1. Introduction
  2. The Fleeting Moment
  3. Time and the Singular Moment
  4. The Augenblick as Sign without a Stable Referent
  5. Seizing the Moment: Decision and Chance
  6. Moments of Cognitive Discovery
  7. Self-Affirmation and Destabilization I: Erotic Encounters
  8. Self-Affirmation and Destabilization II: The Self as Structuring Principle in Aesthetics and History
  9. Notes
  10. Works Cited and Further Reading


The words Augenblick (literally: “eye-glance” or “eye-look”) and Moment appear throughout Goethe’s writings and frequently overlap in their meanings. The Goethe-Wörterbuch indicates over 3,000 uses of the former term, and its definitions and examples take up nearly 6,700 words.1 Hermann Schmitz argues that the Augenblick, which evokes reconciliation between time and eternity, stands as Goethe’s particular philosophical achievement.2 Describing a historically new conception of subjectivity elaborated in Goethe’s work and organized significantly around “specular moments,” David Wellbery has suggested that “Goethe’s lyric poetry constitutes a phase of literary experimentation parallel to Kant’s philosophical enterprise and to that of his Romantic successors.”3 The “moment” is a principle of Goethe’s thought by which time appears to take on a particularly rich formal coherence, and it often does so in visual terms. Further, the motif of the visually charged moment (whether or not expressly signaled through use of the term Augenblick) variously signals developing notions of subjecthood, instances of epiphanic insight or other forms of heightened experience, the transience of a fleeting moment, the affirmation or rejection of consumption and its pleasures, a fortuitous occasion, and uncertainty vis-à-vis the objects of perception and their relation to the observing self.

Peter Eichhorn argues that, over the course of Goethe’s literary use of the motif, the Augenblick’s meaning steadily approaches Goethe’s definition of the symbol [Symbolik] as “lebendig augenblickliche Offenbarung des Unerforschlichen” (FA I.13:33; living, momentary revelation of the unfathomable).4 The Goethe-Wörterbuch entry for the term suggests a less linear development, demonstrating variation in Goethe’s use of the Augenblick from the brief, sentimentally charged moments of his early writing, to the motif’s pathos in his Storm and Stress writing, to a recurrent “dialectic of moment and duration” characteristic of Goethe’s “classical” period and, finally, to his devaluation of the term in later writings. In what follows, it will be argued that, while certain valences of the motif may dominate in certain periods of Goethe’s writing, in his mature work Augenblick gains its energy—and productive instability—by bringing these valences into tension with each other. In so doing, it recurrently belies both the evidentiary certitude that “revelation” implies and the apparent stability of the subject that might be presumed to enjoy such a privileged viewing position.

The Fleeting Moment

Understood pejoratively, as Andreas Anglet has pointed out, the term may refer to fashion and the whims of a fickle public:5 “Dich blendet nicht der Schein des Augenblicks,” says Lenore Sanvitale to the Princess in Torquato Tasso (FA I.6:571 and GCW 8:58; The moment’s seeming does not dazzle you6); in the “Prelude on the Stage” at the beginning of Faust, the Poet tells his theater colleagues: “Was sich die Lippe schüchtern vorgelallt, / [. . .] Verschlingt des wilden Augenblicks Gewalt. / [. . .] Was glänzt ist für den Augenblick geboren; / Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren” (FA I.7.i:16.68, 70, 73–74 and Atkins, 3; what / [. . .] timid lips could only stammer [. . .] is brutally engulfed by the tempestuous moment. / [. . .] What glitters, lives but for the moment; / what has real worth, survives for all posterity7). Here, the transient Augenblick exerts a seductive power but is devoid of enduring value. A passage from the Maximen und Reflexionen (1830/40; Maxims and Reflections) echoes these fears, warning of the corrupting force of a modern print culture that assails its readers with trivialities, and in which one “moment” devours the next in a perpetual Zeitvertreib (FA I.13:133; the passing—or, as one might say, killing—of time). In this negative sense, both Augenblick and Tag (day) can come to refer to a contemporary culture of distraction and confusion, as Goethe complains to Wilhelm von Humboldt in a letter from March 17, 1832: “Der Tag aber ist wirklich so absurd und konfus [. . .]. Verwirrende Lehre zu verwirrenden [sic] Handel waltet über die Welt [. . .]” (FA II.11:550–51; But the day is really so absurd and mixed up [. . .]. Confusing teachings about confused actions shape the world).8 Accordingly, in the West-östlicher Divan (1819/27; West-Eastern Divan) we read that the genuine poet forswears the “moment” in favor of a broader temporal perspective: “Wer in der Weltgeschichte lebt, / Dem Augenblick sollt er sich richten? / Wer in die Zeiten schaut und strebt, / Nur der ist wert zu sprechen und zu dichten” (FA I.2:622; He who lives in world history should conform to the moment? Only he who gazes and strives across the ages – only he has the right to speak and to compose poetry).

From the start, however, Goethe’s writing also seeks to accord a positive valence to the Augenblick, even and precisely in its transience. In the earliest poetry, such moments are relatively free of tension and are associated with such terms as “Freude,” “Fröhlichkeit,” “Vergnügen,” “Wollust,” and “Entzücken” (delight, cheer, pleasure, lust, rapture). For instance, under the influence of the eighteenth century’s Anacreontic verse, the poem “Unbeständigkeit” (Inconstancy) from the 1760s celebrates the “Freuden der wechselnden Lust” (the changes of pleasure), comparing the water of a brook rippling against the poet’s breast to a succession of playfully inconsequential erotic encounters. The gratification brought with each moment obviates the need to mourn lost joys of the past: “Es küßt sich so süße die Lippe der zweiten, / Als kaum sich die Lippe der ersten geküßt” (FA I.1:285 [cf. pp. 90–91] and GCW 1:5; The lips of another will give such sweet kisses / As any the lips of the one gave before). If the interminable breaking of waves against a shore will fill Goethe’s later character Faust with disgust (FA I.7.i:396.10207–9 and Atkins, 257–58), here the moment brings delights that are undiminished by the accompanying awareness of repetition.

Time and the Singular Moment

Wolfgang Pehnt has shown that, already in the 1760s, the poet’s experience of time and loss becomes more complex.9 Over the following years, Goethe’s writing isolates and organizes itself with increasing clarity around moments that belong not to what Heidegger calls the “pure successivity” of a “vulgar” conception of chronological time,10 but to psychologically interesting “kairological” time, associated by Frank Kermode with intense experiences and instants of crisis or decision.11 For instance, in Goethe’s “An Schwager Kronos” (1774; To Coachman Cronos), figures of acceleration and deceleration combine to yield a moment of heady contemplation that is at once fleeting and which expands to encompass a totality of vision that briefly appears to contain time as such. Moments of gratification are no longer repeatable or exchangeable as in the Anacreontic verse. The carriage that bears the poet and his driver hurtles dizzyingly into a valley and, at the same time, “Rasch in’s Leben hinein” (swift into life), before slowing on the ascent to an elevation from which the poet surveys “life” from above: “Weit hoch herrlich der Blick / Rings ins Leben hinein” (FA I.1:202; Wide, high, glorious view/ Round about upon life!12). The sudden slowing, accentuated through the successive stressed syllables of the verse, extends in the following stanza as the gaze of the poet is drawn to that of a young woman (the word Blick [gaze] appears again twice), before the poet, in the final stanzas, abruptly urges his driver and carriage onwards and downwards toward death (“der Orkus”). The word Augenblick appears nowhere in “To Coachman Cronos,” yet the poem’s temporal elasticity, its spatialization of the moment as a visual experience, and its formation of the visual moment as an act of self-reflection or self-construction lay out a set of relations characteristic of the motif in many of its usages in Goethe’s writings.

Another Goethean figure who throws himself into time (“in das Rauschen der Zeit,” FA I.7.i:78.1754 and Atkins, 45), and who asserts control over the temporality of his life in an apotheosis of the visual moment anticipating his death, is Faust, who cites his earlier pact with Mephistopheles (FA I.7.i:76.1699–706 and Atkins, 44) in concluding his life with the lines:

Zum Augenblicke dürft’ ich sagen:
Verweile doch, Du bist so schön!
Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdetagen
Nicht in Äonen untergehn. –
Im Vorgefühl von solchem hohen Glück
Genieß ich jetzt den höchsten Augenblick. (FA I.7.i:446.11581–86)
then, to the moment, I could say:
tarry a while, you are so fair –
the traces of my days on earth
will survive into eternity! –
Envisioning those heights of happiness,
I now enjoy my highest moment. (Atkins 292)

The passage is worth some attention not least because it exhibits with particular clarity tendencies that lie within the motif of the Augenblick elsewhere in Goethe’s writing. In the moment that he envisions, Faust represents himself as a subject. He cites his promise to the devil to live his life such that it might be ended in the affirmation of a “beautiful moment,” and in now concluding his life he implicitly organizes his experiences under this principle. The moment further expands to encompass eternity in Faust’s vision of the undying “traces” that his existence will leave behind. Structurally, the Augenblick invoked in these lines from ca. 1800–01 thus anticipates that suspension of time within the moment evoked in Goethe’s later poem “Vermächtnis” (Testament):

Dann ist Vergangenheit beständig,
Das Künftige voraus lebendig,
Der Augenblick ist Ewigkeit. (FA I.2:686)
Then bygone time gives permanence,
The future lives, and in advance:
Eternity the moment is. (GCW 1:269)

The eternity evoked by such passages, Schmitz writes, does not coincide with a “stepping outside of time,” but rather with a plenitudinous experience of time in its fullness or totality (“Voll- oder Allzeitlichkeit”; Schmitz, Goethes Altersdenken im problemgeschichtlichen Zusammenhang, 150). Joachim Müller similarly describes moments in Goethe’s writings in which past and future are rendered present through recollection and anticipation.13

The Augenblick as Sign without a Stable Referent

However, Faust’s apostrophe to the moment also exhibits, starkly, the fragility of its claims. With this, it paradigmatically signals an instability found in other visually charged moments in Goethe’s writing. On the one hand, the Augenblick might be understood to metonymically represent a privileged experience, as is the case in other passages in Goethe’s writings (for example in the West-östlicher Divan: “Wenn du Suleika/ Mich überschwenglich beglückst, / [. . .] Das ist ein Augenblick!” [FA I.3.i:385; When you entrance me passionately, Suleika, / [. . .] What a moment that is!]). On the other hand, the Faust who speaks the lines cited above is blind; according to Mephistopheles, the sounds that to Faust’s ears portend the construction of a new realm in fact come from the digging of his grave (FA I.7.i:445.11557–58 and Atkins, 291). If, as Wellbery has shown, Goethe’s lyric poetry both sustains and complicates through the visuality of “specular moments” the dream of a pre- or extra-discursive referentiality that emerges in German poetry of the 1770s,14 this late scene in Faust bluntly undermines such a dream: what Faust “sees” in the moment lacks an object in any demonstrable external reality.

At the same time, Faust himself shifts the object of his affirmation into the future, locating the “highest moment” in the current anticipation of a moment yet to come. The unmediated evidentiality implied by the term Augenblick gives way to a Derridean principle of deferral.15 Functioning in the mode of perpetual anticipation, the Augenblick reveals itself as the semiotic correlate of the “striving” (Streben) to which Faust claims to dedicate his life (FA I.7.i:77.1742; cf. 75.1676, 205.4685 and Atkins, 45, 43, 122). In aesthetic terms, the schöner Augenblick likewise has no fixed content: if it is “beautiful,” this attribute pertains only as a designation of the freedom of the observer’s mind to invest the moment with specific features. Here, the Augenblick might be understood as beauty in an entirely abstract sense: the realization of a Kantian Zweckmäßigkeit (purposiveness) that does not allow itself to be limited to any particular content or purpose.16 Inasmuch as it claims to embrace infinity, as in the case of the “eternity” invoked in the lines cited above from “Testament,” the moment also presents itself as radically self-sufficient and self-referential. Goethe refers to a spatialized version of this infinite totality, and links it to the notion of the sublime, in citing the aesthetic theory that Karl Philipp Moritz had developed in discussion with Goethe in Italy:

Messen wir [. . .] das Edle Große und Schöne nach der Höhe, in der es über uns, unserer Fassungs-Kraft kaum noch erreichbar ist, so geht der Begriff des Schönen in den Begriff des Erhabenen über. [. . .] Der Zusammenhang der ganzen Natur würde für uns das höchste Schöne sein, wenn wir ihn einen Augenblick umfassen könnten” (FA I.18:257).17
If we measure [. . .] what is noble, great and beautiful according to the height from which it rises above us, barely still within our grasp, the concept of the beautiful passes over into the concept of the sublime. [. . .] The connectedness of nature in its totality would for us be the highest beauty if we could conceive it in a single Augenblick.

Here, the visual moment approximates a divine gaze that would contain all of space and time within itself. However, Faust’s Augenblick flagrantly belies its own instability as a sign that contains its own signified and that can accordingly claim no basis in a stable referent beyond itself. In this way, the visual moment may on the one hand portend an epiphanic apperception of eternity reminiscent of the nunc stans (or nunc permanens) theorized by such writers as Boethius, Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas and evoked in theologically inspired poetry such as Dante’s summative vision of the divine in the final Canto of the Divine Comedy. On the other hand, Goethe’s motif of the Augenblick complicates such moments of ecstatic revelation, forcing us to consider the extent to which they reflect back on the aspirations and limitations of the human subject who claims to experience them.18

Seizing the Moment: Decision and Chance

Faust’s final “moment” brings other aspects of the motif to light. For instance, if the Augenblick may be associated with Glück, as for Faust, this latter word connects the term not only to joy, but to fortune and chance, and to unique moments of decision. (After all, Faust’s “beautiful moment” is the object of a wager.) In such negative uses of the term as those cited at the beginning of this entry, there lingers the sense that to attend to the “moment” is to abandon oneself to the vagaries of an unpredictable world. On the other hand, the moment may mark a fateful, life-altering intervention, perhaps with an epiphanic dimension, as in the “Brief des Pastors zu ***” (Letter of the Pastor of ***): “Es war eine Zeit da ich Saulus war, gottlob daß ich Paulus geworden bin [. . . .] Man fühlt Einen Augenblick, und der Augenblick ist entscheidend für das ganze Leben, und der Geist Gottes hat sich vorbehalten ihn zu bestimmen” (FA I.18:120–21; It was a time when I was Saul; thank God that I became Paul. [. . .] One feels one moment and the moment is decisive for one’s whole life, and the spirit of God has taken it upon itself to determine it); or in Hermann und Dorothea (1796/97; Hermann and Dorothea):

der Augenblick nur entscheidet
Über das Leben des Menschen und über sein ganzes Geschicke;
Denn nach langer Beratung ist doch ein jeder Entschluß nur
Werk des Moments, es ergreift doch nur der Verständge das Rechte. (FA I.8:841)
The moment alone decides. / One’s life and one’s entire fate; / For even after lengthy consultation, every decision is really just / The work of the moment; the sensible one simply seizes what’s right.

As the final line suggests, though the “moment” may decide all, it also lies within human agency to make the moment of opportunity one’s own—an idea that Mephistopheles, in the middle of battle, translates into the brutal injunction: “Gelegenheit ist da, nun, Fauste greife zu” (FA I.7.i:397.10239 and Atkins, 258; This is your opportunity. Now, Faustus, seize it!). A passage in the West-östlicher Divan foregoes such violent rapaciousness while still rendering explicit the act of taking possession of time and making it productive like arable land: “Die Zeit ist mein Besitz, mein Acker ist die Zeit“ (FA I.3.i:578; Time is my property, time is my plowable land). Referring to the kairological structure of moments of choosing in Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities), Eichhorn notes that such moments imply the possibility of opportunities missed.19 To the extent that Faust ultimately fails to achieve a successful mediation between self and world, between the transience of human existence and the eternity of the cosmos, he can be understood as doing just this: missing the kairological moment and, in his case, giving up his life to the depressing successivity of chronos.20 Accordingly, the term Augenblick may reflect an ambivalent experience both of possession and loss, indeed of radical loss: “Da ist ein Augenblick der alles erfüllt. / Alles was wir gesehnt, geträumt, gehofft. / Gefürchtet meine Beste. Das ist der Tod“ (FA I.4:418; There comes a moment that fulfills everything, / Everything for which we’ve yearned, dreamt, hoped, / and that we’ve feared, my dear. That is death).

Moments of Cognitive Discovery

The Augenblick may thus be cornucopia and memento mori at once. This also means that the life associated with the category of the moment may belong to a form of play that, as long as it sustains itself, precludes either its own fulfillment in a conclusive act of “possession” or its cancelation in “death.” In semiotic terms, it is the very lack of a stable referent that enables and stimulates such play. As a fruitful cognitive act, the Augenblick coincides with those moments of insight that Goethe presents under the heading of the aperçu: “Ein solches aperçu gibt dem Entdecker die größte Freude weil es auf originelle Weise nach dem Unendlichen hindeutet, es bedarf keiner Zeitfolge zur Überzeugung, es entspringt ganz und vollendet im Augenblick [. . .]” (FA I.14:743; Such an aperçu provides the discoverer the greatest joy because it points us in an original way toward the infinite. It requires no succession in time in order to convince us, instead arising whole and complete in the moment). Like the experience of the Augenblick with which Goethe here connects it, the aperçu is emphatically visual. It implies an act of intuition (Anschauung) whose free-play, Eckart Förster argues, relates it to Kant’s theory of the power of cognition.21 As a sudden insight, the aperçu may also resemble the fortunate Augenblick in striking as a chance inspiration; but it is contingent on the subject’s ability and willingness to commit to a form of structured cognitive play that enables such moments—as to a game of whist, as Friedrich von Müller records Goethe having once remarked in a conversation on September 23, 1827 (FA II.10:543).22 In Goethe’s mature work, the Augenblick, like the aperçu, may accordingly refer to moments of sudden inspiration that are predicated on an ongoing cognitive development in the subject, to which the writings on morphology refer as “einer gesetzmäßig-freien, lebhaften aber regulierten Vorstellungsart” (FA I.24:271; a law-governed free, living yet regulated mode of thought).23

Self-Affirmation and Destabilization I: Erotic Encounters

Another kind of play is at work in erotically charged moments, especially in the lyric poetry, in which the poet’s gaze meets that of the beloved. An example may be found in the early poem “Willkommen und Abschied” (1775; Welcome and Parting):

Aus deinen Blicken sprach dein Herz.
In deinen Küssen, welche Liebe,
O welche Wonne, welcher Schmerz!
Du gingst, ich stund, und sah zur Erden,
Und sah dir nach mit nassem Blick [. . .]. (FA I.1:129)
From your looks spoke your heart. / In your kisses – what love, / Oh what joy, what pain! / You went, I stood and looked to the earth, / And gazed after you with moistened eyes [. . .].

In particular, the last two of the poem’s four stanzas are structured around the dynamics of seeing and being seen. From the beloved’s gaze issues a language (“from your looks spoke”) of emotional convergence and plenitude that takes the place of words. As Wellbery argues, the moment of encounter appears as a suspension of time; it presents itself as self-sufficient, ecstatic. The pain that mingles with joy then signals the parting anticipated by the title. The poet’s gaze loses its connection to the counter-gaze in which the moment of love had found a visual consummation. The moment is “specular” both in the sense of its visual reciprocity (one formally constructed through the chiastic structures of the poem) and in the sense that what is represented is seeing itself—a process of reflection and mediation on which the poet relies for the affirmation of his own subjectivity. Further, this mediation can be understood as the work of the language of poetry itself in its uncertain relation to its object.24

Lines written over 40 years later, from the poem “Wink” (Wink) in Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan,25 similarly present an ocular interplay that generates a reflection both on the subjectivities of lover and beloved, and on the medium in which their moment of mutual perception is poetically realized:

Das Wort ist ein Fächer! Zwischen den Stäben
Blicken ein Paar schöne Augen hervor.
Der Fächer ist nur ein lieblicher Flor,
Er verdeckt mir zwar das Gesicht;
Aber das Mädchen verbirgt er nicht,
Weil das schönste was sie besitzt
Das Auge, mir in’s Auge blitzt. (FA I.3.i:33)
The word is a hand fan! Between the slats / Peek forth a pair of beautiful eyes. / The fan is only a charming floral display; / Though it hides the face from me, / It does not conceal the girl, / Because what she has that’s most beautiful, / The eye, into my own eye strikes its bolt.

These verses, too, might be described as a seeing of seeing, a specular interaction in which the beauty of the poet’s female counterpart, we are told, resides in her eye and its response to his gaze. Through this organ she acquires agency even as she conceals herself, striking the eye of the poet. What mediates sight and counter-sight is the fan, which is introduced as a metaphor for the word. The word, one may suppose, is the word of poetry, of the rhetorical “floral displays” in which such scenes of coquettish play are literarily at home, in which showing is hiding and hiding is showing. As Gerhard Kaiser points out, self and other here constitute each other mutually through their gazes, but therefore also—and explicitly—through the letters and words of language. What the moment shows is at the same time an absence. Kaiser credibly locates in these lines an anticipation of the “language crisis” of the early 20th century.26 One may also consider the extent to which the visual exchange, shaped through the words of the poet and thus projected metaphorically onto the fan wielded by the silent girl, frames this crisis as one of a specifically male subjectivity and male perception of world.

Self-Affirmation and Destabilization II: The Self as Structuring Principle in Aesthetics and History

To gain control over time—“die allmächtige Zeit” (almighty Time), as it is called in the poem “Prometheus” (FA I.1:204)—is to become god-like in one’s power; it is also to do what “man alone” (nur allein der Mensch) can accomplish, as artist: “dem Augenblick / Dauer verleihen” (FA I.1:334 and GCW 1:81; give lasting / Life to the moment). This last reference recalls the importance of the Augenblick in Goethe’s aesthetic theory, and in the connections that Goethe draws in his theoretical writing between the formal coherence of the work of art, biography, and history writing more generally. In his own essay “Über Laokoon” (On Laocoon), Goethe echoes a key argument of Lessing’s 1766 treatise Laocoon, which had placed the concept of the “fruitful” (fruchtbar) and “pregnant” (prägnant) moment at the center of 18th-century aesthetics. In it, he praises the sculpture foregrounded by Lessing (and, before Lessing, by Winckelmann) for representing “nur Einen Moment des höchsten Interesse” (FA I.18:497 and GCW 3:21; one single moment of highest interest). This is a moment in which “Streben und Leiden in Einem Augenblick vereinigt sind” (FA I.18:495; striving and suffering are united in a single moment) and from which a brief action can be extrapolated. Elsewhere, he writes admiringly of a classical image in which a sequence of movements is “für einen Moment fixiert, so, daß wir das Vergangene, Gegenwärtige und Zukünftige zugleich erblicken” (FA I.19:604 and GCW 3:30; fixed for the moment, so that we simultaneously see previous, present and subsequent movements).

However, whereas Goethe follows Lessing’s famous example in confirming the value of the depiction of highly charged Augenblicke in works of the visual arts, he departs from Lessing’s argument that the represented moment realizes its effects by pointing beyond itself, stimulating an imaginative act in the mind of the recipient, in which the moment’s “fruitfulness” realizes itself. Rather, as Norbert Christian Wolf has demonstrated, Goethe rejects the idea of the visual work of art, and the “moment” around which it is ideally structured, as a (mere) vehicle that refers beyond itself; instead, he prioritizes the work’s aesthetic autonomy. Further, and by adapting both Johann Gottfried Herder’s critique of Lessing’s argument and Denis Diderot’s concept of the coup d’œil (glance), he reaffirms works of painting and sculpture in their material presence and validates the aesthetic Augenblick in its very transience as a manifestation of “vitality” (Lebendigkeit) and “motion” (Bewegung).27 The distinction between an animated representation of “life” and a contrary representation of death-like stasis is a precarious one, however, as Johannes Grave has shown in examining Goethe’s discussion of the tableau vivant. The momentary visual representation succeeds, for Goethe, only to the extent that it preserves a dynamic tension between present and past. Grave further suggests that this visually rendered temporality, which Goethe attributes for instance to the landscape paintings of Ruysdael, accords in Goethe’s theory with Kant’s notion of the “aesthetic idea” (ästhetische Idee), a conceptual determination that in fact lies beyond the possibilities of discursive language.28 But here, too, for Goethe, the Augenblick is poised between life and death; it serves as a life-inducing challenge, and as the constant possibility of a failure.

These thoughts go beyond a theory of the integration of narrative effects in the visual arts to describe aesthetic acts by which human subjects themselves acquire the coherence of artworks according to the logic of concentration within a privileged moment. Thus, the work of art “erhebt [. . .] den Menschen über sich selbst, schließt seinen Lebens- und Tatenkreis ab und vergöttert ihn für die Gegenwart, in der das Vergangene und Künftige begriffen ist” (FA I.19:184; elevates man above himself, rounds out the circle of life and deeds, deifies him for a present which comprises past and future). This “present” within which past and future are suspended serves for Goethe as an important principle of biographically-inflected history. Goethe may be skeptical of the value of history writing, but he argues: “Soll aber und muß Geschichte sein, so kann der Biograph sich um sie ein großes Verdienst erwerben, daß er ihr das Lebendige, das sich ihren Augen entzieht, aufbewahren und mitteilen mag” (FA I.14:935; If there must be history, however, the biographer can do much for it by conserving and communicating to it that living element that withdraws before its gaze). In the Tag- und Jahreshefte (1830; Journals and Annals), Goethe writes that there are moments of historical contemplation in which

man findet sich wie in einem magischen Kreise befangen, man identificirt das Vergangene mit der Gegenwart, man beschränkt die allgemeinste Räumlichkeit auf die jedesmal nächste und fühlt sich zuletzt in dem behaglichsten Zustande, weil man für Einen Augenblick wähnt man habe sich das Unfaßlichste zur unmittelbaren Anschauung gebracht” (FA I.17:82).
one finds oneself as though caught in a magical circle. One identifies the past with the present, one limits space in general to what happens to be closest, and ultimately feels oneself in the most contented state, because for a moment one has the impression of having rendered the unfathomable an object of direct intuition.

With this general observation, Goethe goes on to describe his own sketch of a history of Bad Pyrmont: “Das Jahr 1582 [. . .] ward als prägnanter Moment ergriffen und auf einen solchen Zeitpunct, einen solchen unvorbereiteten Zustand vorwärts und rückwärts ein Mährchen erbaut [. . .]” (FA I.17:82; I took the year 1582 [. . .] as a seminal moment and constructed a fairy tale forwards and backwards from this point in time [. . .]). Goethe’s choice of the label “fairy tale” (Mährchen) is telling, however: the alluring formal coherence enabled by the logic of the “seminal moment” belies its own fictionality in the face of historical complexities that resist such harmonizing aesthetic constructions. In Goethe’s historical considerations, the “moment” may as much promise forms of reconciliation and redemption as highlight its own illusoriness. Here as elsewhere, the Augenblick functions as a richly unstable motif.29

  1. See the entry “Augenblick” in the Goethe-Wörterbuch, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978), 1:columns 1068–75. The separate entry for Moment begins by noting that the range of meanings of the term is similar to that of Augenblick, though bearing more positive connotations overall.
  2. Hermann Schmitz, Goethes Altersdenken im problemgeschichtlichen Zusammenhang (Bonn: H. Bouvier, 1959), 151.
  3. David E. Wellbery, The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996), 56.
  4. Peter Eichhorn, Idee und Erfahrung im Spätwerk Goethes (Freiburg: K. Alber, 1971), 157. Unless otherwise noted, works by Goethe are cited according to the Frankfurt edition, abbreviated FA: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke. Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, ed. Hendrik Birus et al., 40 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013). Hereafter cited as FA in the body of the text.
  5. Andreas Anglet, Der “ewige” Augenblick: Studien zur Struktur und Funktion eines Denkbildes bei Goethe (Cologne: Böhlau, 1991), 1.
  6. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Goethe’s Collected Works, ed. Victor Lange, Eric A. Blackall, and Cyrus Hamlin, 12 vols. (New York/Boston: Suhrkamp, 1983). Hereafter cited as GCW in the body of the text.
  7. Translations of passages in Faust cited from: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust I & II, ed. David E. Wellbery, trans. Stuart Atkins (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014).
  8. Here, and unless otherwise noted, translations are by the author of this article.
  9. Wolfgang Pehnt, Zeiterlebnis und Zeitdeutung in Goethes Lyrik (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1957), 14.
  10. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), 387.
  11. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending; Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1967), 46–48.
  12. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Goethe, the Lyrist: 100 Poems in New Translations Facing the Originals: With an Appendix on Musical Settings to the Poems, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel (New York: AMS Press, 1979), 41.
  13. Joachim Müller, “Augenblick und Ewigkeit: Zeit- und Raumsymbolik in Goethes poetischem Bezugskreis,” in Ansichten der deutschen Klassik, ed. Helmut Brandt and Manfred Beyer (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1981), 258. See also Nicholas Rennie, Speculating on the Moment: The Poetics of Time and Recurrence in Goethe, Leopardi and Nietzsche (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005), 17–125.
  14. Cf. Wellbery, The Specular Moment, 187.
  15. “The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.” Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978), 280.
  16. For more on Faust and Kantian aesthetics, see Clark S. Muenzer, “Forms of Figuration in Goethe’s Faust,” Goethe Yearbook 17 (2010): 133–52.
  17. Regarding Moritz’s and Goethe’s motifs of the Augenblick, and their relation to the concept of the sublime, see Elliott Schreiber, The Topography of Modernity. Karl Philipp Moritz and the Space of Autonomy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2013), 15–59.
  18. Regarding Faust’s final moment as an instance of the nunc stans, see Ernst Bloch, Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 79–80; idem., Experimentum mundi: Frage, Kategorien des Herausbringens, Praxis (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 98; as well as the analysis of Bloch’s argument in Wilhelm Vosskamp, “‘Höchstes Exemplar des utopischen Menschen’: Ernst Bloch und Goethes Faust,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 59, no. 4 (1985): 676–87. For a comparison of the “moment” in Goethe and Dante, see Nicholas Rennie, “Play with Memory and its Topoi: Faust,” in Play in the Age of Goethe: Theories, Narratives, and Practices of Play around 1800, ed. Edgar Landgraf and Elliott Schreiber (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2020), 93–114.
  19. Cf. Eichhorn, Idee und Erfahrung im Spätwerk Goethes, 159.
  20. Michael Jaeger, “Kairos und Chronos - oder: Der prägnante Moment ist flüchtig. Antike Philosophie, klassische Lebenskunstlehre und moderne Verzweiflung,” in Prägnanter Moment: Studien zur deutschen Literatur der Aufklärung und Klassik. Festschrift für Hans-Jürgen Schings, ed. Peter-André Alt and Hans-Jürgen Schings (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 405–20.
  21. Cf. Eckart Förster, “Zum Schauen bestellt: Goethes Naturreligion,” Goethe-Jahrbuch 130 (2013), 71.
  22. Cited in: Peter Matussek, “‘Es ist das Höchste, wozu es der Mensch bringt’: das Aperçu bei Goethe,” in Wie alles sich zum Ganzen webt: Festschrift für Yoshito Takahashi zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Akio Ogawa and Yoshito Takahashi (Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2010), 114.
  23. Cf. Anglet, Der “ewige” Augenblick, 228–35; Förster, “Zum Schauen bestellt: Goethes Naturreligion,” 71.
  24. Cf. Wellbery, The Specular Moment, 27–51.
  25. I am grateful to Clark Münzer for pointing me to the relevance of this poem for a discussion of the Augenblick.
  26. Gerhard Kaiser, “Goethes Sprachgedicht ‘Wink,’” in Augenblicke deutscher Lyrik: Gedichte von Martin Luther bis Paul Celan (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1987), 54–60. For a discussion of the visual Augenblick as a recurrent encounter with the beloved in which the poet seeks (only) to shore up his own fragile selfhood, see Barbara Hahn, “Augen. Blicke. Augenblicke: Metaphern des Sehens zwischen Charlotte von Stein und Goethe,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 75 (2001): 60–70.
  27. Norbert Christian Wolf, “‘Fruchtbarer Augenblick’ – ‘prägnanter Moment’: Zur medienspezifischen Funktion einer ästhetischen Kategorie in Aufklärung und Klassik (Lessing, Goethe),” in Prägnanter Moment: Studien zur deutschen Literatur der Aufklärung und Klassik. Festschrift für Hans-Jürgen Schings, ed. Peter-André Alt and Hans-Jürgen Schings (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 373–404.
  28. Johannes Grave, “Bildpräsenz: Über das schwierige Verhältnis von Bild und Gegenwart bei Goethe,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 94, no. 2 (2020): 219–36.
  29. Portions of this article are based on ideas and formulations from the opening section on Goethe in Rennie, Speculating on the Moment, 17–125.

Works Cited and Further Reading