A Look at “The Examined Life”

I finally found a journal — one of the infinite stream of tedium series in my studio called The Examined Life, that’s been worth looking into. It’s from 1999/2000 — 20 years ago. That was the time I began reading Goethe. Goethe is all through that journal, a kind of thought conversation with this amazing man, writer as I discovered things in my reading.

At the beginning, I was in the middle of reading Faust and had not yet delved far into Goethe’s words about his life. But it’s clear from this journal that his work had shown me how to think about my own life with more clarity. I wrote:

Who can say…the passage of time, the chronicle of the stray thought, repeated over the years, the one truth we know and the question for which we find no answer strike the rhythm of our blind dance, the ache of our despair. The glorious morning when we remember — once again — who we are. Over and over and over again, we fight for ourselves with ourselves against ourselves. Life is only part crucible. We are perfected on an anvil with the hammer of our hope. (My words to me at age 48)

Now I think my anvil was hope and the hammer disappointment

2000 was a strange year for me. Among other strange things, in the pursuit of love that had been offered, I went to Italy only to find the man in question wouldn’t even talk to me, but left me in the hands of his family. It was an internal nightmare from which I attempted to awaken by walking the streets of Milan and looking at paintings. It was a fairly successful stragedy and not one everyone has access to. But I was angry and lovesick.

Love has always been problematic for me. I understand why now much more clearly than I did 20 years ago, but it’s always implied the loss of autonomy and a kind of surrender. It is something I wanted desperately (for a long while) and something that terrified me. As witnessed in the infinite volumes of The Examined Life have always searched for it while simultaneously dreading it. In this installment of The Examined Life I record the turning point.

“…That is why I prefer the study of nature which does not allow such sickness to arise. For there we have to do with infinite and eternal truth that immediately rejects anyone who does to proceed neatly and honestly in observing and handling his subject…” Goethe

Goethe had suffered the same love sickness I had. He ultimately gave up on GREAT LOVE, and found someone to spend his life with, but I think it’s different for men than it is for women.

2000 was also the year that I finished the original version of Martin of Gfenn, a 97 page first-person novella. I was pitching it and found an agent for it. Ultimately it didn’t work out — publishers turned it down because it assumed too much knowledge of medieval Zürich on the part of the reader. That was fair. That led me to study, opening a whole world to me.

There is a rejection note of a type we don’t see any more.

This installment of The Examined Life is the first interesting volume so far.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/04/rdp-tuesday-eggplant/

Is it Worth Reading?

Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself.

Reposted from September 11, 2015

Happy Goethe’s Birthday!!!

Twenty years ago on this day I taught my first university writing class at San Diego State University. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of teaching writing at SDSU from the moment I learned my ex and I would be moving to San Diego in 1984. I started my San Diego teaching career at SDSU, but teaching ESL in a department of extended studies, not the REAL university.

I did not know that the way teachers were hired was changing, not really in a good way, but in a way that led me to two classes in the department of Rhetoric and Writing. Both were sophomore level classes. I loved my bosses and I loved the campus. Leaving it behind was one of the few difficult things about moving back to Colorado.

I thought it was auspicious that I began my teaching life at SDSU on August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 250th birthday.

I first got to know Goethe in 1998 in the library at a community college where I taught. My students were doing a scavenger hunt for the OED in which, when they found it, they would look up “dork.” I scavenged for a book about Italy because I was in luv’ and going to Italy (maybe) that December to see the man. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d actually met Goethe superficially a couple of times before on a Zürich street near St. Peter’s Church, but that’s another blog post. I didn’t have my ID card so one of the guys working in the library checked it out for me.

It was the most amazing book I’d read. In it I found the person I most wanted to talk to, the person I most needed to meet.

Wanderer’s Night Song, I (1776)

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
Thou that from the heavens art,
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come ah, come into my breast!

Wanderer’s Night Song, II (1782)

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
O’er all the hilltops 
Is quiet now, 
In all the treetops 
Hearest thou 
Hardly a breath; 
The birds are asleep in the trees: 
Wait, soon like these 
Thou too shalt rest. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This was no caprice. It has remained a strong and informative — though one-way — relationship.

A year or so later, I taught a couple of little poems by Goethe to my students in a summer literature class. Many of my students said they hated poetry, but you know, you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. I didn’t realize how much of a dent the little Goethe poems I wrote on the blackboard made until one sunny autumn day one of my students from that class showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”

I looked at her. “No,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed.

She was an African/American woman in her late 30’s who’d come to summer school at a community college where I taught. She brought her son to class every day. The very first day she said, “Don’t teach poetry. I hate it. It doesn’t make sense.” Her goal was a business degree from SDSU. She was working on getting her transfer credits. She succeeded.

I said, “I have to teach poetry. It’s a literature class.” She shrugged.

“Those ladies in the office said they’d give it to you. I guess they forgot. It’s probably in the office somewhere.” We took off for the office and there was a shopping bag tucked away in a corner of the place where faculty mailboxes were. “Here,” she said. “I saw this at a yard sale and I knew I had to give it to you.” She opened it and there was….

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/28/rdp-wednesday-caprice/

Meandering Look at Literature

I stay on standard time all year. This means in summer I wake at 8. All the people around me are up with the sun, but not me. In fact the best two hours of sleep are between 6 and 8. In a few months, I’ll be getting up earlier 😉

Last night I learned of a young writer who’s won all kinds of prizes for her book The Tiger’s Wife and has recently brought out her second novel. Naturally, I was momentarily gripped by envy. It’s just how it is. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris you might remember Keanu Reeves as Hemingway saying to the young guy from another time, who was writing a book, “Don’t show it to another writer. Writers are competitive.” I’d say failed writers are not just competitive but bitter.

Once the wave of envy passed, I looked at her book.

Once more I thought, “Good God. I’d never write this.” First person, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph after paragraph — pages — of description. Then I remembered the review of The Price that I hate and that has, I think, perhaps dissuaded from reading that book. That review described my writing as “sparse” (as if that were a negative thing 😀 ) and said my book was a failed attempt to write a book I 1) had never heard of and 2) would never write (I looked at it). How can you dis a novel for NOT being something it never set out to be? It is like dissing Huckleberry Finn for not being Portnoy’s Complaint.

I thought of all the things that go together to make a “time.” As I was growing up, and in school, the writers who were lauded as “great writers of our time” were Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote. There was no such thing as “Women’s literature,” there was only literature, and at that time the ascendancy of serious women writers — Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Norah Ephron… The good prose put in front of us was NOT paragraph after paragraph of description. Our professors — most born when Hemingway was still writing — had broken from tradition by embracing Papa. My giant anthology in college did not contain “The Yellow Wallpaper” or anything by Kate Chopin, never mind Toni Morrison. There was no “Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature” but by the time I, myself, was teaching at a university, there was. I saw it as a 1000 page literary ghetto, but that’s just me.

My thesis was about Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1828 – 1845 (during part of this time Poe was the literary editor) which was edited by Sarah Josepha Hale during its heyday. It featured ONLY American authors and most were female. It enforced the idea that women write differently — and about different things — then do men. This didn’t make women worse writers; just different with a different focus, a different reason for reading, different reasons for writing. They wrote from a female perspective about a separate world referred to back then as the “women’s sphere.”

By the time I was out in the world of work (which was academia, after the first 5 years in the clerical jungle) there was an overt and political motion against misogynistic dead, white male writers. I thought this was dumb. What if they were good? What if they had important things to say? Shouldn’t EVERYONE be read with the understanding that whatever benighted time they lived in would affect what they said and how? How they lived?

When I met Hemingway once I was out of school it was intense. I was in my late 20s and life was pretty jacked. I was already divorced, in love with a gay man who was also in love with me. I was on my own trying to connect one end of the month to another. The Hemingway I’d met in the 9th grade was a far different writer than the one I met at 27. No, wait, I was different. My bad. About the same time I met Capote. Two very spare writers yet very different from each other, both approached writing from a philosophical perspective that wasn’t all that different. Both very adamant about it.

And, their writing charmed me. It wasn’t all I read. I loved Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but they didn’t offer me any information I could use. Lost in Terra Nostra when I was in China (how weird is that?) I realized the outer world interested me more than the inner world. The inner world seemed finite (naturally) and the outer world? What was THAT all about. It was a forty year search in the labyrinth of reality before I met Goethe and got a road map.

Every writer is a person with a life and a journey.

The bottom line is taste. No writer can possibly know what every reader wants in a novel or why every reader reads. Beyond that is the social indoctrination of each generation. Tea Obreht’s book, The Tiger’s Wife, is (from the first three pages) intoxicating. It’s the kind of book a person might turn to on a rainy day hoping to lose themselves.

And no, I don’t write that book and I’m unlikely to read it. I don’t want to lose myself. I’ve been there before.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/12/rdp-monday-wake/

What I Didn’t Write

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/rdp-monday-sputter/

Rio Grande and North Clear Creek Falls with HIGH Water

My friend and neighbor, Karen, and I took off today and headed north of Creede to see North Clear Creek Falls with high water. Karen had never been there and, according to old timers, the water hasn’t been this high in a lot of their lifetimes. I’ve been feeling (in the midst of puppy training) that I should GET OUT THERE but when you have to train a puppy, you have to train a puppy.

The drive up was amazing — the river has been flooding, mostly in flatter areas. We saw a place where it had apparently taken out a railroad track. Lots of fields were flooded and others were filled with wild iris. In the field near our hospital, where a large herd of bison live, we got to see bison in their winter coats standing and grazing in a meadow of blue and white flowers. We should have stopped to take pictures, but didn’t. We had a bit of a time crunch because Teddy was neutered today and I had to pick him up at 3. It’s a 78 mile drive to get up to the falls and we took off at 10.

All along the road — which winds along the Rio Grande — we were stunned by the high water. Karen, who could look out the window, noticed places where decks of summer homes were under water. Bridges — car and narrow gauge railroad — were VERY close to the water. Anyone attempting to raft would lose their noggin and the top of their raft.

The Rio Grande

We got to the top of the road which is just twenty some miles from the place where Alferd Packer ate his friends one desperate winter. This is what we saw.

We were hit by the spray, admired the rainbow, and I kept thinking of this poem from Goethe’s Faust Part II

“Let the sun stay in my back, unseen!
The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing.
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strive:
In many-hued reflection we have life.”

Goethe, Faust II, trans. Walter Kauffman

Happy Goethe’s Birthday

“Everywhere we learn only from those whom we love.” Goethe

I’m sure that one of the things that drives writers to drink is isolation. Between my hip rehab (now finished in a sense) and settling down to really write the Schneebelis Go to America, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. I don’t think it is easy for everyone, but it’s mostly easy for me.

I don’t know why except that my dogs are large enough to feel like companions and without pain in my hip, walking them is a lot more fun than it’s been for years. The wild life refuge — cows and all — is fully open, and I knew what I was getting into moving to a small town. Life is mostly writing, rehab and walking the dogs. Solitary bliss.

But I remember even back in San Diego where there are millions of people, and I was teaching constantly (it seemed) I was still pretty isolated. That’s just my story and has been all my life. I think it’s the result of being an introvert with a lot of resources for entertaining myself. I dunno…

But, as my dad wrote in this little poem when he was 18, if you can’t be your own friend, you’re more or less fucked.

Dad's Poem

Long ago I learned to make friends with dead writers. My first such friend was Louisa May Alcott and there have been several since. My best friend among the dead writers is Goethe. When I met him, I felt I’d found a soulmate. He interests me less as a writer than as a person writing, if that makes any sense. Like a lot of people, I find some of his work dated and somewhat inaccessible in the finished (and translated) form, BUT conceptually, a lot of that very same work is incredibly engaging and I love many of his small poems, one of which is kind of my life-mantra:

Alles geben Götter, die unendlichen,
Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.

I won’t translate it, having learned that everyone who loves Goethe has a proprietary feeling about anything they read and this has been translated infinitely (like the gods?) and my translation will be debated by someone with far more authority than I have. Just know it’s an argument for stoicism, patience and acceptance and says, basically, that you can expect to experience infinite joy and infinite suffering as the beloved of the gods. That’s true to my experience. 🙂

Among all the beautiful things he wrote my favorite is something he didn’t write. It’s a kind of diary of conversations written by his secretary Johann Peter Eckermann. Back when I was traveling more, Conversations with Goethe was the only book I carried. Reading it is really like talking to Goethe or, at least, listening to him. I’m grateful he lived a long life because his old age is a good guide to me for mine.

I’ve written a birthday “card” to Goethe every year I’ve written a blog. My feelings for him have not changed, but I have little new to add. If you are curious, you can read:

Happy Goethe’s Birthday (2017)

Happy Goethe’s Birthday (2016)

Happy Birthday, Goethe! (2015) 

Happy Goethe’s Birthday (August 28) (2014)

And that’s just the stuff for his birthday SINCE I’ve had a blog on WordPress. I celebrate every year. I have Goethe Birthday posts on my old Blogger blog (Private, sorry). I used to try to celebrate in some more celebratory way, like a walk on the beach with a friend or pizza, but I soon learned that Goethe’s Birthday is not widely known as a holiday.

I’ve written many more posts beyond his birthday that discuss him, his poetry and our undying love. 😉 This one is probably the best, but be prepared for a long read…

The Heroism of Mere Survival

However you celebrate it, have a wonderful Goethe’s birthday.

“People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength and will? If I could give an accound of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” Goethe from Conversations of Goethe

 

Mentor for Life

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “mentor” became a verb. Well, maybe it was always a verb, but I had only heard it as a noun taken from Mentor, the friend Odysseus left in charge of his son’s education while Odysseus was out there becoming the legend of millennia. Mrs. Zinn (my AP English teacher) explained all of that. It was cool to me in high school that Mentor’s name had come to mean a great teacher, a model for young people. Mrs. Zinn herself actually qualified, that pocket-dynamo with a classical education.

When I was teaching, it got to be a “thing” to “mentor” new teachers. I was (obviously) never called upon to do this because I never had tenure and was, therefore, always a “new” teacher, but my colleagues were always talking about their “mentee” with great importance and fussing around.

I’ve had some mentors in my life. First my dad who taught me not to let anyone do my thinking for me. Then, various teachers — Mrs. Zinn, as I’ve mentioned, then Mr. Preston at Colorado Woman’s College who furthered my dad’s tutelage at a moment when I really needed it, and who was there to help me grow through the moment of my dad’s death. In grad school, I was extremely lucky in my thesis adviser, Dr. Robert D. Richardson who saw me for the person I am. A true mentor is, I think, that kind of teacher.

As time passed, and I became more complete (i.e. older) I still needed a mentor. I found Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. If you were to visit my house, you’d see bits of Goethe everywhere. For me, he’s not “the Shakespeare of Germany” (I don’t think he’d like that, I don’t think he’d feel worthy). He’s a friend somewhat further down the road (a lot further, in fact).

I “met” him when I checked Italian Journey out of the library of one of the colleges where I was teaching. What a surprise that book was to me! Here was a man after my own heart. I read everything I could find translated into English.

One of the amazing things I discovered was his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was someone I met in a Victorian lit class in undergraduate school. I kind of liked him, but at the time I was preoccupied with other things — the usual post-adolescent depressionism stuff, my dad’s illness, my mom’s manic rages and her despair, my brother’s disintegration. And school. Later I learned that my grandfather’s mentor had been Thomas Carlyle. One of my cousins showed me a well thumbed volume with brown pages that had been my grandfather’s constant companion. And here were these two men writing each other. Goethe was Carlyle’s mentor! Their letters are wonderful, human, homely, friendly. Carlyle is largely responsible for Goethe being known in Britain — he translated some of Goethe’s poetry and Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Year.

Learning that, I felt a connection to a grandfather I never knew.

Carlyle has written of Goethe in the introduction to his translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre:

“…Goethe’s culture as a writer is perhaps less remarkable than his culture as a man. He has learned not in head only, but also in heart; not from Art and Literature, but also by action and passion in the rugged school of experience. If asked what was the grand characteristic of his writings, we should not say Knowledge but Wisdom. A mind that has seen, and suffered, and done, speaks to us of what it has tried and conquered. A gay delineation will give us notice of dark and toilsome experiences, of business done in the great deep of the spirit; a maxim, trivial to the careless eye, will rise with light and solution over long, perplexed periods of our own history. It is thus that heart speaks to heart…”

That’s the essence of it.

 

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1932 Menu from a German Luxury Liner — the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s death.

 

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Rococo

This is one of the wisest things I’ve ever read. It puts things squarely where they belong, and it is sometimes difficult to remember:

“…whatever we nourish in ourselves grows; that is an eternal law of nature. There is an organ of displeasure, of dissatisfaction in us, as there is one of opposition and doubt. The more food we provide for it and the more we practice it, the mightier it becomes until it turns from an organ into a malignant ulcer and banefully eats up its environment, drains and strangles all the good humors of the body. Then repentance, self-reproach and other absurdities are added to it, we become unjust toward others and ourselves. The joy at ones own success and action as well as that of others is lost. In our desperation we finally look for the reason of all evil outside ourselves instead of finding it in our mental perversion. We should see every person and every event in its real light, one should step beyond oneself to be able to return to oneself all the more free.” Goethe quoted by his friend, Friedrich von Muller.”

I’ve been watching the British art historian’s –Waldemar Januszczak — series’ off and on for a couple of years. The most recent one I’ve looked at is Rococo Before Bedtime. I don’t always agree with him when he starts inflicting his taste in art on the viewing public, but as MY taste in art conflicts with the Rococo, I never learned to appreciate it. I never even put it in its place in time. I’ve seen some of it. I got to spend a day at the Nymphenburg Castle in Munich trying to fathom it and what my new acquaintance was telling me. He was a docent from the Haus du Kunst the formerly Hitlerian government art museum building. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak any German, and we relied on something loosely resembling French. The architecture was beautiful, the interior ornamentation? I didn’t get it.

And this grossed me out:

 

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Carriage, Nymphenburg Castle

 

It’s pretty impossible to escape personal taste. The baroque and rococo (the baroque becomes the rococo) churches I’ve visited in Europe are still over-the-top to me. The first one I visted was Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. Entering that sanctuary for the first time was scary. I’d NEVER been in a place like that — or even in a Catholic church. EVERYTHING was there in a vast 3D illusion — and some actual 3D legs and arms made of stucco (plaster). I felt the full and intended effect, I guess, of what I have now learned the Catholic church wanted me to feel. My friend and I retreated from that place and took a walk in the woods.

 

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Ceiling, Einsiedeln Abbey

 

It was interesting to learn, however, that the baroque (which led to the Rococo)  was (in Januszczak’s opinion? Or really?) a church sanctioned art movement that was part of the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent had sent out the order? Edict? that Catholic churches should VIVIDLY depict Bible stories on their walls in reaction to the burning of the idols. Einsiedeln is one of the pilgrimage churches and, according to Januszczak, pilgrimages were big during the baroque and rococo. This also made the pilgrimage churches even richer BUT they had to give the pilgrims some bang for their bucks which contributed to their ornateness. I believe that. Churches I’ve visited that were NOT pilgrim churches but were decorated around the same time are still ornate, but not over-the-top, every square inch peopled with saints, angels, madonnas, and various random people in the “audience,” the faces of donors.

I wasn’t even clear on the YEARS that comprise the baroque and rococo, but watching the program I got it. It was much of Goethe’s lifetime. When I realized that I thought of Goethe’s incredible mind that was, literally, everywhere — science, poetry, drama, erotica, government, mining, botany, geology on and on — and realized that the zeitgeist was such that the fecundity and fluidity in the visual arts and music was everywhere, as elaborate and wildly creative as a rococo ceiling.

 

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Don’t Beat Up My Friends

Yesterday I read an article from The New York Review of Books, “Super Goethe” by Ferdinand Mount.

More or less it is a review of a recent biography of Goethe by Rudiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. I made it most of the way through this book until I realized that having read Goethe’s autobiographies (with a grain of salt and a grin) this book was, for me, gratuitous. I didn’t finish it. Goethe wrote a LOT about himself and I felt OK having let him tell his tale. I don’t take issue with Safranski’s book. This review, however?

I have a huge problem with retroactive judgements of historical figures and this review concludes with the intimation that, in another time and another place, Goethe would have been a Nazi.

Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s false. No way to know that because Goethe did not live in another time and another place and just because Weimar is near Buchenwald doesn’t mean Goethe would have been a prison guard, or worse, but Mount concludes his piece with, “I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

I happen to love Goethe, but that doesn’t mean I “know” him. I can’t. But when I look at the past I try to see past the hazy fog of intervening historical events to what had NOT yet happened.

  • In Goethe’s time, there were only the beginnings of what would be the Industrial Revolution. Marx was born when Goethe was 69.
  • When Goethe was a young man and made a journey to Switzerland, the United States of America was three years old and did not yet have a constitution.
  • Voltaire was alive; the Age of Enlightenment was in full force.
  • Goethe lived during the French Revolution. What he saw of it, what he knew of it, would have been FAR different than what we know of it. From Goethe’s perspective it was wanton death on the streets and the destabilization of life for millions of ordinary people.
  • Goethe was the son of a lawyer. Education in his family was extremely important, but it was not the common lot of most people to have the chance to go to school.
  • There was no “Germany.” That geographical blob on the map was a very loose assemblage of small duchies, principalities, etc. Imagine a big hunk of land broken up into hundreds of very vulnerable Liechtensteins and Monacos. When Goethe — or anyone at that time — wrote about “German cultural identity” they were writing about something that didn’t exist.
  • Goethe -SAW war. He was sent to be a correspondent about fighting in the Alsace. His descriptions of this are harrowing. He was never the same person afterward, either. He wrote about refugees from war, too, and problems they had becoming part of the culture to which they had refugeed.
  • Mount has written that Goethe admired Napoleon, a statement that is — miraculously — both true and false. They met. Napoleon could speak of Goethe’s novel, Sorrows of Young Werther but apparently had no directly knowledge of Faust. Goethe admired Napoleon, but only up to a point. Because Goethe was ALIVE at the Napoleonic moment, he would NOT have seen Napoleon the way I do or the author of this article does.
  • Science — as we understand it — was new. The scientific method was being, at that time, defined. Goethe was a contemporary of Newton. Goethe was himself a good scientist and far more influential than most of us are aware.

I will never know who Goethe really was. I like that he wrote very direct erotic poetry. I like that he was irreverent and reverent with life and language, both, at the same time. I appreciate his intellectual curiosity. I like that he believed a person needed to constantly learn, to explore, to nurture curiosity. In the time in which Goethe lived, there was no big push to specialize, and he didn’t. I like that he asked, “What if?” I appreciate his willingness — desire — to learn. I admire his resilient sense of wonder. I know he was misogynistic and thought people who wore glasses were trying to be something they’re not. I don’t know if he would have liked me; I even kind of doubt it. But, that’s OK. I probably wouldn’t have known him if I had been alive during his lifetime. But I’m not. I’m here, now, and I have been able to reap the fruits of his long lifetime of work. I like that he composed poetry such as this:

From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing,
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, and now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many-hued reflection we have life.

(Faust Part II, Act I, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Featured image: The Rhinefalls, ink sketch by Goethe

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