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Emerita News: Jane K. Brown, Joff Hanauer Distinguished Professor of Western Civilization, (Germanics and Comparative Literature)

Submitted by Michael Neininger on June 10, 2019 - 2:42pm
jane brown
Jane Brown

            Whenever I tell Germanists at distant conferences that I work at the University of Washington, the first question they usually ask is, “Oh, that’s where Jane Brown is, right?” Even though Jane retired in 2012, her name is still what rings bells for UW among scholars of Goethe and the Faust tradition around the world. This recognition is not only due to the influential body of scholarship she published during her distinguished tenure as an active teacher, administrator, and researcher, but also because of the important contributions she continues to make to the field during her alleged retirement. A UW Germanics newsletter article in 2012 claimed that Jane Brown was retiring “at the zenith of an illustrious career.” But her accomplishments since that date prove that her career has yet to reach a pinnacle: she keeps climbing higher and higher.

            In the last seven years, Jane Brown has published one book, eight articles, a translation, and two reviews; she has also delivered 27 invited talks in four countries on three continents. All this is not counting her upcoming lectures and manuscripts in preparation. Nor does this output amount to any kind of coasting on her (considerable) momentum—filling out and polishing her existing legacy—which would be an understandable and well-deserved M.O. for someone with Jane’s impressive record. Instead, Jane’s contributions of the past seven years are remarkable both for their broad range and their deep insights.  The topics of her publications and presentations span from opera to art and from psychology to epistemology. They include some of the most exciting and innovative claims of any recent Goethe scholarship anywhere.

            Goethe is easily the most studied and picked-over author on the German canon. It would be a remarkable achievement to say anything new about any of his texts, and academics often turn to the most obscure corners of his enormous oeuvre in order to say something that might pass as a discovery. Yet Jane’s recent publications have made major new claims that will forever shape the way we read and understand Goethe’s work. Her book Goethe’s Allegories of Identity (Philadelphia: U Penn Press, 2014) reveals the many and surprising ways that Goethe crafted the sense of the interior self that many people ‘intuitively’ understand today. Goethe’s works picked up on Rousseau’s intimations of psychological interiority and fashioned them into the forms that Freud would later depend on for his own theories of psychoanalysis. This central thesis affords a treasure trove of insightful observations about Goethe’s individual novels, plays, and other writings on the one hand, and about the construction of the modern self on the other.

            Sometimes Jane’s boldest claims, once you stop to think about them, sound so true and right that it’s hard to imagine trying to understand Goethe—or the world—any differently. Three of her recent propositions in particular seem deceptively simple and easy, yet they prove to be incredibly subtle and suggestive. All three amount to recognitions of the underlying nature—archetype, if you will—of Goethe: the artist, his work, and his scientific approach to the world. First, in an entry on Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth, Jane claims that Odysseus is Goethe’s “structuring persona,” and that the “journey is [his] Urmythos” (“Dichtung und Wahrheit,” in Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019). Second, Jane persuasively identifies the fairy tale as Goethe’s “basic modus operandi” and the “paradigmatic aesthetic” for all his work (“Building Bridges,” Goethe Yearbook, 23, 2016). Most recently, Jane has been working on an entry for the Goethe Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts, which has as its motto “Goethe as Heterodox Thinker.” Her contribution to this timely and ambitious project is to see that Goethe’s mode of interacting with nature is best typified by a figure that opens his Fairy Tale: the will-o’-the-wisp. This Irrlicht (“crazy” or “erring light”) brings together Goethe’s fascination with color and his insistence on following wherever the experience of natural objects might lead.  Scientific knowledge, for Goethe, is a practice of wandering in search of elusive glimpses of illumination. These three revelations—seeing Goethe the person as Odysseus, his work in its myriad forms as fairy tale, and his epistemology in the figure of the Irrlicht—have become so central to my own reading and teaching that it’s hard to recall their very recent and proximate provenance. Jane’s wisdom is like that: her innovations seem like ancient truths.   

            Jane’s continuing relevance in German studies, however, extends beyond her publications and public engagement. She is extremely generous in her capacity as an inspiration and mentor for scholars at every stage of their careers, from eminent colleagues to aspiring novices. My own experience of Jane’s mentorship is a testimony to her indelible influence. Without her guiding light both as a model and as a critic, my own first book would have been much weaker and more impoverished. When I met with her the other day, I became so absorbed in her engaging account the books she’d been reading recently for fun (a list that would take up several pages, ranging from Medieval Japanese novels to contemporary Chinese fiction) that when I finally forced myself to look at the clock, I realized I was late for my own class. This anecdote might make one suspect that Jane herself is an Irrlicht, but though she certainly leads one deeper into the beautiful forest of literature, she is an unerring guide who never loses her way.

A better figure for Jane’s influence is the disguised goddess in the ultimate journey myth, the very namesake of mentorship in the Odyssey. When Jane plays Mentor, however, it is impossible to mistake the divine Athena in your presence. Jane herself would point out the long tradition of such allegorical references in the genre of encomia, but I must insist that Jane Brown is more a symbol than an allegory of wisdom. For Goethe, allegories have no necessary connection to what they represent, whereas symbols share some natural kinship between sign and signified. Jane is certainly right to trouble the strict distinction between these two modes of representation, as she has done with persuasive erudition in her published scholarship. But in her own case, Jane clearly embodies the wisdom that she also signifies.

            It is with anticipations of dizziness that we look ahead to the further heights of Jane Brown’s illustrious post-retirement career.


            Ellwood Wiggins, Seattle, 2019