LESSING Makes Himself At Home

(The following is a continuation of this post.)

We left our hero when he came to Wolfenbuettel (Ger., Eng.). The year is 1770.
The first part of the 1760s LESSING had worked as secretary of the already mentioned Prussian general von TAUENTZIEN. In 1765 he went back to Berlin, back to the existence as free lance writer, critic, man of the theater. In 1767 he goes to Hamburg, with high hopes, to work on the newly founded Nationaltheater (Ger., Eng.). And because he learned a little from his earlier adventures, LESSING becomes partner in a printing house, what is meant as economical basis for his literary work. This also allows him to publish his own writings and a journal. He is back in the saddle, so to speak, after his military detour. The work at the theater leads to his “Hamburgische Dramaturgie” (Ger., Eng., here you go), other publications follow. LESSING arrives in the Hamburgian society, meets people there – he does not inhabit the proverbial ivory tower. Among people he got acquainted with is the family of the merchant KÖNIG.
In 1769 the party is over, LESSING is more or less banquerotte.
He accepts the position as librarian in Wolfenbuettel. I think he is interested in the library itself, but the need for a steady income is also a non deniable factor. His departure from Hamburg gets delayed several times, in the end he has to sell his private library (!) – achGOtt, who can imagine & appreciate what this means to a man whose existence is based on the written word ?
On the other hand is the Herzog-August-Bibliothek waiting, the HAB (Ger., Eng.). But let’s face it : Wolfenbuettel was in the 18th century a tiny town in the Northern marshlands where the proverbial dog is buried. The geographical situation did not change (and the dog was not exhumed), it was the same after WWII, just with the addition of the inner-German border ; and when the famous librarian RAABE (Ger.) came here (in the 1960s) he described (at least in my memory) the fog first. And the wetness. The darkness and the cold. It was not cold and wet when LESSING was presented as librarian there in May 1770 ; but in one of the next winters they could not work, because the ink had frozen in the bottles.
The building itself could kindly be described as a multi-purpose-hall. But one can concisely call it the Marstall (Ger., Eng.), the horse stables, with some galleries for book storing. The famous Rotunde was the arena where horses were trained and moved. Simple creature comfort for librarians was not in the specification book, or at least not high up : Heating, anyone ?
LESSING found himself billeted in the old castle (Ger., Eng.) – the court had moved to Braunschweig, the house was empty since 1753 – and there he lived alone in some rooms for the next seven years.
He found a vast book repository, some old servants, and a secretarius called Karl Johann Anton von CICHIN (1723-1795), he will survive LESSING. I found no biographical information about von CICHIN, but according to all I read about the man, and according to the notes CICHIN left (cited by LESSINGS biographer HILDEBRANDT), he was a very unpleasant character. A Dominican monk, what alone is enough to prod my curiosity – how comes a canis DOmini  to the Protestant court of Braunschweig, and how does he stay there ?
The older idea about LESSING as librarian was not very nice, some even thought that he did more harm than good in this position. But I think nowadays the common persuasion is that LESSING immersed himself into the task, he did draw a plan for cataloguing, but the realisation of this project was torpedoed by CICHIN.
Even in the biographical entry for LESSINGs successor, the first real librarian of the HAB, Ernst Theodor LANGER (1743-1820), the “Unbrauchbarkeit des Bibliotheksecretärs v. Cichin” (the uselessness of secretary v. CICHIN) is mentioned.
But LESSING makes the best from his situation. He works himself into the library and its treasure of manuscripts. The first fruit is his publication about “Berengar Turonensis”. He writes for the theatre, his “Emilia Galotti” comes out and goes over the ramp in 1772. He starts – or better : gets dragged into – his worst public polemic fight with the Hamburgian Pastor GOEZE (Ger., Eng.), about the Fragmente eines Ungenannten, “Fragments of an Unknown’s Text” (Ger.). These “fragments” are not “found in the library”, as LESSING states, in fact he smuggled the manuscript in. It was written by REIMARUS (Ger, Eng.), and can be understood to be one of the most important texts of the age of enlightenment (think : Deism) –  the public fight was pretty ugly, nevertheless.
But the important things are happening outside the Gelehrtenrepublik.
LESSING, past forty in 1770, gets engaged to Eva KÖNIG (Ger., Eng.), the widow of the mentioned Hamburgian merchant, who had died on a business trip in Venezia. They engage in 1771, but it will take some time until they tie the knot, on the 8th of October 1776.
And things get better !
The court decides to ramp up his income. And : They even pay it !
An adequate housing is taken care for : What today is known as Lessinghaus (Ger., Eng.) is cleared, cleaned and modernised for the bibliothecarius and his wife. He gets his own entrance to the HAB.
In the new house they live, here she gives birth to their first son, Traugott, on the 25th of December 1777.
Here the son dies right after birth.
Here Eva dies on the 10th of January 1778.
Here he writes in a letter : “My wife is dead ; now I too had this experience. I am glad that no such experiences are left for me to make ; I am feeling light.”

His fight with GOEZE heats up over the following months, but I insist that it is GOEZE who takes the argument ad hominem & leaves the factual level, who starts real nastiness. In the course of events LESSINGs exemption from censorship is revoked by the court, he can not publish freely any more.
In this situation he writes his “Nathan” (Ger., Eng.), the avowal, the affirmation to tolerance, not only religious tolerance, but tolerance as a value in general. Published in April 1779 it was first not successful with the audience – too intellectual, too much reflexion. Only IFFLANDs and GOETHEs stagings after 1802 made it a success.
After that he declines. Still writing & publishing, visitors to the library, but his vigor … the end comes in the form of some strokes (“Steckfluss” they call it) at his secondary home in Braunschweig, in the house of the merchant ANGOTT – you can not criticise this man for having a bolthole at a wine merchant’s !
Present are his step-daughter Amalia KÖNIG, he dies in the arms of a young Jewish man called DAVESON, determined, serene, voll Besinnung bis in den letzten Augenblick.
What a life. What payne, what struggle – the struggle to be one self, to define oneself, to think independently – to be free.


LESSING Enters the Building

If one visited a German school for some years, and had to study the school subject “Deutsch” / “German”, chances are very good that one encountered Mr LESSING (1729-1781) (Ger., Eng.). A classic *. It is possible that our imaginary student read Sara Sampson (Ger., Eng.) (1755), and it is possible that he remembers the “Ring-Parabel” from LESSINGs Nathan (Ger., Eng.) (1779).
What would be a good thing, and I’d call it a success.
But what does it mean to be “a classic” ?
It is a label pinned onto some people, artists, writers, public intellectuals avant la lettre, right after they have lived their lives. Later generations of scholars reach a consensus, and finally agree that this one or that one embodies something that goes further than his own reach, something that is significant for an epoch, or a generation. Being labeled “a classic” afterwards, post festum, when already dead, and hence unable to discuss the reasons for this label, seems to be a little unfair. Flattering of course. Why do I talk about this here, when I want to tell about Mr LESSING ? Would he strongly reject to be called “a classic” ? Would he love it ?
I do not know. I have no deep enough knowledge about the man to make a serious suggestion, but I think one thing is for sure : He would not “just accept” it and smile. LESSING was not afraid of a public argument, in fact he was a flamboyant polemicist – and he was always – always – “marching to his own drum” **. This meant that he was not saving people he called friends from his public critique, even when this led to, well, unfriendly feelings. I think in the end, verity was the most powerful and true value for him, and of course the ability to think for oneself. And this makes him a classic of the age of enlightenment. And he formed the new or modern German theatre of the eighteenth century.
He was born in Kamentz in the Oberlausitz, right into a family of protestant orthodoxy. Conservative to the bone. His father loved him, and recognised himself in this son. LESSING years later – when his father had died – realised how similar they were, especially in their irascibility. Only after the death of my father I realised how similar I am to him, not a shock, but something that makes one think. Old LESSING wanted his son to study and made it possible by asking for a stipendium for his son, which was granted. And the son went and skipped the studies and wrote for the theatre, ach what a shame : THEATRE ! Whores, gays, polymorphous pervertism !
And the string of disappointments went on and on (money ! marriage ! family !) ; they both must have felt terrible at times.
LESSING went to Leipzig. Later to Berlin. Than to Hamburg – where he worked on the theatre again and wrote his famous Hamburgische Dramaturgie (Ger., Eng.) between 1767 and 1769. I skip dates – if you are interested in the time line, see the linked articles please. For some years he went away from it all – simply vanished without notice. Only months later he resurfaced in Breslau as secretary of the Prussian general Bogislav von TAUENTZIEN (Ger., Eng.) (1710-1791). He did the general’s letters, administration etc. and spent his free time playing cards and drinking : He (the classic !) lived as a gambler through these years, and even later seems to have had a weak spot for this kind of amusement.
I want to focus on his time in Wolfenbüttel.



* For the following I use & refer heavily on HILDEBRANDT, Dieter : Lessing. Eine Biographie. Reinbek 1990 (first : Lessing. Biographie einer Emanzipation. München Wien 1979)
** Many thanks to LẌ for clarifying in his comment to this post from where the expression origins.