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

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/inheritance/

Ooh l’amour

Goethe believed it was a gift to be capable of falling blindly, stupidly, passionately, irredeemably in love — like an adolescent — in old age. Of course, when he was in his 80s, he proposed marriage to a 17 year old girl.

He felt pretty stupid when she turned him down. He even had a broken heart along with shattered pride. And then, resilient man that he was, he began to see the funny side.

When I was a youthful wight,
So full of enjoyment and merry,
The painters used to assert, in spite,
That my features were small — yes, very
Yet then full many a beauteous child,
With true affection upon me smiled.

Now as a graybeard I sit here in state,
By street and by lane held in awe, sirs;
And may be seen, like old Frederick the Great,
On pipe-bowls, on cups, and on saucers.
Yet the beauteous maidens, they keep afar;
Oh, vision of youth! Oh, golden star! (“When I Was”)

Plato had a different opinion on this question. He felt he was well out of the whole thing when he was too old to be interested in young men/women any more. He described that period of life as a terrible storm and insanity. I don’t have the quotation any more anywhere, but that’s the jist of it.

Infatuation, love, whatever it is called, pulls a person away from their status quo. Life is set in motion and there is the chance of transformation. THAT is something to be open to at any age. Maybe that’s what Goethe meant?

The last thing I was enamored of was a big white puppy. I don’t regret that a BIT.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/enamored/

Happy Goethe’s Birthday!

“There is nothing more dreadful than active ignorance”
Maxims and Reflections, Goethe

The little book beside me here has a sticker from a real bookstore with the date on which I bought it. September 29, 2003. I bought it at the San Diego State University Bookstore about a month after school would have started.

Ink drawing of Goethe by Johann Wilhelm Tischbein

 

I carried it around in my backpack and read it in odd minutes between student meetings, classes, at lunch. AND my backpack then was a pretty amazing thing. I left it behind in Descanso when I made my final exit from my house..

 

Goethe wrote, “If we go back in history, we are always aware of personalities with whom we could get on and others with whom we should certainly be in conflict.” I met Goethe in the summer of 1998 through his book Italian Journey,  and a friendship immediately ensued, though limited because I could not offer Goethe MY friendship. I have benefited so much from his. So many of his ideas gave language to mine. Others he confirmed and explained.

I’ve written a birthday card to Goethe every year I’ve been on WordPress. This is probably the least inspiring of them, but I feel pressed to get chores finished so my dogs and I can celebrate later with a walk at the slough.

 

A New Way to Read

 

Yesterday was a big day for me in a very small way. For the last months I’ve been clearing out the relics. All that remains of upward of 20 boxes in the garage are three bins of stuff and three boxes of books. I think I could go out there today and dump the bins into the trash can, but I won’t. Still, after loading a friend’s car with boxes of books to take to a bigger city to sell or donate, I don’t want more books in my life. I still have plenty that I could box up and donate or sell, but as they’re in shelves and not bothering anyone, I’m leaving them be.

Then I learned yesterday of a new biography of Goethe, GOETHELife as a Work of Art By Rüdiger Safranski, translated by David Dollenmayer

The NYT doesn’t give the book a glowing review — Anglo-centered wretches that we are — saying:

“Safranski’s book (a best seller in Germany) is aimed squarely at a German readership of Bildungsbürger, educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases. It doesn’t feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. Safranski is an energetic writer, without much refinement or subtlety. Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader’s eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation.”

BUT I could not read that review yesterday because the NYT shut me out for not subscribing. I went on Amazon. There was the book in Kindle and as a hardback book of nearly 700 pages. All I could think of was, “Damn, another book,” and that far outweighed (ha ha) my desire to read it. I put it in my “cart” without buying it and went on with my day, but, but, but…

Later I thought, “What if I had a Kindle?” I went back to Amazon and priced Kindles. I didn’t want to spend $80 for the lowest priced eReader then I thought, “Wait. I have an iPad.” It might be nearly 10 years old, and I might not use it very much, but I do have an iPad. And, for the first time made the conscious decision to read that way. I downloaded the book and, so far, I like it a LOT. Exactly what annoyed the NYT reviewer makes me happy. Another reviewer wrote that the book is not great for someone who doesn’t know Goethe’s oeuvre, which sounds slightly obscene, but I am familiar with Goethe’s work as would be many of the German readers of this book (for whom it was actually written), so I’m happy. The author relied on primary sources, letters, Goethe’s own work and I like that, too. Anyway, the author’s unrefined, energetic prose captivated me and the fact that it will not go on some shelf in this house was a relief.

Reading the review this morning I was struck by the fact that this reviewer thinks it’s a bad thing to assume one’s readers are, “…educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases…”

Wow.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/relieved/

Acid Reflux, Goethe and Life’s Labyrinth

Des lebens labyrinthisch irren lauf” “Life’s labyrinthine chaos course” (my translation) is from Goethe’s, Faust, Prologue in the Theater. This is my favorite line in all the literature I’ve read. This line made me fall in love with Goethe. He got it right, if he was describing my life, anyway. 🙂

I was reading about acid reflux yesterday (yeah) and some doctor wrote, “Though they don’t have any serious side-effects and are not, generally, dangerous, anti-acids don’t cure anything and that’s a problem.”

I thought, “How is that a problem if I feel better?” Then I saw how life is a lot like acid-reflux… There’s no cure, but we can feel better. Life-choices are confusing and too many of them are truly serious and irrevocable. We’re only at any given place in life one time. Life only goes in one direction and we reach the Minotaur whether we have Ariadne’s thread or not. Stuff happens all around us — sometimes catastrophic, terrifying stuff. We have a lot of anti-acids, too, sayings and affirmations that are meant to help us through the darker parts of the labyrinth.

Some are even quoted from Goethe, “Nothing matters more than this day.” Well, that might actually be true, OK this one, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” and this one, Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen” they are anti-acids. It’s good to believe in yourself because it makes life better than doubting yourself. It’s good to dream, too, because then we are momentarily lifted from whatever daily horror we might be in. But the truth is we cannot “make anything happen” even though the idea that we can does make us feel better. I think it’s good to “feel better” even if the doctor quoted above doesn’t think feeling better is enough. Since there is no cure either for life or acid reflux, feeling better is the best we have, all we have.

But in this often quoted Goethe phrase, there IS a cure.

Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.

***

The photo above is the Giardino Giusti in Verona which both Goethe and I visited on separate occasions (ha ha). It has a small labyrinth and many other amazing features of a classical Renaissance garden. Goethe loved it, and cut some bows from the cypress trees to take back to where he was living. The trees represented funerals to the people of the city and he was surprised to be greeted by expressions of condolence.

Here’s another Goetheian post on the question of the labyrinth. 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/maze/

 

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Affirmations

People say doubt does all sorts of things. It holds us back. It even “plagues” us. I’ve had a lot of contact with the creature, and I’m still not sure about it. Sometimes doubt is my best friend. Other times it’s hurt me. Self-doubt — all doubt — leads to questioning reality and I think that’s often good.

These days we’re not supposed to doubt. There are products in the market to help us overcome doubt. Pillows for our sofas and beds, wall decals, books, daily emails and post on Facebook with “affirmations” to motivate us through self-doubt. The first time I ever heard of affirmations (remember, I don’t watch TV) my “friend” Lana and I were hiking. I was talking about writing and she said, “You doubt yourself. You need to give yourself affirmations every day.”

“What’s an ‘affirmation’?”

“Nice things you tell yourself about yourself, positive self-talk.”

“Like what?”

“I’m improving every day.”

I thought that sounded like a line from the Return of the Pink Panther, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

I thought about this even though it seemed paradoxical. If you tell yourself you’re improving every day, what shit hole were you in? I even told myself I thought too much, but I saw that was negative self-talk. “Damn,” I thought. “Where do I start?”

I started with Goethe and his advice to his secretary, Eckermann, became my companion through some very sketchy times. I don’t think it’s an “affirmation.” I think it’s just good advice and advice I needed then — and now.  Doubt is often the result of not knowing what to do, which choice to take, which way to go. Goethe’s words resolve the questions we meet at every one of life’s intersections, big and small.

“Hold your powers together for something good. Let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Still, I knew (know) that’s not an “affirmation” as Lana meant it. It doesn’t tell me how great I am or what wonderful things will come to me if I only project my desires into the universe and believe that they will “manifest”. I don’t want to live in such a universe. I have no doubt about that.

I think life is puzzling by its very nature, and difficult. I think the expectation that “everything will work out and I will be happy” is false. Good people every where face immense challenges that they did not have any part in causing and no “affirmation” is going to change that.

Back in high school I read Also Sprach Zarathustra mostly because Nietzsche had said, “God is dead,” and I wanted to argue with him. What I found in that book has stayed with me all my life. When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain full of wisdom and beautiful words, the villagers are spellbound. They go to him with their complaints and problems, and Zarathustra says,

“You tell me life is hard to bear, but were it otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?” Friedrich Nietzsche

I was reading this book sitting on the sofa in the living room of my family’s house. My dad was on the other end of the sofa. I was, in fact, at that moment “baby”sitting my dad. Someone needed to be with him all the time in case something happened, he had a back spasm and slid/fell off the sofa, for example. His MS had gotten him to the point where he was using a walker, and he was no longer able to get up and use the toilet. If  he needed to pee, he had a urinal. I was there to help him with that, too. So, there I was, sitting on the end of the sofa reading Nietzsche while dad was watching TV. I was thinking about Nietzsche’s words and how beautiful they were and how true and how they made the situation I was in at that moment bearable, acceptable and even lovely in the sense that things can be no other way than they are.

I read it to my dad.

He liked it.

Stoics don’t need no stinkin’ affirmations and self-doubt is OK.

But I’m also a “child” of the 70s and I truly believe…

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/doubt/

Goethe

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.

IMG_3105

Goethe’s Lantern, Now Resting on my Bookshelf

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.

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 all this, 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.

Happy Birthday, Goethe

On August 28, 1999, I returned to San Diego State University. This time I would not be teaching English as a Second Language at an attached international school,  but really teaching university classes in composition to native speakers. I’d worked hard to make this career transition; it had taken me five years of a rather challenging apprenticeship in three local community colleges, but I was there. I had honestly never imagined I’d make it. I was over the moon that day with happiness and excitement. I would have ten very, very happy years there before the serious problems with California’s economy and the maturation of No Child Left Behind changed my world.

It was one of the happiest days of my life and it was even better because I began teaching on Goethe’s 350th birthday. I taught my two classes. Both were interesting with very lively and bright young people. Afterwards, I went up the hill to the library. As I walked the carillons called out from the beautiful bell tower in Hepner Hall and I took it as a sign that the whole world was sharing my happiness on this day.

hepnerhall

Hepner Hall — “Old Main” at SDSU, gorgeous old Spanish revival building with a bell tower.

I wanted to see what works of Goethe were held within the walls of SDSU’s Love Library (a library I DID love, by the way). I got up to the fourth floor and saw what I would say was about 100 square feet of Goethe, most of it in German.

Everything.

My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t read most of it, and I doubted (correctly) that I would ever be able to.

Later that day, I met a friend at Pacific Beach and as the sun set, we walked along the beach. Someone had made an immense sand castle and lit the windows with candles. We watched as the waves slowly undermined the castle and put the candles out.

It was Goethe’s birthday cake.

At that time in my life, Goethe was my best friend. I know that sounds odd, but I’ve never been so narrow minded that I have limited friendships to the living. Now I know that Goethe’s mind that went easily from art to science, resounded with my own. Perhaps it was the time in which he lived, at the beginning of thoughtful and systematic scientific inquiry, a moment that coincided with the development of the novel in the west. Goethe loved Tristram Shandy and The Vicar of Wakefield. Whatever the cause, Goethe’s way of seeing the world was instructive to me, particularly because he, himself, had to learn it — and he wrote about his process of learning it.

Even today (and I despise it) there is a tug between “heart” and “mind” or art vs. science, intuition vs. reason, etc. etc. etc. as if it were not completely obvious that they both exist in the same world at the same time and therefore it would seem that, uh, they both exist in the same world at the same time? Goethe had realized (slowly) that the so-called intuition/heart/sentiment could hold him back from life, from seeing reality (ie. his current crush, Frau von Stein, was just stringing him along for her own entertainment — it was unrequited love), from creating new work, from forming real relationships. He could be caught in the veil of illusion woven by desire and hope. Finally, he went out into the world — ran away from his job and social ties — in his 30s with the question (a good question) “What’s REAL, anyway?”

I’d asked that question, too, in my early 40s. It’s a dangerous question for anyone who really asks it because it has the power to up-end a person’s world. I met Goethe toward the end of that moment in my life. He was a good landing spot.

Fortunately for me, Goethe examined his life through writing and he wrote a lot. In reading I found many wonderful treasures. One of my favorites is the letters between Thomas Carlyle and Goethe — Carlyle was a young man, a young thinker, who had just found Goethe. By then, Goethe was an elderly man. The two struck up a friendship that included baskets of gifts and visits to Weimar. For me, personally, the letters formed a bridge showing me something about my own thinking and upbringing. My maternal grandfather loved Carlyle more than any writer or thinker, and I was lucky to have seen his worn and well-read volume of Sartor Resartus.

I began this year reading a small, paper bound volume of some chapters of Italian Journey that I found in an Etsy shop. It was sold by a book collector in Spain. The small book, printed in the 1920s, was published in English in Italy, a cheap edition, the type that would have been sold from open air stands at train stations (I think).

A little back story; Goethe had tried painting when he was in Italy. His idea was to paint his journey (no cameras, right?) and he also wondered (since he had not written much of anything since the comet that set the world ablaze, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whether he was a writer or not. He wandered around Italy, particularly in Rome, and spent time with a group of artists and tried to paint. The watercolor at the top of this post is a painting by Goethe of a scene in either Northern Italy, perhaps Lago di Garda, or of a lake in Switzerland. Of his sojourn into the visual arts he said:

“The artists are ready enough with their hints and instructions, for I am quick in apprehending them. But then the lesson, so quickly learnt and understood, is not so easily put in practice. To apprehend quickly is, forsooth, the attribute of the mind, but correctly to execute that, requires practice of a life.”

It’s easy, often, to understand what we need to do using our reason and mental muscle, but in many things that is only the beginning. Practice alone leads to mastery, and I believe that is true not only of painting but of life itself.

Here’s last year’s birthday card to Goethe.

Happy Birthday, Goethe.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/middle-seat/

Good or Evil? Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

—Mephistopheles (In Faust I by Joann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows I love Goethe. What I love about Goethe is not so much the great masterpieces (Faust for one) but the way he seems to have thought about things.

All his life he was fascinated by the Faust story, the scientist who sold his soul to Satan so he could have powers and experiences beyond those his life had given him. Faust (in my imagination) is the driest of icky dry academics and, in my imagination, at a certain point in his life, he realizes he’s missed out. All his studies of magic, philosophy, alchemy have not brought him knowledge. He realizes he doesn’t know anything and he’s missed the life of experience. He wants another chance, but within 20 years of his 4 score and 10, no longer young, he doesn’t know how he can do this.

Enter Mephistopheles, blackness, emptiness, the spirit of negation — in more simple and conventional language (for the time), Evil. In the traditional Faust legend, Faust dies at the end tormented by devils. Marlowe’s Faust asks for God’s forgiveness. Goethe’s Faust discovers the truth of life (the universe and everything?) and dies in God’s embrace. God (Goethe’s God) knows it is Faust’s nature to pursue the path he has pursued; he could have done nothing else. Gretchen, the woman whose life Faust ruined in Faust Part 1 waits at Heaven’s gate to console and teach him in Faust Part 2

While Goethe didn’t deviate completely from the legend, he added two important elements: humor and ambiguity. Mephistopheles enters Goethe’s Faust as a black poodle…

For Goethe, Mephistopheles doesn’t represent evil so much as that which has yet to be seen, the mysterious realm from which that which is known emerges (and is judged). The unseen and the seen realms exist side-by-side, and the unseen realm is unseen mostly because we do not look in that direction. Why? Social convention? Religion? Fear? All those things. Goethe’s Faust does look and the inevitable result is that Faust acts, and in his actions, a world is set in motion with all its consequences, tragedy, regrets — and its beauty.

Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles is not the first pact made in Goethe’s Faust. God makes a bargain with Mephistopheles first; a bet. He bets that the Mephistopheles will not succeed in drawing a good man into evil. For Mephistopheles, temptation is a cat and mouse game, and God gives him permission to play this game with Faust:

“…I grant that you may try to clasp him,
Withdraw this spirit from his primal source,
And lead him down, if you can grasp him,
Upon your own abysmal course–
And stand abashed when you have to attest:
A good man in his darkling aspiration
Remembers the right road throughout his quest.” (Faust Part 1, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

God knows that Faust is searching for something and that, in the end, Mephistopheles will be only a tool in Faust’s journey.

So, can bad lead to good? For Goethe there is no “bad,” and all things which exist come from the place where nothing exists. The lost and empty person Faust knows himself to be at the beginning of the story is, at the end, a wise and transcendent being.

“What occurred is dead and ended
Pain and joy have passed away;
You are healed–oh, apprehend it,
Trust the newborn light of day!” (Faust Part 2, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

Sorry I could not find a video with English subtitles, but I think the sense of Mephistopheles and Faust comes through anyway. It’s a masterpiece of a film, Karl Maria Brandauer in Mephisto. The film is based on Mephisto: Novel of a Career by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son. A play-within-a-play, the story is set in Nazi Germany. Brandauer plays an actor whose great role is Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.

This is my response to Bumblpepuppies prompt on Blacklight Candelabra https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/mephistopheles-and-the-road-to-heaven/

And, Faust definitely studied abroad, so: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/study-abroad/