Goethe on Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz
One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the day, afflicting precisely those possessed of most exceptional minds. Things which torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books, letters, and diaries. But now the strictest moral demands placed upon oneself and others were commingled with an extreme negligence in one’s own actions, and the vague notions arising out of this semi-self-knowledge encouraged the strangest proclivities and most outlandish behavior. This unremitting work of self-contemplation was further abetted by the rise of empirical psychology, which, if unwilling to describe anything that causes us inner unrest as wicked or reprehensible, could nonetheless not entirely condone it; and thus was set into motion a permanent, irresoluble state of conflict. Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their innermost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were thoroughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.
His talent, in which delicacy, agility, and extreme subtlety all vied with each other, proceeded from a genuine depth, from an inexhaustible creative power, but, for all its beauty, there was something thoroughly unhealthy about it, and it is precisely talents such are these that are the most difficult to evaluate. One cannot fail to appreciate the outstanding features of his works; they are suffused with by something quite sweet and tender, but this is intermixed with instances of buffoonery so baroque and so asinine that, even in a sense of humor this all-pervasive and unassuming, even in a comic gift this genuine, they can hardly be pardoned. His days were occupied by airy nothings to which, ever assiduous, he managed to give meaning, and if he was able to idle away his hours in this fashion, it was because, given his outstanding memory, the time he actually devoted to reading always proved to be most fruitful, enriching his original way of thinking with a great variety of materials.
- Goethe, J.W.; Oxenford, J. (trans.). (2003). Poetry & Truth. Pennsylvania State University;
- excerpted in Büchner, G.; Sieburth, R. (trans.). (2004). Lenz. New York: Archipelago Books, pg. 135, 137, 139.
Lenz eventually came to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, which inspired Georg Büchner to write a speculative biographical novella based on the diaries of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, at whose house Lenz lodged for a period of three weeks as his mental health steadily deteriorated. I post the above excerpt here due to its incisive analysis of Lenz’s personality, which I admire both for its perspicaciousness and the way it highlights Lenz’s relation to the Romantic zeitgeist. As well, Deleuze & Guattari refer to Lenz in the opening pages of Anti-Oedipus. See here for an excellent synopsis of Lenz’s life and place within schizoanalysis.