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Sunday, October 17, 2010



"Here Goethe sojourned on December 10, 1777"

Introduction: My visit to the Brocken.

On July 16, 2010, I traveled up to the Brocken, or Blocksberg, the most prominent of a series of forested peaks along the Harz chain of mountains in Central Germany. It was a hot day in the plains of northern Germany, but the temperature decreases pleasantly as one makes the gradual ascent into the forests of the Harz. At Torfhaus I had the first clear view of the summit of the Brocken, now crowned by a series of buildings, including a TV Tower with adjoining antennae and a Radar dome, which totally deform and deface the rounded summit of the hill. It is an effort to picture it in the way it was, in the way of German legend and literary tradition.

View of the summit of the Brocken from Torfhaus.

There are several hiking trails to the summit, but the way I arrived there was by train, a train powered by a steam engine locomotive. The Brockennahn narrow-gauge railway runs up to the summit of the mountain by-passing two or three stations. I boarded the train at Schierke, which is the setting off place for Mephistopheles and Faust in the Walpurgisnacht scene, in the first part of the Faust.

Schierke’s "Witches’ Mountain Inn”

Passenger train climbing the Brocken on July 16, 2010

The train was replete with German tourists taking advantage of a beautiful summer’s day to go to the top of the famous mountain. At the summit there are restaurants, shops, nature walks and gardens, and a large domed building that houses an exhibition of the “history” of the mountain, its literary history in effect, as well as of its mythological association with witches and witchcraft, its military uses during the DDR period, its geological foundations and natural habitat. The entire complex is run by the administration of the Hochharz National Park of the State of Sachsen-Anhalt.

I. The Brocken and Goethe's existential quest in 1777

I had long anticipated this visit. On December 10, 1777, Goethe climbed up to the top, in what turned out to be a very productive day for him. In his marvelous biography of Goethe, Nicholas Boyle describes the preliminaries to the event:

“On 10 December he was guided up through the snow to Torfhaus, a hamlet with a forester’s station a thousand feet below the great domed summit of the Brocken. Now it is a marshalling yard for cross-country skiers, but in 1777 there were no paths and in thirteen years the forester had never climbed the mountain in winter. The night of the ninth had been very cold and the following morning the hills were hidden in mist. Over his breakfast the forester told Goethe that in these conditions the Brocken was unclimbable.

So I sat there with a heavy heart and half a mind on going back . . . I was still, and prayed the gods to change the heart of this man and the weather, and was still. And so he says to me, ‘Now you can see the Brocken’. I went to the window and it lay before me as clear as my face in the mirror, then my heart opened and I cried: ‘And shall I not go up there! Have you no servant? nobody?’ –And he said, ‘I will go with you.’[Goethes Briefe, I, 247]

At quarter past ten they left; the snow was a yard deep but with the hard frost it was strong enough to carry them. ‘At a quarter past one on the top’, Goethe noted in his diary, ‘bright, magnificent moment, the whole world in clouds and mist, and on top everything bright. What is man that thou art mindful of him?’”[Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, vol. 1: The Poetry of Desire, (Oxford, 1992) p. 298].

Goethe’s drawing of the Brocken by moonlight, December 1777

The reference to Psalm 8:4, - “What is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man, that you care for him?” [Was ist der Mensch, daß du seiner gedenkst, und des Menschenkind, daß du sich seiner annimmst?] – attests, according to Boyle, that the ascent to the Brocken had a religious significance for Goethe. His self-identification with the ‘son of man’ is revealed both in the letter to Charlotte von Stein that he wrote on the way down from the mountain as well as in the poem which he wrote, simultaneously, now known as “Harzreise im Winter.” (Winter Journey in the Harz). To Charlotte he writes:

“I have said: I have a wish for the full moon! – Now, dearest, I can go out of the door and there lies the Brocken before me above the firs in the noble magnificent moonlight, and I was up there today, and on the Devil’s Altar I offered the dearest thanks to my God.”

Devil’s Altar on the summit of the Brocken

Goethe’s ambiguity between a self-identification with Jesus or with the Devil, is also present in the poem, in its last stanza:

"Du stehst mit unerforschtem
Geheimnisvoll – offenbar
Über der erstaunten Welt
Und schaust aus Wolken
Auf ihre Reiche und Herrlichkeit."

[You stand with unfathomed bosom, mysteriously manifest, above the astounded world and look down from clouds on its kingdoms and glory. (Nicholas Boyle translation, op.cit.)]

The reference is to Satan offering kingdoms and glory to Jesus: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4: 8-9). And the self-identification with the “son of man,” -again I rely on Boyle -, points to the symbolic understanding and interpretation within which Goethe fashioned the occurrences and events of his life and work, at a time in his life when his poetry was essentially autobiographical. His ascent to the Brocken was undertaken at a time when Goethe was uncertain and frustrated in Weimar. He had served at the court of Karl August in various capacities since 1775. He had abandoned his world-renowned career as a public author, publishing his works to a nation-wide class of educated middle-class readers, the Bildungsbürgertum, and exchanged it for the confined and aristocratic audience of the ducal court and for the ear of his beloved Charlotte von Stein, in the privacy of her boudoir. He had written little since his arrival in Weimar. He chose to climb the Brocken to see if there, in this symbolic summit, he would receive a sign from Fate that would point him towards a future of some kind.

The poem ‘Harzreise im Winter’ reveals these preoccupations:

"Denn ein Gott hat
Jedem seine Bahn
Die der Glückliche
Rasch zum freudigen
Ziele rennt:
Wem aber Unglück
Das Herz zusammenzog,
Er sträubt vergebens
Sich gegen die Schranken
Des ehernen Fadens,
Den die doch bittre Schere
Nur einmal löst."

[For a God hath
Unto each prescribed
His path,
Which the happy one
Runs over swiftly
To his glad goal:
He whose heart cruel
Fate hath contracted,
Struggles but vainly
Against all the barriers
The brazen thread raises,
But which the harsh shears
Must one day sever.]

Both the poem and the ascent to the summit of the Brocken raise for Goethe the question of his personal destiny. The Satanism of the imagery in the poem points further to another element of significance in the symbolism of the Brocken, namely, the traditional association of the mountain with witchery and the devil: the mountain clouded over in mist where orgiastic carnivals took place on the night of Walpurgis. Goethe would return there in the Walpurgisnacht scene of the Faust, Part I, composed in 1801, but which first made its appearance in the completed Faust I of 1808. (ll. 3835-4222). According to the legend, devils, witches and other evil spirits congregated on the Blocksberg, - known as Brocken in the modern period -, on Walpurgis Night, the night of April 30-May 1. Goethe inserted this scene directly after the scene where Gretchen, praying in the Cathedral (Dom), is confronted by the Evil Spirit (Böser Geist) and accused of various foul crimes for which she is only partially guilty, and Faust complicit. The scene on the Brocken marks an abrupt change in mood and circumstance. To remove Faust from Gretchen, to dampen his ardor, assuage his guilt and withdraw him from the location of his crime against Gretchen and the mess he has made, Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Brocken for the Witches Sabbath on Walpurgis Night.


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