Goethe in the pandemic

Germana Monte-Mór (Reviews Journal)


The octogenarian Goethe followed the unfolding of an outbreak of cholera in northern Germany, in which, among others, Hegel succumbed.

Among the critics who saw a surprising relevance in the auspicious Goethean, published in 1808 (First Part) and 1833 (Second Part), is Marshal Berman, who in the first chapter of his book All that is solid melts into air (1982) addresses the “Tragedy of Development”, configured in the last act of the drama, in the light of modern industrial society in the United States. Twelve years later, the sociologist Iring Fetscher, in the Afterword to a book also published in the United States, formulated in a lapidary manner: “Perhaps only today, through the ecological crisis of industrial society, can we appreciate all the realism and extent of Goethe’s perspicacity ”.

This formulation stems from a very accurate ecological perception of the “Tragedy of Development”, which ends Faust's earthly trajectory. At a centenary age and now acting as a great development entrepreneur, Fausto expresses shortly before his death the fear that the outbreak of an epidemic could annihilate the society that has been built with iron and fire under the supervision of Mephistopheles: infiltrations in the dense hydraulic system that created the foundations for this new technological civilization threaten to convert spaces already conquered from the sea and cleared into mephitic swamps.

While writing these scenes — an apogee of World Literature — the octogenarian Goethe followed the unfolding of a terrible outbreak of cholera in northern Germany, to which the philosopher Hegel had also unexpectedly succumbed. Goethe found out about the situation in Berlin through letters sent by his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter, musician and director of the Berlin Singing Academy.

On June 10, 1831, he wrote to him in a tone in which humor made an effort to assuage general apprehension: “Now the main theme of all conversations is cholera morbus. Children and the elderly are infected. Yesterday some boys who were leaving school passed under my window. One of them asked, 'What are we going to play?' 'Let's play cholera morbus' said another. […] May they not get sick, so they can go on killing each other”.

Subsequent letters update data on the epidemic. On 11 September, for example, Zelter reports the death of two members of the Canto Academy, and the letter of 16 November opens with the words: “At this moment good Hegel, who the day before yesterday [on a Monday, ] died suddenly; on Friday he was at my house and the next day he gave his lectures. It's my duty to accompany the dead, but I happen to have the Academy and besides, I have a cold. My house [the Academia de Canto] regularly receives about 400 people every week and if something happens to me, my institution will suffer the consequences and the accusation of having transmitted evil will fall on me, all the more so in view of the fact that I, contrary to the general rule, I do not fumigate or disinfect the environment, which is already considered inappropriate enough”.

Funeral news continues to accumulate (one of the letters relates the burial of the youngest daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, whom Zelter had met through his student Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldy). However, on February 19, 1832, he was finally able to send the long-awaited news to Weimar: “Today thanksgiving is celebrated in all churches for deliverance from the terrible disease. In the name of God!"

Because he lived in a city far above sea level than Berlin, Goethe believed himself less vulnerable to the “monster that loves the swamps” (and which, in his view, would not easily climb the mountains); however, he did not stop taking all precautions, including psychological ones. In a letter dated October 4, 1831, the Weimariano makes considerations about a book of poems by an author to whom he did not deny talent, “but during the reading I found myself in such a miserable state that I quickly got rid of the little book, since with the advance from cholera we must protect ourselves with the utmost rigor from all depressing powers”.

If in this letter the disease is named directly, in others the epistolographer prefers to use metaphors, such as the one mentioned above, or “unwelcome guest”, or even “invisible monster”, as in the recommendation he sends on September 9 to the young composer Felix Mendelssohn , who was then in Munich: “What your relatives are saying, I don't know; but I would advise you to remain a little longer in the south. Because the fear of this insidious invisible monster, when it doesn't hallucinate people, leaves them disoriented. If we cannot completely isolate ourselves, we are exposed to contamination at all times”.

About three decades earlier, Goethe had already made this same recommendation of social distancing (in a figurative sense, however) in a sonnet that mocked the “epidemic” of this lyrical form originating from Dante and Petrarch’s Italy. The first stanza of the poem “Nemesis” (Greek deity of revenge, who here punishes the ancient enemy in the “sonnet” form) says: “When the atrocious plague rages among the people, / We must isolate ourselves out of prudence. / I too, through hesitation and absence, / I got rid of a lot of ferocious plague” (translation by João Barrento).

In a metaphorical sense, the “pandemic” also underlies the cycle of novels — the first in the tradition of German literature — “Conversations of German emigrants” (Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, 1794). O decameron by Boccaccio, whom Goethe had known since childhood, provided the model for this cycle, with the difference that the “epidemic” that drives Germans to flight (and also to “refuge” in stories narrated in a novelistic perspective) is not the plague. , but the political persecution, which came with the occupation of the left bank of the river Rhine by French troops.

In the following years and decades, with the accelerated advance of modern capitalist society, Goethe began to see with increasing acuity the spread of an “epidemic” with devastating consequences, to which all the foundations of the world in which its vast, slow and organic process, would succumb. "training" (Education). This perception was articulated with unsurpassable pregnancy in letters written in the last years of life, but also in works of old age, such as the novel The wandering years of Wilhelm Meister and the Faust II. In a letter he sent to Zelter in June 1825, Goethe initially comments on contemporary musical trends, then proceeds to discuss social trends to which he lends the adjective “ultra”: “But everything now, dearest, is ultra, everything transcends uninterruptedly , in thought and in actions. No one knows himself anymore, no one understands the element in which he moves and acts, no one [knows more] the matter at hand [...]. Young people are excited too soon and then dragged into the vortex of time.” (What would the poet say in the face of the “excitement” that social networks and digital media exert on people today?)

Goethe has in mind here the epidemic of the “velociferous” (a neologism that he created from the Latin sprinters and “luciferine”), the frantic rhythm of the Time is Money, of “impatience”: “And even more cursed, patience!”, already vented Doctor Fausto in the scene “Room of work”; he has in mind the extreme acceleration of all forms of human communication, as the letter continues: “Wealth and speed, this is what the world admires and what everyone craves. Railways, express mail, steamships and all possible communication facilities are the things that the cultured world aspires to in order to sophisticate its formation and, in this way, persist in mediocrity. […] Let us stick as much as possible to the mentality from which we came: with perhaps a few more, we will be the last of an era that will not return so soon”.

If the “epidemic” that appears in these formulations has a figurative meaning, it also enters Goethean work in a very concrete way, as in the letters that dealt with the outbreak of cholera. Or in the magnificent scene “Before the gate of the city”, in the Faust I, which reveals to us the walk that Doctor Fausto takes alongside his famulus Wagner on a spring Easter morning. We are in the midst of the so-called “Tragedy of Knowledge”, and in the past, the young Fausto had worked alongside his father — an alchemist and “obscure man of good”, in his son’s memory — in the fight against the pandemic, for which he was acclaimed enthusiastically by the crowd, which makes Wagner establish a comparison with the devotion that was given to the body of the Lord, symbolized by the host: “The crowd gathers in weight, / And, shortly before, it would fall on its knees, / As if it saw the sacred host ”. But the doctor, reaching a stone where he used to pray in those sinister years (a moment masterfully captured by the art of Eugène Delacroix), presents the most bitter balance of his performance in the fight against the plague.

The medicine he prepared with his father in the alchemical laboratory — called “young queen in the crystal”, resulting from the union of the “red lion” (mercury oxide) with the “fleur-de-lis” (hydrochloric acid), in poetic language of the alchemists — not only was it ineffective, but it also led to death rather than curing the sick: “It was the medicine, the patients died, / Without anyone asking: and who recovered from the disease? / Thus, with infernal drugs, more harm / We cause these hills, valleys, / Than the plague the beasts read. / I myself gave the poison to thousands, / They left; I must see, serene, / Who honor the vile homicides”.

If the devastating pandemic looms in this scene of the auspicious em flashback, only in the memory of the tormented doctor, it would be worth noting that in the famous expressionist film by Murnau (Faust. A German Folk Saga, 1926) this motif occupies a central position, as the plague is provoked by the devil himself (a constellation that will be repeated in the masterful Swiss novel the black spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf) in order to constrain the doctor to seal the pact.

About thirty years after writing these magnificent verses about the alchemists' fight against the plague, Goethe returned to the motif of the epidemic in the last phase of the pactary's earthly trajectory, in the dramatic complex known as the “Tragedy of Development”. After having conquered vast spaces from the sea and having cleared them in order to build a new civilization, the old colonizer is faced with the colossal task of draining an extensive swampy area to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic outbreak that is announced on the horizon: “From the foot of the mountain, a swamp forms the landmark, / The entire conquered area infects; / Draining the rotting pond, / That would be the ultimate, complete work. / Space I open to millions — there the living human mass, / If not safe, at least free and active”.

The epidemic that takes shape in these last moments of the colonizer Fausto, blinded in the previous scene by the Apprehension, seems to refer in the first place to malaria, whose lethality Goethe was able to find out concretely when traveling in 1787 through the Pontine Marshes, near Rome , according to the reports he made in his trip to Italy. But it would also be possible to think of the cholera morbus, so strongly present in the correspondence between Goethe and Zelter at the time these scenes were being written. For it is in swampy regions that the vibrio cholera originates and thrives, as Thomas Mann will also point out 80 years later in the novel Death in Venice, when reporting the origins of the epidemic in Asia, “in the hot swamps of the Ganges delta, fomented by the mephitic breath of this antediluvian world of lush, useless, uninhabitable islands, in whose tangled bamboo groves the tiger lurks”. (Also in a letter dated March 15, 1832, a week before his death, Goethe will refer to the “Asian monster”.)

Could it be that in his last moments of life — before uttering the words that, by the clauses of the pact closed almost ten thousand verses before, would give victory to Mephistopheles — Faust effectively reveals himself to be a conscientious leader, concerned with the devastation that an outbreak of malaria or cholera could it bring to its people? Within the limits of these considerations on the reason for the pandemic in Goethe's work, it is not possible to delve into the extreme complexity of the "Tragedy of Development" configured at the end of the XNUMXth century. Faust II. Anyway, at the most evident level of the text, these scenes show a leader seeking to protect the “human mass”, inhabiting and toiling in the new spaces conquered from the sea, from the destruction that can come from the “monster that loves the swamps”, in the image quoted.

What the colonizer proposes as a defense against this threat is, concretely, what Machiavelli, in the 25th chapter of his Príncipe, advises in figurative language (and within the virtù) as protection against the vicissitudes of “fortune": the construction of barriers and dams that can face all the “ruinous rivers” — floods, earthquakes, enemy invasions, but also epidemics — that bring annihilation. However, for the ever “very well informed” Mephistopheles (as he said of himself at the beginning of the drama), this fight is already decided, as dikes and dams will be of no use: “You are doomed to ruin; — / With us the conjured elements, / And destruction is always the end.”

Will the Faustian empire — a masterly representation of the “speedy” industrial society — succumb to the onslaught of the elements and threats such as the one that emerges in the last words of the colonizer? Or is his legacy destined to endure for centuries to come? If the octogenarian Goethe, concluding the work on which he worked for 60 years, leaves this question open, it also reflects today the uncertainties of a world confronted with threats such as global warming, climate change, species extinctions or the outbreak of pandemics devastating. It was therefore with full validity that the sociologist Iring Fetscher postulated that "perhaps only today, through the ecological crisis of industrial society, can we appreciate the full realism and extent of Goethe's perspicacity".

Marcus Mazzari Professor at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at USP. Author, among other books, of learning labyrinths (Publisher 34).


BERMAN, Marshall. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

__________. All that is solid melts into air🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2007.

FETSCHER, Iring. “Postscript”. In: BINSWANGER, Hans Christoph,Money and Magic – A critique of the modern economy in the light of Goethe's Faust. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. [Ed. Brazilian: Money and magic: a critique of modern economics in the light of auspicious by Goethe. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2011.]

GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: A Tragedy – Part One. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2020, 7th ed. revised and expanded.

__________.Faust: A Tragedy – Part Two. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2020, 6th ed. revised and expanded.

__________. trip to Italy. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2017.

Gotthelf, Jeremiah. the black spider. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2020, 2nd ed.

MANN, Thomas. Death in Venice🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015.

MACHIAVELLI, Nicholas. The prince. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2017.


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