Katharina Mommsen, still killing it at 90: “Goethe keeps me going.”

Palo Alto, CA.,--September 16, 2015--Professor Katharina Mommsen at home in Palo Alto

A birthday photo a few days ago at her Palo Alto home. (Photo: Norbert von der Groeben)

Happy birthday to a Stanford legend, who turns 90 today! Katharina Mommsen, the world renowned scholar of the great genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is not slowing down one bit. “She is still plugging away fourteen hour days on the ‘monster’ international project of dozens of volume on the genesis of the works of Goethe,” according to her colleague, Gerald Gillespie, an emeritus professor of German and Comparative Lit at Stanford. Inspiring? That’s putting it mildly. There’s much to learn from this lady, and not just about Goethe.

“What keeps me going?  The question is as simple as the answer and, I think, self-evident. Goethe keeps me going,” she told me. “The love of his art, and all art, is what keeps me going and always will. This essential inspiration is there for everybody.”

Taken in.

He keeps her going.

In short, she has no elixir she is about to patent. “I have no secret source of life that is not freely available to all, but one has to know how to grasp and embrace it,” she said. “Not everybody does.”

Life has taught her tenacity and resilience in other ways. Katharina and her late husband Momme Mommsen, a former conductor and fellow Goethe scholar, left prestigious research positions at the German Academy of Sciences in East Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. They fled their homeland for the peripatetic life of the scholar, pursuing professorships, visiting and regular, in West Germany, Canada, and the U.S., finally settling at Stanford in 1974. Katharina accepted a position in German Studies and eventually held the Albert Guerard Endowed Chair for Literature.

An intimate birthday celebration will be held at her home with friends, colleagues, and students. The highlight of the afternoon will surely be this: the Consul General is coming down from San Francisco to bestow on her Germany’s highest honor for a lifetime of cultural service. Few people deserve it more.

Back to the “monster” international project: Gillespie describes it as “the dream shared with her husband Momme to restore the colossal project of a series on the genesis of works by the poet and polymath,” an effort called Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten. “To implement this grand design, for coordinating the efforts of many scholars globally, Katharina established the Momme Foundation for the Advancement of Goethe Research in the millennial year 2000, an American educational charity that collaborates especially through the Weimar Goethe Archive and other institutions.”


The Divan of Hafiz … was Goethe a kindred spirit?

And so the effort has taken her well into the 21st century, but she remains undaunted in the era of Pinterest and Twitter. “It’s surely true that times change and that we live in a different – digital – age,” she said. “But nothing about the age in which we live changes the transcendence of art. Bach will always be Bach. Nothing about a changing world, now or in the future, will ever alter this essence of life.”

Among the many gems by Katharina, Gillespie recommended in particular “her deep, sensitive study of the powerful friendship between the universal poet and the younger idealist Schiller in Kein Rettungsmittel als die Liebe: Schillers und Goethes Buendnis im Spiegel ihrer Dichtungen, a case of genuine, respectful  ‘romantic’ love between two creative spirits.”

“There is so much richness to appreciate in Katharina Mommsen’s life of devotion to German literature, but right after this celebratory pause, all her fans know she will be back at her desk coping with the next task.”

Perhaps Mommsen is best known, however, for her longstanding fascination with Goethe’s Islamic interests. In 1960, she published Goethe und 1001 Nacht, a revision of her dissertation at the University of Tübingen. Later, she published a study of Goethe’s motifs from Scheherazade’s tales in the classical Walgurgnisnacht and Helena scenes of Faust. She received praise for 1988’s Goethe und die arabische Welt as well.

“Goethe was enthralled by what we would call today the Islamic world. I write about these questions in my book Goethe and the Poets of Arabia (Camden House, 2014). But Goethe was fascinated from the beginning by the art and culture of the entire region, whether as a child by the stories from A Thousand and One Nights, or later by pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, by Hafiz and other Persian poets, or by the poets of ‘Arabia’ as well as by those of Turkey.”

“Goethe grasped the simple truth, at a time when not everyone did, that art is universal.”

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8 Responses to “Katharina Mommsen, still killing it at 90: “Goethe keeps me going.””

  1. farrokh namazi Says:

    this is “love” in its purest, highest form.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:


  3. Elena Danielson Says:

    Thank you for the piece on Mommsen. Once when she offered a course on Goethe’s “West-Oestlicher Divan,” an extraordinary work of gorgeous Persian-scented poetry, only one person signed up, probably because it is a challenge to read. The one person signed up was my student assistant Susan who said the course would be canceled for lack of interest. I urged her to take it as independent reading because you only get one chance to study the “Divan” with Mommsen. Susan did; Susan’s now tenured at Northwestern…

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Great story, Elena!

  5. Ereng Says:

    Hi Cynthia,

    Interesting article, not only because it’s inspiring to hear about women in the 90s still passionate about life and art, but also because I didn’t know about Goethe’s fascination with the Islamic world. Would like to know which Turkish poets he liked.
    Also as an aside, recently I’ve been on an Irvin Yalom kick. The book that started me off on this run was The Schopenhauer Cure, just an excellent weaving of Schopenhauer’s life with group therapy sessions of a psychotherapist dying of cancer. Stellar. In there, he mentions how much Schopenhauer admitted Goethe, but Goethe was offended by him.

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Eren, From a recent review by Paul Bishop in Journal of European Studies:

    Mommsen published Goethe und die arabische Welt in 1988, a work which at the time was given a warm critical reception. After drawing attention to the longevity and intensity of Goethe’s engagement with Arabic and the culture of the Middle East, her study falls into three parts. In the first, Mommsen discusses Goethe’s reception of pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, notably the Mu’allaqāt. Each of the qasidas of this collection features a motif known as nasīb, an elegiac celebration of lost love, and elements of this tradition can be found in the West-östlicher Diwan. In the second, the focus shifts to Goethe and Islam. Then, as now, this religion excites fascination as well as distaste in the West: Mommsen goes so far as to suggest that Goethe felt a ‘personal affinity’ with Islam (p. 73), and we know that he planned a tragic drama centred on the figure of Mohammad (1772), of which a famous hymn survives; he translated (and toned down) Voltaire’s Mahomet (1799); and he returned time and again to the Qu’ran. ‘And so’, he once noted, ‘the Qu’ran repeats itself, one sura after another. Belief and unbelief divide as superior and inferior. Heaven and Hell are allotted to those affirming the faith and those denying it’ (cf. p. 161). Yet Goethe’s view of Islam was far from uncritical: inevitably, its stance on the position of women, its emphasis on the masculine characteristics of paradise, and its prohibition of wine all provoked him to dissent. Finally, Mommsen discusses other poets of the Islamic period who, in one way or another, left their mark on Goethe: Ahmad ibn Arabshah, al-Tughrā’ī, and especially al-Mutanabbi.

    Of all literary figures, however, the Persian poet Hāfez emerges holding the greatest attraction for Goethe: partly because of his playfulness, partly because the cover he offered for poetic role-play with Suleika (i.e. Marianne von Willemer).

  7. elizabeth powers Says:

    I usually visit my favorite blogs (including yours) about once a month, which I am doing today, and catch up with things. (By the way, I read “A Month in the Country” about 30 years ago and not long ago acquired the DVD.) I wish I have checked your blog earlier,, however, as I would have posted the info about Katharina Mommsen on my Goethe blog, which I will still do. I am a member of the Goethe Society of North America and am a bit surprised that the Society did not post anything on our list serve about the birthday honors.

    Stanford sounds like a wonderful place to be for a writer.

  8. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Elizabeth. And please do let the Goethe Society know that they are welcome to link to my post!

    And please do drop by for our event next Monday on A Month in the Country, if you’re in town. Love to see you!