Happy Birthday, Goethe. 1999, 270 years later

On August 28, 1999, I returned to San Diego State University. This time I would not be teaching English as a Second Language at an attached international school,  but really teaching university classes in composition to native speakers. I’d worked hard to make this career transition; it had taken me five years of a rather challenging apprenticeship in three local community colleges, but I was there. I had honestly never imagined I’d make it. I was over the moon that day with happiness and excitement. I would have ten very, very happy years there before the serious problems with California’s economy and the maturation of No Child Left Behind changed my world.

It was one of the happiest days of my life and it was even better because I began teaching on Goethe’s 350th birthday. I taught my two classes. Both were interesting with very lively and bright young people. Afterwards, I went up the hill to the library. As I walked the carillons called out from the beautiful bell tower in Hepner Hall and I took it as a sign that the whole world was sharing my happiness on this day.


Hepner Hall — “Old Main” at SDSU, gorgeous old Spanish revival building with a bell tower.

I wanted to see what works of Goethe were held within the walls of SDSU’s Love Library (a library I DID love, by the way). I got up to the fourth floor and saw what I would say was about 100 square feet of Goethe, most of it in German.


My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t read most of it, and I doubted (correctly) that I would ever be able to.

Later that day, I met a friend at Pacific Beach and as the sun set, we walked along the beach. Someone had made an immense sand castle and lit the windows with candles. We watched as the waves slowly undermined the castle and put the candles out.

It was Goethe’s birthday cake.

At that time in my life, Goethe was my best friend. I know that sounds odd, but I’ve never been so narrow minded that I have limited friendships to the living. Now I know that Goethe’s mind that went easily from art to science, resounded with my own. Perhaps it was the time in which he lived, at the beginning of thoughtful and systematic scientific inquiry, a moment that coincided with the development of the novel in the west. Goethe loved Tristram Shandy and The Vicar of Wakefield. Whatever the cause, Goethe’s way of seeing the world was instructive to me, particularly because he, himself, had to learn it — and he wrote about his process of learning it.

Even today (and I despise it) there is a tug between “heart” and “mind” or art vs. science, intuition vs. reason, etc. etc. etc. as if it were not completely obvious that they both exist in the same world at the same time and therefore it would seem that, uh, they both exist in the same world at the same time? Goethe had realized (slowly) that the so-called intuition/heart/sentiment could hold him back from life, from seeing reality (ie. his current crush, Frau von Stein, was just stringing him along for her own entertainment — it was unrequited love), from creating new work, from forming real relationships. He could be caught in the veil of illusion woven by desire and hope. Finally, he went out into the world — ran away from his job and social ties — in his 30s with the question (a good question) “What’s REAL, anyway?”

I’d asked that question, too, in my early 40s. It’s a dangerous question for anyone who really asks it because it has the power to up-end a person’s world. I met Goethe toward the end of that moment in my life. He was a good landing spot.

Fortunately for me, Goethe examined his life through writing and he wrote a lot. In reading I found many wonderful treasures. One of my favorites is the letters between Thomas Carlyle and Goethe — Carlyle was a young man, a young thinker, who had just found Goethe. By then, Goethe was an elderly man. The two struck up a friendship that included baskets of gifts and visits to Weimar. For me, personally, the letters formed a bridge showing me something about my own thinking and upbringing. My maternal grandfather loved Carlyle more than any writer or thinker, and I was lucky to have seen his worn and well-read volume of Sartor Resartus.

I began this year reading a small, paper bound volume of some chapters of Italian Journey that I found in an Etsy shop. It was sold by a book collector in Spain. The small book, printed in the 1920s, was published in English in Italy, a cheap edition, the type that would have been sold from open air stands at train stations (I think).

A little back story; Goethe had tried painting when he was in Italy. His idea was to paint his journey (no cameras, right?) and he also wondered (since he had not written much of anything since the comet that set the world ablaze, The Sorrows of Young Werther, whether he was a writer or not. He wandered around Italy, particularly in Rome, and spent time with a group of artists and tried to paint. The watercolor at the top of this post is a painting by Goethe of a scene in either Northern Italy, perhaps Lago di Garda, or of a lake in Switzerland. Of his sojourn into the visual arts he said:

“The artists are ready enough with their hints and instructions, for I am quick in apprehending them. But then the lesson, so quickly learnt and understood, is not so easily put in practice. To apprehend quickly is, forsooth, the attribute of the mind, but correctly to execute that, requires practice of a life.”

It’s easy, often, to understand what we need to do using our reason and mental muscle, but in many things that is only the beginning. Practice alone leads to mastery, and I believe that is true not only of painting but of life itself.

Here’s last year’s birthday card to Goethe.

Happy Birthday, Goethe.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

Portrait of Goethe in the Italian countryside by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.


6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Goethe. 1999, 270 years later

  1. Thanks to you I read Goethe’s Faust (in german). Did I understand it? Yes I understood all the German, but whether I appreciated it is something else. I should really take a course or go to the local theater when they are doing a production. I can imagine how you felt when you got your job. there are things is life that we work on achieving and when it happens you are on top of the world.

    • I think it takes days to perform Faust, but one amazing rendition of scenes of it is in a film with Maria Brandauer, “Mephisto.” I think (since you both love Fellini) you might like the film. It’s about an actor in Germany who doesn’t leave when the Nazis come. He tries very hard to remain neutral so he can continue to perform. It’s a great film. It’s based on a play written by Thomas Mann’s son and the character portrayed by Brandauer actually existed. He was Thomas Mann’s daughter’s husband or boyfriend (don’t remember). If you get to see it, let me know how you like it!

  2. Martha, what would you recommend as a good first book to read by Goethe? I’m a reader and have always been curious about him, but thought he must be fantastically and incomprehensibly philosophical like Kant or Hume.

    • Oh no, Goethe’s not incomprehensible or self-important and he didn’t write philosophy. But the problem with Goethe for the modern reader is that he was a pioneer so when we read a novel like Sorrows of Young Werther we’re all “Been there, done that” but no one in Goethe’s world had been there or done that. Goethe is very funny, too. That’s another problem because he’s been called “The Shakespeare of Germany” and people have this idea that Shakespeare’s difficult and serious, they’re put off — but Goethe would say he was unworthy of the comparison and Shakespeare’s funny, too. I think the best book for someone just wanting to meet Goethe and to form a friendship, is Italian Journey and since you like to travel and places in the book might resonate with you you might really enjoy it. That was my first contact with Goethe and I’m very glad it was. Another book I love is Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre. Again, the novel in German was a pretty new form so it’s not as well constructed as we think novels should be, but you get Goethe’s philosophy through the story. The book I love best was written by Goethe’s secretary late in Goethe’s life; he transcribed his diary and conversations he had with Goethe, it’s “Conversations with Eckermann.” Parts of Faust are hilarious and the idea Goethe had that an inquiring mind like Goethe’s shouldn’t be damned is pretty interesting. I found the second part of Faust completely incomprehensible but there were places in there that were so incredibly beautiful I was really changed by them. Here’s a paper I wrote, partly about Goethe, and there is a lot of the real guy in it, the guy who, in his late 70s, fell in love with an 18 year old girl, got a broken heart, wrote a beautiful sad poem about it and then bounced back to laugh at himself. ❤ https://marthakennedy.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/old-heroes-the-heroism-of-mere-survival/

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