March 30, 2012

Lazarus: I felt quite relieved

Though the March 30, 1874 issue of the New-York Times advertised it as Alide: A Romance of Goethe's Life, its author Emma Lazarus slightly altered its subtitle when it was published it as Alide: An Episode from Goethe's Life. The book re-told the story of the well-known German poet-philosopher and his personal account of his relationship with a woman named Frederika Brion. Lazarus, however, told the story from the perspective of the woman, painting the "episode" as that of a simple country girl who reveals the man to be a self-deceived narcissist.

Lazarus, who remains better known as a poet, incorporated entire passages from Goethe's autobiography into the narrative, though she replaces Brion with the fictional Alide Duroc. In the end, Goethe realizes that his art is more important to the world than his personal relationships. He and Duroc part ways — one becomes a successful and influential intellectual, while the other stays home with a near-fatal illness. When she recovers, she renounces marriage. In an epilogue, they meet again eight years later, and Lazarus uses Goethe's own words to describe the experience:

I was forced to leave her at a moment when it nearly cost her her life: she passed lightly over that episode, to tell me what traces still remained of the old illness, and behaved with such exquisite delicacy and generosity from the moment I stood before her unexpected on the threshold, that I felt quite relieved. I must do her the justice to say that she made not the slightest attempt to rekindle in my bosom the cinders of love. She led me into the arbor, and there we sat down. It was a lovely moonlight... We recalled many a pastime of those happy days, and I found myself as vividly conscious of all as if I had been away only six months. The old people were frank and hearty... I can now think once more of this corner of the world with comfort, and know that they are at peace with me.

Goethe is presented, then, as a vain and heartless self-serving intellectual, unconcerned of the well-being of others except in how it affects him personally. Alide, incidentally, was neither popular nor critically successful after its publication.

*For much of the information in this post, I am indebted to Esther Schor's Emma Lazarus (2006).

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