The Eye and the Gaze

Goethe and the Autobiographical Subject

by Evelyn K. Moore (Author)
©2015 Monographs 270 Pages
Series: German Studies in America, Volume 73


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a dominant figure in European literature and intellectual life, was the creator of a new and influential visual culture. This volume investigates a new science of perception through an exploration of his autobiographical works, novels and writings on optics. The psychoanalytic approach taken in this study focuses on central acts of perception and the role of vision in Goethe as key to the formation of identity. By addressing the impact of visuality on the act of writing, new interpretations of his most important works emerge through analysis of subject formation in the autobiographies, The Italian Journey and Poetry and Truth. Further, the relationship between the self and the gaze plays a central role in the semi-autobiographical works, The Elective Affinities, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as Color Theory. In exploring the question of identity and identification within a Lacanian framework, The Eye and the Gaze offers an innovative approach to biography, autobiography, and narrative.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • The Eye and the Gaze: Goethe and the Autobiographical Subject
  • Chapter 1: The Transformative View: Goethe’s Italian Journey
  • The Anxiety of Flight: The Dream of Pheasants
  • Iphigenia: A Waking Dream
  • Seeing with new Eyes: Visuality and Identity
  • The Dangers of the Gaze
  • Masquerade and the Search for Meaning
  • Chapter 2: Birth in Language: Goethe’s Biographical Masquerade
  • The New Paris: Narcissus and the Mirror
  • The Gaze Revealed: A Moment of Shame
  • Masquerade in Sesenheim
  • Chapter 3: The End of Language: Goethe, Lavater and the Eye/I of Physiognomy
  • Lavater and the Eye/I of Physiognomy: The Science of Sensitive Perception
  • The Problem of Deception
  • Lavater and the Triumphal Pageant: The Absent is made Present
  • Chapter 4: Werther Fever: Cause and Cure
  • Goethe on Plessing: a Protoanalysis
  • Lavater/Werther: Disease of Sentimentality
  • Nature as a Cure
  • Goethe, Lavater and Werther
  • The Present Absence: Lavater and Werther in Switzerland
  • Autobiography and the Function of the Gaze
  • Chapter 5: The Narcissistic I/Eye: Performance, Politics and Specular Lessons
  • Autobiography, Performance and Fiction
  • The Triumph of Excessive Sensitivity
  • How Images make Meaning
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Education in the Meaning of Images
  • The Gallery of the Oheim – a new Specularity
  • Wilhelm Meister and the Meaning of Tableaux
  • Chapter 6: Images of Desire: Tableaux Vivants in Goethe’s Elective Affinities
  • The Illusion of the Objective Narrator
  • Luciane’s Tableaux: the Cause of Desire
  • Ottilie’s Tableaux: The End of Desire
  • Chapter 7: Specular Confessions: Goethe on Newton and Lavater
  • Goethe’s Color Theory: Rhetorical Strategies
  • Wounding Nature: Newton’s Strategy of Limitation
  • The Ideal Investigator
  • Werther-fever: Newton’s Malady
  • Lavater, Newton and the Third Eye of Physiognomy
  • Newton’s Unidirectional Gaze
  • Conclusion
  • The Specular Divide
  • Borders and Frames
  • References
  • List of Illustrations
  • Index
  • Series index

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The Eye and the Gaze: Goethe and the Autobiographical Subject

From the outset, we see, in the dialectic of the eye and the gaze, that there is no coincidence, but, fundamentally, a lure.

(Jacques Lacan Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: 102)1

Goethe’s autobiographical project begins with the Italian Journey. Without telling his friends where he is going, Goethe secretly packs up his belongings and, in the middle of the night makes his departure for Italy. The trip is critical for his rebirth as an artist and a man. It marks a turning point in his own perception of himself, his future, and more importantly, after his return to Weimar Goethe begins an examination of his own past in the light of this journey. This project is characterized by a focus on all aspects of the questions of identity as it relates to both the public and the private persona.

The trip to Italy was the culmination of a long held wish. He had in fact tried to make this trip at least three times in the past and gotten only as far as Switzerland. These aborted attempts were connected with moments of crisis in his personal life. In September 1786, a few days after his 37th birthday, Goethe finally goes to Italy disguised as the painter Maler Möller. By the time he makes the trip, his first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), had already made him famous. An intimate companion of the Duke of Weimar and elevated to the nobility, he had become a celebrity. His fame in no small measure had been fostered by his early friendship with Johann Caspar Lavater, the author of a famous series of books on the pseudoscience of physiognomy. Lavater’s ← 11 | 12 → cult of the mirror flattered Goethe enormously at first. But he grew weary of Lavater’s adulation. Shortly before he left Carlsbad for Italy, he made a final break with Lavater, freeing himself from both “love and hate” (Letter to Charlotte von Stein July 21, 1786).2

The long awaited journey to Italy, a trip so often postponed and then finally begun in the middle of the night, was the turning point in Goethe’s career that also marked a new direction in his personal life. The Grand Tour initiates a process of transformation acknowledged by scholars to be pivotal to a new way of writing and of living. It also marks the beginning of the “classical” phase of his career. It essentially divides his life in half. The first half was spent as a single man living within the intimate compound of the Weimar palace. After his return from Italy he takes a mistress, has children, moves to a house in the city of Weimar, thus cutting himself off from the life he had lived for 20 years before the trip began. In recording his impressions of the trip to Italy, Goethe locates his “way of seeing” as crucial to this remarkable journey. What then are the characteristics of this new method of seeing? What did the process of seeing and being seen have to do with questions of identity? What is the significance of relocation to these questions? What purpose did the masquerade serve in his great journey towards a redefinition of self?

Because he is writing about his past life from the vantage point of his own transformative journey, the issues dealing with identity take center stage in these reconstructions. Goethe not only writes about his life, but as autobiographer he is investigating subjectivity and identity as it relates to language and to the process of seeing and being seen. That is, the autobiographical genre not only allows him to examine the past, but to pursue the ramifications of a new way of writing and of perceiving. Goethe’s major autobiographical works – The Italian Journey (Die Italienische Reise), Dichtung and Wahrheit (Writing and Truth), Campagne in Frankreich (Campaign in France) – as well as the semi-autobiographical novels Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) and Wanderjahre (Journeyman-years) express his continued preoccupation with the issue ← 12 | 13 → of identity and identifications.3 In these texts, Goethe asks himself what it means to be a subject. How do language and culture inform identity? How does the individual control this process of identification? How do mechanisms of perception, particularly in the visual domain, affect the individual in the process of identifications.

My examination of these questions begins with the development of the autobiographical subject which emerges in the light of Goethe’s creative and perceptual experiences during and after the journey to Italy. Substantial scholarly approaches explore Goethe’s autobiographical texts for material, which provides a biographical picture of both the artist and the man. These include the major biographies of Goethe by Friedrich Gundolf, Carl Otto Conrady, as well as Nicholas Boyle’s two-volume biography Goethe: the Poet and his Age. These works present the reader with a complex and detailed picture of the political, artistic and scientific achievements of a pivotal figure of his time. A number of scholars have taken another direction and applied psychoanalytical insight to Goethe’s autobiographical texts. One of the first is K.R. Eissler’s Freudian interpretation, Goethe. A Psychoanalytic Study 1775–1786. By using Freud as the template for all questions of life and art, Eissler ignores Goethe’s own attempts to resolve issues of identity.

My book, on the other hand, is not dealing with biography in a historical or a strictly chronological sense. Nor is it a psychoanalytic analysis of Goethe’s life and work. Instead I focus on texts which represent Goethe’s thinking about the autobiographical subject in terms of visuality and language. I examine this subject as seen in the creative time of Goethe’s autobiographical identities, as it emerges as a result of Goethe’s own perception of the crisis of identity. I examine the relationship between language and visuality in the light of Lacan’s epistemology on the place of the visual in the construction of the subject. For Lacan, language, the visual, the place ← 13 | 14 → of observer and observed are critical to his theory of the construction of the subject. That is, the effect of seeing and being seen determines not only our conscious thought about ourselves, but more importantly, it is essential to the structure of the unconscious. Lacan’s formulation of a language of visuality does not provide us with an analysis of the man, but instead it allows for an analysis of Goethe’s thinking on the construction of the autobiographical subject.

Literary figures, the child and then youth of Dichtung und Wahrheit (Writing and Truth) as well as Wilhelm Meister, Goethe’s avatar as a fictional character, present us with emblematic figures which reveal the construction of the autobiographical subject. A number of oppositional figures emerge who play a major role in Goethe’s thinking about the place of language and vision and perception in the construction of this subject. Werther, his own literary stand-in and nemesis, appears as narrator in Goethe’s Briefe aus der Schweiz (Letters from Switzerland). His record of his this trip as seen through the eyes of Werther reveals Goethe’s struggle to define the characteristics of the autobiographical subject in specular terms. Further Werther is replicated in the person of Lavater, the longtime friend and collaborator, whose views on the place of language and image play a major role in Goethe’s struggle with the formation of the autobiographical subject. Finally the figure of Newton stands as the last and perhaps most important opponent in Goethe’s writing on the significance of perception and the relation between subject and object. By using Newton as a figure whose scientific method is emblematic of a false way of perceiving nature, Goethe identifies his polemic against Newton in Farbenlehre (Color Theory) as a form of autobiography, that is, a record of Goethe’s thinking about the construction of the subject.

In his introduction to the Color Theory, Goethe credits his trip to Italy as the birthplace of his insight on the subject. As the point of origin in the search for a theory of perception, this trip is itself emblematic. It defines for Goethe the struggle for identity and delineates the components of the fight – masquerade, love, deception, visuality and language all play a part in this battle. What is at stake here for Goethe in disguising himself as a painter during this trip? Are we to assume that this middle-aged man, the world-famous author of a blockbuster novel, the acclaimed playwright and director of numerous plays, the politician elevated to the nobility, is now trying to become a painter? It seems unlikely. Goethe, particularly in Dichtung und Wahrheit, writes at length and often about the quality of his ← 14 | 15 → own drawings and is his own most severe critic.4 Yes, he admits, he has a certain talent, but this talent is not enough. He tells his readers that he turns to drawing at particularly traumatic and important junctures in his life. Repeatedly these moments have to do with desire, with lost love, with having to make choices between one path and another. During one such period, he tells us that writing and drawing (bilden) merged together. He would make drawings of his friends and then unhappy with the results would turn to “speech and rhythm,” that is, to language (MA16: 682). He tells us further that he failed to do justice to what he wanted to represent in the drawings, and concedes that “through a natural talent and practice I successfully drew outlines; even what I saw in nature I was able to put in the form of a picture; but I was missing a certain power to form, the fervent desire to lend body to the outline through well differentiated lines of light and dark.” My representations, he admits, “were rather distant apprehensions of a figure, and my figures resembled the light air-creatures of Dante’s Purgatory, who without throwing a shadow themselves are horrified by the shadows of real bodies” (“Durch eine gewisse Natur-Anlage und Übung gelang mir wohl ein Umriß; auch gestaltete sich leicht zum Bilde was ich in der Natur vor mir sah; allein es fehlte mir die eigentliche plastische Kraft, das tüchtige Bestreben dem Umriß Körper zu verleihen, durch wohlabgestuftes Hell und Dunkel. Meine Nachbildungen waren mehr oder weniger Ahnungen irgend einer Gestalt, und meine Figuren glichen den leichten Luftwesen in Dantes Purgatorio, die keine Schatten werfend vor dem Schatten wirklicher Körper sich entsetzten” [MA16: 817–818]).

We would have to agree with him. While exhibiting a talent for drawing, his sketches and watercolors lack a certain something. Given his critical self-assessment, the choice between writing and painting as a vocation seems to have been a foregone conclusion, not just for us, but also for him. But this movement between writing and drawing is about something else entirely. Language according to Goethe is a necessary supplement for the visual turn. What does he gain in this move to language? What is lost to him in making this choice between the visual and the word? How does language compensate for his inability to convey what he “sees”? ← 15 | 16 →

Goethe addresses this struggle between the word and the image in an anecdote in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The story is emblematic – it represents the problematic itself and shows us the remembered persona of his youth as already confronted with the choices he will have to make as a writer and as a subject in his own story. Here he describes his flight from a failed love-affair, this time his infatuation with Charlotte Buff, the real-life model for Lotte, the infatuation that had doomed Werther, the ill-fated hero of his first novel. His account of this journey is particularly intriguing because here Goethe not only defines this encounter with the visual in terms of language, but also connects this to his encounter with desire, loss, and the possibility of transformation. Goethe tells us that on the trip he found himself observing a particularly attractive view and was inspired to draw a picture of the scene. He had a pocket-knife in his left hand and was immediately overcome by an irresistible urge to throw it into the river. Following this impulse, he gave himself a choice.

If I were to see (the knife) fall (into the water) I would have my artistic wish fulfilled; but if the overhanging branches of the willow bush obscured the entry of the knife, I would abort the wish and the attempt.

Sähe ich es hineinfallen, so würde mein künstlerischer Wunsch erfüllt werden; würde aber das Eintauchen des Messers durch die überhängenden Weidenbüsche verdeckt, so sollte ich Wunsch und Bemühung fahren lassen. (MA16: 590)


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Goethe Autobiography Psychoanalysis Lacan Visuality Narrative
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 270 pp., 11 b/w ill., 9 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Evelyn K. Moore (Author)

Evelyn K. Moore, Associate Professor Emerita of German at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, has published in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German literature including The Passions of Rhetoric: Lessing and the German Enlightenment, 1993. She co-edited The Enlightened Eye: Goethe and Visual Culture, 2007, as well as (Re)-turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies from 2003–2009.


Title: The Eye and the Gaze
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