Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER III. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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The preceding extraordinary letter had been written, in truth, long before, and carried to and fro, until now at last it could be delivered in accordance with its address. Wilhelm decided to answer in a friendly manner—but declining—by the first messenger, who was about to depart. Hersilia seemed not to take the distance into account, and he was at present too seriously occupied for even the slightest curiosity as to what might be found in the casket to be able to attract him.
Certain mishaps too which had befallen the boldest members of this brave company, gave him an opportunity of showing himself a master in the art that he had adopted. And as one word suggests another, so still more happily does one deed follow on another, and if finally occasion is again given thereby for words, they are so much the more fruitful and elevating to the mind. Their conversations were therefore as instructive as they were enjoyable, for the friends reciprocally rendered account of the progress of their learning and doing hitherto; whence had ensued such an amount of culture, to their mutual astonishment, that between themselves they must needs learn to know each other anew.
One evening then Wilhelm began his story:—“I forthwith essayed to pursue my surgical studies at a large institution in the largest town, in which alone they are possible: to anatomy, as the fundamental study, I at once applied myself with zeal.
“By a peculiar method which no one would guess, I had already made good progress in knowledge of the human frame: and this was during my theatrical career. When all is properly looked to, the physical man after all plays the principal part there—a fine man, a fine woman! If the manager is lucky enough to have got hold of these, comedy and tragedy writers are assured. The freer footing upon which such society lives makes their associates more familiar with the peculiar beauty of the uncovered limbs than any other relationship: different costumes even oblige them to make visible what otherwise is generally concealed. On this point I might have much to say, as also of physical defects which the sensible actor must recognize in himself or others, in order if not to correct, at least to hide them. In this way I was sufficiently prepared to give consistency to the anatomical course which taught me to know the outer parts more accurately, whilst the inner parts too were not strange to me, inasmuch as a certain preconception of them had always been present to me. A disagreeable hindrance to this study was the continually repeated complaint of the want of subjects, of the inadequate number of dead bodies which we desired, for such high ends, to subject to the knife. To provide these, if not adequately, at any rate in as large a number as possible, strict laws had been promulgated: not only criminals, who in every sense had forfeited their individual existence, but others too, neglected in body or mind, were laid claim to.
“In proportion to the need, the severity increased, and therewith the repugnance of the people who in a moral and religious sense cannot give up their personality, nor that of persons beloved by them. But the evil increased more and more, whilst a distracting anxiety arose that there was occasion to fear for the peaceful graves of beloved ones departed. No age, no rank,—neither high nor low,—was any longer secure in its resting-place; the mound which had been decked with flowers, the inscriptions with which they had sought to preserve a memory,—nothing could give protection from the profitable depredation; the painfullest separation seemed disturbed in the most horrible way, and even whilst one turned away from the grave a fear was felt lest the decently clad and composed limbs of the beloved ones should be known to have been severed, misplaced and dishonored.
“But all this was repeatedly talked of, and discussed over and over again without anyone having thought about a remedy, or having been able to think of one; and the complaints became continually more universal when young men who had listened to the course of lectures with attention were desirous of convincing themselves also with hand and eye of what they had hitherto seen and heard, and of transferring such necessary knowledge more deeply and vividly to the imagination. At such times there arises a sort of unnatural scientific famine, which awakens a craving after the most repulsive sort of satisfaction, as if it were the most pleasant and necessary.
“Such deferring and delaying had for some time occupied and interested those who were keen for knowledge and action, when at last one morning an occurrence, over which the whole town was set astir, for some hours passionately evoked all the pros and cons. An exceedingly beautiful girl, distracted by an unhappy love, had sought and found her death in the water. The anatomical school got possession of her: all in vain were the efforts of the parents, the relatives, nay, of the lover himself, who had been the object of only a false suspicion: the higher authorities, who had just made the law more stringent, could assent to no exception, and they even hastened to avail themselves of the prize as quickly as possible, and to distribute it for use.”
Wilhelm,* who as the first candidate was summoned forthwith, found in front of the seat indicated to him, up on a plain board neatly covered, a critical task; for when he took off the covering, there lay exposed to view the most beautiful female arm that probably had ever wound itself round a youth’s neck. He held his instrument-case in his hand and did not trust himself to open it; he stood up, not venturing to sit down. Repugnance to still further deforming this glorious product of nature contended with the demand which the eager man of science had to make upon himself, and which all who sat around him took care to satisfy.
At this moment there came up to him a man of good appearance, whom he had noticed—though but seldom—yet always as a very attentive listener and observer, and about whom he had already inquired. No one however had been able to give more exact information: that he was a sculptor, all were agreed, but he was also held to be an alchemist, who lived in a large old house, the first floor of which was alone accessible to visitors or to those who were employed by him, whilst all the other rooms were shut up. This man had at various times approached Wilhelm, and had gone away from lecture with him, but yet he seemed to shun any further connection or explanation.
On this occasion, however, he spoke with a certain frankness: “I see that you hesitate, you are amazed at the beautiful form, and are unable to destroy it: put yourself above professional feeling, and follow me.” Thereupon he covered up the arm again, made a sign to the servitor, and the two left the place. They walked side by side in silence, until the half-known one stopped before a large gateway, the wicket of which he opened, and obliged our friend to enter. There he found himself upon a stage, large and spacious, such as we see in old business-houses where the cases and bales arriving are at once shipped away. Here were standing plaster-casts of statues and busts, as well as boarded receptacles, packed and empty.
“It looks business-like here,” said the man; “the means of carriage by water possible from here are invaluable to me.”
Now, all this agreed quite well with the trade of a sculptor; nor could Wilhelm think otherwise when the friendly host took him up a few steps into a large room adorned round about with plaques in high and low relief, with large and small figures, with busts and separate members of the most lovely figures. Our friend regarded all this with pleasure, and gladly listened to his host’s instructive words, although he must needs be conscious of a wide gulf between these artistic labors and the scientific aspirations from which they had come away.
At last the owner of the house said with some seriousness: “My reason for bringing you here, you will soon see. This door,” he continued, as he turned towards one side, “is nearer to the door of the hall from which we have come than you may think.” Wilhelm entered, and in truth had occasion for surprise, when, instead of seeing as before the imitation of living forms, he here found the walls covered throughout with anatomical dissections, made it might be of wax or of some other material; enough, they had throughout the fresh-colored appearance of preparations that had just been made.
“Here, my friend,” said the artist, “here you see the inestimable substitutes for those subjects which we, with the disapprobation of the world, at unseasonable moments, with disgust and with great anxiety prepare for destruction or for a repulsive preservation. I am obliged to carry on this business in the greatest secrecy; for you must before now have heard men of the faculty speak of it with depreciation. I do not let myself be put out, and I am preparing something which in the long run will assuredly have great effect. The surgeon especially, if he elevates himself to the plastic idea, will certainly be able in every case of injury to come to the aid of nature, ever reconstructing with the best effect; even the physician would be elevated in his functions by such a conception. Yet let us not waste many words! You shall learn, in brief, that building-up teaches more than pulling in pieces, joining together more than separating, animating what is dead more than killing over again what is killed: in short, then, will you be my pupil?” And on his assenting, the expert laid the skeleton of a woman’s arm in front of his guest in the same position in which they had seen one before them a short time before.
“I have had occasion to notice,” continued the master, “how you have given thorough attention to the subject of the ligaments, and very properly, for with them the lifeless heap of bones first begins to live again for us. Ezekiel had first to see his field of bones join and unite themselves in this fashion before the limbs could move, the arms feel about and the feet stand up. Here is pliable material, small rods, and aught else that may be required; now try your luck!”
The new pupil collected his thoughts, and when he began to examine the portions of bone more closely, he saw that they were carved artificially from wood.
“I have,” remarked the teacher, “an expert man, whose art was going in quest of bread, when the saints and martyrs whom he had been accustomed to carve no longer found a sale. I therefore induced him to master the art of skeleton-making, and to practise in life-size and on a smaller scale after nature.”
Our friend now did his best, and earned the approbation of his adviser. It was a pleasure to him to test how strong or weak his recollection was, and he found to his satisfaction and astonishment that it was called up again by action. He conceived a passion for this work, and begged of the master to be admitted into his house. Here he worked incessantly; and the bones, large and small, of the arm, were very quickly united. But from here were to proceed the sinews and muscles, and it seemed a complete impossibility to readjust in this way the whole body similarly in all its parts. But on this point the teacher consoled him by showing him the process of multiplication by casting, since otherwise the imitation, and the perfection of the models, required a fresh effort again and fresh attention.
Everything to which man applies himself in earnest is a constant toil; it is only by emulous industry that he contrives to make head against it. Wilhelm too soon got over the condition of feeling his inability, which is always a kind of despair, and felt himself at home in the work.
“I am glad,” said the master, “that you are able to adapt yourself to this mode of proceeding, and that you give me evidence of how fruitful such a method is, even if it is not recognized by the masters of the faculty. A school there must be, and this will chiefly occupy itself with tradition: what has taken place heretofore must continue to take place in the future: this is good, and must and shall be. But the point where the school stops short must be marked and understood; what is living must be grasped and made use of, but quietly, or otherwise one is hindered, and hinders others. You have felt in a living way, and show it practically. Joining is more than separating, imitation more than inspection.”
Wilhelm now learned that such models were, privately, already widely distributed, but to his greatest astonishment he heard that the stock in hand was to be packed up to go abroad. This sterling artist had already established relations with Lothario and those friends of his: the establishment of such a school in those self-developing provinces was considered to be especially fitting, nay, necessary in the highest degree, especially amongst naturally moral and right-thinking people, for whom actual dissection has always something cannibal-like.
“If you grant that the greater number of physicians and surgeons retain in their minds, and believe that they will get on with, only a general impression of the dissected human body, then such models will assuredly avail to revive in their minds the gradually vanishing forms, and to keep alive in them just what is necessary. Nay, if it comes to inclination for and love of the subject, the most delicate results of the science of dissection may be imitated. Pencil, brush and graver already accomplish this.”
Here he opened a side cupboard, and displayed to view the facial nerves, imitated in the most wonderful manner. “This, alas,” he said, “is the last achievement of a young assistant who died, who inspired me with the best hopes of carrying out my ideas, and usefully promoting my aims.”
A great deal was said between the two on the influence of this mode of treatment in many directions: its relations, too, towards plastic art were the subject of noteworthy discussion. A strikingly beautiful example of how to work forwards and backwards in this way was supplied by this conversation. The master had cast, in a shapely mass, a beautiful torso of an antique youth, and was now skilfully trying to divest the ideal form of the epidermis, to change the beautiful shapes of life into a veritable preparation of muscular tissue.
“Here, too, means and end are too close together, and I am free to confess that for the sake of the means I have neglected the end, yet not altogether through my own fault. Properly speaking, man is man without covering: the sculptor stands directly at the side of the Elohim, when they changed the shapeless repulsive clay into the most glorious of forms: such divine thoughts must he cherish. To the pure all things are pure; why not the direct design of God in nature? But one cannot ask this from this age; fig-leaves and skins of beasts cannot be dispensed with, and this is still much too little. I had scarcely learned anything when worthy men in dressing-gowns and wide sleeves and innumerable folds were required of me. So I withdrew, and since I dared not apply what I knew to the expression of the beautiful, I chose to be useful; and this too is a matter of importance. If my wish is fulfilled, if it is recognized as practicable that, as in so many other things, imitating and the imitation assist imagination and memory in those cases where the human mind loses a certain freshness: then assuredly many a plastic artist will turn round as I have done, and rather join you in working than carry on a repulsive trade against conviction and feeling.”
And on this followed the observation that it was beautiful to observe how art and handicraft were always, as it were, in equilibrium, and so closely connected and always related to each other, that art cannot sink without passing into praiseworthy handiwork, nor handiwork elevate itself without becoming artistic.
These two persons adapted and accustomed themselves to each other so completely, that they parted with regret only when it was necessary to pursue their own several important aims.
“But that it may not be thought,” said the master, “that we shut ourselves out from nature, and propose to deny her, we are developing fresh views. Across the sea there, where certain humane theories are ever on the increase, it is at length found necessary, on the abolition of capital punishment, to build extensive castles, walled enclosures, to protect the peaceful citizen against crime, and to prevent crime from prevailing and doing its work with impunity. There, my friend, in these melancholy precincts, let us reserve a chapel for Æsculapius. There, isolated as the punishment itself, our knowledge of such subjects will be continually refreshed; for the dissection of them does not injure our human feeling, nor does the sight of them—as happened to you with that beautiful and innocent arm—stay the knife in the hand whilst all eagerness for knowledge is extinguished in the feeling of humanity.”
“This,” said Wilhelm, “was our last conversation. I saw the well-filled cases sail down the river, wishing them a prosperous journey, and ourselves a happy meeting at their unpacking.”
Our friend had ended this narrative as he had related it, with spirit and enthusiasm, and particularly with a certain vivacity of voice and speech that he had not been prone to of late. But when at the end of his tale he thought he noticed that Lenardo, preoccupied and absent, did not seem to follow his remarks, while on the other hand Friedrich had smiled, and sometimes almost shaken his head, such scanty sympathy with a matter that seemed to him so important so struck this sensitive scrutinizer of gestures that he could not refrain from taxing his friends with it.
Friedrich explained himself quite simply and straightforwardly: he could allow that the scheme was praiseworthy and good, but could by no means consider it so important; and least of all as practicable. This opinion he tried to support with reasons of a sort that always strike a person who is taken up with a subject, and counts, perhaps more than one may think, on carrying it through, as offensive; consequently then our plastic anatomist, after seeming to listen patiently for a time, answered with vivacity:
“You have advantages, my good Friedrich, which no one will deny—I least of any; but now you talk like ordinary people in an ordinary way. In what is new we see only the strangeness, but to discern at once in the strangeness what is important, needs something more. For you, everything must first come to pass in deed; it must happen in order to be possible; must come before the eyes to be real: and then you let it pass like anything else. What you bring forward I already hear beforehand as repeated by the initiated and by laymen; by the former from prejudice and indolence, by the latter from indifference. A scheme like the above-mentioned can, perhaps, only be carried out in a new world, where the mind must gather courage to seek out new remedies for an inevitable need, for of available ones there is a total absence. To that end is invention awakened, to that end intrepidity and steadfastness combine with necessity.
“Every medical man, whether he goes to work with medicines or with his hand, is nothing without the most precise knowledge of the outward and the inner members of man; and it by no means suffices to have acquired a transitory knowledge of this in schools, and to have got a superficial idea of the shape, position and connection of the innumerable portions of his inscrutable organism. Day by day, the physician who is in earnest ought to practise himself in the repetition of this knowledge, of this contemplation; to seek all opportunities constantly to renew to his mind and eye the interdependence of this living miracle. If he knew his own interest, he would, if he lacked time for such labors, take an anatomist into his pay, who under his instructions, quietly working for him in the presence as it were of all the intricacies of the most complicated life, would at once be able to answer the most difficult questions.
“The more one gets to see this, the more vividly, energetically and passionately will the study of dissection be pursued. But the means will diminish in just the same proportion; the subjects, the bodies on which such studies must be based, will fail, and become scarcer and dearer, and there will arise a veritable conflict between living and dead.
“In the old world it is all routine, where they will always want to treat the new after the old fashion, and what is growing in a method that is rigid. This conflict which I proclaim between the dead and living will be for life and death; there will be panic, there will be investigation, making of laws and nothing effected. Foresight and prohibition in such cases are of no avail—one must begin from the beginning. And this it is that my master and I in the new circumstances hope to achieve: nothing new indeed, for there it is already: but what is now art must become handicraft; what happens in special cases must become possible in general, and nothing can be diffused abroad that is not recognized. Our doing and achieving must be recognized as the only remedy in a definite crisis which especially threatens large towns. I will quote the words of my master, but pay attention! He said one day in the greatest confidence:
“ ‘The newspaper-reader finds the article interesting and almost amusing when he reads about ‘Resurrection-men.’* At first they stole the bodies in profound secrecy; watchers were placed to provide against this: they came in an armed band in order to gain possession of their prey by force. And the worst will ensue from what is bad: I dare not speak it aloud; or I should be implicated, not, it is true, as an accomplice, but still as one accidentally cognizant in an investigation of the greatest danger, in which in any case I must be punished for not having reported the crime to the authorities as soon as I had discovered it. I confess to you, my friend, that murder has been committed in this town in order to supply the importunate highly-paying anatomist with a subject. The soulless corpse lay before us—I dare not depict the scene: he detected the crime, but so did I: we looked at one another, and both were silent; we looked straight before us, said nothing, and went to work. And it is this, my friend, that has confined me between wax and plaster; this it is that assuredly will keep you, too, steadfast to the art that sooner or later will be prized above all others.’ ”
Friedrich sprang up, clapped his hands, and would not leave off shouting his applause, so that Wilhelm at last was angry in earnest.
“Bravo!” he cried; “now I recognize you again; it is the first time for a long while that you have spoken like one who really has something at heart, the first time that the flow of speech has again carried you away; you have shown yourself as one who is in a position to do something, and to estimate it properly.”
Lenardo hereupon struck in, and adjusted this little misunderstanding completely.
“I seemed to be absent,” he said, “but only because I was more than present; that is to say, I was thinking of the large museum of this sort that I had seen on my travels, and which interested me to such a degree that the custodian, who, in order to get done according to custom, began to offer his mechanically learned jabber, very soon—for he himself was the artificer—forgot his part, and proved himself to be a highly-informed demonstrator.
“The extraordinary contrast, to see before one in the height of summer, in cool rooms with sultry heat outside, the same objects which one scarcely trusts one’s self to approach in the severest winter! Here everything conveniently served the craving for knowledge. With the greatest composure, and in the fairest order, he showed me the marvels of the human frame, and was glad to be able to convince me that for the first commencement, and for after assistance to memory, an institution of this sort was fully sufficient; while it remained free to everyone to have recourse to nature during the middle period, and at convenient opportunities to educate himself in this or that special department. He begged me to recommend him, for he had made a similar collection for only one large foreign museum, but the universities were thoroughly opposed to the scheme, because the masters of the science were able to educate proficients in dissection well enough, but not teachers of the constructive method.
“After this I regarded this able man as the only one in the world, and now we hear that there is another occupied in the same way: who can tell whereabouts even a third and a fourth may come to light? We wish on our part to give an impulse to this subject. The recommendation must come from without, and in our new relations this useful enterprise must certainly be furthered.”
[* ] The narrative here passes into the third person: the first person is resumed towards the end, p. 162.
[* ] The name applied in England to the body-snatchers, who were increasing in number to a horrible extent. In the year 1828 the profit arising from the sale of bodies tempted a certain William Burke in Edinburgh to the commission of several murders. Compare Goethe’s letter to Beuth of 4th February, 1832, which is printed in his works under the title Plastische Anatomie.—D.