But mostly, 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 about the two books whose eponymous characters are in the title. One is the most beloved novel in the German language, the other is a Himalaya of world literature. If you're listening to this podcast in particular, I'll take it as a given that you have some experience with those literary Himalayas which can break your foot if you drop it. You know the type of writer who writes them: Joyce, Proust, Mann, Dostoevsky, Dante, Milton, Faulkner... You can be bowled over by how brilliant they are, but their writing often feels impossible to love. It can gets incredibly dry for a hundred pages at a time, and the act of willing yourself to read the book itself is part of the experience. Some artistic works are meant to feel like a struggle. Even the most worshipful Wagnerian can't possibly think that the Ring or Parsifal is filled bar line to bar line with notes that completely need to be there, and I'm sure that everyone who's ever seen 2001 without first taking substances realizes that there are any number of passages that should probably be a quarter the length. Part of what it means to understand these works is to endure them.
But Goethe is an almost unprecedented example of a writer who began his career as almost the exact opposite type of writer and then became this hermetic island of meaning as he aged. 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 documented all throughout the years that Goethe's Faust is an endless source of poetic wisdom for German speakers, my German is pretty f-cking horrible, and it's said that Goethe is one of those writers who loses nearly everything in translation. When I compare translations - and, oy gevalt, I read three translations of Part I, it's fairly easy to see how some people are taken into thinking that classic from a foreign time and place 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.
And 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 its 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 fascination all the way through.
But if you want to understand what we're capable of as a species, you have to read Faust. It is the irrational side of Shakespeare: the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest and The Scottish Play and The Merry Wives of Windsor, magnified to epic proportions. It is a work of art that stands right at the precipice between so many different human achievements: it stands right at the transition from the classical to romantic even as it portrays the faultline between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it embodies the tension between rationalism and romanticism, paganism and secularism, between the idea that the world is a quantifiable place to be understood and that there are more things in the heaven and the earth that can ever be dreamt of by even Goethe. If Shakespeare was a quantum leap in human thinking, bringing our consciousness out from superstition into the world of the rational, perhaps Goethe represents a second quantum leap, or at least the prelude to one: completely altered in nature from Shakespeare's. Shakespeare seemed as though he wanted to map human psychology with all our various thoughts and motivations, but the Bard had to begin from a still quite Medieval world which valued Man as a just an small part of God's essence that God can always reclaim at his leisure. Few people thought human beings important enough to understand, so Shakespeare had to make the Human and Real into something magical. Even in Shakespeare's most rational, human plays, intimations the supernatural are always lurking and threatening vengeance: whether in Hamlet's father's battle uniform, or in King Lear's storm, or even in comedies where you think the supernatural has no place - like the miraculous survival of both twins, Viola and Sebastien, from a shipwreck from which there seem to be no other survivors.
But Goethe wanted to map the irrational, rationally; to take this newly minted, supposedly rational man of the Enlightenment, deposit him back into the world of spirits and demons, and record the findings with almost scientific precision. To portray the Devil himself, but not as Milton did as an epic being - perhaps a supernatural Hitler - within a cinematically visual world of angels and demons at war, but rather as a world-weary clown, a career bureaucrat who is somewhat incompetent at his job, with anthropomorphically human motivations like a minor Greek god. Perhaps a Devil exhausted by the knowledge that the world is beginning to no longer believe in him, playing bandmaster to a series of demonic parties with spirits who are clearly comic archetypes of the human unconscious rather than untamed apparitions of terror. This is probably the seminal work in which all those thoughts which once terrified the human imagination get to strut about as something cartoonish, playful, almost harmless.
At first hearing, this epic drama might still seem as boring as its reputation, 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 necessarily things to be feared but may well be cartoon characters of the human past. Once God and the Devil no longer had a stranglehold on the human imagination, we humans were much more free to look inward to indulge in our fancies and perceive how our imaginations work, and from that liberated inward gaze we got the real second quantum leap: realist fiction, non-realist painting, absolute music ... and let's not forget, liberal democracy.
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 supposed good we do, wondering even if good is good and evil is evil, and yet struggling mightily even so to evolve into better versions of ourselves, and willing to risk everything, even our souls, 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 quite speak to why reading Faust, why reading 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 that legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - and, for those who don't already know, World Literature is a term Goethe invented. The other is 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 philosophical theories messy - half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, never quite making consistent sense with itself, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he continually hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must. He didn't just write novels and epic plays and philosophy, but travel writing, autobiography, and whole reams of poetry which many Germans have committed to memory. To me, this endless intellectual shapeshifting, this aimless following of wherever the mind takes you; not the creation of some quantifiable system of thought that seeks or purports to explain everything, is what true thought means.
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 from the outside 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 often look on Germany's crimes against humanity with indifference, and sometimes 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 fret that we're about expire from authoritarianism are probably still 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, excessive company profits and 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 past civilizations are recaptured. Just because past societies fell does not mean their achievements have nothing to offer us, and at the moment, we in the West look like we may become a society of the past just like them, so we need all the help we can get.
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 can become better understood, and the more each field can yield pragmatic use. We are a society so dynamic, which grew so quickly, so noisily, so effectively, that our American dynamism may destroy the planet. Our quantitative progress, not our moral progress but our progress in technological breakthroughs, desperately needs to slow down so we can understand what we've created and implement them more wisely.
Furthermore, technology evolves so quickly that in order to have any sense of ourselves, humans have to retreat into fixed self-identities in order for their personalities to stand on any solid ground. When it comes to people themselves, many of us want to break down barriers, but when it comes to people's ideas, their societal contributions, the thoughts which make each of us who we are, we're as fixed in our ways as the earth in a geocentric universe - with a thin band-aid of secularism put on top of a gaping wound that is religious dogma.
The most obvious example these days is the idea that a person's racial identity, or for that matter, their income identity, defined them for their entire lives, is an idea that was on the fringes of Western discourse, both left and right, just twenty years ago! But the speed at which technology passes overly simplistic ideas and solutions is breathtaking. People who never used to give politics a second moment's thought are now convinced that every political difficulty is an emergency too important to ever ignore, and to ignore them or to have anything but the most extreme opinion, is contributing to the perpetration of humanity's worst crimes.
Some thinkers literally call this dynamism, perhaps mistakenly call this dynamism, Faustian. When Oswald Spengler used the term Faustian society, he meant European/American society, which was a nice way of saying 'white society.' Which he perceived as being in terminal decline. By 'Faustian' he meant that we live in a society that believes in the constant accumulation of progress. But this is such a horribly warped interpretation of Faust, that it would roll Goethe over in his grave for reasons both literary and moral. There is no linear progress to Faust's attainment of greater experience. The character Faust circumambulates organically as we all do, abruptly ending one segment of his experience to begin another, resuming a thread later that he had not picked up for long before - an endless process of abandonment and return that is how we all have to live our lives even if we try to will it differently.
But more importantly, Goethe is as far from later German authoritarianism as one can imagine. Which is not to say that Goethe was, in any sense, a democrat. He was an haute bourgeois man of his time, and no matter how he or anyone else perceived the French Revolution at its beginning, he saw the waste of its results, and decided that any attempt at democracy would result chaos. Goethe, like us all, had the right to be wrong and did the best he could with the information he had, which is usually better than we can do. He believed in the authoritarianism of sovereigns not because he thought some people deserved rights more than others, but because authoritarian sovereignty guaranteed accountability. When there is a single power at the top of the social heirarchy, responsible for all your provisions, you know whom to blame when things go wrong. When you have 18th century coercive means at your disposal along with 18th century medicine and technology, this can perhaps be a forgivable sentiment even if it points a direct path to Hitler 150 years later.
And yet again, as the world evolves, the American ideals of liberal democracy refuse to evolve with it just as the once-extremely promising ideas of Bildung and Kultur refused. Democracy means nothing without liberal rule of law, and in an era when facts themselves can be denied for political gain and every internet crank can consider himself an expert entitled to dismiss the findings of people who study their subjects their lifelong (irony duly noted). Democracy as we currently know it is not equipped for an era when people feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.
Goethe believed not in a dictatorship of Germany over all, but in enlightened authority figures. Each of whom would use the best research of the time to provide citizens with the best possible results. However we feel about authoritarianism today, in the 1800s, democracy seemed to many to guarantee civil war and slavery.
Many of Goethe's ideas about government originated with a thinker not much thought of today named Johann Gottfried Herder. It may be worth doing some podcasts on Herder too, because Herder is a thinker nobody talks about today, but if ideas matters more from their consequences for the world than as ends in themselves, Herder is clearly more influential than his much more famous contemporary, Immanuel Kant. On the one hand, we get from Herder the basic germ of 19th century nationalism, but on the other hand, with nationalism comes the idea of self-determination. That each peoples, and eventually therefore each person, is entitled through their cultural differences to other peoples to determine their own fates, and what is true and good for one people is not necessarily true and good for another. It may not be true, but it was the key moment in morality itself that broke the idea that one single, universal truth, must be imposed on every single person, with all the Holy Wars between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Muslims, which that entails.
Whether or not their notions were true, it was in some ways this hope that an enlightened authority figure would work better than equality for all which ensured that the French Revolution never spread to Germany. When the dust cleared a generation later from the Napoleonic Wars, no country, not eve England, was in a better situation than Germany, and for 100 years thereafter, the German nations were considered the same acme of progress which monarchical France was considered previously.
Not even England had a more glorious nineteenth century than the German speaking lands. No country had more dynamic scientific discoveries than Prussia, no country guaranteed greater liberties for more of its citizens than the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The literature of the age was flourishing in France, England, and Russia as it was not in German lands thanks to the red supergiant absorbing everything around that was Goethe's influence; and obviously England and France had imperial holdings no German land could equal; but in music, in philosophy, in science, in all manners of purely abstract thought and many connected to abstract thought like industrial technology and jurisprudence and soldiery, no other country was even close.
The problem the French found, just the Germans found a century later, just as we may be finding now, is that if you base too much of your thoughts on one system of belief, you can't see the world outside the filter of the belief system which surrounds everything you do. Even the rebellion against the belief system becomes an affirmation of it. You can't truly understand these new theories of inherited privilege making the rounds on the progressive/socialist internet unless you realize that nobody would care about them if they didn't first buy into the idea, the American idea, that all men are created equal. It's the old Marxist idea that freedom is a form of oppression unless tied to equality of means and income, crossbred with an idea that can grow on American soil, that everyone deserves the inherent individual right to grow into their best selves, and the obvious truth that it's clearly easier for some than others, so we therefore must clear paths for less people for their lives to be freer. But when you make ending the hierarchy of relative privilege a higher priority than freedom itself, every manifestation of freedom also becomes a manifestation of oppression, and therefore no amount of commitment to the cause of equality is ever enough because by realizing your own best life, you are inevitably causing the oppression of someone else. Whether or not that's true, American society is built on the idea that it isn't, and the entire basis of American society can come undone from such thinking.
Long and terrible experience made the German societies of Goethe's time far more prudent than their French equivalents, who were accustomed to thinking themselves the best of all societies, and therefore expected that life entitled them to more. The national trauma of a country never truly leaves it, and the German people, who once thought themselves an especially peaceful medieval tribe of burghers, bunds, and guilds, became the exact center of the Protestant-Catholic Wars thanks to Martin Luther. After Luther, a hundred years of political instability, war after war after war, which only led to still larger wars. Until, finally, a hundred years after Luther's death, an explosion of fanaticism crossed with the exploitation of venal warlords conflagrated into what we now know as the Thirty Years War - a war as apocalyptic in its time as both World Wars. Eight million dead from violence, disease, and starvation in an era when far fewer people lived. While France expanded its national pride to the very limits, generation upon generation of Germans had to live a quiet, unglamorous, disciplined life of rebuilding.
All around, we denigrate this disciplinary, patriarchal, view of society which seems to have a mythical father figure at its head telling us that we cannot have what we want. The modern Left calls it the Patriarchy, the modern Right calls it Paternalism, and at the heart of both is resentment that a stable life can't demand too much from it. But that does not mean that in times of rebuilding, the Father figure cannot be oppressive indeed.
The spirit of the Germany which birthed Goethe could not have been more patriarchal. The laws were roman in spirit, the middle class was very small indeed, and the general zeitgeist expected Germans to live lives of extreme thrift. It was a Germany which even a hundred years after the Hundred Years War, was still a loose confederation of 300 states while England and France seemed glorious sovereignties, and whose entire spirit seemed embodied by the Prussian king, Friedrich. Not Friedrich der Grosse, or Frederick the Great, but his father, Friedrich I of Prussia, the kingdom from which Goethe hailed, whom at one point came close to having his son executed. Friedrich I of Prussia had such a mania for saving that he kept the Prussian treasury in the basement of his own castle. He raised taxes to whatever maximum he could get without open revolt and spent not a penny more than he ever could countenance, and for national defense he built a giant army whose sole use was an endless series of military drills. He was so micromanaging that he personally dictated all 297 paragraphs of the manual for Prussian state employees. He considered it his divine right to dictate his subjects' hygiene, clothing, housing, what they read and what they spoke about, whom they married and what they ate. It was a kind of maniacal prison from which there was nearly no chance for subjects to exhibit any sense of independent will at all. And yet directly from this stern near-totalitarian approach there afterward arose an explosion of creativity and individuality that pointed the world in its modern direction ever since, because his heir was a Renaissance man, one of the most intelligent of his era, and from Frederick the Great arose a liberal monarchy that was the hope and envy of the entire world, and he could do so because his father bequeathed him with the largest imaginable treasury.
Thomas Carlyle defined the ideal government very succinctly: "Find in any country the ablest man that exists there, raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him, you have a perfect government for that country." Here is what the much forgotten Viennese intellectual historian Egon Friedell had to say about Frederick and that definition:
A recipe as admirable as it is simple, but, like almost all good and simple recipes, very seldom followed. Obviously it would be the most natural thing if the best were always at the head of things, the cleverest and wisest, the strongest and best-armed, the eye that sees furthest with past and present, the gleaming focus in which all the world's rays unite: if, in a word, the brain were in command as is the case with the simplest human individual. Yet this self-evidently normal case has happened at most a dozen times in the better-known sections of the history of humanity: a dozen times in three thousand years. One of these few cases was Frederick the Great.I would put this slightly differently. To take just the European example: there existed a kind of blueprint for a better world in Europe since Renaissance Humanism, which is pretty obviously the most important ancestor to the Enlightenment. The foundations of Renaissance Humanism go back to at least to the 14th century, but it gained no mass traction until the 18th. In the meantime, the Renaissance didn't truly have any progressive impact except for those aristocrats literate enough to know about such ideals and clergy literate enough to suppress them. The reason for that is because when the world is ruled by hereditary monarchies, the idea of a king who can also be your best thinker is at the mercy of a genetic lottery, a genetic lottery preserved by a series of inbred families who may not have been particularly bright to begin with. But with Frederick the Great, a European King finally won the genetic lottery, and true progress in Europe for more than a very small aristocracy was finally able to commence. All Europe had to do was wait 400 years.
Frederick the Great was not only one of history's greatest generals who transformed Prussia from a backwater in East Germany to a world power, but also a philosopher in both war and economics, an urban planner and environmental conservationist, speaker of god knows how many languages, and in his spare time a playwright, musician, architect, and composer. I suppose it's minorly possible that some of these achievements history attributes to him are exaggerated, but what matters is not the achievement but the aspiration. Because Prussian progress made the benefits of great learning so obvious, other court societies were also inspired to become better learned and base their policies on what their most intelligent and well-informed counselors advised.
But there is also a contradiction in Frederick the Great. There were many contradictions in his character - he was a monarch who hated much about monarchy and an autocrat who tolerated most forms of dissent, but the contradiction that's important in this case is his impact on the German zeitgeist. The enlightenment which Frederick espoused was French ideals, put into practice on German land, and the differences in quality of life between the two monarchies became grist for the French revolutionaries against the Ancien Regime. Thinkers tend to identify Frederick the Great as the pillar on which the entire Enlightenment's permanence sits, perhaps because Frederick the Great created a home away from home for Voltaire and sponsored Immanuel Kant.
But except for thinkers a generation older like Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, born before Frederick the Great ascended to the throne in 1740, most of the German thinkers and artists to come out of these newly enlightened German lands in Frederick's time were not enlightenment thinkers at all. They were, in some ways at least, severely critical enlightenment, or at least stand in stark contrast Enlightenment's ideals even as they would not at all be possible without the Enlightenment. One of the great paradoxes of the Enlightenment is that one of its two most important thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, demanded a return to the natural. Perhaps Rousseau conception of nature was unrealistically extremely benevolent, but it was formulated from the confines of the tightly wound Rococo society whose chateaus let all kinds of light in from the outdoors yet hardly permitted any person of high birth to get his hands dirty. This call for a return to nature was omnipresent in the 18th century. Perhaps Rousseau gave it the first real voice, but it was an impossible plant within the strictures of late French classicism. In the end is the beginning, and in Germany, rather, this return to the natural could take root in the soil. Not just the return to outer nature, but the return to inner nature, feelings, within a society where Frederick I had until 1740 practically outlawed feelings.
Once we focus as a society on feelings, we much more readily perceive the feelings of others and we sympathize with them. The barriers of separation are torn down, and we see solidarity between people. Just as it happened in the Modern West, it happened two hundred years ago in Europe. Such an historical explosion of sentiment results in many young people who suddenly find their voice as writers to express what no one before them could. But they couldn't sustain their achievement, and as they aged, they simply couldn't summon the same magic and retreated Just think of all those rock singer-songwriters in the late sixties/early seventies: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Levon Helm, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Lou Reed, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Eno. This explosion of a new music and poetry for a new generation with a completely different sort of ethos. But even the ones who are productive until the end, it's very difficult to say that the songs of most of these songwriters were as magic at the end of their careers as at the beginning. The energy and dynamism of rock is grounded in youth, and if the songwriters can't find a way to accommodate costs and benefits of getting older, the music will simply not be as good. But the ones among them who might be convincingly called something like genius: Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, perhaps David Bowie, and some would of course say Dylan, are geniuses not because of the brilliance of their early light, but because their gift was so indestructible that it could describe all the seasons of life with no decline in their quality. Their artistry is not just one kind of song or one artistic personality, their artistry is many faceted. They are completely different people at twenty-five to forty-five to sixty-five, but always excellent.
And this is the difference between Klopstock and Leisewitz and Klinger and Lenz on the one hand, and Goethe and Schiller on the other. One type of poet was only capable of one kind of lyric, they couldn't evolve with the times and eventually their names were only remembered for a kind of nostalgia for a time of more innocent experience that could not again be. Schiller, and Goethe even much moreso, continued to evolve just as the world did.
Just consider this famous short poem Heidenroslein. A lyric in extremely strict metric and rhythmic form that repeats the same refrain at the end. It practically cries out for music, and perhaps it was always meant to considering that it was based on a very short duet in Mozart's Magic Flute. By the end of Goethe's life it was transformed into one of Schubert's most beloved songs, and over the years was also set by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Franz Lehar along with dozens of composers whose music nobody's heard in over a hundred years. But the song was also :
Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Heathrose fair and tender,
All array'd in youthful pride,–
Quickly to the spot he hied,
Ravished by her splendour.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!
Said the boy, "I'll now pick thee,
Heathrose fair and tender!"
Said the rosebud, "I'll prick thee,
So that thou'lt remember me,
Ne'er will I surrender!"
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!
Now the cruel boy must pick
Heathrose fair and tender;
Rosebud did her best to prick,–
Vain 'twas 'gainst her fate to kick–
She must needs surrender.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!
This poem from around 1771 is part of a movement called for a return to nature at the very moment before the industrial revolution declared war on nature. Poems like this are almost hippieish in how it immerses itself in nature in a manner that's both spiritual and sexual. The spiritual side of the poem comes from a literal reading - you so commune with nature that nature talks back to you. Perhaps it comes as much from the Spinoza idea that God is nature itself as it does from Rousseau's that nature is the place where man's nature truly lies unspoiled. But is that truly what Goethe believes? The sexual component is hardly benevolent. Rosebud has always been a barely concealed metaphor in many cultures for a vagina. If you take the meaning more anthropomorphically, you could see this poem as just a light lyric about sexual teasing between the sexes. But it could also be taken as a process of sexual assault or rape, in which this anthropomorphic female rose clearly does not indicate her willingness to be picked. And then, when you transform it back into a simple nature poem, you see that this could be a metaphor for the process by which humanity rapes nature itself, using it for its own purposes. A meaning which becomes ever more potent as the planet's ecology draws ever closer to a cataclysm. Like all the best art, this poem has many more meanings than there are words.
But at the same time that there's something quite hippieish about it, it's also quite archetypally German; extremely strict in meter and rhythm, and because it's so strict it lends itself particularly well to music. Mother nature always finds a way, and in some ways the greater the discipline, the greater the freedom. If the iron discipline of Prussian culture didn't allow for anything more than a generation's explosion of literary brilliance, the discipline allowed for perhaps the fullest expression of music the world has ever seen. Music, not literature, was Germany's greatest contribution to world culture.
Furthermore, It's not Keats or Wordsworth, and every German speaker will tell you that Goethe doesn't translate particularly well. 'Sah ein Knab, ein Roslein stehn/Roslein auf der Heiden' sounds a lot more interesting than 'Once a boy a rosebud spied/Heathrose fair and tender.' What's poetic in poetry is virtually untranslatable. I used the most interesting translation of the poem I could find, but fitting all the meanings into the same meter is nearly impossible. The best I can do is to translate those first two lines with all their meaning intact is to say 'saw a knab, a little rose stand/little rose on heath.' But even that doesn't translate the three most important meanings.
1. When you hear the word 'Knab,' think of the British slang 'knob.' Which is a pejorative meaning basically a 'dick.' A person who acts like an asshole. Knab is a dated term in German, it literally means boy, but it can also mean an apprentice or a servant. In other words, when Goethe uses Knab, the association called to mind is literally of an obnoxious teenage boy.
2. The word heiden - which is translated all sorts of ways: heath, heathrose, heather, field, moore, but heiden literally means 'heathen.' As with so much Shakespearean nature, there is an extremely pagan connotation in which the laws of the wild prevail and lots of things are done which offend our sense of morality. So when he says 'Roslein auf der Heiden,' there is an association of 'little rose on the heathen,' meaning perhaps a young girl, of indeterminate age but perhaps very young indeed, in an environment which would terrify any good Christian.
Make no mistake, whether or not his lyrics immediately call to you, genius does not get more powerful than Goethe's. He is right in the top echelon with Shakespeare, Homer, Tolstoy, Dante, Cervantes, whoever wrote Genesis and Exodus... 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.
But the opposite of the Faustian outlook is Werther, and one of the things which strikes me most about Werther, and I think I might be the first person in history to ever say this, is how American Werther seems. He always believes so fanatically in whatever he believes, no qualifying thought ever occurs to him. Werther is an endless monologue from a character who has no interior thoughts except his own thoughts, which it never occurs to him to ever doubt.
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.