Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Consolations of Young Goethe

I have been reading the Miscellaneous Travels of J. W. Goethe.  In these travel accounts Goethe (1749 - 1832), the giant of German literature, portrayed himself as a singularly self-possessed individual.  In place of a strong religious sense, he found his fullest consolation in art and Nature.  Here are relevant excerpts.

“Campaign in France,” Tréves, 25th October
A young schoolmaster who visited me, and brought me some of the latest numbers of the newspapers, gave me an opportunity for some pleasant conversation.  He was astonished, like many others, that I had no wish to converse about poetry, but rather seemed to throw myself with all my energy into the study of Nature.  He knew the philosophy of Kant, and I could therefore point out to him the path I had entered.  When Kant, in his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ places teleologic judgment side by side with the aesthetic, it is evident that he wishes to show that a work of art should be treated in the same way as a work of Nature, and a work of Nature in the same way as a work of art; and that the worth of each should be developed out of itself, and considered by itself.  About such things I could be very eloquent; and I believe I was of some use to the worthy young man.  It is wonderful what a mixture of truth and error every period carries and drags about with it, inherited from days but recently passed, or even from days long gone by; whilst enterprising spirits cut out a new path for themselves, where, for the most part, they have to go alone, or find a companion only for some short distance of the way.
“Campaign in France,” DIGRESSION
I had got into the habit of being engrossed by the business and occurrences of the moment, and had of late years, in particular, reason to be satisfied with this kind of life; this led to a peculiarity in me of never forming any conception before-hand of persons whom I expected to meet, or of places I intended to visit, but allowed them to produce their effect upon me without being previously prepared for them.
The advantage that arises from this is great; one does not require to come back from a previously-conceived idea, or to blot out a picture arbitrarily painted by ourselves, and painfully to accept the reality in its place.  The disadvantage, on the other hand, that may arise, is, that we are unprepared in moments of importance, and are at a loss how to act in unforeseen emergencies.
For the same reason, too, I never paid any attention to the effect which my presence or the temper of my mind produced upon others; for I often found, quite unexpectedly, that I had inspired affection or repugnance, and frequently even both at the same time.
Whatever may be said respecting this manner of behaviour, whether, as an individual peculiarity, it can neither be praised nor censured, it must be added, that in the present case it produced some very curious phenomena, and these not always of the most agreeable description.
I had not met the friends whom I was about to visit for many years; they had kept steadily to their old course of life; whereas it had been my strange lot to undergo many trials, and to pass through various kinds of occupations and endurances.  Hence, although the same person, I had become quite a different being, and almost unrecognisable to my old friends.
It is difficult, even in maturer years when we have a freer survey of life, to give an accurate account of those transitions in it, which sometimes appear as an advance, sometimes as a retrogression, but all of which, nevertheless, prove of use and advantage to a God-fearing man.  Notwithstanding these difficulties, I will endeavour to oblige my friends, and to note down a few points.
A virtuous man inspires affection and love only in so far as we discover longing in him; this expresses both possession and desire — the possession of a tender heart, and the desire of finding the same in others; with the former we attract others to us, with the latter we give up ourselves to them.
Whatever of this quality lay in me, which in earlier years I had encouraged, perhaps too much, but which as I grew older, I energetically sought to overcome, was no longer in keeping with the man, no longer satisfied him, and he sought, therefore, for full and final contentment.
The object of my most ardent longing, a pain which filled my very soul, was Italy, the image of which had floated before my mind for many years in vain, till at length I formed the bold determination of beholding the reality face to face.  To that glorious land my friends gladly followed me in thought, they accompanied me on my way thither, and on my return.  Would that they may affectionately share a longer residence there with me, and accompany me back again, for many a problem will be more intelligibly solved!
In Italy I felt myself gradually freed from petty conception, and from false wishes; in place of the longing for the land of fine art, there arose in me a longing for art itself; I had beheld it, and now wished to penetrate into, and comprehend, it.
The study of art, like that of the ancient authors, gives us a certain stability, as sort of satisfaction in ourselves; it fills our souls with great objects and ideas, it takes possession of every wish that struggles outwardly, but nourishes every worthy aspiration in the tranquil breast; the need of communicating our thoughts to others becomes less and less; and the amateur becomes like painter, sculptor, and architect — he works in solitude for enjoyments which he seldom is called upon to share with others.
But I was, at the same time, destined to be estranged from the world by another cause, and thrown in the most emphatic way upon Nature, to which instinctively I had a great leaning.  Here I found neither masters nor companions, and was obliged everywhere to trust to myself.  In the solitude of the woods and gardens, in the obscurity of the dark apartments, I should have remained quite alone, had not a happy domestic connection at this strange period of my existence come to rescue and cheer my heart.  The “Roman Elegies,” the “Venetian Epigrams,” date from this period.
But I was also to have a taste of warlike events; for I was ordered to be present during the campaign in Silesia, which came to an end with the Congress of Reichenbach, and obtained, in this new and important part of the world, additional experience and information, and some good diversion as well.  The horrors of the French Revolution, which meanwhile spread farther and farther, drew the attention of every one, whatever might be his thoughts or studies, to the surface of the European world, and forced the most terrible realities upon his mind.
Then duty called me to accompany my Prince and master, to face with him the dangers and disasters of the day, and manfully to endure the sufferings of which I have ventured to give the reader but a faint picture; it can easily be conceived, that then whatever of tenderness and warmth lurked still in my inward being vanished altogether.
“Campaign in France”, Duisburg, End of November 1792
Among a host of importunities addressed to me, both by letter and in person, I received, in the middle of the year 1777, a paper, or rather a pamphlet, dated Wernigerode, and subscribed Plessing, the most wonderful production of the self-torturing kind that I ever beheld.  It was plainly from a young man filled with all knowledge of school and University; but whose learning, nevertheless, did not contribute in the least to his own inward moral tranquility.  His handwriting was good, and pleasant to read; his style clever and flowing; and, although a tendency to pulpit oratory could at once be perceived, still everything seemed so fresh, and written so from the heart, that one could not help sympathising with him  But when one’s sympathy was allowed to become active, and an endeavour was made to get a clearer understanding of the condition of the sufferer, it seemed as if there was in him more of wilfulness than of patience, more of obstinacy than submission, and more of pure selfishness than of ardent longing.  In accordance with the propensity of the time, which I have described above, I felt a great desire to see the young man face to face; but considered it inadvisable to ask him to come to me.  I had already, under circumstances which are known, burdened myself with a number of young men, who, instead of accompanying me on my road towards a purer and higher culture, had lingered on their own path, deriving no benefit themselves, and obstructing me in my progress.  Hence I allowed the matter to rest, till some opportunity should occur for effecting my object.  Whereupon I received a second letter, short, but more passionate than the first, in which the writer pressed for an answer and explanation, and implore me most earnestly not to refuse them to him.
But even this renewal of the storm did not trouble me; the second paper affected me just as little as the first; but the habit I had acquired of assisting young men of my own age in affairs of mind or heart, did not allow me to forget him altogether.
On arriving at the inn in Wernigerode, I entered into conversation with the waiter, and found him a sensible person, who seemed to be pretty well acquainted with his fellow-townsmen.  I then told him that it was custom, on arriving at a place where I had no particular introductions, to seek out such young persons as might in any way be distinguished for learning and science; and thereupon asked him to do me the favour to name somebody of this description, with whom I might hope to pass the evening pleasantly.  Without hesitation the waiter replied, that no doubt I should find what I desired in Herr Plessing, the son of the Superintendent; that as a boy even he had been distinguished at school, and still maintained his reputation for diligence and ability; that people now found fault with his gloomy disposition, and did not like him on account of unsociable behaviour which led him to shut himself out from society.  But that towards strangers he was always polite, as examples could prove, and if I wished an introduction, it could be got immediately.
The waiter soon brought me word that I might pay Plessing a visit, and conducted me to his residence.  The evening had already set in, when I entered a large room on the ground-floor, the usual style in ecclesiastical houses, and although it was twilight I could distinguish the young man tolerably well.  I observed some signs of the parents having hastily left the room, to make place for the unexpected visitor.
When the lights were brought in, I had a distinct view of the young man, and he was exactly what his letter had led me to expect; and, like it, he excited one’s interest without being exactly attractive.
In order to lead to a more intimate conversation, I described myself as an artist from Gotha, and said that, on account of some family matters, I was about to visit a sister and brother-in-law in Brunswick at this unfavourable season.
With great animation he thereupon exclaimed, scarcely allowing me to finish my sentence.  “As you live so near Weimar, you have no doubt frequently visited that place, which has become so celebrated?”  I answered, with perfect simplicity, in the affirmative, and began to speak of Counsellor Kraus, and the Drawing Academy; of Bertuch, Counsellor of Legation, and his unwearying assiduity; I did not omit either Masäus or Jagemann; spoke of Wolf, the band-Master; and some ladies; described the circle in which these worthy people moved, and said they were always glad to see strangers amongst them, who were sure to be well received.
At last he exclaimed, somewhat impatiently: “But why do not you mention Goethe”  I replied, that I had seen him in the aforesaid circle as a welcome guest, and had even been myself personally well received and kindly treated by him as an artist, but that I could not say much further about him, partly because he lived alone, and partly because he belonged to other circles.
The young man, who had listened with restless attention, now demanded me, with some impetuosity, to describe this strange individual, who had created such a sensation in the world.  Whereupon, with great ingenuity, I gave him a description, which it was not difficult to do, as the strange person happened to be before me in the strangest of situations; and if Nature had only favoured him with a little more sagacity of heart, he could hardly have failed to perceive that his visitor was describing himself.
He had walked up and down the room two or three times, when the maid-servant entered, and placed a bottle of wine and some cold supper on the table; he filled both our glasses, touched my glass with is, and drank it off excitedly.  Scarcely had I, with somewhat less eagerness, emptied mine, when he seized me by the arm with great vehemence, and exclaimed: “Oh, excuse my singular behaviour!  But you have inspired me with such confidence, that I cannot help telling you all.  This man, from your description of him, ought certainly to have answered me; I sent him a detailed, affectionate letter, describing my condition, my sufferings, and begged him to interest himself in me, to advise me, to help me; and now months have passed, and I have no reply.  The very least he could do, was to have sent me a refusal, in return for such unbounded confidence.”
In reply to this, I said that such conduct I could neither explain nor excuse; but this much I knew from my own experience, that owing to a heavy pressure of things both ideal and real, this, otherwise well-meaning, good-natured, and helpful young man, was often unable to do as he pleased, much less to act for others.
“As we have accidentally got so far,” he now added, with somewhat more composure, “I must read the letter to you; and you can then judge whether it did not deserve some answer, some reply.”
I walked up and down the room waiting for him to read it, knowing, of course, what effect it would produce, and therefore had to fear of making a false step in so delicate an affair.  He sat down opposite to me, and began to read the papers, which I knew as well as himself; and nothing, perhaps, ever convinced me more of the truth of the assertion made by physiognomists: that a living being, in all its actions and conduct, is in complete accordance with itself, and that every monad, when once it has entered the world of reality, manifests itself in complete unity with its characteristics.  The reader was an exact counterpart of what he read; and as the letter had not attracted me at first, it did not attract me now in his presence.  One could not, indeed, deny the young man one’s respect, one’s sympathy; in fact, it was this which had induced me to make this curious journey; for an earnest will was visible in him, a noble tendency and aim; but although the tenderest feelings were in question, his manner of reading was without grace, and a peculiar, narrow kind of selfishness was strongly apparent throughout.  When he had finished, he asked hastily what I now thought, and whether such a paper did not deserve, nay, demand, an answer?
Meanwhile I had obtained a clearer insight into the young man’s deplorable state of mind; he had never taken cognisance of the outward world, but had, on the contrary, cultivated his mind by multifarious reading, and directed all his powers and interests inwards; and, not finding any productive talent in the depths of his being, he had gone far to ruin himself altogether.  And even the occupation and consolation so gloriously offered us by a study of the ancient languages, seemed to be completely wanting to him.
As I had already proved, both in myself and others, that the best remedy in such cases is to throw ourselves with energy and faith upon Nature and her infinite variety, I made an attempt to apply it in this case also.  After a little reflection I answered him in the following way:—
“I think I can understand why the young man, in whom you have placed so much confidence, has remained silent towards you.  His present way of thinking is doubtless too different from yours to allow of any hope that you could come to any agreement with each other.  I have been present during some conversations in the circle spoken of, and have heard it maintained, that the only way in which a person can escape and save himself for a painful, self-torturing, gloomy state of mind, is by a contemplation of Nature, and a heartfelt sympathy with the outward world.  Even a most general acquaintance with Nature, no matter in what way, in fact any active communication with it, either in gardening or farming, hunting or mining, draws us out of ourselves; the employment of our mental energies upon real, actual phenomena, affords, by degrees, the greatest satisfaction, clearness of mind, and instruction; in the same way as the artist who keeps true to Nature, while cultivating his mind, is certain to succeed the best.”
My young friend appeared to get very restless and impatient at this, just as one does when listening to some foreign or confused language, the meaning of which one cannot understand.  However, although there seemed but little hope of a successful result, I proceeded more for the sake of saying something, and added that: “To me, as a landscape painter, this appeared very evident, as my particular department of art was in direct communication with Nature.  But since that time, I have observed things with more assiduity and eagerness than I had previously done, and not merely noted uncommon and remarkable natural objects and phenomena, but felt myself more full of love for all things and all men.”  In order not to lose myself in the abstract, I thereupon told him that even this necessary winter excursion, instead of being irksome, had furnished me with lasting enjoyment.  I described to him the course of my journey artistically and poetically, and yet as truly and naturally as I could; I spoke of the snow-clouds which I had that morning seen rolling over the mountains, and the various other appearances that had struck me during the day; I then revealed to his imagination the curious turreted and walled fortifications of Nordhausen, as seen in the twilight; and further, at night, the torrents rushing down the mountain ravines, their waters lighted up now and then, and glistening in the flickering light of the guide’s lantern; and, last of all, the miners’ caverns.
Here he interrupted me with warmth, and assured me that he heartily regretted the trouble he had taken in going to see the latter, short as the distance was; it had not at all come up to the picture he had formed of it in his imagination.  After what had passed between us, such morbid symptoms did not annoy me; often had I seen how men throw away the valuable possession of a clear reality for a dismal phantom of their gloomy imaginations!  Just as little did it astonish me, when, in answer to my question,”How he had pictured the caverns to himself?” he described them in such a way as the boldest scene-painter would scarcely have ventured to do in depicting the fore-courts of Pluto’s kingdom.

Upon this I tried other propaedeutic suggestions as expedients for effecting a cure.  But these were rejected so emphatically with the assurance that nothing in this world ever could or should content him, that my heart closed itself against him; and I felt my conscience completely freed from the necessity of taking any further trouble about him considering the fatiguing journey I had undertaken on his account, and the best intentions I had had towards him.

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