Thursday, August 30, 2018

INEP #25 - Werther, Darcy, Onegin - Much More

So a few dozen of you, if you really care, might have asked where your once faithful correspondent has been. The answer is, he's been practicing violin, he's been addicted to duolingo and is trying, in his usual overly ambitious way, to learn four different languages simultaneously - and has so far progressed enough that he can at least say 'apple' in all four; and he's been searching his mind for a podcast format that would bring him and you the best possible results and satisfaction, only to draw the conclusion that he should keep doing this podcast exactly as it is without the slightest possible change.

But most of all, he's been reading, trying to learn the secrets of writers much better than he'll ever be, trying to figure out where his old fictional podcast, the podcast he was really passionate about making, perhaps mistakenly passionate, went off the rails, and trying to learn from the old masters how to make a coherent narrative and actually read the books he's always pretended he's finished, and occasionally never started.

So I want to talk in this podcast about three very similar characters from three truly cosmic masterpieces. Some books are Masterpieces with a Capital M. You approach them with awe, but it's almost impossible to approach them with love. Goethe's Faust is a great example of that. I have no doubt that for two hundred years, millions of Germans have taken Faust to their hearts like very few works in the canon. It's an endless source of poetic wisdom for German speakers, but my German is pretty f-cking horrible, and when I compare translations - and, oy gevalt, I read three translations of Part I, it's fairly easy to see how taken in some people are taken into thinking that a classic is terrible when what's really terrible is the translation. The first two translations I read conveyed hardly any flavor at all and I couldn't help but come away thinking what a pompous sage this Goethe is, but the translation of John R. Williams truly comes alive with all the playfulness and nature-painting and vulgarity that Goethe must read with in German yet so seldom seems to register in English. With Part II, I read only one, the one you can find online in PDF by A.S. Kline, and it was something of a bore that only came alive intermittently. Jesus, I'm not going through that experience again so soon of trying to understand Part II properly when getting my head around the spirit Part I was so hard.

That's not to say that even in a great translation, Faust is anything but long-winded, and it seems to take half of Part I to merely gain momentum. A number of pieces of classical music based on Faust are more consistently enthralling than the original source, particularly Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Even in the great parts, there are any number of exhilarating scenes that run too long to sustain interest all the way through. But Goethe is a master, and after reading Faust, perhaps I ought to say 'the' master, of rendering the potentially terrifying as something playful, almost harmless.

At first hearing, this ability may not seem like much of a gift, but consider two things. The first is that Faust Part I was published in 1808, when hundreds of years of religious dogma, perhaps thousands, were finally overthrown and Western humanity was, for the first time ever, allowed some semblance of a truly secular life, with some people, not even necessarily the rich, free to ignore the diktats of the Church. Faust is a poetic drama, full of characters but clearly not truly meant to be acted on the stage but rather, either read quietly by one's self, or read in a group of friends or family. Imagine, for the first time that wasn't on a Shrove Tuesday, being able to act out Faust's explosion of demonic characters among your friends, saying all manner of crude things free from censure of approbation, and realizing that demons are not things to be feared but cartoon characters of the imagination. Or imagine enacting a protagonist in our minds like Faust, as we all do when we read good books, a character who gives voice to the same existential doubts that plague any thinking person about the efficacy of the good we supposedly do, wondering even if good is good and evil is evil, and yet striving even so to evolve into a better version of ourselves, and willing to risk eternal damnation to do it. Art, maybe literature particularly, gives voice to the voices within us we didn't even realize were there, and the first time people read Faust's phenomenal doubts on a page, most readers must have realized that this was what they've always thought and felt without even realizing that they did.

But this rendering doesn't speak to why Faust, why Goethe, would still be valuable today. Goethe wrote 80 books, so it's not like I can give any kind of comprehensive overview of his work or define it in any truly meaningful way. But I can certainly contrast his two most famous works. One is a legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - which, of course for those in the know, is a term Goethe invented. The other is perhaps Germany's most beloved novel, a book whose reputation he could never live down because everyone wanted him to write another Werther, but Goethe, like Faust, and as genius must, was always evolving, always searching for new avenues of interest and expression to add to his storehouse of knowledge and reevaluate his wisdom. More than any proper philosopher, he was perhaps the truest thinker the modern world ever had; the reason being that he was unencumbered by any system at all, and rather left his theories messy - half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must.

And it's this Goethe which we have to see for what he means. Goethe means so little to the American mind, to the 21st century mind, because everything about his ethos is so far away from our zeitgeist. Harold Bloom, not always the most insightful critic, does have a good line about Goethe, which is that the wisdom of Goethe seems to come from another solar system than ours. What matters in this distant solar system is just a pleasant, calm life of contemplation in which we all strive to take as much interest in all the world's manifestations as we can, its people, its nature, its laws both juristictional and scientific, and even its potential metaphysical secrets; and in doing so, we cultivate an inner life rather than try to announce ourselves to the world in any outward manifestation, we never stop evolving into better and greater versions of the people we already are and the people we have yet to be, we never cling too particularly to our previous assumptions and what we assumed about ourselves and the world in one year is not necessarily what we assume the next. But this above all else: to perceive the world in all its roundness. Instead of the small, flattened, perhaps even quantified and technocratic, concepts we have of our world in which code is binary and A is only A, in which we all cling to the beliefs we already have, to always be on the lookout for the interconnections between all things rather than isolated within the same assumptions about what the world is that we live and die with. And by doing all this, the head and the heart can live in greater serenity and harmony than would ever be possible without this constant metamorphosis.

This process has a word in German, everything has a word in German, but this is a particularly important word that we have no equivalent to in English - Bildung. We in America have devoted so much time and passion to the extension of freedom, even if every American seems to disagree violently on what it means to be free; yet how many people have ever given much thought about what all our freedoms are for? I don't think I need to give a long discourse about how this is related to American life, most people listening to this podcast probably live an American life and know what it entails, and the non-Americans might see what's wrong with America even more acutely than we do.

But I will say two things about it. There was obviously a big problem with Bildung, those German speakers who devoted their life to this self-cultivation could cast huge shade of disapprobation on those who did not, or could not, be free to pursue the same cultivation as they, and in that lay the intellectual seeds of how Germany destroyed Old Europe. Obviously it generally wasn't the exquisitely well-read and refined bourgeois gentry who perpetrated Germany's worst crimes, but they did look on Germany's crimes against humanity with indifference, and often even approval.

We in Contemporary America are not Nazi Germany, and no matter what the Trump Administration may still be hiding in store for us, we will never be anything even remotely resembling Nazi Germany. We are America, and these days, that's problem enough. People, including me, who constantly worry that we're about expire from totalitarianism are looking at the 21st century through the eyes of the 20th. We have more than enough existential crises right now without looking at them through the prism of existential crises of the past. At this point I really doubt this is the End of America or the Pax Americana, though it could very well be the beginning of the end, because a lot of ends are not sudden but extremely gradual. We are already failing existential tests of the 21st century with flying colors: ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, bioterror, corporate data mining, fake news. Every hard scientist and political scientist seems to have solutions played out in theory, but no leader, not even an advisor to a leader, has the imagination to know how to enact creative solutions. Solving these problems, not just in conception but also in execution, can only be derived from vast humanistic training in which some of the interconnected metaphysical outlook of 19th century Europe is recaptured. We have so much quantitative knowledge that no one person can possess even a percentage of it, but the more comparative study there is between all of these fields, the more each field becomes better understood, and the more each field can yield pragmatic use. We have scientifically grown so quickly so fast that our technology may destroy the Earth. Technology evolves so quickly that humans have to retreat into fixed self-identities in order to have any solid ground on which their personalities stand, and we never have the time to properly learn all our science and technology is for. That can only be done by radically altering how we approach our thoughts, and the means to do it are right in front of us if only we can see what Goethe, what Faust, saw. Every civilization eventually is brought down, but if we're flexible enough in how we think, there may be ways to come down with a softer landing.

But the opposite of the Faustian outlook is Werther, always self-focused and indulgent, never able to live with himself because he sees validation only in how he is valued by the outside world.


Once God and the Devil no longer had a stranglehold on the human imagination, we humans were much more free to look inward to the workings of our own consciousness, and from that liberated inward gaze we got realist fiction, non-realist painting, absolute music ...

The neglect of Goethe in our era and place is one of the great scandals of modern intellectual life, because more than any writer I can think of, Goethe is exactly what we need right now. Is Goethe as boring as his reputation? Well, the only answer I can give from personal experience that has integrity is... often. But Goethe's peaks are so high that he's entirely worth the valleys.

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