"Eckermann – the best prose work of our literature, the highest point reached by the German humanities” – Nietzsche
Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of his Life was an instant nineteenth century classic, mined for quotes not only in Germany, but in England and America. Margaret Fuller, with Emerson’s encouragement, published an English translation, and Emerson incorporated a number of Goethe’s remarks in the book into his essays.
Strangely, I have the impression that, at least in the Anglosphere, it is now rarely read. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is still read, but for us, Boswell is even more in focus than he was in the 18th century, since we have his papers and letters. In the Life of Johnson, Boswell seems plausible – he teases Johnson, he opposes him, he loves him, but he is very separate from him. Eckermann is a more… ectoplasmic creature. He seems to have been entirely absorbed by his sage. In Avita Ronell’s essay about Eckermann, she makes him out to be another mad German romantic – and indeed, he seems to have spent the last years of his life in a room filled with songbirds, taking dictation from Goethe’s spirit – as the physical husk of the man had died years before. Goethe was very conscious of what Eckermann was doing – as indeed, he had to be, since in the end, Goethe drew up a contract with Eckermann, making him the editor of his collected works. Unlike Boswell, Eckermann was not independently wealthy – which has also made him a more painful subject to remember. The Conversations start with Eckermann’s autobiographical sketches, giving us an impression of him as a sort of sport, an unusual bolt from a peasant marriage. Indeed, the lack of sophistication of the family gives Eckermann a sort of joke to introduce himself with: one day when he was around 12, he discovered he had a talent for drawing. Ther drawings he made eventually came to the attention of the only wealthy man in his small town, who invited the boy to see him and told him that he was willing to finance his training as a painter. His parents were not overjoyed by this news. To them, a painter slapped paint on the façade of a house, like the large houses they were erecting in Hamburg. It was a nasty and dangerous job, and they councilled against it, so Eckermann refused.
Such low hijincks to put beside one of the peaks of European literature! Yet Goethe was not averse to low hijincks himself. Olympian he may have been, but he married an unlettered factory girl, Christiane Vulpius. Eckermann was not unlettered, but he was not credentialled – he was basically self-taught, although he did finally go to art school. He always remained, however, the peasant who had struggled against the enormous inertia of a society that literally didn’t recognize the artist, and he was forever poor.
Now here’s the reason I bring this up. I consider myself a loser and have a second sense for the tribe of losers in literature. The last shall be first – such is the secret credo and barren hope of this crowd. Mostly, no. The first are first and trample on our faces over and over again. But the losers remember Melville, Pessoa, Kafka – they are pillars of the losers faith, that there is a view of modernity, a terrible view, in which one sees the reverse of things – and that is as close as we can come to the truth.
The uncanny thing about Goethe is that he is not only an Olympian, but – among the multitudes he contains – he is also a loser. Or he understands the loser’s vision on some deep level. That seems rather unfair. This is the guy who was unkind to Lenz in his madness and tried to bar the door to Kleist. This is Mr. Cold Marble. And yet at the end of his life, he is a loser – at least by proxy – through Eckermann.