Cultural Identity in Central Europe. Goethe as an Essential Pre-Freudian Master of Psychoanalysis

Essay, 2015
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Cultural Identity in Central Europe:

Goethe as an Essential Pre-Freudian Masterof Psychoanalysis

The second half of the Eighteenth Century and the first third of the NineteenthCentury were rich scenes where evolution and revolution took place; consequently, the world witnessed a lot of fundamental changes that affected the face of culture. Romanticism came to replace the Enlightenment or the Classicism; as a result, there was a big shift in the disciplinary focus and the viewing point. While it spotted the surface in earlier times, it duginto the farther depththereafter.

When we think of the Eighteenth- and - Nineteenth- Century Central Europe, the names of those people who became icons in the process of building and forming the cultural identity come into our minds, such as, Herder, Lessing, Schiller and Goethe, …etc. Although there was nota tendency to specify their attributes at that earlier time, it was observed next.

Psychoanalysis started to be one of the distinguishing features of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries where the period carried a core change in the way by which emotion was represented and understood and the issue was much more than a ‘cult of feeling’.1 This essay is going to highlight Johann Wolfgang Goethe as a ‘father of Modernity,’ and his great role in constructing the basis of the theory of Psychoanalysis and the consequences of that on the cultural identity of Europe in the late Eighteenth century by inspecting some quotations of his works.

Being the creator of such masterpieces as The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister and Faust; Goethe made brand new sculptures of the Nineteenth Century’s ‘iconic heroes’ and conceptualized a profound vision that resumed Jean Jacques Rousseau’s efforts who is considered to be the first “theorist of intimacy” by thinkers such as Hannah Arendt.The distinguished work of Sigmund Freudand his study ofGoethe’s works gave the laterthe right chance for demonstration and presented him properly as the ‘adopted father of the German Empire’ as shown by Brown.

The historian of psychoanalysis, Henri Ellenberger, said that Freud’s purpose was "to incorporate into scientific psychology those hidden realms of the human psyche that had been grasped intuitively by the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Goethe, and other great writers".2 Goethe worked as the psychoanalyst’s ‘ego ideal’ more than those identified with the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Strikingly, the role of Goethe in Psychoanalysis was not so popular at that time and when it became to be important it hit from outside the country. This was due to many reasons: first, the topic itself was not treated in isolation as a particular topic; on the contrary, it was treated as a subject of general intellectual history or the psychology history. Second, Goethe was in general seen as so modern as Brown puts it, “The first half of the nineteenth century had turned its back on him as too cosmopolitan, too radical, too hostile to the ideals of Biedermeier calm, the tight family, religion, and daily morality; in a phrase, he was too modern.” (Brown, 12) This ambiguous and pioneer role that Goethe played was explained by others such as Angus Nicholls in his edited book Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth - Century German Thought: “At the heart of the image of Goethe- as at the heart of the human sciences themselves, if we follow Foucault’s analysis - stands the unconscious, and, to be more precise, Goethe’s historical relation to psychoanalysis.” (Nicholls, 91)

But how did Goethe succeed to accelerate the wheel of psychoanalysis and keep it move on to the Nineteenth Century? There were many reasons that made Goethe able to ‘ consciously ’ or ‘ unconsciously ’ become a leading figure in the field:

First, Freud was inspired by Goethe’s Faust and other works as he mentioned. Angus Nicholls quoted Paul Bishop’s notes regarding this point where he said that Freud mentioned this ‘ Goethe ’ s Inspiration ’ if we can say so in his “Autobiographical Study” [“Selbstdarstellung”] which was published in 1925. According to Freud, he was influenced by Goethe’s essay on “Die Natur.”3 [The Nature](Nicholls, 92)

Second, Nicholls depended on another important reason mentioned by Freud himself to prove Goethe’s deep influence on psychoanalysis. He said that “Goethe is said to have used with his friends a talking cure that in some respects resembled psychoanalysis,” which means in a way that he worked on the topic even practically.

Third, Jane K. Brown wrote in the Goethe Yearbook of 2004 that “Goethe [worked] as the key figure who mediates the transition from the more diffuse and rational discourse of sensibility to the more precise imagery of Romanticism, especially in Die Leiden Des Jungian Werther [The Sorrows of Young Werther.]4

On Goethe’s contribution to psychoanalysis Joseph Margolis quoted Freud’s words to explain how Goethe’s own personal life was connected to his works especially The Sorrows of Young Werther:

“If we try to recollect what happened to us in the earliest years of childhood, we often find that we confuse what we have heard from others with what is really a possession of our own derived from what we ourselves have witnessed.” (Quoted Margolis, 147)

Freud was convinced of the profound role that Goethe played in conceptualizing Psychoanalysis and of his anticipation of Psychoanalysis’ key elements that he used two quotations in his speech for “Goethe Prize” which was quoted by Angus Nicholls. The first one is found in the dedication [Zuneigung] of the first part of Faust:

Again ye come, ye hovering forms! I find ye,

As clearly to my clouded sight ye shone!

Shall I attempt, this once, to seize and bind yet?

Ihrnahteuchwieder, schwankende Gestalten! Die fruhsicheinstdemturbenBlickgezeigt. Versuch ’ ichwohleuchdiesmal fest zuhalten?

Here Nicholls quoted and paraphrased Freud’s explanation of the stanza presented there; he said that Goethe’s knowledge or close acquaintance with what he entitled the “incomparable strength of the first affective ties of human creatures” can be achieved by repeating the lines “for each of our analyses,” which make the sense that Freud combines the early memories of childhood with the schwankendeGestalten and it may be associated with the fantasies and the sexual memories of early childhood which are saved in the unconscious as he suggested.(See Nicholls, 104)

Moreover, Nicholls continued that the verb festhalten which means to [hold fast or capture], which was used by Goethe, was likely interpreted in an epistemological sense or scientifically by Freud. He suggested that helping to cure the patient was by making attempts to understand his history which may be conducted by making interpretations of any image or form in the patient’s history. For instance, making interpretations of the patient’s slips of the tongue, the images that the person may see in dreams or any free association that the person may make which make a relation to one’s early associations or as Freud put it “first affective ties.” (See Nicholls, 104)The second quotation that Freud used and Nicholls quoted to prove his argument is the last stanza in his poem “An den Mond” [To the Moon]. Here Freud suggested that the poem, especially the second version, “paraphrases what Freud calls Inhalt des Traumlebens “the content of dream life.”

Something not known by men, Or not considered, Which through the labyrinth of the breast, Wanders in the night.

Was von Menschen nichtgewu β t, Oder nichtbedacht, Durch das Labyrinth der Burst Wandelt in der Nacht.

Nicholls suggested that the first version of the poem which was not quoted by Freud used in a clear way terminology related to psychoanalysis; i.e. the term unbewu β t [which means unconscious or non- conscious.] furthermore, the poem is generally “interpreted as being primarily about the possessing a “love- object” in the first place and the human- consciousnessnature relationship. The deep relation between the human subjectivity and the human subject himself is focused on although it is not fully absorbed and comprehended.

Nicholls emphasized that Goethe used the term unbewu β t in connection with the subjectivity of the human; this term as he clarifies “is normally associated not only with desire, but also with unknown sources of artistic creativity or inspiration; rarely if ever is it in any way explicitly related to the repression of unpalatable mental contents or the etiology of neuroses.” (107)

Most of Goethe’s works continued to be read widely in the Twentieth Century such as Wilhelm MeistersLehrjahre, Faust, Tauris and Werther which, as Brown suggested, the last one has been famous for being a landmark that portrays the modern psychological subject. “Werther offers the most lucid andcomplete picture of eighteenth - century melancholy, but also of its rationalist psychology. Iphigenie presents an early version of a talking cure, WilhelmMeister and Faust forms for describing and analyzing the development of the individual Psyche that were at the heart of the psychoanalytic project. ” (9)

Works Cited Brown, Jane K. "Goethe, Rousseau, the Novel, and the Origins of Psychoanalysis." Goethe Yearbook 12.1 (2004): 111-128. Project MUSE. Web. 17 May. 2015. <>.

Brown, Jane K. Goethe ’ s Allegories of Identity. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.Web. <> May 17,2015. “Eighteenth Century Culture.” Web.< 2013/02/Ch-III-18th-Century-Culture.pdf> May 17th, 2015.

Margolis , Joseph . Goethe and the Sciences: A Re-appraisal: Goethe and Psychoanalysis. USA: Springer Netherlands, 1987. Web. May 17, 2015.

Nicholls, Angus and Martin Liebscher. Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth - Century German Thought. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Web.<>


1 See Brown, Jane K. Goethe ’ s Allegories of Identity. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.Web. <> May 17,2015.

2 See Brown, Jane K. Goethe ’ s Allegories of Identity. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.Web. <> May 17,2015.

3 See for more information, Nicholls, Angus Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth - Century German Thought.

4 See Brown, 111-128 for more information.

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Ranya Ghawi (Author), 2015, Cultural Identity in Central Europe. Goethe as an Essential Pre-Freudian Master of Psychoanalysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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