As repulsive as I found the eccentricity of gloomy Schlözer, all the more merry did I find that of the venerable old Böhmer.
The self-satisfaction and expansive good nature expressed by his entire personality had absolutely nothing in it that might insult or threaten the vanity of others, deriving as it did not from any overestimation of his own intellectual talent, but from the disproportionate significance he attributed to the knowledge in which he had indeed acquired mastery. His self-indulgence was in fact pandect enthusiasm.
To wit, in the codex of Justinian [pandectae, the compilation initiated ca. 530 AD by the Roman emperor Justinian from the writings of Roman legal scholars], which he had wholly internalized by way of a tabular overview and countless divisions and subdivisions, he possessed — in his opinion — the quintessence of all human wisdom; he found it, together with its scholarly commentators, to be a rich source of Salomonic proverbs, an inexhaustible arsenal of sophisticated legal principles, a rich source of comical anecdotes, gallant jokes, and impudent stories, and finally an inexhaustible inventory of expressions and idioms which might be applied to virtually any situation and with which he was able to bestow a certain element of dignity to even the most commonplace situations in daily life.
For him, all other endeavors of the human spirit and intellect were of quite inferior value, and if ever he might condescend to read, fleetingly, this or that work of genius, the highest praise he might bestow on the author would be: “Well, the man is truly grand in trifles.” The definitions and distinctions which, year in and year out, he daily, and hours on end, presented to his students, who conscientiously took their notes, and his great pleasure in doing so, had so accustomed him not only to a peculiar sort of didactic language that he maintained the latter even in daily life, but also to a ceremoniously slow pace that far preferred extended forms of language and always allowed even silent syllables to sound as fully as the others, and to a precision that invariably explicated that which in fact needed absolutely no explication for anyone. . . .
I was once especially pleased by an incident involving some rather ill-placed politeness on his part for the sake of circumventing the truth in a situation where, to put it bluntly, such truth might most quickly have put an end to any embarrassment for precisely the person for whom he intended to spare such.
Once, at a banquet given in his honor, the host noticed the involuntary and distorted facial movements of his venerable guest after the latter tried a glass of wine, and asked him whether the wine perhaps did not taste good to him. “Oh, but yes, yes, it does indeed, quite so, yes!” the latter exclaimed in his customary broad fashion; “no doubt a superior grape; it just quite seems to me that it is starting to become a bit sour.” As it turned out, the apparently excellent but incipiently sour “wine” was in fact pure vinegar, which the servant had inadvertently placed before the guest instead of the considerably finer wine intended for him.
Böhmer did, by the way, keep a very good house indeed; apart from attending the assemblies, I also spent some very enjoyable hours there at evening dinner on several occasions, times when his equally good-natured, kindly wife was always pleased to see her guests have a merry time. The assemblies, because of the stiffness and awkwardness of the hosts and the excessive number of young people, were less entertaining, though anyone who attended in a good mood and without affectation could always find an opportunity to spend a few very pleasant hours in a company lacking neither merry young people of both genders nor eccentrics.
The personality of his wife contributed not a little to the success of these evenings. Even at an advanced age — she had reached 60 years quite unnoticed — she kept the same innocent coquetterie of her youth, loved to kid the younger people with rather loose jokes, was not at all inclined to withdraw from dancing at public assemblies, and put considerable stock in her extremely average knowledge of French, such that she generally sought the company of those who might speak with her in that language. Members of our merry company . . . gained merit with her by enriching her knowledge of French by teaching her several less well-known words, admittedly not in their real meaning. . . .
Although the rest of the family did not really contribute much to such entertainment, the two daughters did offer a very pleasant sight. The eldest [not the eldest, but the eldest still living at home], even at the time, if I understand correctly, engaged to Canon Meyer, was considered pretty and was found particularly attractive by those particular, languishing gentlemen who had cultivated themselves according to what at the time was the quite popular model of sentimentalism; her perpetually open mouth and the continual expression of amazement in her facial features betrayed little in the way of intellect, and on closer acquaintance also did not deliver much more than promised.
Her younger sister, hardly out of childhood, prompted more lively interest with her more delicate cultivation, expressive eyes, and in general more intellectual nature. She made the young criminologist Meister very happy in marriage for many years, and when I saw him again in 1823 while visiting Göttingen, he was completely inconsolable at having just lost his loyal spouse.
Among Böhmer’s sons, my favorite was the second, a quiet, devoted, not unskilled physician. Much to the chagrin of his friends, he allowed himself to be bewitched by the arts of the eldest Michaelis daughter [Caroline], the subsequently much-discussed Madam Schlegel and Schelling. During the few years they were married, which he spent in Clausthal, she likely made his life quite miserable indeed.
The eldest son announced lectures every year for 40 years without ever having given a single one. Finally, a third son had to do penance for having allowed his democratic eloquence a bit too much free reign in the Mainz Jacobin Club; he was allegedly severely beaten when the Prussians took the city.
Translation © 2011 Doug Stott