The Impropriety of Goethe: Case Studies in the Aesthetics of Idolatry


ACLS Fellowship Program


Germanic Languages and Literatures


The eighteenth-century process of secularization involves the transfer of important functions from theology to aesthetics. As religion is less able to impose compulsory contexts of value and meaning, aesthetic theory reassigns these functions to art. The strongest formulation of the promise of aesthetics around 1800 coincides with exorbitant claims for the person and work of German writer, J. W. von Goethe. Although the history of aesthetics involves decreasing confidence in the promise of aesthetics, a contrary strand of aesthetic adulation focused on Goethe persists. By exploring the “impropriety” of Goethe in a succession of excessive Goethe admirers, aspects and benefits of the aesthetic normally closed to view come to light.