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Chapter 25. Breathwork with Goethe

In 1819 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a breathing exercise: 

„Im Athemholen sind zweyerley Gnaden:

Die Luft einziehen, sich ihrer entladen.

Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt;

So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt.

Du danke Gott, wenn er dich preßt,

Und dank’ ihm, wenn er dich wieder entlässt.“

This last verse of the poem “Talismane”, which is the fourth poem of the first book “Moganni Nameh” of Goethe’s famous compendium “West-Östlicher Diwan” addresses the duality of breathing: inhaling and exhaling are part of life: “So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt” and it is god’s will that all living beings inhale and exhale. While inhaling “bedrängt”, which means pressurize (to keep the air-metaphor in play), exhaling “erfischt”, which means refreshes. Life seems to be built like an air pump, but the body does not keep the air. The body is just a medium for the air: it flows through the body. 

But there is still the gap between inhaling and exhaling: between “einziehen” and “entladen” as well as between “bedrängt” and “erfrischt” the line is chanted. Even though the word “entladen” refers also to magnetism or electricity, the four words design a circular process of breathing. 

In 1778, 41 years earlier, Johann Gottfried Herder, asked: „Ich bin auf die Preisfrage begierig: ‘was das Othemholen eigentlich für Würkungen im lebendigen Körper hervorbringe?“ What is the function of breathing for the living body? 

In the context of post-hippocratic medicine in the age of enlightenment, as K.F. Hilliard explained, “Othemholen” was a focal point in the dietetic discourse and also a “function maitresse”1. The breath connects body and mind and is also the material part of speaking. The ability to speak is a matter of breathwork, but not only in the form of a rhetoric exercise but in a more metaphysical way. Respiration and inspiration contain god’s spirit: Hence the poet has to aim at writing, breathing and speaking. And even Kant breaths through his nose, just like a yoga teacher, pedantically disciplining his body.2 But what was a source for inspiration, the inhaling of scents, becomes a purified process in Goethe’s poem. 

Obviously, Herder and Goethe drew their inspiration from the same source. Herder as well as Goethe quote the persian poet Sadi. Herder writes: “Ein Atem, den man in sich zeucht, stärket, ein Atem, den man von sich läßt, erfreuet das Leben: in jedem Atemzuge sind zweierlei Gnaden” which resembles the Goethe-verse. And as George F. Peters already had shown Goethe’s poetic project is combining air, breathing and atmosphere.3 Instead of working on a pneumatology of poetry, I would like to suggest a different approach: Breathing is and always has been an exercise especially for the interpretation of poetry itself. Because poems have rhythm and sound one needs techniques of inhaling and exhaling at the right time and place the intonate the poem. 

And again, for Herder the human body was kind of a pneumatic machine, constructing a specific subject as well as specific ideas of writing and reading poetry. 

To point out a difference in Goethe’s poem: he talks about the “Mischung” of inhaled and exhaled air, which creates the atmosphere, conceptualizing a form of intertextuality. A pneumatology of poetry therefore has to keep in mind, that the air is not so fresh anymore: Have the authors of the enlightenment imagined – more or less – air as pure, one can say, that Goethe’s atmosphere is mixed containing words of and ideas, thoughts and images of other poets. Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality can be also understood as a new form of breathing, which keeps in mind, that all air is also used and shared air and all breathing entities live within a mixed atmosphere. 

Transposing the air into media theory one can understand, that the air is also contaminated with radio waves and other signals. That means that the air does not have the primacy of signaling human words (and animal sounds). Air and breathe shift as metaphysical and poetic concepts asking for new exercises in breathing as well as for new forms of interpretation: the breathwork with Goethe shows that concepts of clean air deterritorialize and reterritorialize in a form of mixed media.

  1. Hilliard 2003, 296 []
  2. Ibid., 297f. []
  3. Peters 1976, 216 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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