The father’s hand (2)

In part one, I described the way the mineralogist Weiß constructed the fiction of a collaboration between Immanuel Hermann Fichte and his father over the latter’s dead body. One of the persons who protected Immanuel Hermann Fichte most vigorously against the accusation of plagiarism was his former teacher August Boeckh. In order to foil Weiß’ assumption that Immanuel Hermann Fichte’s not explicitely quoting his father was a sure sign that the text had been written by the father himself, Boeckh wrote in his note:

“It is very natural for the son to want to avoid giving the impression that he is resuming his father’s philosophy, because everyone always finds it ridiculous when the son always only gets back to his father and his doctrine, as does Johann Heinrich Voß the son as a philologist or Walter the son as an anatomist.”

You can note here the accumulation of side remarks (“very natural”, “ridiculous”, “always” twice in the same sentence) reflecting the underlying assumption that scholarly father-son-collaborations bear naturally the mark of moral deprivation. Boeckh does not at all reflect the fact that it is a social construct whatsoever. What is more, he does not accuse one specific field of knowledge to be prone to that vice. His examples come from medicine and philology – one could hardly imagine two more distinct areas of knowledge.

In this second part, I would like to write about Heinrich Voß, whose reputation within the community of the Classics scholars was obviously already ruined in 1817.

(2) Heinrich Voß (1779-1822)

The older son of the philologist Johann Heinrich Voß carried the same names as his father, but used only the second one as a way of articulating his individuality. Most of the strings in his life and career draw back to his father though.

Heinrich_VossHe studied theology and philology in Halle together with his brother Abraham, while their brother Wilhelm studied medicine there. He and Abraham switched to the University of Jena in 1801, where their parents had moved. In 1803, he moved to Weimar, where Goethe arranged for him a position as a teacher at the local high school. In 1805, his parents moved from the close-by Jena to Heidelberg, where he followed them in 1806. He lived on the upper floor of their house until his early death in 1822.

The years spent in Weimar clearly mark a parenthesis in this life otherwise spent in his father’s shadow. For a while, Goethe played for him the role of a second father. Heinrich Voß emphasizes anything related to this paternal relationship in his letters to his friends. Goethe seized the benefits from Heinrich Voß’ philological knowledge and admiration for him. He summoned him on winter nights to have Sophocles read aloud and live-translated to him. He asked his young asset to review his oeuvre in order for the hexameters to be bent to some metrical exactitude. He let Heinrich Voß report at full length their encounters in letters to his friends which he knew would circulate and, at some point, be printed. With all of this, Goethe indulged in his position as a a replacement father to the young scholar.

But Goethe pushed the limits of the morally acceptable quiet far. He asked Heinrich Voß to help him finish a review he had begun to write for his journal, the Jenaische Allgemeine Literaturzeitung, about the poems written by Heinrich Voß’ father. Heinrich Voß accepted (admittedly, with some unease) and positioned himself as a technician, not as the real co-author of the review. But this situation, torn between his real father and his adoptive intellectual father, shows that the moral imperative to obey the father and contribute to his work in some form was stronger than basic work ethics that would have (we would say today “naturally”) forced him to refuse reviewing his own father (what is more, not under his own name).

The relationship between Heinrich Voß und Goethe began to deteriorate after Schiller’s death in May 1805. This event marked a rupture in Goethe’s life in many ways. It is also around that time that Heinrich Voß’ lip sickness began. He believed it was cancer, although it seems to have been something else. All we really know about it is that his lip was aching so much that he was occasionally unable to speak for days, and that it caused him terrible headaches. Not being able to read aloud for Goethe became a constraint they could not overcome. Heinrich Voß wrote to his friends in  October 1806:

“I have not enjoyed Goethe a lot this year, and the few times that I saw him, I received pitying words and looks about the state in which I now am. I can’t read aloud to him, I can’t do hexameters with him, I have to sit still by him and can only stammer instead of speaking. And so I visit him less often than I did last winter.”

The connection between hand and mouth is interesting there. The work relationship between Heinrich Voß and Goethe was based on oral collaboration. Orality plays a major role in Goethe’s writing practice – it is well known that he wrote little himself and dictated most of the time. The degradation of the relationship shows that Heinrich Voß would be a good son to Goethe not only if he put things to paper that Goethe couldn’t (or wouldn’t) finish by himself, but also if he was able to take part in oral activities – to be Goethe’s hand and mouth. Goethe’s pity looks is also a refusal to work out a new relationship that would not be on Goethe’s predefined terms.

No wonder, then, that Heinrich Voß finally opted for his “real” father. When the Weimar high school was closed in the Fall of 1806 due to the occupation by Napoleon’s troops, Heinrich Voß moved to Heidelberg, where he convinced his father to engage in a common translation of Shakespeare’s theater, with little public approval, as Boeckh’s quote shows. It is true that the sons, who had actually started the Shakespeare translation, finally hid behind their father as if they had only been their right arm, only making the mafia-like character of the family enterprise more obvious.



Further readings:

– Frank Baudach, “Von der Freiheit eines Unmündigen. Ein ungedruckter Brief von Heinrich Voß”, in: Vossische Nachrichten (2), Eutin, 1995

– the letters to Solger were first published in a shortened version initiated by Solger’s older daughter Karoline: “Briefe von Heinrich Voß an Karl Solger”, in: Archiv für Literaturgeschichte, vol. 11, Leipzig, 1882 . They will be edited in extenso in the volume Johann Heinrich Voß’ Übersetzerpsrache – Voraussetzungen, Kontexte, Folgen which I am directing together with Enrica Fantino and Josefine Kitzbichler (De Gruyter, 2014).

– in this volume, you can also consult my paper: “Shakespeare und die alten Tragiker im Briefwechsel Heinrich Voß’ des Jüngeren mit Karl Solger”

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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