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Embracing the enemy: The problem of religion in Goethe’s “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul”

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAnti/Idealism: Re-Interpreting a German Discourse
Publisherde Gruyter
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019

King's Authors


Book VI of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” occupies an unusual place in literary criticism: a work by a male author that according to feminist criticism is a paradigm of women’s autobiography. Adopting some elements of these feminist readings, but in opposition to crude psychoanalytical interpretations, this paper argues that the Beautiful Soul’s development occurs according to a set of psychological
processes that are well attested in eighteenth-century thought. As Goethe wrote to Schiller in 1795, the Beautiful Soul transposes “the subjective and the objective”—or in the terms of Goethe’s poem “The Divine,” she creates a private God by projecting her own moral sense onto creation. In doing so she raises the expectation that God and the world will answer her demands of them. In this way she falls foul of Spinoza’s stricture that “he who loves God cannot demand that God should love him in return.” When creation and the creator fail to meet her demands of them, as they inevitably must, she pays a psychological price in the
form of intense bouts of religious melancholy. In this way Goethe applies his own version of the psychologisation of religion such as was practised by e.g. Hume and Holbach, and had its roots in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The “Confessions” are thus typical of Weimar Classicism’s treatment of religion: an ideological strategy of reframing whereby the (religious) enemy is re-described as a useful and congenial moral-psychological lesson.

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