Goethe & the Grexit: some brief thoughts

So: looks like shit’s finally hit the fan for Greece.


In Matthew Arnold’s 1888 essay ‘On Wordsworth’, the sage writer criticises the poet for being too provincial (“homely” is the word he uses) in his subject matter and personal interests. His lyrics may convey “profound truths”, but the guy’s still an English bumpkin from the North, is Arnold’s point. Of course, the Oxford-trained Arnold is from Middlesex in the southeast of England, whereas Wordsworth hails from the northwestern crags of Cumbria.

So, just another case of South-on-North snobbery – no surprises here, really. Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 social novel North and South couldn’t have portrayed it better.

But the way Arnold illustrates Wordsworth’s parochialism is interesting, if not a bit peculiar.

His problem, it seems, is that WW wasn’t interested enough in Goethe, the German writer-statesman who pioneered the late 18th-century Sturm und Drang (Storm and Drive) movement and helped bring forth the enormously influential tide of German Romanticism. Ironic, given the poet’s reputation as a great English Romanticist.

Like Goethe, Arnold was someone with strong integrationist zeal. UKIP’s Euroscepticism would have the Victorian turning in his grave right now:


Goethe looks worried – and rightly so.

Let us conceive of the whole group of civilized nations as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working towards a common result; a confederation whose members have a due knowledge both of the past, out of which they all proceed, and of one another. This was the ideal of Goethe, and it is an ideal which will impose itself upon the thoughts of our modern societies more and more.

(‘On Wordsworth’)

If we accept the ‘Germany is Europe’s big bad boss‘ narrative, then we may have another case of irony on our hands – this time historic, not literary. After all, according to Owen Jones (aka Guardian’s go-to leftie polemic),

Angela Merkel is the most monstrous western European leader of this generation.


The classic Merkelian frown

So punishing is her indifference to Greek suffering; so draconian are her austerity proposals to Tsipras and the Grecians. Bitch be chunkin’ up the deuces in Goethe’s proto-EU face – she could care less (or so it seems).

I actually don’t dislike Jones as a columnist; but that’s just classic OTT chat from a smart(ass), young journalist whose debut book is titled Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (his second one is no less brazenly titled – The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It, 2014)

Steady on, Owen. Because apparently, Bloomberg Business has just reported that:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told lawmakers in Berlin that Greece would stay in the euro for the time being [even] if Greek voters reject austerity in a referendum scheduled this week. Schaeuble also said the European Central Bank would do what’s needed to protect the euro if Greeks voted against the bailout terms in the July 5 referendum.

Not without the German Iron Lady’s green-light, of course:

“Our goal remains to keep Greece in the euro, regardless of the referendum result,” Antje Tillmann, a lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said by phone. “It’s up to Greece itself to decide whether it wants to stay in the euro zone.”


Oh how benevolent.

Perhaps, then, underneath Merkel and Schaeuble’s bitch-face steeliness, there lives an inner Goethe in both. Or maybe it’s all just for show. To hit home the impression that they’re also, you know, humans.

The way I see it, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was essentially born out of a Goethian ideal; while that in itself is no bad thing, Greece the country simply isn’t fiscally mature or responsible enough to help realise its terms. Back in 2001, the cracks were already showing: it was able to adopt the euro mostly because Goldman Sachs wangled a deal through dishonest means, by setting up fictional exchange rates to artificially bump up Greece’s national credit (of up to 1 billion USD).

That’s the problem with lofty idealism: right from the get go, absolutely everything – bar none, has to be perfect. Otherwise, the whole thing just collapses.

What’s that you say? There are “lethal design flaws in the whole euro project”? Well, that’s it then. Game over. Kaput. See you in the next life. In order for the EU to truly succeed in the long run, absolute (or at least a very high degree of) harmony and parity between states must exist and sustain. But how can that be, when the GDP per capita of Germany and Scandinavia has been more than double that of Greece and her Mediterranean cousins in the past five years*, and when the Eurogroup elders basically just CBA to take Tsipras and co. seriously?

Unlike the case of England, it’s the North that holds the upper hand in Europe. In this continental power play, the sun-kissed Southerners are now at the mercy of their icy Northern patrons. Historical irony strikes again: I mean, by the time Aristotle and Plato had long been dead, the Germans were still a tribal people battling it out in the rough.

Committing to Romanticist projects often comes with a price. Looks like Europe is now learning it the hard way.

*Figures from The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD


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