Who Needs Morality? Goethe’s Passions

THE well-known Enlightenment figure, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), had an interesting view on maintaining virtue without relying upon bourgeois concepts of morality. In his 1810 poem, The Diary, a low-key exercise in erotic verse, the German insisted that sexual temptation is something that can be experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike:

We’ve often heard, and must at last believe

No one has ever fathomed the heart of man,

And, however much we bob and weave,

Christian or heathen, we’re all prone to sin.

We know the rules and follow them when we can,

For if a demon tries to make us stray

Virtue’s safe if higher powers hold sway.

The poem continues with the salacious tale of an adulterous traveller who finds himself temporarily stranded at a remote inn and who then becomes seduced by the feminine charms of an attractive chambermaid. Once he ends up in bed with the young lady, however, the wayward journeyman discovers that he can only become sexually aroused by imagining the naked body of his wife and thinking about the great passion they had experienced during the very onset of their relationship. At this point in the proceedings, the poem alludes to the sudden response of the male organ:

And then at last he’s there: all of a sudden

He rises up and stands in all his glory.

Ready to do whatever he is bidden.

It is only now that the man loses interest in the servant girl entirely, leaps out of bed and returns home to his wife.

One of Goethe’s correspondents, Karl Reinhard (1761-1837), noted that ‘your characters are not spiritualistic’ and he was right. Goethe, who was often accused of atheism by the leading theologians of the day, was not hoisting aloft the flag of heathenry at all and his vision was completely in lieu of spirituality. In short, the ‘higher powers’ Goethe speaks of are not supernatural in any way and merely centre upon the salvation of human virtue through physiological means.

Nonetheless, the traveller’s paradoxical redemption is not drawn from prevailing notions of religious sin but the stark realisation that one can maintain one’s own higher standards elsewhere. Morality, then, is replaced by an ironic sense of self-worth that has itself been fuelled by lust.

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