No figure commands German culture like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1748–1832). A lazy comparison is often made to Shakespeare, which underplays the achievements of the last great Renaissance man of European culture. Not content with producing some of the most insightful drama in the German language, Goethe penned poetry, novels, travelogues and short stories, as well as philosophical essays and treatises on theology, humanism and science. His influence on German philosophy is incalculable. Indeed, he didn’t see himself as a writer and proposed near his death that he would be remembered for his Theory of Colours treatise. “As to what I have done as a poet … I take no pride in it,” he said, “but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that I am not a little proud.” Misguidedly so as it turned out: the hypothesis suggested that darkness is not an absence of light but a polar opposite that interacts with it, with colour arising where the two flow together. Modern science has rebuffed his theory, but the idea was popular with artists such as Turner and Kandinsky.
The Frankfurt-born son of a wealthy family, Goethe trained as a lawyer but found fame in 1774 as the 26-year-old novelist of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Its semi-autobiographical tale of obsessive love not only became the best seller of the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement, it so wowed 18-year-old Carl August that the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach took on Goethe as a court adviser in 1775. Goethe would remain there until his death, though paradoxically he was so wrapped up in official duties and science that literature went onto the back burner for that first decade. It was an Italian holiday from 1786 that rekindled his creative spark (and also sent countless young Germans who read his Italian Journey mooning around Italy). On his return two years later he teamed up with Schiller to continue his major prose achievement, Wilhelm Meister, a six-novel cycle. He also began the work on the two-part lyric drama, Faust, which he would tinker with until his death. Ostensibly a narrative of the classic legend, his dramatic masterpiece strives to lay bare the soul of Western society. Small wonder that when Berlin erected its “Walk of Ideas”, a 12m-high stack of books on Bebelplatz in 2006, all the illustrious names of German literature rested on a single giant tome of Goethe’s.