Tag Archives: Goethe

Ambigram: More light

Reportedly Goethe’s last words:

More light

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Suppose everything matters

“What if nothing means anything?” Calvin asks Hobbes during one of their wagon rides through the woods. “What if nothing really matters?” Two panels later he adds, “Or suppose everything matters. Which would be worse?”

Both propositions — nihilism and its opposite — are equally frightening because they have the same practical result: the negation of the idea of relative importance. We can’t do everything, and so we need some things to be more important than others, so that we can sacrifice the less important things in order to pursue the more important ones. The idea that everything is equally important leads to the same paralysis as does nihilism: it gives us no grounds for choosing any particular course of action over any other. Without “an opposition in all things,” as Lehi puts it, “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.”

When I try to look at reality antisolipsistically — taking the stance that all points in time are equally “present” (eternalism) and all points of view are equally “I” (ekatmanism) — I find that it brings me dangerously close to the philosophically dysfunctional belief that everything is equally important because it undermines some very basic distinctions. We are accustomed to thinking of long durations as more important than short ones, for example — a distinction which evaporates if time is just another dimension and the real “duration” of everything is eternity. Eternalism tends to lead one to disregard duration entirely and focus only on quality. If one can be perfectly happy even for a few seconds, isn’t that enough, since those few seconds will never “pass” or cease to exist? This is the reasoning behind Goethe’s version of Faust’s pact with the devil:

If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.

If he can attain even a single moment of perfect happiness, Faust will consent to be damned — more than that, he positively wishes to perish. Once that perfect moment has been realized, the whole future is irrelevant; the ultimate goal has been reached, nothing can possibly add to or detract from it, and there is no call for further action of any kind.

Hölderlin expresses the same thought in the closing lines of “An die Parzen“: “Einmal lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarf’s nicht.” — Once I lived like the gods, and nothing more is required. And if that “ich” is understood as the universal Atman, the “nicht” becomes absolute: If Hölderlin (or anyone else) once lived like the gods, nothing more is required of anyone.

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Reading: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ve read the following works by Goethe:

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, translated by Catherine Hutter (16 Jun 2007)
  • Faust, Part I, translated by Peter Salm (20 Jun 2007)
  • Goethe’s Faust, Part One and Selections from Part Two, translated by Walter Kaufmann (18 Nov 2007)
  • Faust (Part Two), translated by Philip Wayne (12 Apr 2009)

I’ve read three different translations of (parts of) Faust and can compare them. The following pivotal passage is from Part One, but it is quoted in the preface to Wayne’s translation of Part Two, so I have all three translators’ versions.

Salm:

If ever I should tell the moment:
Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!
Then you may cast me into chains,
then I shall smile upon perdition!
Then may the hour toll for me,
then you are free to leave my service.
The clock may halt, the clock hand may fall,
and time come to an end for me!

Kaufmann:

If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.
Then let the death bell ever toll,
Your service done, you shall be free,
The clock may stop, the hand may fall,
As time comes to an end for me.

Wayne:

If to the fleeting hour I say
“Remain, so fair thou art, remain!”
Then bind me with your fatal chain,
For I will perish in that day.
‘Tis I for whom the bell shall toll,
Then you are free, your service done.
For me the clock shall fail, to ruin run,
And timeless night descend upon my soul.

Salm’s prose translation is presumably the most literal of the three, if a bit, well, prosaic. Of the two verse translations, Kaufmann’s is much closer to Salm’s than Wayne’s is. Based on that, and on what German I know (which is precious little, but even I know the difference between an hour and an Augenblick!), I’d say Kaufmann’s translation is the best of the three, retaining the poetry of the original (as Salm does not) without straying too far from the original meaning (as Wayne seems to). Unfortunately Kaufmann didn’t translate the entire play, and his “selections” from the second part are no substitute for the whole shebang. Although I’d consider it the worst of the three translations, Wayne’s Part Two was still a more intense aesthetic experience than either of the other two books, thanks to the content. Later I hope I can find an uncut translation as skilled as Kaufmann’s abridged one.

Other major works by Goethe that I want to read later:

  • Elective Affinities
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
  • Dichtung und Wahrheit

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