Professor McAllister has contributed this essay on Goethe’s play Iphigenia and its lessons for the current political climate for German Literature Month:
As I finish up reading Goethe’s Iphigenia with our seniors I cannot help but compare that classic with events impacting the United States today as millions (hopefully) head to the polls in a bitter and hotly contested election.
Scene from the 1802 Weimar premiere of Iphigenia, with Goethe (seated, center) as Orestes
Today, petulant and reckless rhetoric has incited many to embrace fearful instead of compassionate attitudes toward refugees fleeing death, poverty, and other calamities beyond their control. The character Iphigenia was herself a refugee, an immigrant unwillingly whisked away from her homeland by forces she could not control or change. Brought by the gods to a foreign land where a cruel custom fueled by xenophobic fear demanded the death of any wayward traveler unfortunate enough to stumble upon its shores, Iphigenia achieved the impossible. She not only survived, but she also changed the culture of violence she was intended to facilitate. In doing so, she not only saved herself and other foreigners (importantly her brother and his companions), but she also saved a country from its own worst inclinations. Miraculous indeed.
Yet, unlike Euripides’ character, Goethe’s Iphigenia receives no divine assistance. The miracles she performs she creates herself. In this manner she is the paragon of German classicism, a character able to achieve the divine through human means. Her character also reflects the classical temperament: a soul stirred by deep emotions, fear and love, yet tempered by rational thought and unwavering integrity. Breaking the habit of her lineage she is unable to deceive, lie, and kill. Her weapons are her words. And she wields them adroitly as she navigates a dialectic of ever shifting voices each demanding her acquiescence. Yet she prevails. She wins. She saves the day and in doing so provides a model of conciliation for the rest of humanity.
Structurally Goethe’s play is an imitation of a Greek original, but its content is thoroughly German, if not European. Even though Goethe’s play is an allegory about Europe’s violent history of distrust, dissimulation, and hatred of the neighbor, the play provides a thoughtful lesson about the foreigner for any nation, especially ours and our current political atmosphere of divisiveness. In contrast to distrust and enmity Iphigenia offers trust, honest dialogue, and vulnerability. She provides an antidote to fear and violence that humans, if left unchallenged, otherwise easily embrace. It is the only way she can expiate the guilt of her ancestral house, itself framed by a narrative of hate and deceit. In a dedication poem written for an actor in the 1827 performance of Iphigenia in Berlin Goethe wrote: “pure humanity expiates all human frailty and error.” Through his character Iphigenia Goethe clearly models what he means by his statement. First, humans are destined to err. And second, honesty and humility can awaken a sense of shared humanity that enables a reconciliation of animosities born of misunderstandings.
At the end of the play Iphigenia offers Thoas, the King of her exiled home, an example of how she would welcome foreigners, hoping he would do the same. She pleads:
Verbann uns nicht! Ein freundlich Gastrecht walte
von dir zu uns: so sind wir nicht auf ewig
Getrennt und abgeschieden. Wert und teuer,
Wie mir mein Vater war, so bist du’s mir,
Und dieser Eindruck bleibt in meiner Seele.
Bringt der Geringste deines Volkes je
Den Ton der Stimme mir ins Ohr zurück,
Den ich an euch gewohnt zu hören bin,
Und seh ich an dem Ärmsten eure Tracht:
Empfangen will ich ihn wie einen Gott,
Ich will ihm selbst ein Lager zubereiten,
Auf einen Stuhl ihn an das Feuer laden
Und nur nach dir und deinem schicksal fragen.
With this image Iphigenia reiterates the obligation of the host to welcome, to house, and to protect the refugee, even the poorest of them all, as if the guest were family and models a new precedent not just for her and Thoas’ descendants, but for the whole of humanity. Thoas indicates with his “Lebe wohl” that he, too, will follow her example. Sadly our nations, present and past, too often illustrate their willingness to embrace those baser emotions that cursed Iphigenia’s house for generations. Perhaps this is why we rarely find such unfettered optimism in German literature. Tragic comedy and the grotesque seem better suited for our national temperaments. Or it could be that we as subjects of our various tribes are failing to correctly interpret others’ intentions as well as our own motivations. After all it is an ambiguous answer and its erroneous interpretation that confound the conflict at the heart of Goethe’s play. Once Iphigenia’s brother, Orest, correctly understands that Iphigenia, and not the image of a goddess, is the answer to his and his family’s troubled existence, the conflict resolves. We don’t need divine prayer or intervention. We simply need to scrutinize to the messages we receive and make sure we understand them correctly and heed reason over demagoguery.