Uses and Abuses of Goethe
THROUGHOUT MUCH OF the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, it was common to use Goethe to diagnose the contemporary historical moment, to view him either as an emblem of his time or a representative of a bygone or coming age. This reception by cultural elites across the ideological spectrum certainly began during his lifetime, first with Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther) and then his reception by the Romantics, and again in the 1820s and 1830s, with writers of the Vormärz accusing him of being politically and culturally out of touch. In each instance, the engagement with Goethe served to articulate a vision of the present moment, of modernity, and of historical time more broadly; in each instance, Goethe is positively or negatively invoked in the name of history. The young Nietzsche brings this approach to Goethe to a polemical head in his Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations), opening his assault on the modern conception of history with a quote from Goethe's correspondence with Schiller, where Goethe describes his ambivalent reaction to Kant: “Übrigens ist mir alles verhaßt, was mich bloß belehrt, ohne meine Thätigkeit zu vermehren, oder unmittelbar zu beleben” (In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly enlivening my activity). For Nietzsche, untimeliness is an inherently historical category, for it positions past, present, and future in relation to one another (it is the attempt to act “gegen die Zeit und dadurch auf die Zeit und hoffentlich zugunsten einer kommenden Zeit” (counter to our time and thereby [to act] on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come), though it is a likewise category aimed at the heart of historicism and the method of academic history, which, as Nietzsche argues, via Goethe, has lost any connection to the vital activity of “life.”
In a 1993 lecture on “Goethes Unzeitgemäße Geschichte” (“Goethe's Untimely History”), Reinhart Koselleck explores a similar conception of untimeliness, namely as a historical category that is directed against the modern concept of history and that catalyzes multidirectional relationships between past, present, and future.