Supplementary Appendix 279.1

Henrik Steffens
New Year’s Eve 1800 in Weimar
with Goethe, Schiller, and Schelling [*]

As I already mentioned, I spent the end of the previous century in Jena, though New Year’s Eve itself in Weimar, and I must observe that I witnessed the debate that, remarkably enough, is wont to repeat itself every century, namely, whether one can begin to count with “zero”; that is, whether the old century concludes with zero or the new one commences with zero.

It is truly strange how, ever anew, misled merely by the change of numbers, one is able to view the conclusion as the beginning and forgets that zero acquires significance, after all, only through unity. There was no lack of observations at the time concerning how the absolute conceptual process, in its empty, abstract form, was intent on commencing with zero, and in that respect to begin the century with its conclusion. . . . The majority, prudently, declared in favor of beginning with “one.” The “nullists” were overcome and had to make arrangements for yet a second time for the same emotional passage.

As I said, I spent the true beginning of the century with my Jena friends, more specifically, in Weimar at a masquerade given by the court.

[Here illustrations of a masquerade ball from the previous year, 1799 (Gottlieb Böttger d.Ä, Kostümball [1799]; Herzog August Bibliothek, Museumsnr./Signatur Graph. A1: 269) and of two masked women arriving in a carriage at such a ball (Eugen Diederichs, ed. Deutsches Leben der Vergangenheit in Bildern, 2 vols. [Jena 1908], 2:502):



Please allow me to recount this particular night here in retrospect. A well-organized procession designed by Goethe came first. Later the masquerade ball itself began, and the disguised dancers moved freely and easily among one another. . . .

On this particular evening, I wandered about the hall for a time with my friends, and the regnant confusion would undeniably have generated the most unbearable boredom had not one particular mask drawn everyone’s attention. It was an old woman who with indefatigable conscientiousness made a point of speaking to each and every person. She seemed acquainted with everyone, facilely and wittily touched on even intimate family circumstances, and spoke all languages with almost equal facility, German, French, English, Italian. Schelling addressed the mask in Latin, and she answered in that language, though her German pronunciation of Latin seemed to give her some trouble

I, wanting to embarrass her, spoke to her in Danish. Not only I, but also those standing around us were not a little surprised to hear her answer me in that language as well, albeit rather clumsily, but certainly comprehensibly. With my circumstances, too, she seemed to be quite familiar, and she did not want for witty and accurate allusions.

When people’s general curiosity had finally reached an unbearable degree and people pushed up to the mask to discover in whatever way necessary just who she was — she disappeared. All that remained were hypotheses, and people exhausted every possibility to guess her identity. The most probable was that it was a young Englishman from the institute of the well-known emigré Mounier. Such a person could well have spent time in Copenhagen.

After midnight, Goethe, Schiller, and Schelling withdrew to a back room, and I myself was permitted to share their company. Several bouteilles of champagne were waiting on the table, and our conversation grew increasingly lively.

[Der Freund des schönen Geschlechts: ein angenehm und nützlicher Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1808, albeit without any women present]:


Then I, who by virtue of my Nordic virtuosity in such matters remained more sober than the older gentlemen, could not help noticing the change taking place in these two distinguished personalities. Goethe was loose and merry, indeed high-spirited, whereas Schiller became increasingly more serious, holding forth in broad, doctrinaire aesthetic explications that were largely the same as those in his familiar criticism of Klopstock, nor did he allow himself to be deterred whenever Goethe intentionally tried to confuse his presentation with some witty objection or other.

Schelling, on the other hand, consistently maintained his calm demeanor; I saw hardly any change in him at all. The physician Hufeland, who was about to accept an appointment in Berlin, came in a bit later, and as popular as this excellent man was, the general disinclination toward Prussia came to rather open expression among the others, and he good-naturedly put up with being the object of such jesting.

This night proved to be all the more significant for me insofar as I learned shortly thereafter, in Freiberg, what worrisome consequences this evening had for Goethe. If I am not mistaken, for the first time in his life he suffered a really serious illness, and the idea of his imminent death, one that plagued him later for at least several years in a row, was a result of this illness. . . . [1]


[*] Was ich erlebte, 4:407–12. Back.

[1] Caroline alludes to this illness later in her undated letter to Schelling in January 1801 (letter 281). It may be of some interest to note that following this evening, Schelling and Steffens began using the familiar form of address (du as opposed to the formal Sie). Back.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott