Disappearing in Goethe House: Johann’s Sleep


No matter how long a journey is, and though it begins with eagerness and excitement, my heart aches the night before going back home for the narrow streets I had walked on for many days; the harmony of the unknown language, stores, coffees and restaurants, the rustle of women’s skirts sweeping the ground, the cheeping of children leaving school, and the murmur of cars. On the threshold of saying goodbye or farewell and still remembering the taste of food, I long to stay one more day despite homesickness. It doesn’t matter whether the journey is short or long because there is no such thing as a bad escape. Going back home means returning to reality, existing in the detached routine and work. Organizing and turning back to the writings, tidying the house, helping people, living… How sacred it is that time stops during a journey, and I spent it wandering through books in unknown languages. I was bestowed the pleasure of unhurriedly beholding the works of painters and sculptors of the region and the chance to rewrite stories. Soon to become tomorrow’s passenger, I think of all this all night.

The Letter in Abeyance

Staring at the ceiling of the room I rented in Frankfurt, I sought pretexts to stay. It would take a few minutes to change the ticket. I could talk to the landlady to let me stay one more night. Dive back into the magic of Heidelberg. One more morning walk. What about the next night? Other nights? Other cities? The broken wing of time was a passage to sleep for me.

In the morning, I put on my broad-brimmed hat and rolling my suitcase behind me, I rang the bell for Ingeborg. As she always did, she smiled and said, “Good morning.” She asked me whether I wanted a cup of coffee before leaving and handed me a piece of paper. “This came for you last night, but I didn’t want to wake you up.” I was surprised by the letter. It was an old-styled letter, sealed and written on parchment paper. But who wrote it? Why? Why a letter instead of email, phone call, or a text message? Moreover, it was sent to the house I temporarily stayed at. Even my family didn’t know the address! I grumbled in Turkish, how? Ingeborg asked whether I wanted milk. “No,” I said. “How did it come here?”

Lifting her eyebrows, she said a man with a triangular hat brought it. She thought it was from a friend living in Frankfurt or hereabouts.

With a knife, I scratched the seal and unfolded the letter. I tried reading the messy handwriting, but it was in vain. It was in German, so I needed Ingeborg’s help, and she was curiously looking from behind my shoulders. I was about to ask whether she could translate the letter when I glanced at the signature. It couldn’t be true; I must be hallucinating.

Ingeborg squinted and read out loud:

“Dear Fräulein,

I’ve been watching you pass by my house for days. I’ve been expecting you to lift your hat and smile at me or knock at the door, wondering why the house is here. But you walk in a hurry each time and don’t smile at me. I wistfully look at you. I know you will go back home tomorrow morning. Stay one more day for my sake and come here immediately. I need you.

Address: Großer Hirschgraben No: 23–25

Waiting wistfully,

Johann Goethe”

Ingeborg burst into laughter. She gave me the letter, sat down on the couch, and kept on laughing.

“It’s not that funny, I guess,” I murmured.

She wiped her tears and said, “Someone is making fun of you, Fräulein!” I stood up, took the letter, and approached the door with my suitcase.

“No, Frau Ingeborg,” I shouted as I went down the stairs. “No one is making fun of anyone; it is just an overdue letter! Tschüss!”

I hurriedly walked towards the main street, hailed a taxi, and whispered Goethe House to the driver who I thought was probably a Turk.

It is the Call of Johann

I could see his silhouette standing behind the curtain. I bowed my hat and smiled; the silhouette backed away. I paid the entrance fee to the house that was a museum and left my suitcase at the entrance. I passed by the entrance paved with new stones and stopped before the majestic old wooden door at the end of the hall where floor tiles were worn out.

Which Johann was waiting for me? Which Goethe called for me? Was it the brokenhearted young man who left Lotte and went back to Frankfurt or the genius who finally finished Faust with an aching heart and gray hair? I lifted the lock and pushed open the door. I first saw the hand holding the handrail at the top of the wide, curved stairs on the left. I heard the rattles. Watching him come down the stairs, one by one, took my breath away. The dim light from the wide saloon behind the stairs illuminated his body. The embossed embroidery and brocaded edges of his jacket reaching his knees shined. Above the jabot of his shirt, partly hanging down from the tight pants, his neck was white. The light fell upon his sharp jaw. I saw his thin but characteristic lips, shapely nose, blazing eyes, and pure white forehead. He tied his brown hair back with a black ribbon. The curls over his ears were vivid. At the last step, he took his hand away from the handrail and reached it out towards me.

“I’m glad you accepted my invitation, Fräulein.”

His cheeks were burning as if he had gotten out of a lake after long hours of riding. They were burning with excitement, passion, and, mostly, youthfulness. Perhaps like shortly before writing Werther or at the exact moment of writing it. He was in front of me. Young Johann Goethe!

He held my hand and brought it to his lips. After saying how he was afraid I would leave the city without receiving the letter, he pulled me close to him, as if he were embracing a friend he hadn’t seen for centuries. We stood before the console with a giant mirror, at the saloon. He seemed to be wondering why the traveler who went to cities of many authors didn’t come to his house, I intuited. I smiled at his reflection. “Herr Goethe,” I said. “Perhaps I was startled by your notoriety on libertinism. Or I was not ready to resist The Sorrows of Young Johann. Or I might be afraid of meeting Mephistopheles. Do not ask.”

He held my chin, turned me towards himself. “Even the greatest blessings perish on earth, but only the impression we make through our thoughts beyond the time is there, it stays in eternity. Now stay here and share my loneliness of centuries in the rooms of this empty house.”[1]

What were my options? Going back to the ones who expect me, or living a carefree life? I asked him to tell the servant to bring in my suitcase.

The Days in Goethe House

It was only us in the great triplex house. He wanted me to stay in the lit room facing the street. The furniture in the room was only a bed with a brass headboard, a small table, and a dressing mirror. It was enough. In the writing room, where the floors squeaked as we sat down with candles and oil lamps at night, he told me to select a book I liked from the library. Regardless of the language of the book, he translated and read me incredible stories. We talked about Central Asia, the history of prophets, and, mostly, the forests. He insisted on going to the Black Forest together: “Let us go and surrender ourselves to the soil, hear the insects. Let us collect plants and put them inside our notebooks. Let us drink more and ride horses along the Main River.”

The days passed quickly. I forgot about my life in my country, abandoning myself to the smooth, idle rhythm of the house, the small garden, and the expansive yard. I felt spoiled when I touched the soft Persian carpets with my bare feet in the room where we studied early in the mornings. I wandered about in the libraries with a tattered chemise I found in a closet. I watched Johann from behind his shoulder as he wrote sonnets. “Must it ever be thus, that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery?” I feared losing my ghost, my Johann, and willed myself to refuse that moment when it would be time to go home. Thinking about all the women admiring Johann, I suppressed not to disguise myself as an infatuated woman turned into huge boils on my skin.

In the morning after a night he had drunk so much and fallen asleep, I read a passage I found while tidying up the papers on his desk. “The full and ardent sentiment which animated my heart with the love of nature, overwhelming me with a torrent of delight, and which brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment, a demon which perpetually pursues and harasses me. When in bygone days I gazed from these rocks upon yonder mountains across the river, and upon the green, flowery valley before me, and saw all nature budding and bursting around; the hills clothed from foot to peak with tall, thick forest trees; the valleys in all their varied windings, shaded with the loveliest woods; and the soft river gliding along amongst the lisping reeds, mirroring the beautiful clouds which the soft evening breeze wafted across the sky, — when I heard the groves about me melodious with the music of birds, and saw the million swarms of insects dancing in the last golden beams of the sun, whose setting rays awoke the humming beetles from their grassy beds, whilst the subdued tumult around directed my attention to the ground, and I there observed the arid rock compelled to yield nutriment to the dry moss, whilst the heath flourished upon the barren sands below me, all this displayed to me the inner warmth which animates all nature, and filled and glowed within my heart. I felt myself exalted by this overflowing fullness to the perception of the Godhead, and the glorious forms of an infinite universe became visible to my soul! … It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and, instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open grave yawned before me. Can we say of anything that it exists when all passes away?”[2]

I folded the paper and put it in my brassiere. I went to the backyard and waited for the cold to sober me up.

Goethe House… The poet’s house was behind the old well before me. It was the eternal grave of my ghost and my temporary residence. The place where the great author put his head on the pillow and said to his wife Charlotte von Stein, “I own two Gods only: you and the god of sleep. You heal everything in me which was capable of healing and drive out the evil spirits.”[3] It was the first time I really looked at the house: his magical energy ever present. I passed by the well and entered the house. I stopped in the hall where I first saw him. I looked at the yellow- and blue-painted saloons and the kitchen to the right.

I wandered the blue saloon where Johann wrote Götz of the Iron Hand on the round dining table. They were there: his father Caspar, his mother, and his sister and only confidant) Cornelia.

The lace pillows were made by his mother, and the rococo objects in the showcase were bought from the best manufacturers of the time. The yellow saloon, or the Weimar Saloon, was where his mother stored everything she bought in Weimar. The kitchen to the right was filled with cake molds, cauldrons, and pots. A cook and two servant girls worked in the kitchen. Calluna bundles were hung on the window facing the backyard. A pump brought cold water to the dining table from the well in the cellar. A big oven, where everything was cooked, warmed the entrance. The lanterns on the kitchen cabinet were lit to welcome the gentlemen home at night.

I felt as if everyone who ever passed through the house touched my skin. I trembled. I began climbing the stairs that made up nearly one third of the house. I touched the curved wrought-iron handrails, then the letters JCG and CEG carved on them—the first letters of Johann’s mother and father.

At the top of the stairs, the clothes of the family hung in closets resembling a big ghost The clothes were many because only three days a year were laundry days in Goethe House. Perhaps Johann’s love of Italy arose from the copper Rome engravings on the walls behind the closets. His father Caspar Goethe made them in 1740. They often drank and had parties, meetings in the Red Saloon because of its Chinese wallpaper. During the Seven Years War, the lieutenant of the king of France, Thoranc, stayed in this saloon, although Caspar Goethe, who supported Prussia, was not pleased with this. Still, a portrait of Thoranc greets people in the next room. The Goethe family was keen on music: father Caspar Goethe played oud, Johann played cello, and Cornelia played piano. Johann’s mother accompanied them by singing. An oil painting above the red clavichord drew a bittersweet portrait of the family. The Goethe family smiles at the peaceful scenery in the painting made by Johann Corvad Seekatz. Five babies are behind them‑they symbolized the five siblings who died at an early age.

I climbed to the second floor and entered the room where Johann was said to be born. Near the window, the Frankfurter Frag newspaper was framed with the issue from 29th of August in 1749, the date of his baptism. The next room was his mother’s, filled with small porcelain objects. The walls were covered in various paintings in gold frames. This room led to the library. The foundation of the library was laid when Johann’s father created a treasure of 2,000 volumes for him because he liked reading at home—that’s how Johann learned about the stories of Dr. Faust.

Third floor welcomed people with another waiting room. One of the rooms on the floor housed a puppet theater where Johann prepared shadow plays and created miniature worlds. The puppet theater was a gift to the family and became famous through its depiction in Johann’s The Theatrical Mission of Wilhelm Meister. Beyond the theater room was the poet’s room—where there was an eternal dominance by paper and ink! Poems, dramas, satires, musical plays. Young Werther! The walls were decorated with drawings, the images of his Lotte, and a portrait of Cornelia. What was on his mind while drawing, figuring all his characters? He spoke with them and created an ink community out of silhouettes. He slept on a small couch, brought in from the waiting room, when he was tired.

Looking at the Poet from a Distance

I glanced at the sleeping poet whose head slightly fell over his arm on the couch. It was like he aged within a few days. His slightly open mouth was growling. I contemplated on his life once again. His journey to Italy, the frustration of the love in Italy, the deadlock of his love for Charlotte von Stein, the failure of achieving social reforms according to the principles of Enlightenment at Weimar Princedom.

But I was with young Johann. There was something that comforted me in his steady breath which calmly welcomed the wrinkles on his face. Young Goethe… Goethe, who clearly revealed the social obstacles before self-improvement through his complicated thoughts about the contradiction between personality and society, saw feudal stratification as obstacle to self-improvement and sharply criticized the social order of his time—with the help of satire.

I thought about what George Lukacs said of Werther. “Young Werther is considered a love story…Is that correct? Yes. Werther is one of the greatest love stories in world literature. But like every really great poetic expression of erotic tragedy Werther provides much more than a mere tragedy of love. Werther’s tragedy of love is a tragic explosion of all those passions. Young Goethe succeeded in introducing organically into this love-conflict all the great problems of the struggle for the development of personality.”[4] The wave of admiration after publishing Werther prevented Caspar Goethe from seeing his son merely as a lawyer, and he accepted him as an author (it was not a surprise, then, that Johann’s most productive period began after Werther).

After coming to Weimar in 1775, Goethe dealt with politics and became the special mentor of the Duke. The Duke continued working on the interpretation of the Quran, with which he first met in 1771, and he was the first man of literature to show a positive approach to Islam in Germany.

Resisting aristocracy, Goethe’s ethics in the council of ministers were evaluated in a different way by the literati. Some authors describe Goethe as a reformist politician who struggled to free the peasantry from oppressive and heavy taxes. Others describe Goethe as being supportive of children’s mandatory entry into the army of Prussia and precautions regarding the limitation of freedom of speech. Goethe is described as voting for the death sentence of a mother who killed her baby out of desperation and then—in contrast with his beliefs—he treated his merciful behavior in Gretchen’s Tragedy (however, there is no information available about whether it was his personal opinion or if he surrendered to the majority opinion).

He was tired of his relationship with Stein. He had adventures in his journey to Italy, became famous with his libertinism, fell in love with Christiane Vilpius, and struggled to have society accept “the little vamp” by marrying her. He was the tired poet. He invited unrest after his death by writing. Though he was forgotten for a while, he was declared as the greatest author of Germany. His bones may be lost beneath the soil, but what about his soul?

His soul, which couldn’t leave the house he spent his life and wrote Werther in, insisted on staying away from the moment of death every day. He was with me. Sleeping.

The Sleep of Goethe

I had to leave him as is because I got lost in the tremble of lips and his eyes that saw gondolas passing by misty canals and experienced the magic of the theatres in Venice. I was not afraid of becoming a ghost, becoming a visitor living out of a suitcase in the huge house, being gossiped about by the servants in the kitchen, or the possibility of Johann’s family to come. I was neither afraid of the possibility of Lotte, Stein, nor Vilpius. Rather, I had to leave because I had escaped from the arms of literature.

Being unable to leave the stories and tales I heard in various languages every new day, enjoying the traces of history in each room of this house, becoming addicted to climbing down the stairs within the arms of Johann as we danced, loving the man who vividly told me of the East, being unable to shorten the bridles of the horse I would ride towards Black Forest with him… Were these fears? By degrading the affinity through his words, sentences and narrations, did I try to escape from his magic, his great character and his heart, yearning for nature like mine? Why did I want to run away from Goethe House instead of having inspiration and writing everything in detail when I went back home?

Because I knew what he wrote, I ran away from it.

“Why dost thou waken me, O spring? Thy voice woos me, exclaiming, I refresh thee with heavenly dews; but the time of my decay is approaching, the storm is nigh that shall whither my leaves. Tomorrow the traveller shall come, he shall come, who beheld me in beauty: his eye shall seek me in the field around, but he shall not find me.”[5]

He moved, put his arm below his head. The pink light of the fading day reflected on his brown hair from between the curtains. I approached, quietly pulled the black ribbon on his hair and tied it around my neck. I caressed the forelocks on his cheek with my fingers. He grumbled, but he didn’t wake up. I wanted Goethe’s sleep to remain in this moment. It was illuminated and bright.

I took off the chemise, folded it and left it on the working table. I left the house as I had entered it, to go back home, with my small suitcase rolling behind me.


[1] Goethe Diyor Ki – Doğu Batı Publishing

[2] The Sorrows of Young Werther – J.W. von Goethe (Translated by R.D. Boylan)

[3] Goethe Diyor Ki – Doğu Batı Publishing

[4] Goethe and His Age, George Lukacs, Merlin Press, 1968.

[5] The Sorrows of Young Werther – J.W. von Goethe (Translated by R.D. Boylan)

Photo at the top of the page: “Goethes Gartenhaus” by Tobi NDH is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.