We all know the name Goethe — some of us even know the full name, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I've never lived in the renowned 18th- and 19th-century writer, politician, and cultural polymath's homeland of Germany, but even when I lived in Los Angeles, I regularly went to my local branch of the Goethe-Institute for German cultural events. Even in Korea, where I live now, Goethe has left a wide if shallow mark: you can see The Sorrows of Young Werther in the form of an elaborate stage musical, for instance, and buy almost all the goods you need in life from the enormous conglomerate named after the young lady on whom Werther concentrates his doomed affections, Lotte.
But why, more than 180 years after Goethe's death, does his name still come up in so many different contexts? And given that, why do so many of us know so little about his long, varied, colorful, and highly productive life and career? This sounds like a job for the video wing of Alain de Botton's School of Life, whose short primers continue to bring us up to speed on why the legacies of so many cultural figures (with one section given over to the literary) have endured, or should endure. “Goethe is one of the great minds of European civilisation, though his work is largely unknown outside of the German speaking countries,” says de Botton in their video on Goethe: “He deserves our renewed attention.”
To fill out the details provided in the School of Life's video, you can read an overview of Goethe's career (including details on the proper pronunciation of his name) in the accompanying Book of Life entry online. It tells the story of not just Young Werther's creator, but “one of Europe’s big cultural heroes – comparable to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and Homer,” skilled in letters, of course, but also in “physiology, geology, botany and optics,” who also spent stretches of his career as “a diplomat, fashion guru, a senior civil servant, a pornographer, the head of a university, a fine artist, an adventurous traveller, the director of a theatre company and the head of a mining company.”
We might call Goethe, insofar as he developed his own mastery, spanning so much of the human experience, a Renaissance man out of time — but one who, in his way, outdid even the actual men of the Renaissance. “We have so much to learn from him,” adds the Book of Life. “We don’t often hear people declaring a wish to be a little more like ‘Goethe.’ But if we did, the world would be a more vibrant and humane place.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.