Building a Nation (Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity, Part 4)
The Bachhaus in Eisenach describes itself as the world’s first Bach museum. Ironically, it’s not the house old J S was born in, and he seems to have been keen to leave Eisenach early and reluctant to ever go back. Perhaps with good reason: even today, it’s the one town we visited in the former GDR that is still obviously suffering economically, and the one place on our travels where we didn’t feel welcome, but did feel ripped off. However, we’d come not for Bach, or for Eisenach itself, but for the Wartburg, perched on a rock high above the town.
‘The weight of history’ is a phrase that kept occurring to us on this tour, but in few places was it as palpable as in this extraordinary confection of a medieval castle. This is where the 13thcentury contests of Minnesingers were held that form the basis of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and many other legends. St Elizabeth of Hungary (and Thuringia) was chatelaine here, and was canonised just four years after her death in 1231. Luther hid out here, disguised as ‘Junker Jorg’ and wrote much of his translation of the New Testament while under cover, and you can see the cell where he worked, purportedly original. Which is more than can be said for his so-called cell in the Augustiner Monastery in Erfurt, which has been rebuilt at least twice. And in 1817, exactly 300 years after Luther kicked off the Reformation, German students held a fraternity meeting in the Wartburg, a meeting which is seen in retrospect as an important milestone on the road to German unity, thus making the castle today a pilgrimage site for certain right wing nationalist groups as well as for Protestants from all over the world.
So it’s no wonder that Goethe (yes, him again) proposed that this slumbering giant should be reawakened as a museum, though it was Carl Alexander of Weimar, the grandson of Goethe’s employer, who eventually took on the task of the castle’s restoration. The result is an extraordinary challenge to our notions of ‘authenticity’. From the outside the Wartburg looks like every child’s dream of a medieval castle (and it inspired Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein), and at its core is one of the most important secular Romanesque buildings to survive in Northern Europe. But Carl Alexander’s architect Hugo von Ritgen turned the interior into a delirious dream of what the 19th Century thought a medieval castle should look like. The end result no doubt disappoints many visitors seeking an ‘authentic’ medieval experience—one TripAdvisor comment calls it ‘disappointing kitschy neo-classical’—but for anyone with an interest in the myths of nation-building, the impact is thrilling and overwhelming. This is ‘bildung’ on the scale, not of an individual, but of an entire emergent nation (see Part 3). This is the image of a fantastical, colourful, German history that Nazi ideology would so distort, and one has to work hard to get past that distortion, and to appreciate the idealism and the optimism with which something like the Wartburg was created.
Even the GDR co-opted the Wartburg in a new phase of nation-building, as in 1967 the castle was the site of celebrations of: the GDR’s national jubilee, the 900th anniversary of the castle’s (legendary) founding, the 450th anniversary of the start of Luther’s Reformation, and the 150th anniversary of that primal student gathering in 1817. Phew!
At the heart of Luther’s Reformation is the idea of the individual’s unmediated relationship with God. If we had any doubt that this focus on the individual was already deeply rooted in German history and culture, it would have been swept away by our next visit, to Naumburg Cathedral. Here I have to make a confession: I have been wanting to visit Naumburg for almost fifty years, ever since I first made the acquaintance of a very special lady, the Countess Uta. Naumburg Cathedral is unique in German art. When the church was rebuilt in the early 13thcentury, it was decided that the west choir (an unusual feature of certain German churches) should be dedicated to the 12 ‘founders’ of the original church, and that they should be commemorated in 12 lifesize and almost freestanding stone sculptures. These are among the first and the most impressive portraits of named individuals in all of medieval art, and the greatest of all is that of Uta, wife of the Margrave Ekkehard. When Umberto Eco was asked which woman from art he would like to have dinner with, he immediately chose Uta. Her beauty has haunted me for much of my life and, I can tell you, the reality does not disappoint.
Except, this is not a portrait. At the time these twelve sculptures were executed, their subjects had been dead for about 150 years. If they are based on living individuals, and it’s hard to believe they’re not, then those individuals were entirely different people. And it seems that the touches of paint—on eyes, cheeks and lips—which are so important in giving life to Uta’s beauty, may be largely or wholly the result of various restorations from the 17thto the 19thcentury.
And Uta, like the Wartburg, suffered from being co-opted into Nazi ideology, promoted as an ideal of Aryan womanhood—restrained and demure—in contrast to her sister-in-law across the choir, Reglindis, whose inappropriate smiling (I kid you not) was thought to be due to her inferior Polish ancestry. So many layers to strip away, as the 19thcentury ‘restorers’ stripped away the Baroque trappings of the Cathedral to get back to its medieval core. In all those layers, is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ Uta? Naumburg, by the way, is a wholly delightful town, worth at least a day of anyone’s time.
And so our epic tour came to an end, as we returned to the German city we know best, Munich, and, by happy coincidence, to a major exhibition which somehow epitomised all the conflicting ideas and issues that we’d been exposed to on this holiday-cum-pilgrimage through German history and culture. Munich’s Kunsthalle is a remarkable temporary exhibition space in the middle of an upmarket shopping mall, rather is if the Royal Scottish Academy were relocated to inside Harvey Nick’s. And the exhibitions it mounts are no less remarkable. Du Bist Faust explored the impact of Goethe’s two-part epic on two centuries of art and music, moving step by step through the familiar story, and in doing so showing how quickly Goethe’s ‘authentic’ philosophical vision had been simplified (many would say cheapened) by such manifestations as Gounod’s opera Faust(for a long time known in German-speaking regions as Marguerite to distance it from the great original). And showing also how Goethe ensured that the late-Medieval legend of the learned doctor who made a pact with the devil would become an inescapable metaphor for the human condition.
Perhaps Faust is the greatest, most ‘authentic’ of all German myths, because it subsumes all the others and touches so deeply on something within all of us. Can it be coincidence that the historical Faust—if there really was such a man—was a near-contemporary of Luther? Is Faust’s disgust with a lifetime of learning actually a rejection of the whole concept of bildung, and is his pact with Mephistopheles—the spirit of negation—a black mirror of that striving for a secular perfection? And if the drive towards German unity in the 19thcentury was a kind of national bildung, was the subsequent failure of the Weimar Republic and the collapse into totalitarianism, a kind of Faustian pact? Is any quest for perfection, for utopia, for authenticity, doomed to be perverted into its dark opposite?
Goethe’s Faust Part 2 ends with a ‘Chorus Mysticus’ (in Philip Wayne’s translation for Penguin):
All things corruptible
Are but a parable;
Here finds fulfilment;
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
Leads us above.
But what if ‘Earth’s insufficiency’ is all there is? Returning home to a garden rampant with three week’s untamed Spring growth, we were drawn more to the final words of another great European masterpiece, Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’.