Cheating the Daily Prompt since the first place the word “cheat” takes me is to the Evil-X and I don’t want to go there.
Today is August 28, Goethe’s birthday. I don’t know why this isn’t celebrated everywhere, but maybe because (poor) Goethe now has a “literary reputation” for being deep and inscrutable and profound and being the “Shakespeare of Germany.” I am more interested in Goethe’s discussions of life and art than I am in his songs, poems, plays or fiction. I know there are nine-hundred million different (and often pedantic) takes on what Goethe meant here or there. They don’t interest me; my relationship with Goethe is a personal one. In some strange way, I think we are friends.
Among the many things Goethe was, he was at the right place at the right time with the right miserable and depressing little novel, Sorrows of Young Werther. Novels were a relatively new thing at the time, it seems a mostly English thing. Goethe loved the novels he’d read, especially The Vicar of Wakefield, which influenced not only Goethe’s perception of the world, but the story behind Werther. There had never been a book like this before. It was an instant international “bestseller” and Goethe was forced to drag Werther around with him for the rest of his life.
Goethe, broken-hearted over his rejection by Lotte Buff and the suicide of his friend, Jerusalem, discouraged by his inability to get his work published, wrote Werther. I imagine Goethe’s mind at this moment of his life as a giant crucible into which pain and loss had been poured, partly in an effort to make sense of it, partly to create something from it. I know that crucible; I have my own.
I think that there was a time in Goethe’s life when he was a pretty dreamy young guy, I don’t mean a dreamboat, but a guy who looked at the world through dreams.
I think that dream-laden mind is apparent in Werther and visible in the attempt of the protagonist to turn Lotte Buff’s family into the family in Wakefield. I love Goethe for that — among other things. I’ve struggled all my life to make a distinction between the dream in my mind and the reality in front of me. This was a lifelong quest for Goethe, and he has been my lighthouse for the past twenty years. I’ve always sensed that, as a writer, nothing mattered more than developing the ability to observe the world, life, as it is.
“What can we call our own except energy, strength and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” Conversations with Eckermann