Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Quote of the Day

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You must be old to see all this, and have money enough to pay for your experience. Every bon mot I utter costs me a purseful of money; half a million of my private fortune has passed through my hands that I might learn what I know now—not only the whole of my father’s fortune; but also my own salary, and my large literary income for more than fifty years. I have also seen a million and a half expended for great objects by the princes with whom I have been intimately connected…More than mere talent is required to become a proficient. The person must also…have an opportunity of watching the cards held by the players of the age, and of participating in their gain and loss.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted by Johann Peter Eckermann in Conversations of Goethe

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2018 at 7:30 am

The size of writers

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Society has, at all times, the same want, namely of one sane man with adequate powers of expression to hold up each object of monomania in its right relations,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Representative Men, a collection of seven lectures that he first delivered in 1850. He goes on to describe the situation in strikingly modern terms:

The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California; and, by detaching the object from its relations, easily succeed in making it seen in a glare; and a multitude go mad about it, and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet. But let one man have the comprehensive eye that can replace this isolated prodigy in its right neighborhood and bearings—the illusion vanishes, and the returning reason of the community thanks the reason of the monitor.

The first half of this passage perfectly captures our current predicament, but the last sentence comes off as a form of wishful thinking that wasn’t true even when Emerson wrote it. The influence of “one sane man,” even if we assume that he exists, can feel meaningless compared to the power of the mob. Writers like to think that their work puts the world in perspective, but they rarely reach anyone outside their own small circle, and even if they change minds, it’s usually only to nudge them in the direction that they were already going.

I read Emerson’s essay on Inauguration Day, when the influence of responsible writers seemed weaker than ever before. In the era of alternative facts, of a free press that is dismissed as the opposition party, and of countless eloquent voices for reason whose arguments ultimately came to nothing, the stock of the public intellectual is at a historic low. But as Emerson reminds us, this isn’t anything new:

The scholar is the man of the ages, but he must also wish with other men to stand well with his contemporaries. But there is a certain ridicule, among superficial people, thrown on the scholars or clerisy…In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man; and the solid portion of the community is named with significant respect in every circle…Ideas are subversive of social order and comfort, and at last make a fool of the possessor. It is believed, the ordering a cargo of goods from New York to Smyrna, or the running up and down to procure a company of subscribers to set a-going five or ten thousand spindles, or the negotiations of a caucus and the practicing on the prejudices and facility of country people to secure their votes in November—is practical and commendable.

This certainly sounds familiar. There’s something inescapably American about the cult of big business and its corresponding contempt for ideas. And plenty of us have been left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe ideas do “make a fool of the possessor,” at least when we try to find evidence to the contrary.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

The observations that I’ve quoted appear in Emerson’s essay on Goethe, whom he holds up as the epitome of the writer. This is a revealing choice in itself. Goethe was the most practical of artists: Emerson calls him “the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with [the] rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease…None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game.” His cultural presence is diminished these days, but he remains a hugely seductive role model for young people who feel torn between a life in the world and a life of the mind. Goethe was a poet, a novelist, a scientist, a dramatist, and a productive figure in public life, overseeing the construction of mines and running the theater in Weimar. He may have been the most naturally brilliant man who ever lived—he placed first in the psychologist Lewis Terman’s controversial ranking of historical figures by intelligence—and he used his gifts to become the kind of person at forty that everyone dreams of being at twenty. A bright college graduate, brimming with unrealized potential, is a sort of larval Goethe, a Hamlet in embryo, but life has a way of closing off most of those avenues. Goethe, almost uniquely, developed every piece of himself to its fullest. But it’s worth remembering that we only remember his work as a privy councillor because he also happened to write Faust, and he was lucky to be a big fish in a small pond. As Emerson puts it: “He lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the world’s affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride.”

Emerson pretends to be surprised by this fact, but in reality, it’s only in such provincial surroundings that an author can hope to pass as a public figure. In Weimar, Goethe could do everything; in London or Paris, faced with competition from talented men who had nothing on their minds but practical matters, he would have had to be content with being a great writer. Any thinking human being feels small in comparison to Goethe, but when we remember how small he was compared with the world in which he lived, we start to realize that our smallness is all we have in common. At a moment when so many of us feel helpless, we should pay attention to Emerson when he writes: “Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras.” And he also identifies Goethe’s only true weakness, which was his unwillingness to grasp the limits of action itself:

Mankind have such a deep stake in inward illumination, that there is much to be said by the hermit or monk in defense of his life of thought and prayer. A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like—but you do it at your peril. Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament.

Goethe lived a life of extraordinary productivity, but we only care about him—or even Weimar itself—because of what he accomplished when he was alone in his room. And at a time in which blunt, showy gestures and Faustian bargains seem to be valued over the tiny acts of secret courage that writing demands, we should take Emerson’s conclusion to heart: “The measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be one of the most private circumstance.”

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2017 at 10:09 am

The world of Tlön

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Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

Last month, my wife suffered a miscarriage in her eighth week of pregnancy. We had been trying for a second baby for a long time, and it devastated us. She has already written about it more eloquently than I ever could, and I don’t want to relive it all here. But there’s one memory that I’ve been turning over in my head for most of a sleepless night. It was during our first visit to the hospital, when we were waiting to go upstairs to hear the results of my wife’s blood test and ultrasound. I ended up alone in the lobby for a little while, and I caught myself wondering if this would be the last happy moment I would ever have. At such times, you try to strike bargains with the universe, and my personal life already felt so entangled with the election that I made a silent offer: I would accept a Trump presidency, if only it meant that I could have this baby. A few minutes later, we were seated across from a midwife who told us that the fetal heartbeat was abnormally slow, and that it didn’t seem to be viable. There was a chance that it would survive, but it was very low. We went home, spent a tense week waiting to see what would happen, and finally returned for a second appointment. The fetus was already gone. And when I think back now to the deal I tried to strike—Trump in exchange for that baby—I’m reminded of what the late Gene Wilder screams at Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “You get nothing.”

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. I’m fortunate enough to have a life that is mostly shielded from the obvious fallout of a Trump administration. There isn’t any risk that I’ll be deported. I’m a heterosexual male in the middle class. If I want to tune out the news for weeks or months, I’ve got an absorbing project that was going to take up most of my time anyway. But the prospect of doing any work on my book now reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges ends the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is devoured by the alternative reality of a fictional encyclopedia:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly…Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

We’re all about to take the plunge into unreality that Borges describes here—and it isn’t a fantasy spun by a secret society of encyclopedists, as the Borges fan Karl Rove might have foreseen, but the product of a single man’s brain. And part of me is tempted to pay no attention to it and go on revising.


In many ways, it feels like any reasonable person is faced with two alternatives. Either you can fully accept that this is the time that you’ve been given, as Gandalf says to Frodo, and gird yourself for four years of battle, or you can withdraw, tend your own garden, and try to make as much happiness as you can for yourself and your loved ones—which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I’m an imperfect creature, so I suspect that my reaction will be some combination of the two. I’ll unplug for a while, wait for the noise to die down, and then figure out a way to muddle through and do the best I can. It’s not so different from the way in which I dealt with the George W. Bush administration, which, in retrospect, encompassed eight of the happiest years of my life. It had nothing to do with politics: I was in my twenties, I was making my way in the world for the first time, and I felt no need to identify with the man in the White House. Trump may well turn out to be similar, if far worse. For one thing, I’m not twenty anymore. But I’ve also been spoiled by Obama. For most of the last decade, the president was a man I admired and understood. He made me feel that I was part of something larger. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. Part of me sensed this, which is why I tried to savor this last, awful year in whatever way I could. Maybe my relationship to politics has simply been restored to what should be its natural state, as forcefully and abruptly as possible. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

As for Trump himself, I don’t think there’s any point in denying that what he did was extraordinary. As L. Ron Hubbard, a charismatic leader with disturbing affinities to Trump, once wrote: “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” Trump did this unequivocally, and along the way, he reminded us of how little we know about anything, both individually and collectively. Maybe it’s a lesson that all we needed to be taught, although I sincerely doubt it will be worth the cost. And I still don’t know what to make of it. Goethe said of another historic figure:

The story of Napoleon produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

Despite its apocalyptic tone—or perhaps because of it—this is pretty much what I’m feeling now. I don’t have any illusions that Trump will be a decent president, and even a mediocre presidency seems like too much to ask. What consoles me now is that there are good things in this country, and in all our lives, that Trump can never take away. As the world becomes Tlön, the rest of us will muddle through, even if it has to be on our own. My wife and I lost one baby, but we’ll try for another. But I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

Quote of the Day

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Marilyn Monroe

An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are. Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer…Like any creative human being, I would like a bit more control so that it would be a little easier for me when the director says, “One tear, right now,” that one tear would pop out. But once there came two tears because I thought, “How dare he?” Goethe said, “Talent is developed in privacy,” you know? And it’s really true. There is a need for aloneness, which I don’t think most people realize for an actor. It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment.

Marilyn Monroe, to Richard Meryman in Life Magazine

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 17, 2010.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of the word “alright.” Most seductively of all, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time.

Take the five in the graph above, for instance. It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a modest spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we’d suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value. And it’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

Quote of the Day

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André Maurois

Total retirement, natural to the saint, is injurious to most artists. They work marvelously so long as there are materials at hand. Goethe has further advice: “Solitude is a wonderful thing when one is at peace with oneself and when there is a definite task to be accomplished.”

André Maurois

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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