Nietzsche once called Goethe "the last German I hold in reverence," and it's not hard to see why. Goethe was not only good at everything he did, he seemed to enjoy everything he was asked to do, even inspecting roads and working out state budgets. In addition to being the Shakespeare of German literature, Goethe carried out scientific experiments, advised a duke on matters great and small, and lived to a contented old age. He was perhaps the last engaged intellectual -- engaged not in the political sense, but engaged in the ordinary activities of a middle-class life. In his new biography, Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination From the Great German Poet, John Armstrong calls Goethe
a new kind of hero. The real task is not merely to criticize power, but to exercise it well; on the other side, the task is not merely to make 'pure art' or conduct 'pure research,' but to bring art and knowledge into fruitful engagement with experience. Goethe's example is powerful because he undertakes these tasks as a creative artist of the highest order. So, the integration of art and life doesn't — when we fix our attention on Goethe — look like a grubby compromise.
The integration of art and life is an immensely appealing idea, but it's underdeveloped. We have maxims here and there from artists, like Oscar Wilde's "put your talent into your art and your genius into your life," and poets have traditionally done a pretty good job of holding down ordinary jobs while creating art. Michael Kimmelman recently came out with a highly engaging book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, but propositions like "The Art of Staring Productively at Naked Bodies" can be tricky to implement when one is a project manager at a software company, to take the first example that comes to mind. Perhaps the closest we have come to a practical guide to integrating art and life is happiness studies, which at least tries to consider the whole person in his or her economic context. Even economists engaged in happiness studies have come to recognize that a hyper-efficient economy is not the answer to the riddle of existence.
For us today does combining art and life have any meaning beyond highly cultivated consumption? How is it possible to leave a stamp of personal creativity on a point release of a software package coded in Bangalore, India? If we look to Goethe's art for answers, we get a surprisingly troubled and ambiguous answer.
In his novel Elective Affinities Goethe's hero Eduard engages in the same types of construction projects as Goethe worked on. Eduard's schemes are basically beautification projects, although they do some public good. However, once the elective affinities begin to assert themselves, the public works projects appear to be busy work at best and, at worst, furtive means for advancing some questionable intentions. One of Eduard's favorite projects is building a second house on his estate, ostensibly for its superior view. As it turns out, the house becomes a convenient place to stash his wife Charlotte while the fortysomething aristocrat indulges in a passion for a 16-year-old girl he has known since her infancy. The relationship is, predictably, a disaster. Eduard and the girl manage to arrange dignified deaths for themselves, but it doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement for the integration of art and life that the only characters to survive at the end are the most conventional and unimaginative. Maybe even Goethe found himself in the midst of some grubby compromises in his quest to integration life and art.