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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: August 2017

Selfhood, Sovereignty, and Public Space in Die italienische Reise, “Das Rochus-Fest zu Bingen,” and Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book Five

from Special Section on The Poetics of Space in the Goethezeit


The following consideration of a few autobiographical texts by Goethe in terms of the “spatial turn” argues for the importance of the loss of self and personal identity in spatialized aesthetic experiences and the reconstitution of that identity not in individual becoming—the self-referential processing of the spatial environment—but by analogy to the constitution of external space, especially, but not only, urban public spaces. The representation of observed and lived space in the texts I shall read joins anachronisms and contradictions, present and past, high and low, self and other, in a form of symbolization made expressly for the condensation of spatial experience. This symbolic form, an aspect of what Goethe calls Mystifikation, turns from the self to its environment in order to create a sense of worldliness that makes society, history, and political life into objects of spatial experience. It also translates this worldliness back into the subject-self, creating parallels between the coming-to-self of the person and the self-constitution of the community and polity, particularly in Goethe's Italian journeys but also back home in Frankfurt, in a way that challenges the intact and sovereign subject of Bildung.

As the prevalent narrative on Goethe's Italienische Reise runs, the work is a sort of Bildungsroman grounded in a “Schule des Sehens,” a “school of seeing” that educates the protagonist-narrator-author himself, as the note of 14 March, 1788, affirms: “In Rom hab’ ich mich selbst zuerst gefunden, ich bin zuerst übereinstimmend mit mir selbst glücklich und vernünftig geworden” (“In Rome I first found myself, for the first time I achieved inner harmony and became happy and rational”). If “the journey's true purpose” is indeed “the subject's fundamental self-fashioning” in the encounter with an unchanging landscape, two things about this experience are remarkable because they challenge the autonomy of self-making. First of all, in Rome, Goethe finds himself in an urban space otherwise marked by constant interaction with others and by chaos even at the times of greatest presence. His own incarnate selfhood seems mimicked by the urban environment, the firecrackers, cannonades, and bells celebrating Easter that immediately follow his reflection on self-discovery: “So eben steht der Herr Christus mit entsetzlichem Lärm auf” (FA 1.15:570; “The Lord Christ is rising with a fearful noise,” CW 6:428.).