Goethe spent the day wandering around Zurich gabbling into thin air, poor Geist scribbling away, all the time avoiding Lavater, of course. We are in the presence of the monumental ego that considers itself so important that it wishes to memorialise on paper every passing opinion. The modern tourist with the digital camera records things seen in overwhelming quantity at almost no expense. Goethe often records not the thing seen, but his opinion of the thing seen – that is a considerable difference.

At some moment on his way back to the hotel that afternoon he did see Lavater, and Lavater saw him. He makes a vicious remark in the journal about having seen 'the crane', the grey, long-legged, long-beaked Lavater stiffly stepping along.

Reading this, we take another sip of coffee, open Goethe's case-notes and add an entry to the long list: Pathological avoidance of other subjects. Normal behaviour: 'Hi Caspar! How ya doin'? How's the wife? Sorry, man, gotta dash – got rocks to collect'. Subject's behaviour: peer around frequently and be ready to duck into side street if necessary.

Lavater's friend Hotze, over whom Goethe had expressed himself so favourably in 1775 and 1779, was easier to avoid: during the unrest of the time in the Zurich region he had suffered persecution, finally fleeing in 1795, two years before Goethe's third visit, to stay with his daughter and her husband in Frankfurt. Lavater wrote to Hotze about Goethe in Zurich, revealing unintentionally the mildness of his Christian spirit compared with the cruelty of the genius:

I saw him only from a distance; he doesn't want anything to do with me any more: Saul has become Paul. Goethe can certainly become a Christian, as much as he might laugh over that word. […] His 'Hermann' ['Hermann und Dorothea', 1797] is exquisite and an attonement for his 'Xenien' [satirical verses from 1797].

Letter from Lavater to Hotze, quoted in Stettbacher, 156.

Goethe's judgement of Lavater in Dichtung und Wahrheit is not ungenerous, but Goethe is presenting himself as a reasonable person for posterity. Let us also never forget that other, friendly, hands edited Part IV of those memoirs before publication. [Dichtung (4:18)783f] After such youthful enthusiasm for him he could not now demean Lavater and retain any credibility with his readers.

Actions speak louder than words, though, and Goethe shunned Lavater and Hotze, corresponded with them no longer, did not even do them the courtesy of explaining himself. Hotze fled political oppression, Lavater, the former freedom fighter, died slowly as a result of an invader's bullet.

How did Goethe manage the cognitive dissonance of remembering all he had once done which was now hateful to him? The remark to Schiller that we quoted earlier offers a solution: 'I had become a different person'.

When Goethe got back to Zum Schwert there was an aggrieved note from Barbara: 'You should have come… my soul is deeply wounded'. Goethe sent no response.

At four o'clock that afternoon his friend Meyer arrived from Stäfa. He was someone from the new age of Goethe, someone whom he did not yet have to avoid or ignore, unlike those apparitions from his past. The weather that evening was too unpleasant to travel, so they stayed one more night at the hotel. In the meantime Barbara remained alone, tortured by the 'near-far existence' of Goethe.

At eight o'clock on the morning of the following day, 21 September 1797, Goethe, Geist and Meyer took the boat from Zurich along the right (north-eastern) shore of the Lake of Zurich. After two hours they disembarked near Herrliberg to visit Meyer's friends Johannes Escher (1754-1819) and his son Hans Caspar Escher (1775-1859). The latter would become one of the great industrialists of 19th century Switzerland.

With this visit we see how much Goethe's circle had changed from his previous visits. Over them had hung the religious and literary aura of Lavater, Hotze and their circle. Since those visits Goethe had been to Italy and returned a committed heathen pantheist with a taste for sexual adventure. He is now not in the company of the trainee vicar Passavant but the art critic Meyer, himself from a moneyed family, who moved in the circles where art critics are valued, the circles of the extremely rich. Who needs theological discussions with clergymen like Lavater and Passavant or layman obsessives like Hotze and the Stolbergs?

Stäfa and Bäbe

The travellers arrived at Stäfa that evening. Goethe stayed in the Gasthaus Krone, the house of Meyer's grandfather, which had been renovated to become a fine hotel.

A letter arrived from Barbara, its tone even more hurt than the last one. Even the 'iron obstinacy' of the great one appears to have softened a fraction. We cynics may think there is a reason for this: Bäbe is well connected in the cultural life of Zurich, she knows everyone who is anyone; she is not just some lovestruck little girl or a bored married woman enjoying some male attention.

For once he does not simply ignore the nuisance, he replies – but what a reply! In it he expresses the hope that the second half of his verse epic Hermann und Dorothea will act as an intermediary between them, then bids her to think of him on his travels.

Think of me in the coming weeks in rain and sunshine, which will imprison me in huts or give me joy in the mountains.

Briefe, to Barbara Schulthess, Stäfa, 27 September 1797. NB: This is a draft of the letter from Goethe's papers; there is no guarantee that it was identical with the one that was sent.

Time to open Goethe's case-notes again. We are here leaving simple egotism and entering a psychopathic territory for which we find no name – goetheopathic? We have noted before in Goethe's letters and particularly in Dichtung und Wahrheit those moments when the vulnerable Goethe pulls a carapace of convoluted, ambiguous syntax and elevated tone over himself until no one is any the wiser.

Thomas Mann, a Goethe-realist, saw this, too, and parodied it cleverly in his novel Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, 'The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man' (1954). Krull's inflated language dazzles and flatters, allowing his listeners to take away what they will for its meaning. Krull is the actor, his pustulant defects hidden by greasepaint, in front of him the adoring crowd.

Now Goethe tells the wounded Bäbe in inflated prose to read his works and sit around and think of him on his great adventure.

As hard as the rocks he collected

Goethe certainly had an empathy deficit, to put it mildly. Bäbe is only the latest of a long list of his dumped women. They were mostly dumped summarily, without warning or often even a hint: Friederike, Lotte, Lili, Charlotte. Some scorned women burned his letters and obliterated that part of him for posterity, which was all they could do. In short, he was a hard, selfish man, for all his easy tears and mercurial emotions.

Himself no Adonis – short in stature, with stubby legs, an oversized head and increasingly corpulent as the years went by – he kept away from pretty girls and preferred to receive the adoration of the plain and enjoy the easy non-committal flirt with other men's wives. The one really pretty exception was Corona Schröter (1751-1802), actress and singer, whom he engaged for the Weimar theatre in 1776. She turned out to be the cleverest and most talented woman ever associated with Goethe. He had a position of power over her, which he seems to have exploited without reservation.

Underneath Goethe's carapace, however, was a vulnerable psyche, the existence of which is easily demonstrated: for some reason the letters of Christiane Vulpius, the kept woman and mother of his children back in Weimar were not getting through to him. They were held up in Zurich unforwarded. He would receive them only when he returned there on 21 October, a full month later.

In that month he was seething with jealous fantasies; his letters to her are dotted with reproaches and brusque, bossy imperatives telling her to write to him. In matters of the heart, the iron will and self-control that he cultivated so assiduously deserted him completely. All of which makes us wonder even more at the empathy vacuum which allowed Goethe to treat the poor women who fell for the confidence man with such hard-hearted contempt. It may be that he derived great inner pleasure from someone else's expression of loss, pain and need for him.

As far as we know a few women hit back, albeit vainly, in doing so possibly even gratifying this demonic trait of Goethe's. Friederike, the vicar's daughter he dumped so heartlessly, wrote a letter that wounded and shamed him – but the effect seems to have lasted only a few days. Bäbe's letter to him at least extracted a reply – a discussion of the weather. Her pain could not have been clearer when she wrote to him, but her tone was a forgivingly Christian in the face of such brutal rejection as her friend Lavater's had been:

I can never persuade myself that your sex can ever truly understand the feelings of the female heart, and for that reason you cannot comprehend how I felt with this near-far existence during these last few days. Only in this way can I understand the fact that you were just able to depart without returning to me.

Quoted in Schnyder-3, p. 125.

Barbara 'Bäbe' Schulthess, c. 1794. A reproduction of a watercolour by an unknown artist.

Barbara 'Bäbe' Schulthess, c. 1794. A reproduction of a watercolour by an unknown artist. Just as with the previous image of her, the original painting is well hidden from the public gaze in a private collection.

On the 1779 trip he gained absolution and closure from Friederike, ditto from Lili, closure over the dead sister Cornelia and he could set off on his journey with a light heart, all his past difficulties amortised. In 1797 Lavater and Barbara got the message – such a pity that for the rest of his journey his mind was full of images of his wife having a giddy time with other men at rural dances – she was, of course, not welcome at the court.

Setting out

Goethe spent eight days in Stäfa, poking about in this and that. Finally, at eight o'clock in the morning on 28 September 1797, Goethe, Geist and Meyer boarded the boat from Stäfa to Richterswil, on the opposite side of the lake. From there they climbed up the hillside to Hütten, from where they had a fine view over the lake. They stayed the night there.

A letter from Barbara reached Goethe there, a letter filled with pain, to which Goethe did not respond. The travellers left Hütten at two o'clock, passed through Schindellegi and arrived in Einsiedeln at around six o'clock. They stayed at the hotel Zum Pfauen opposite the monastery. The group toured the monastery the following day, 29 September, for three hours. At eleven o'clock they set off for the Gotthard.

Gotthard redux

From here the travellers' route was almost identical to that which Goethe and Passavant had taken 22 years previously. One difference was that this time Goethe chose not to repeat his ascent of the Rigi – he had rocks to collect and so no time for tourist panoramas. But the main difference was that whereas in 1775 Goethe made some pleasant drawings and scribbled some telegram entries in his notebook – 'Overpoweringly terrifying. Done. Drew. Desperation, struggle and sweat. Teufelsbrücke and the Devil' –, this time he was burbling his observations in a stream of consciousness, every word of which poor Geist was required to transcribe.

Even so there were moments in the Schöllenen when the effort of the ascent bursts into the monologue, the adjective ungeheuer, 'tremendous' does sterling service and verb-free telegram syntax takes over: strong climb … remarkable view … tremendous granite blocks … hard climb … tremendous rock wall … climb … strong climb … tremendous rock face … narrowness of the gorge.

At such moments when Goethe's will is attempting to triumph over his body we cynics can think only of poor old Geist plugging up the same stretch but simultaneously having to write down his master's telegram. Actually we should write poor young Geist, since he was only 22. Meyer was 37 and Goethe was 48 – the genius was short and corpulent, a man never known to refuse a good pudding. In the physical sense he was, indeed, not the same man that went this way in 1775.

After the effort and frights of the Schöllenen the travellers arrived at Andermatt, where Goethe recovered his appetite and shovelled down a solid lunch. They would return there for another solid lunch two days later on their return journey. Then followed an afternoon walk to Hospental, a solid dinner and an overnight stay. The group set off for the pass summit at eight-thirty on the morning of 3 October. They were back in Hospental later that day. What was all that about?

The Gotthard Pass summit with its hospice, which had seemed to be the most important place in the world for him in 1795 and 1797, was now in 1797 barely worth a mention, let alone an overnight stay. The Capuchin friar Father Lorenzo was still there; Goethe had met him on each of his previous visits to the Hospice; his presence there now is mentioned as a brief aside, despite Geist's pen hovering ready over his notebook: 'Father Lorenzo was still as cheerful and in the same good spirits as twenty years ago'. Perhaps Geist's Italian wasn't up to the task. But about this pious, dedicated, self-effacing and self-sacrificing man, who had served 24 years of his life in that hard and unforgiving place giving succour to the beset and the penniless, Goethe reports nothing more.

Eighteen years before, Goethe could still cope with the religious and their hobby-horses – commentators have written in particular of a seeming bond between Goethe and Father Lorenzo. Is it possible that his growing anti-Christian mood has now hardened him? Are we beginning to get the impression, perhaps, that Goethe, lacking in empathy, just doesn't like other people unless they are true disciples? Case-notes time.

The road back

The party stayed overnight in Hospental. The next day, 4 October, they went to Andermatt, bought some rocks from the locals, had a solid lunch, then descended through the Schöllenen – downhill, no more grunting needed – until they got to Wassen for a solid dinner and peaceful night at the Gasthaus Am Zoll. The following day, 5 October, they took a ramble to Amsteg for a solid lunch, arriving that evening at Altdorf, where the solid dinner consisted of 'well-cooked rock partridge' and a peaceful night. Next day, 6 October, off to Flüelen, where they caught the nine o'clock boat.

Three and a half hours later they disembarked in Beckenried. From here the journey is an unexceptional tour of central Switzerland. On their journey from Flüelen along the Urnersee and around the Vierwaldstättersee Goethe recorded the scenery that would become the backdrop to friend Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell– 'localities that demanded to be filled with characters'. Schiller never set foot in Switzerland. In creating the play he relied on the descriptions relayed to him by Goethe. This part of the journey became a tour through the founding myths of Switzerland.

National Council Chamber in Bern
Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft

Top: the painting Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft, 'The Cradle of the Confederation' (1902) on the north wall of the Nationalratssaal, the 'National Council Chamber' in Bern.
Bottom: A scene that Goethe would have enjoyed. The painting was created by the Genevan Charles Giron (1850-1914) in 1901. It shows a view of the Urnersee from a position above the Rütliwiese, the legendary location for the 'Oath on the Rütli' that cemented the association of the original three Swiss cantons, which Schiller also described in Wilhelm Tell. A naked female figure holding an olive branch floats in the clouds above the Rütli. In the top centre of the picture are the pyramidal mountains the Kleiner Mythen and the Grosser Mythen, the city of Schwyz at their base and Brunnen just visible below that. [Click on the image to open a larger version in a new tab of your browser, 3132 x 1548 px, 2MB.] Image: The Federal Assembly — The Swiss Parliament.

They arrived in Stans that evening. The following day they walked to the boat at nearby Stansstad, then sailed northwards over the lake to Küssnacht, the location of Tell's assassination of Gessler.

Schiller's play appeared not much more than a decade after the beginning of the French Revolution, in a time when the morality of killing your feudal superiors was a hot discussion topic throughout Europe. Worse: Tell killed Gessler in a well-planned ambush, not in the traditional open combat which allowed God to choose the victor and thus confer legitimacy on him. Was it ever morally justifiable just to shoot down the feudal rulers as they rode by on their horses and in their carriages and skip the combat bit?

Bizarrely, Wilhelm Tell was quite popular for a time with the National Socialist regime in Germany – never the brightest sparks – until it dawned on them what the play was really about.

Onwards, ever onwards. They boarded a boat at Immensee and sailed across the Zugersee to the city of Zug, the capital of the canton, arriving that evening. At eight o'clock the following morning, 8 October, they were off again, this time on foot to Horgen (refreshments) then two hours of gentle sailing across the lake back to Stäfa.

Goethe, Geist and of course Meyer would spend 13 days here, 13 days of talking, writing, labelling, flirting with local girls, eating and drinking. Finally, at nine o'clock on 21 October, the three boarded the boat back to Zurich – but the journey didn't last long. At eleven o'clock they disembarked at Herrliberg, the Escher's residence: lunch! and dancing! Goethe would certainly have distinguished himself at the former and Geist, we hear, cut an exceptionally fine figure at the latter. Then all three were back in a boat at five and back to the Schwert in Zurich. Dinner! It's a hard life being a genius.

Zurich and Bäbe, part two

The day after their arrival in Zurich on 22 October, in the evening, he went to visit Barbara Schulthess. The visit was a disaster.

Neither Goethe nor Geist ever recorded this event, we know of it only from the diary of the gatecrasher who was also there: Georg Gessner, a deacon at the Fraumünster church in Zurich. Gessner was the widower of Bäbe's eldest daughter, also called Bäbe. After Bäbe junior's death he married a daughter of Lavater's and had stayed in close, almost pastoral contact with his former mother-in-law.

Gessner had gone to Bäbe's house with the 'strange expectation of meeting Goethe' – clearly another miracle fan, just like his current father-in-law. The miracle came to pass and he was present throughout the whole evening.

During the evening Goethe gabbled away in an emotional and fiery philosophical debate with Gessner, who seems not to have had the sensitivity to make an excuse and leave the two old friends alone together. Bäbe sat quietly while the two gabbled, as was her wont in her salon, possibly just happy to have the genius in her house once more. Perhaps Goethe preferred it like this, for this time it was Gessner who was the carapace who protected him from painful reality. Perhaps, too, Gessner, representing the clerical, Lavater side of the family, wanted to make sure the heathen got nowhere with Bäbe.

Another miracle: Goethe returned the following evening for dinner, this time acknowledging the visit with an entry in his own diary. Gessner was there once again. He noted later that Goethe didn't seem himself (for which state there would seem to be an easy explanation). Once again there was intellectual babble between the party-pooper deacon and the genius. It didn't go on much after the pudding, though. After two hours Goethe left, accompanied right to the door of the hotel by Gessner. The Lavater faction had won – Bäbe was safe.

Goethe and Barbara would never see each other again. He was in Zurich for another two days, but never returned. Who knows what would have happened had she kept the Lavater son-in-law away on those evenings, but now Goethe must have been absolutely sure that the faction around the despised Lavater would always be at her shoulder.

But then, he had had his chance to meet her alone. She had written to him in Stäfa, after his return from the Gotthard, suggesting a meeting in Wädenswil, just across the lake. He responded with a few of the sort of hasty lines that you might write to an acquaintance on a postcard, then responding to a single sentence of the oblique language that was his speciality, his carapace: Nach Wadyswyl will ich keine Zusammenkunft rathen 'I would not advise meeting at Wädenswil' – very approximately translated. Whatever meaning we attempt to extract from this Delphic utterance, it is obvious that we cannot just blame Gessner for doing his best to sabotage the reunion of the two star-crossed lovers; Goethe probably did not want to be left alone with Bäbe either. On his return to Zurich he had finally received all the letters Christiane, the kept woman in Weimar had written to him. His choice was clear: the 52 year-old clinging Swiss bluestocking with clerical baggage or the chubby, easy-going, uncomplicated 32-year-old mother of his children in Weimar.

Barbara wrote to Goethe on his way through Germany on 28 October: 'reply by the return coach'. No reply. Then again on 1 November. Also no reply. She had spent so much time from his first surprise visit on 19 September waiting either for him or his letters and writing her own unanswered ones. Too late, Bäbe, you've been dumped. She would never hear from him again. She died 21 years later, in 1818, 73 years old, having burned all her letters (save two) two years before, a conscious disconnection from the past and a silence that speaks volumes.

On 26 October, eight o'clock in the morning, Goethe, Geist and Meyer left Zurich. They returned along the route by which they had arrived in Switzerland a month and ten days before: Bülach, Eglisau, Neuhausen. Goethe and Meyer dismounted here and went to see the 'magnet', the Rheinfall, one last time. Night was falling when they walked on to Schaffhausen. One more overnight on Swiss soil, then on 27 October back into Germany: Engen, Tuttlingen, Bahlingen, Tübingen. The hostilities between the German states and France made the journey back erratic. Goethe and Geist arrived back in Weimar on 20 November.

What had all that been about? The Goethe-Cultists are shocked at our levity.


Goethe's 'scientific' interests began when he was a student in Strasbourg, perhaps even before. In Strasbourg he finally got some sort of higher law degree, but only just: he had spent a lot of his time in lectures about Chemistry, Anatomy and Surgery. Goethe believed that everything in the universe was in some way interdependent, in which case studying anything at all had some validity.

In obsessive minds this idea leads only to overload and ultimately to gibbering lunacy: Goethe delivered the model for this type of mind in the figure of Dr Heinrich Faust. Goethe's mind was also Faustian, but a butterfly that could leave one flower for the next without dropping a tear and was consequently quite unfazed by an entire flowering meadow.

This characteristic appears to be true for all the compartments of his mind, whether women, friends, the sciences, arts, architecture or literature – here a play, there some poems, now a novel, now some Persian stuff, some Latin, a serving wench, a bit of geology, a skip through botany, a duchess, more poems, optics and so on and so on. Goethe became his own Faust character, the universal, dabbling genius, but unlike Faust, who ultimately failed to outwit the Devil, Goethe, the total egotist, believed he could outsmart him.

Again and again we find Goethe conquering his human demons in order to raise himself above the rest of humanity. He had a desperate drive to self-improvement.

In Strasbourg he conquered his fear of heights and would keep doing so whether on Roman buildings or Swiss mountains; in Strasbourg, too, he visited anatomical and surgical lectures as a way to prepare him to deal with the most repellent sights. Here is a key insight: much of the learning he picked up in his life he did not value for its intrinsic interest but for its effect on him. The smelly, dissected corpse on the slab was not in itself of much interest to him; it was only his reaction to the spectacle that really interested him.

Most of his descriptions of the things that he saw on that third 'research trip' to the Gotthard that he dictated to poor Ludwig Geist are entirely subjective impressions: 'tremendous' helps readers not a jot with visualisation, just tells them that the observer was quite excited about something.

As far as his scientific obsessions are concerned, we cannot fault him for being wrong: in the 18th century, nearly everyone was wrong to some extent about nearly everything – these are the wanderings one must make in search of truth. But he was obstinately wrong – his eiserner Eigensinn, his 'iron obstinacy' as one of his biographers, Emil Ludwig, put it.

As was expected of the genius he would have lightning insights… but these were almost always completely erroneous. Once one of these insights had burned itself in his mind it was as good as impossible to get it out again. Every subsequent piece of evidence was interpreted in a way that supported his error; every contradictory idea dismissed more or less out of hand. As the years went by he found himself more and more isolated from the progress made by other scientists.

The pursuit of order

He was led into many of his errors by his obsession with collection and classification. The great Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707–1778) [Linneaus] had shown how a systematic ordering of morphogical structures could bring order into the complexity of the natural world. Linné's work is one of the great achievements of the human mind, an achievement that was reached by observation and structural analysis without presupposing some background process.

Something about labelling and ordering appealed deeply to the inner Goethe. He tells us in Dichtung und Wahrheit that as a child he collected the wax seals from letters and ordered them according to the feudal system of the time. [Dichtung (2:10)431] It would be the same with whatever he encountered in his long life, whether rocks, crystals, landscapes or human profiles.

He had spent quite some time in Zurich in 1775 helping Lavater to order his silhouette collection. Collecting specimens and labelling is one thing, ordering them requires some sort of system. Goethe's systems never worked because they started off from the wrong point and led only, as a result of confirmation bias, to wrong results.

In Goethe's world the specimens had to fit the hypothesis, not vice versa. He got the idea into his head that Isaac Newton was wrong to propose that white light was a composition of the entire range of colours, which could then not only be separated out by passing white light through a prism but reconstituted to white light through a second prism. Goethe mishandled his own experiments with a prism, lost his patience and came to the conclusion that colours were some mixture of darkness and light or, more generally light and not-light. Once he had arrived at this idea, everything he saw after that was interpreted in that way.

His 'scientific' writings are annoying rambles often interspersed with poetry. Those interested in empirical knowledge read them and despair. Some critics have tried to argue that Goethe's discursive method represents a rounded, humanistic approach to knowledge. It doesn't – it's just bad science.

Fortunately, the true scientists of the age had more sense and more humility; they were calm, rational men who measured, observed, reasoned and who listened to other opinions, so that it is on their shoulders that the scientific revolution that has brought so much wellbeing to mankind rests. 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants', Newton wrote to Robert Hooke almost exactly a century before Goethe's first trip to the Gotthard.

Caution: genius at work

As Newton pointed out, scientists have to be team players, but such behaviour was not in Goethe's nature. He consulted others in whatever field he was interested in at the time, but only with the object of acquiring specimens or information for his own purposes. He did not engage in any debate that was worth the name, because arrogance and stubborness had already fixed his ideas in his head. Dialectic was not possible with Goethe. The more his cult grew, the worse it got.

It was also difficult for him to detach people's work and ideas from their personalities: the one would influence the other. The leading example for this is the case of Caspar Lavater, who has haunted all three of our descriptions of Goethe's journeys to the Gotthard. On Goethe's visits to Lavater in Zurich in 1775 and 1779 we saw a degree of reverence for person and for theory that was bordering on the deranged.

Not many years after that, as we have noted, Goethe had come to dislike Lavater. By the time of his third visit in 1797 he had come to detest him. But it has to be said that Lavater's technique of character reading from head silhouettes was just as demonstrably bonkers in 1775 as it was in 1779 and in 1797. But Goethe never engaged in the dialectic of producing a criticism or refutation of Lavater's work – he took against Lavater chiefly because of Lavater's deep faith and his belief in miracles that had led him to assume that sooner or later even the heathen Goethe would become a good Christian. Once Lavater had become detested by Goethe, all his works and his supporters were detested by association.


Leaving his scientific dilettantism aside, we must recognise that Goethe's prodigiously creative mind was not unmoved by his travels in Switzerland. The Gotthard in particular became a place that informed Goethe's play Faust. We must be precise: there isn't one play, Faust, there are four.

Between 1772 and 1775, the time of the first Swiss journey, he wrote a draft of a play that is called the Ur-Faust, the 'original Faust'. It was finally published about half a century after his death and is only read by specialists and the curious. A second version came along in 1788 and was published in 1780, Faust. Ein Fragment, 'Faust. A Fragment'. This version is also something only specialists and a few tortured schoolchildren read. The Faust we know is Faust. Eine Tragödie, 'Faust. A Tragedy'. It was published in 1808, eleven years after his third journey to the Gotthard.

We can't relax just yet: years after this Goethe compiled a sequel, Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil, 'Faust. The Tragedy, part two', forcing us now to refer to Faust I and Faust II. Faust II puts food on the tables of German Studies teachers around the world, but is generally regarded by those without a monetary interest as being unplayable and in its fundamentals incomprehensible.

Goethe's experiences on his visits to the Gotthard, particularly the legend of the pact with the Devil over the Teufelsbrücke allowed him to take the formless and rambling Ur-Faust and add the central motif: the pact that the Devil made with Faust for the ownership of his soul. In the Schöllenen, at the Teufelsbrücke, the Devil had appeared to its builders and threatened to destroy the bridge. He had only been bought off by the promise that the soul of the first being who crossed over the bridge would belong to him. The builders sent a goat across. Goethe's Faust I made the idea of the pact with the devil a great theme in Western culture and that idea began in the Schöllenen gorge, with its Teufelsbrücke and its Teufelsstein.

In the confused and confusing Faust II, published in 1832, Goethe used the landscape of central Switzerland, the Gotthard and particularly the Schöllenen. The play opens with Faust waking up in a mountain scene quite reminiscent of the Vierwaldstättersee, a landscape that had been so carefully inspected on the third tour. We have a cascade reminiscent of the thundering Rheinfall, possibly also the thundering Reuss or the many waterfalls he saw on his journeys.

Act 4 opens with a scene setting Hochgebirg, 'High mountains', in which Mephistopheles strides in 'seven league boots' down the mountain gorge, the gorge that the human Goethe had ascended and descended with such effort and fear a total of five times. Faust and Mephistopheles have a brief geological discussion of the origins of the Earth and its mountains, merely expressing Goethe's ideas during his rock collecting in 1797, then we hear of the Teufelsstein and Teufelsbrücke. Although he was wrong in almost all his geological musings, he was right in seeing the existence of mountains – their age, their structure, indeed their very existence – as the test of the geological understanding of the time.

Last things

In tying up the loose ends of his life as it neared its close Goethe tucked up the Gotthard in the package.

In the failure of Faust II he summoned up his memories of the Gotthard as a poet, dramatist and would-be geologist. We may have mocked Geist's stream of consciousness record of the third journey, but in these last years it served the genius's failing memory as a crutch, allowing him to decorate the fourth part of Dichtung und Wahrheit by filling in the gaps in the 1775 journey with details from Geist's notes. Apart from his rock collection, those two scenes of Faust II and some falsehoods among the 'truth' of his autobiography, what else is left?

Schiller's Wilhelm Tell. It is a work that Goethe did not write but which is informed by his wanderings up and down the Gotthard and around the Vierwaldstättersee. Schiller received his materials and impetus from Goethe for the play. Schillers name is on the cover and the theatre programme, but Goethe's heart is in the play.

Its first performance took place in Weimar in 1804 and it entered the canon of world literature: it has been translated into many languages, published and performed in many countries; it has without doubt shaped the perceptions that other countries have of Switzerland. It has also shaped Switzerland's perception of itself – the painting on the wall of the Chamber of the Swiss Council is the visual expression of Schiller's play and Goethe's travels.

Perhaps all that plugging up and down the Gotthard was worth it after all. Perhaps, as Goethe himself would tell us, 'real', 'empirical' things first become 'true' when the poet has done elevating them to a greater reality.

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