Daily Prompt It Builds Character Tell us about a favorite character from film, theater, or literature, with whom you’d like to have a heart-to-heart. What would you talk about?
I want to hang out with Goethe. I worry (a bit, but not much since it isn’t likely ever to happen) that he would not be the man I think he was, but that’s actually OK. The reason I would like to hang out with him is to know who he really was. I’ve read almost everything he’s written that’s been translated into English. I got a bit bogged down in his Theory of Colors because, besides setting out his theory of colors, it’s a polemic against the then brand new notion of scientific method which consciously strove to eliminate direct observation. Goethe had issues with this. His theory, however, inspired the artist, Turner, whose work I learned to love through Goethe. The painting above is Turner’s rendering of the theory. Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis Exhibited 1843. An amazing painting but I wish Turner had used better paint and taken better care of his work when it was finished…
My meeting with Goethe was not in school — well, I was AT school, the library in the college in which I was teaching — but it wasn’t like it is for many people, required reading of a literary great who makes no sense sort of the way most people meet and feel about Shakespeare, all so serious and riven with consequence.
I “met” Goethe in 1998 about a month before I was going to Italy on my own to visit a man. I had been looking for a tour guide to Genova when I checked out Italian Journey. I was stunned by the way his mind worked. I fell in love with him, then as my own Italian journey ended up having so many things in common with Goethe’s, I was even more captivated. It took me years to get all that Goethe was saying, and if the little myth that the deity sends the spirits of the dead as angels to Earth to help people Goethe was my angel.
I had a lot of internal struggles between 1992 and 2008. Those were the years of “overcoming” in the sense Nietzsche wrote in Zarathustra when he said “life is an overcoming.” I don’t think I could have made it without the lantern of Goethe’s words and his experiences lighting the way. I actually had a photo of the lantern Goethe gave his guests to guide their way home sitting on my desk. Over the lantern I inserted one of Goethe’s poems:
All is given by the eternal Gods
To those they love, whole.
All joy, unending,
All sorrow, unending, whole.
There was a hard little hill where I used to hike, it was such a nondescript little hill that no one went up it, and, it was steep, too steep for mountain bikers unless they were hardcore. On top was a small plateau that was covered with flowers in early spring — that’s February in San Diego. I named it the “Goetheberg” and I would go there when my heart and mind were charged with confusion. I was struggling with my brother’s drinking, an unrequited love, a career that didn’t seem to gel, money problems and the first novel — Martin of Gfenn and the hopes I did not dare feel. On top of this little hill I would “talk” to Goethe. What I was doing was actually — through the liberty of hard physical exercise — listening to the words I’d read.
The relationship was solidified when I found that Thomas Carlyle had also adored Goethe through Goethe’s words and Goethe had influenced Carlyle’s beliefs. Thomas Carlyle was a big influence in my life through the conduit of family. He was my maternal grandfather’s favorite writer and thinker and the old man hammered Carlyle’s thinking into the family philosophy. I got a copy of Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle and it read to me like Agatha Christie reads to mystery fans. I saw I’d been brought up to love Goethe.
Goethe was a character in his own stories — he is an ingredient in Werther. Wilhelm Meister carries Goethe’s own experiences through both the Apprenticeship and Journeyman years. Goethe kept an enormous journal where, clearly, he did not live an “unexamined” life. I see Goethe’s beliefs about himself and the future in his rendering of Faust — and his vision of God at the end. But the most important of Goethe’s writing, to me, became Conversations with Eckermann. This is NOT literature. It is the journal of Goethe’s late-in-life secretary. It is Goethe with others, Goethe struggling with Faust II, Goethe grieving over the death of his son… In this book I found the most beautiful advice from Goethe.
“Hold your powers together for something good and let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.”
The words I needed to hear all those days on the Goetheberg. What would we talk about? I believe I would be happy just to listen — as I have all these years.