Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

Life’s Labyrinthine Chaos Course — Revisiting School in Verona

 

“No one knows what’s going to happen when they make a choice. And Goldilocks? Look what happened to her? BEARS.”

“Whoa.”

“Exactly. Sure, we remember the oatmeal and beds, but it was really BEARS. Whether that bed fit or not, she had to run away. Choices are a lot like that. Looks good and a few winks in, BEARS. Goethe was right.”

“As far as you’re concerned, Goethe was ALWAYS right. It’s so boringly predictable.”

“I know, I know, a little hero worship there, but you know what? I wouldn’t ever have READ Goethe if I hadn’t made a BAD choice. I probably would never have gone to Europe — and certainly not Zürich — would never have seen the little church at Gfenn that changed my life and awakened me. Good choices, bad choices, no one knows. A comfy bed is as likely to lead to BEARS and, well, what I did, might lead to LIFE.”

“So what did Goethe say?”

“It was a theme with him, the labyrinth we live in. The first time I encountered it in his work, though, was in the prologue to Faust. He wrote ‘Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf‘.”

“And that means…?”

“Life is a labyrinth of error. Life’s labyrinthine course of error. Something like that. But a labyrinth is a labyrinth because one moment we’re making a choice — this way or that — and in the next we’re reaping the consequences of that choice. We might be lost, we might not be lost, we might be lost and not know it, we might be fine and fear we’re lost. Maybe we enter the labyrinth looking for our friend or lover who’s gone on ahead. Maybe it’s a game. Maybe we just want out. But at some point, we enter that labyrinth. Choice? Biological inevitability? I don’t know that. I could CHOOSE to believe one or the other, but…”

“The labyrinth.”

“At that point, our parents chose. There we are, entering the labyrinth.”

“What’s that picture up there?”

“It’s Giardino Giusti in Verona. I took that picture. Goethe wrote about it in Italian Journey and I made the choice to go to Verona to study Italian because of Goethe. I figure if you find a competent guide through the labyrinth, you should take advantage of it.”

“You were following a dead guy?”

“Yes and no. I mean some 200 years have passed since then and I’m not Goethe, but I needed to choose a destination (turn a corner in the labyrinth) so I decided to go where he had gone. There are beautiful, old cypress trees in this garden (you can see one on the far right facing in the photo) and Goethe cut some of the branches to carry back to his apartment. He didn’t know that cypress branches were a symbol of mourning and was surprised that the people he met on his way expressed condolences. Lots of confusion in the labyrinth, that’s for sure. You just have to be fearless and humble at all times. Actually, something happened to me there that proved that.”

“What?”

“My schoolmates didn’t like me much. My Italian sounded good but wasn’t. It’s badly mixed with Spanish which I’ve spoken poorly most of my life. One of the schoolmates — an Austrian woman — actually began ‘shunning’ me because, I guess, she thought my Italian was contagious. It was OK with me. I had other things to do besides hang out with a random bunch of non-Italian speaking Europeans and Japanese. I did make a friend; a woman from Manchester with whom I really enjoyed hanging out, but generally, I was ostracized. Partly, too, I think because of the US invasion of Iraq for which I was personally responsible. Ha ha.”

“And then?”

“So the Austrian girl/woman knew I loved Goethe but she didn’t believe I had read Goethe. She — as do many Europeans — believed Americans are endemically fake. So we were on a school field-trip at the Giardino Giusti and walking through this labyrinth which was more difficult than it looked. I said, ‘Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.’ She said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s a line from the prologue to Faust.’ ‘Well it’s wrong,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I think I’d know,’ she replied.”

“What happened then?”

“A couple days later she found me and apologized. We got to be friends after that. A characteristic of the labyrinth is that you don’t know what you’re looking at until you LOOK at it.”

“Like Goldilocks?”

“Maybe. I was always on the bears’ side in that story. After all, Goldilocks was trespassing.”

——————

Here’s a photo I wanted to share with yesterday’s prompt, but I couldn’t find it. It deals with surrealism. It’s me in Zürich in 2005 standing beside the Cafe Voltaire — the birthplace of DADA (father of surrealism). I’m pointing here at the Navel of the World.

Me pointing at the navel of the world

Birthplace of Dada, Cafe Voltaire, Zürich

 

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