Happy Goethe’s Birthday

Where I “met” Goethe for the first time…

Today is Goethe’s birthday — 273 years ago. Yesterday, on a whim, I signed up for a free online class put out by — of all places — Harvard University. What struck me was that the first topic in a six week course “Ancient Topics of World Literature” was Goethe. I did the first week’s lectures yesterday (all of them about Goethe) and I loved every minute of it. What’s ahead? Some familiar works and a couple of completely new works. I don’t know if I’m actually going to do the whole class, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do the discussions. We’re reading Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, 1001 Arabian Nights, Tale of Genji, and the Lusiad. That is a lot of pages for six weeks — but the “kids” who pay for the course have longer to do it. I have read all of these but The Lusiad though some a long time ago. Since I didn’t officially enroll for a certificate, I figure I can do what I want.

Here’s the course description, “Welcome to Ancient Masterpieces of World Literature. You’re joining an international group of literature enthusiasts from over 150 countries—a fitting cohort given the global history of literature you’ll discover. Over the course of the semester, we’ll introduce you to the great texts that have shaped our world, but also the people behind those texts and the places from which they emerged. We believe that literature is the best way to learn about the world because the foundational texts of literature we’ll be discussing are the DNA of entire cultures, stories that were told and retold countless times…

I wondered why the course started with Goethe. It seemed a little odd, but great, as far as I was concerned. It turns out that the term, “World Literature,” was invented by Goethe. Maybe I should have noticed it because it’s reported in one of my favorite books, Conversations with Goethe written by Goethe’s secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. I guess in all the times I read that book, I didn’t pay attention to that. It’s a very small thing in a larger context, and Goethe’s remark didn’t matter much to Eckermann. Goethe had just read a Chinese novel and Eckermann had commented, “That must have been strange.” Goethe responded that it wasn’t strange at all, but that it was good, but different.

We’ll see what kind of student I will be, but an intellectual challenge and something new to learn feels very, very good. But…I wish I could talk to Goethe about Chinese novels. This time travel thing is still fraught with limitations .

I’m sorry. I got carried away and forgot to use the prompt. 😦

Horizontal Travel

After thinking about vertical travel yesterday, a comment made me think about horizontal travel. Val of A Different Perspective wrote, “Having just returned (almost) from a horizontal vacation, I find it was a vertical exploration of my self.” That’s the thing. Most travel teaches us about ourselves. It’s wonderful that way.

Yesterday I started the next essay in The Spell of New Mexico, an essay by Carl Jung. It starts with the idea that we learn about ourselves by looking at others and traveling to other nations and cultures. Jung writes how he was looking for something in particular that is related to the psychology of the Taos Pueblo Indians, particularly about their religion. He found it. I think it matters and might be a whole ‘nother blog post, but essentially it is their belief that their actions moved the sun and moon from horizon to horizon; in other words, they saw themselves (see themselves?) as active participants in the welfare of the world. I don’t think that’s so far from our troubling discussion over human culpability in climate change. Jung made the point that Christian religions are generally so abstract that the human is removed completely from participation in the universes. Thinking about Jung’s interpretation of the Taos Indians’ beliefs, yeah. Maybe we should see ourselves as a lot more involved than we have. It also made me think of vertical travel. If a people never leave the small world of their ancestors, everything will look different to them than to the Lawrences, Jungs, me, my friends and other horizontal travelers; all travel will be vertical and god will be right there. Whoa…

Moving on…

One of my favorite traveler’s birthday is coming up this Sunday. I “met” him through an accidental encounter with his book in the library at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I was heading to Italy to spend Christmas with a man. I didn’t know Italy (ha ha like that’s possible) though I’d been in Venice and Trieste. While my composition students did a scavenger hunt (and drove the librarians mad) I decided to find a book about Italy. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d had a very superficial meeting with Goethe on a street in Zürich, but didn’t know his work at all. I didn’t have an ID card. The librarian asked, “Are you a Goethephile?”

“That’s a word?” I thought, but I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never read him.” That’s when the librarian checked out the book for me.

It was not a book for me. It was a life-changing experience for me. Goethe set out on a trip to Italy in the dark of night, secretly, determined to escape things that were confining him in Weimar — a hopeless love maybe at the top of his list — and writer’s block. He wasn’t even sure at that point he was a writer any more. He was trapped by his bestseller, Sorrows of Young Werther.

I’ve since read the much smaller book he wrote during his trip which is a little different from Italian Journey. He was looking for himself and believed it could do that best through horizontal travel. In the 18th century that wasn’t so easy. Travel was in coaches. Roads were unpredictable. Weather was a palpable problem. Inns could be sketchy. One of Goethe’s goals was to discover himself by looking at Italy as objectively as possible. He lived in Rome for a while and in Naples. He succeeded somewhat in his objective study of Italy, but like most travelers, he found what he hoped to find — his idealized view of the Classical world made real. He was looking for it. His first classical building was the Arena in Verona.

In this journey, he succeeded in distancing himself from the hopeless love and he began writing again.

Goethe tried to go to Italy again ten years later, but his journey was stopped by Napoleon’s Italian campaign. He tried again the next year, but turned around in Switzerland. If I remember right, one of the reasons he turned around was a sudden awareness that “Italy” was in his mind. I always found it a little odd that Goethe didn’t see (?) all of the classical world that exists in what is now Switzerland, but maybe it has only been excavated since his death. I don’t know, but there are whole Roman towns near the Rhine.

Like a lot of travelers, Goethe took home souvenirs — in his case plaster casts of Roman sculptures. I’m trying to imagine TSA dealing with that. 🤣

At this point in my life, I think both horizontal and vertical travel are important. I think Val is right; we learn about ourselves through horizontal travel and that’s supremely useful in life. In vertical travel, we learn about a place outside ourselves. If we know ourselves well enough, we’ll be able to truly SEE the small place through which we travel vertically as a realm outside of ourselves, our preconceptions and it will teach us.

Anyway I’m not partaking in the wonders of horizontal travel right now, though I wish I were. No money. A brake light in my car needs to be replaced. Until I do that, I’m not leaving the Valley. I can’t sit longer than 30 minutes, but my hip is steadily improving. I don’t have a choice when it comes to travel at the moment. It’s vertical or nothing. Luckily, the days will be cool for the next week, and I can go hang out with the mayflies and the raptors. The cranes will be back soon, followed in a few more months by the soft crunch of fresh snow.

Where would I go if I could? I get ideas all the time. My latest was Newfoundland. I sent for a map and book and looked at all the places I’d love to see — including the excavated Viking community L’anse aux Meadows. It’s a very complicated journey from here. But my dad always said our ancestor, Lief Erikson, discovered America. I’d like to see it.

Do Be Do Be Do

The first time I heard the word “polymath” was in a college writing class. No, the word did not emit from my repository of SAT words, but one of my Mexican students asked something about Goethe. “Wasn’t he that German polymath who wrote poetry, drew and painted, developed theories of optics and the origin of plants?”

I looked at the student and thought, “That’s an interesting word!” And I thought, “Boy, if you grow up speaking a Romance language you have the SAT sewn up.”

Lately, I’ve been reading academic papers about the Middle Ages from a site called “Academia.” They send me papers periodically, and if they interest me, I read them. One caught my attention, “The Aged polymath as a Non-professional Artist” by Joseph Salzman. It discusses the retired scientists who become artists after retirement and the hurdles they must face — notably learning to paint (ha ha). Some of his points ring true for me, too. I’m not a retired scientist, but I have not been a career artist, either. If I’m honest with myself and look at my actual life as I have lived it, I have been a teacher. So…I have had to learn about the materials, struggle to get my work shown (even more difficult in a place where no one lives), face my lack of skill, deal with jealousy and competition (not mine; other artists in this place where there are more artists than people…what?)…

I remember the way some of my science teachers looked down their noses at art, as if it didn’t require any “mind,” knowledge or discipline. My dad — a theoretical mathematician — had a high regard for art, particularly poetry and drawing, and he tried all his life to improve his abilities at both. I grew up with that as a model. I’ve always known that the dichotomy between art and science is a false dichotomy, but… Salzman writes in his piece about the OPPOSITE judgmentalism on the part of artists toward the retired scientist turned painter which is, basically, that the cool kids won’t let him play.

But there is a more compelling challenge: the perspective of the art-world. The aged poly-math is trying to erase boundaries while the art world institutions are set to preserve them. In spite of the high diversity and variability of artistic expressions, institutions, constructs, there is always a divide, a frontier between the professional artist and the “others”, and the ubiquitous gatekeepers (Art critics, curators, gallery owners, dealers, art teachers) Gate keepers defend boundaries by using social theories of cultural capital, habits, and held value. They may assume the role of arbiters of quality without offering justification for their judgments.

They marginalize by labeling: outsider, art-brut, folk-art, self-taught artist, naïve-art, outlier,craft, junk art, and more recently amateurish! Labels communicate confusing ideas, causing misunderstanding and derogative connotation. But polymathy is beyond all that. It is rooted on the very foundation of humanity: onfostering culture. Regardless the specific field: science, technology, poetry, mathematics or the arts, the polymath is vitally engaged 

Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist”

The word “amateur” means “one who loves” and that should be reason enough for anything we do. I have no problem being an “amateur.” If there were some miracle and I were suddenly a famous painter/writer I’d still be an “amateur” (I hope). And a dilettante — one who delights. Bring it on. And, IMO, any artist should work for the sake of the work FIRST. Any accolades (and money) are kind of after the fact. A retired scientist — presumably with a pension — isn’t in the same boat as a young person striving to make his/her way as an artist. That retired scientist is like me.

I’ve thought a lot about what if I’d had art as a career. My mother was adamantly opposed to either my brother or me being an artist. My brother went for it anyway (kind of) and I didn’t, but it didn’t mean I stopped making art, stopped writing and stopped painting. Not at all, never. But the necessity of earning a living meant I had to work and, lucky for me I had work that I loved and which was meaningful to me most of the 38 years I did it. I realized some years ago that I was lucky that my mom pretty much forced me NOT to become an artist (I began college as an art major) because I was never compelled to become an art whore. I’m no great talent. I’m a good talent that, until I got to know myself, would have been a pretty decent commercial artist. Nothing wrong with that, but teaching was better for me. Being a versatile kind of human made me a better teacher — I think. Being a teacher made me a better person — I’m sure.

The question the article ends with is the important point, the meat of polymathy. That question is “Why?”

For him there is no outside or inside. If he makes art, it is simply because he has to. He may bring new values, new projections, create novel versions of the world. Isn’t this the real platform of progress? In reality, not every retiring polymath becoming a non-professional artist is likely to be-come a modern Leonardo. Still, they hold a potential value of social impact. In words of (Professor) Martin Kemp:

…true polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness, and humility… the principle of see-ing something as it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the culture of mutual understanding necessary for the survival of the human race…

Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist” (Joseph Salzman is an Emeritus Professor at The Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Zisapel Nanoelectronics Center, TECHNION The Israel Institute of Technology.)

So, if I had Joseph Salzman in front of me right now I’d just say, “Shut up and paint,” but I’m not sure he’d listen to me. After all, I was just a writing teacher. 🤪

Featured photo: Goethe’s color wheel

Dinner Party

A couple of days ago, my blogging pal at Half-fast Cycling Club posted about the three people he would most like to have dinner with at a dinner party. I remember writing that very thing a looooonnnnngggg time ago and thought, “That’s even more interesting now.” Back then I think I said “Goethe, Voltaire, and T. E. Lawrence.” I realized it would be a different dinner party this time, different guests and a very different party.

Why Goethe back then? There’s the proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That’s what happened to me with “Wolfie” back in 1998 when I read Italian Journey. Goethe had struggled with and written about one of the most persistent problems of my life (personality?) Later I saw a photo of the lantern he gave his guests after they visited him so they could find their way home. I printed out the photo and framed it. Voltaire? The endlessly useful reminder that all we can do is tend our garden; not only is it ALL we can do; it is exactly what we SHOULD do and it’s enough. And Lawrence? Strange as it may sound, he was my childhood hero.

This wondrous dinner couldn’t be at my house. For one thing, I only have two dining chairs, and then there are my absurdly friendly dogs and my basic lack of furniture (thanks dogs). I decided I would take my guests to Ninos, one of the half dozen local Mexican restaurants but the one that has been voted “Best Green Chile in the San Luis Valley.” That’s how we spell “chili” down here. Live with it. Considering that we are between the two biggest producers of green chile in the world (Hatch farms in New Mexico and Pueblo farms 100 miles north of me in Colorado) green chile is a serious business here and a staple of our diets. As it happens, I even made it when I lived in China.

Then I thought of all the people who might appreciate it, and I decided to invite my dad, my former boyfriend, Peter, and my Swiss medievalist historian friend, Rainer Hugener. I picked them because I’ve had dinner with them before and we always had a good time with very interesting conversations. I’d have to fly Rainer (and his awesome girlfriend Kirsten) over from Zürich and resurrect Peter and my Dad but so what?

My dad would be incredibly happy to see where I live and he would love the chile, after nearly 50 years in the cold ground, especially. I remember eating green chile burritos with Peter in Denver, so I think he’d be fine, though what we have down here is a little more old school and authentic than 1970s Denver. It’ll be new for Rainer and Kirsten, maybe, but I ate at a Mexican restaurant in Baden, so who knows?

Naturally, my dad and Peter would be liberated from the health problems that sent them to the Netherworld.

I think my dad would find Peter, Rainer and Kirsten very interesting to talk to and, as one of the pioneers in computing (I have a paper he wrote in 1957 — using a UNIVAC, which means punch-cards — for a presentation at a university in Alabama on the future of computers in education), he would be totally fascinated by our phones. I might bring along my laptop, but I would definitely have to bring a phone for him; luckily, I have my old iPhone SE. He would want to do EVERYTHING. The rest of us use it without being particularly in love with it, and that would make it wonderful to watch my dad. The three of us alive now would probably get a new appreciation. I can hear him say, “See, MAK? What did I tell you! Even SMALLER than toasters.” When I was a little girl, my dad told me that someday computers would be as small as toasters and every home would have one. I would have to tell him that my “toaster” has a computer IN it. He’d love the chile, both red and green, and having a Modelo or Dos Equis.

Peter (who would drink Tequila shots) would not care at all about the new technology, but that’s OK. He might be interested in my books — certainly surprised by them — and maybe fascinated by the whole “Indie” publishing options we have now. If he learned I evolved into a Swiss medievalist historian — and that is how I know Rainer and Kirsten — he’d be REALLY surprised. I’d give him a copy of the book I wrote about “us” — a story he’s already read both as our lives and as a draft. I’d tell him that part of one of his letters hangs in my studio because his words are inspiring, and that I knew him still very important. He’d say, “STILL?” as if how could it be any other way? And we’d laugh.

I know my dad was never in Europe, but Peter was, many, many times and studied at the Sorbonne. I don’t know if he traveled to Switzerland — it doesn’t seem like his kind of destination, but who knows? In that conversation I would learn. There wouldn’t be much small talk because none of them are small talk people. There would be a lot of joking around because they’re all intelligent and funny. The misery of talking politics might be eliminated since my dad clocked out in 1972 and Peter in 1987.

Rainer and Kirsten would (maybe) experiment with the food and drink Margaritas. Historians make jokes (yeah, really) — medieval historians tend to have a rather “medieval” sense of humor which I know my dad would appreciate and probably Peter, too. I love being around Rainer because I can totally relax, and it was the same with Peter and my dad.

My plan — rather than gathering the wisdom of historical and literary greats (who might have been total assholes in real life) — would be just to have a good time with people I like. I would not want the evening to end. Rainer and Kirsten could stay with me and we could spend the next day seeing the timeless wonders of the San Luis Valley — which (even my small town) still looks kind of like the old west — and, who knows? Maybe my dad and Peter would find a way to come along?

August 28, 1749

On this day ini 1749 one of my best friends was born. I try to find a way to celebrate this event every year but this year? I have no idea. Maybe just this post.

I think anyone who reads has a favorite author and they are favorites for probably infinite reasons. I met Goethe at exactly the right moment in my little trajectory around the sun. It was accidental. It was 1998 and I had taken a class to the library for a scavenger hunt at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA. I had been invited to visit a friend in Italy (another story) that Christmas, but I didn’t know much about Italy. I was wandering around the stacks for a useful book about Italy while my students worked. I found a big surprise, Goethe (whose work I had never read) had written about Italy. The book was Italian Journey. I went to the desk and learned I couldn’t check it out without an ID card. I didn’t then have one. One of the librarians, seeing what I wanted, checked it out for me.

I went home, read Italian Journey over the weekend, and fell in love on every page. Who WAS this man?

I took Goethe with me everywhere I went after that, either in the form of some book or other or in my mind.

Once on a plane from Salt Lake City (a plane change point from Billings, MT) to San Diego, I sat by a little boy. He was playing a video game. When I sat down and got settled, he asked if I had a pen he could borrow so he could keep score. I did so I handed it to him. I was traveling (as I did for a long time) with Conversations with Goethe (Gespräche mit Goethe) which is the book compiled by Goethe’s end-of-life secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann. I opened my book as the plane took off and started to read. In a little while the kid — who later told me he was 7 years old — touched my arm and said, “Do you want to have a conversation?”

Of course I did. Talking to kids is great. It was a wide ranging talk that involved learning that this kid was fascinated by WW II and thought German engineers had designed cool planes because of the rotary engine. I learned he’d been staying at his grandparents (a-HA) but then I learned why. His brother had been killed in a car accident only a few months before and his mom was devastated. The family was on its way to Mexico for the New Year and maybe to help his mom recover. I said I was very sorry. “Me too,” the little boy said. Then, “Have you been to Germany?”

“Only barely,” I said. “I have friends in Switzerland and we went to a couple towns on the border.”

“Can you speak German?” he asked me.

“A little.”

“I want to learn German.”

“It’s a great language,” I said. “My favorite writer was from Germany.” I showed him my book.

Then I thought about this kid’s mom and how smart this kid was. “German’s a lot like English,” I said. “I bet if I wrote something for you, you could guess some of the words.”

“OK.”

We had a huge supply of cocktail napkins on which I’d been drawing WW II airplanes and he’d been identifying them. I took a new one and wrote:

Alles geben die Götter, die unendlichen,
Ihren Lieblingen ganz,
Alle Freuden, die unendlichen,
Alle Schmerzen, die unendlichen, ganz.


The kid was incredibly brave compared to a lot of people and fearlessly went at it. “I see ‘all’ and ‘end’.”

“Wow,” I said. “What if I tell you sometimes ‘t’ is ‘d’ in English?”

“Is that god?”

“Good job.”

“It IS like English. What does it mean?”

I wrote my simple translation on the back of the napkin and handed it to him. He read it thoughtfully with great respect. Then I showed him how the words of Goethe’s poem in German corresponded with the words in English so he could see the relationships.

“Can I give this to my mother?” he asked. “She needs it.”

“It’s yours,” I said.

We all got off the plane in San Diego. I knew I’d been deeply privileged that day.

You can hear the poem recited in German here. It’s lovely

—-

More or less: All is given by the eternal gods to those they love, whole. All joy, unending. All sorrow (suffering), unending, whole.

I’m not a German scholar so this isn’t a very artistic translation. People argue about the meaning of words (schmerzen, freuden, unendlichen, Götter) but I don’t want to. I know I’m not the king of this stuff. I also know that words have connotations in their own languages that are often untranslatable. BUT I think the whole meaning — Ganz! — of this poem is clear in every language, even in a primitive translation like mine.



I taught a summer literature class one year. On the first day one of the students said, “I hate poetry. Are you going to make us read it?”

I laughed and said, “It’s a literature class. What do you think?”

Of course I talked of Goethe during that class. A couple of years later she showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”

“No.”

“Well there’s a bag in the department office for you. I can’t believe they didn’t give it to you.” We went together and she handed it to me. “I found it at a yard sale.”

It is the most amazing book. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1871 compilation of poetry by European writers starting with the Anglo/Saxons. Inside is a scattering of maple leaves. There are thousands of poems and poets in that book, from the Middle Ages to Longfellow’s own historical moment, but of them all the frontispiece is…

De-compressing, continued.

I spent the morning cleaning up half of the front yard before the wind came up. Tomorrow is supposed to be chilly again so Bear and I will be free. While few cranes remain in the Valley, a few flew over me this morning.

As I have been maybe subconsciously involved in decompressing from the past five years, and the last year in particular, I’m sometimes overcome with realizations of what’s happened and the emotions that go with them. Today it was the realization that more than half a million people died in this country from Covid-19. That’s an incomprehensible number. That statistic — like a lot of other things — I pushed down inside because there was nothing I could do about it, no way to change it, no way to understand, no useful way to express my anger at Trump for his cavalier handling of the virus (i.e.“And I said to my people, slow the testing down.” -Donald J Trump, April, 2020), no way to provide knowledge to the people — doctors and nurses — who were struggling to save lives and comprehend a new and unpredictable illness at the same time. How must they have felt when their ignorance led to deaths? And it did, through no fault of the doctors or nurses. When my cousin got sick, it was late enough in the disease’ trajectory that the hospital knew pretty well what to do.

A friend I was talking to earlier said, “Remember Anderson Cooper when the number hit 200,000? His face was red, he was so angry and so sad.”

I do remember that, though, like a lot of things over this past year, it was pushed away in the bin of “SEP” — the “somebody else’s problem” forcefield from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a forcefield that renders things invisible. It’s a useful tool when there really is NOTHING you can do to ameliorate a situation or solve a problem and it’s really NOT your problem, but I’ve had to use it too much in the past 12 months. Along with the “problem” I hid my feelings from myself.

Yesterday morning, I went looking for my copy of Goethe’s Faust. My thought was to write about Easter as depicted in the opening act of the play. It’s beautiful and Eastery, but as soon as I started reading, I knew I wasn’t going to post about that on Easter, and I didn’t.

I haven’t read Faust in many years. As I plunged into it yesterday, I felt a real sense of calm. This is good work written by a man with serious questions struggling with fiction/drama using an ancient “hero” (Faust) to confront a lot of big questions. One of the questions early in the play is the limits of human knowledge. Faust’s father was a doctor (as is Faust) and when the public thanks him and his father (posthumously) for the good work they did in saving people from the plague, Faust backs away from their gratitude, telling his student, Wagner, that he is sure his father and he killed more people than they saved, not out of malice but out of their ignorance.

“The medicine was there, and though the patient died,
Nobody questioned: who got well?
In these same mountains, in this valley,
With hellish juice worse than the pest.
Though thousands died from poison that I myself would give
Yes, though they perished, I must live,
To hear the shameless killers blessed.”

It made me sad to read that.

If you know the story of Faust, he ended up selling his soul to the Devil to finally find out the ultimate truth behind the phenomena of nature. Christopher Marlowe’s Faust hasn’t stayed with me except as a good story well-told and entertaining. Goethe’s is, I think, more complex. Faust struggles with the fact that the Devil turns out to be a pretty superficial little shit who leads him into temptation without helping him understand anything or get closer to the answers he seeks.

Goethe’s love of nature shines in everything I’ve read, and so, here is this beautiful, resonant thing that is the truth about humans and why, maybe, we thank the doctor for having done the best he/she could and we move on, letting the dark pain emerge when and as it will. Anyway, it speaks for me as did the small group of late cranes calling out as they flew over me this morning, above the low clouds, where I could not see them.

“Our body grows no wings and cannot fly,
Yet it is innate in our race
That our feelings surge in us and long
When over us, lost in the azure space
The lark trills out her glorious song;
When over crags where fir trees quake
In icy winds, the eagle soars,
And over plains and over lakes,
The crane returns to homeward shores.”

Goethe, Faust Part I


Is it Worth Reading?

Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself.

Reposted from September 11, 2015

Mentor for Life

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “mentor” became a verb. Well, maybe it was always a verb, but I had only heard it as a noun taken from Mentor, the friend Odysseus left in charge of his son’s education while Odysseus was out there becoming the legend of millennia. Mrs. Zinn (my AP English teacher) explained all of that. It was cool to me in high school that Mentor’s name had come to mean a great teacher, a model for young people. Mrs. Zinn herself actually qualified, that pocket-dynamo with a classical education.

When I was teaching, it got to be a “thing” to “mentor” new teachers. I was (obviously) never called upon to do this because I never had tenure and was, therefore, always a “new” teacher, but my colleagues were always talking about their “mentee” with great importance and fussing around.

I’ve had some mentors in my life. First my dad who taught me not to let anyone do my thinking for me. Then, various teachers — Mrs. Zinn, as I’ve mentioned, then Mr. Preston at Colorado Woman’s College who furthered my dad’s tutelage at a moment when I really needed it, and who was there to help me grow through the moment of my dad’s death. In grad school, I was extremely lucky in my thesis adviser, Dr. Robert D. Richardson who saw me for the person I am. A true mentor is, I think, that kind of teacher.

As time passed, and I became more complete (i.e. older) I still needed a mentor. I found Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. If you were to visit my house, you’d see bits of Goethe everywhere. For me, he’s not “the Shakespeare of Germany” (I don’t think he’d like that, I don’t think he’d feel worthy). He’s a friend somewhat further down the road (a lot further, in fact).

I “met” him when I checked Italian Journey out of the library of one of the colleges where I was teaching. What a surprise that book was to me! Here was a man after my own heart. I read everything I could find translated into English.

One of the amazing things I discovered was his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was someone I met in a Victorian lit class in undergraduate school. I kind of liked him, but at the time I was preoccupied with other things — the usual post-adolescent depressionism stuff, my dad’s illness, my mom’s manic rages and her despair, my brother’s disintegration. And school. Later I learned that my grandfather’s mentor had been Thomas Carlyle. One of my cousins showed me a well thumbed volume with brown pages that had been my grandfather’s constant companion. And here were these two men writing each other. Goethe was Carlyle’s mentor! Their letters are wonderful, human, homely, friendly. Carlyle is largely responsible for Goethe being known in Britain — he translated some of Goethe’s poetry and Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Year.

Learning that, I felt a connection to a grandfather I never knew.

Carlyle has written of Goethe in the introduction to his translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre:

“…Goethe’s culture as a writer is perhaps less remarkable than his culture as a man. He has learned not in head only, but also in heart; not from Art and Literature, but also by action and passion in the rugged school of experience. If asked what was the grand characteristic of his writings, we should not say Knowledge but Wisdom. A mind that has seen, and suffered, and done, speaks to us of what it has tried and conquered. A gay delineation will give us notice of dark and toilsome experiences, of business done in the great deep of the spirit; a maxim, trivial to the careless eye, will rise with light and solution over long, perplexed periods of our own history. It is thus that heart speaks to heart…”

That’s the essence of it.

 

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1932 Menu from a German Luxury Liner — the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s death.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/mentor/

Rococo

This is one of the wisest things I’ve ever read. It puts things squarely where they belong, and it is sometimes difficult to remember:

“…whatever we nourish in ourselves grows; that is an eternal law of nature. There is an organ of displeasure, of dissatisfaction in us, as there is one of opposition and doubt. The more food we provide for it and the more we practice it, the mightier it becomes until it turns from an organ into a malignant ulcer and banefully eats up its environment, drains and strangles all the good humors of the body. Then repentance, self-reproach and other absurdities are added to it, we become unjust toward others and ourselves. The joy at ones own success and action as well as that of others is lost. In our desperation we finally look for the reason of all evil outside ourselves instead of finding it in our mental perversion. We should see every person and every event in its real light, one should step beyond oneself to be able to return to oneself all the more free.” Goethe quoted by his friend, Friedrich von Muller.”

I’ve been watching the British art historian’s –Waldemar Januszczak — series’ off and on for a couple of years. The most recent one I’ve looked at is Rococo Before Bedtime. I don’t always agree with him when he starts inflicting his taste in art on the viewing public, but as MY taste in art conflicts with the Rococo, I never learned to appreciate it. I never even put it in its place in time. I’ve seen some of it. I got to spend a day at the Nymphenburg Castle in Munich trying to fathom it and what my new acquaintance was telling me. He was a docent from the Haus du Kunst the formerly Hitlerian government art museum building. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak any German, and we relied on something loosely resembling French. The architecture was beautiful, the interior ornamentation? I didn’t get it.

And this grossed me out:

 

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Carriage, Nymphenburg Castle

 

It’s pretty impossible to escape personal taste. The baroque and rococo (the baroque becomes the rococo) churches I’ve visited in Europe are still over-the-top to me. The first one I visted was Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. Entering that sanctuary for the first time was scary. I’d NEVER been in a place like that — or even in a Catholic church. EVERYTHING was there in a vast 3D illusion — and some actual 3D legs and arms made of stucco (plaster). I felt the full and intended effect, I guess, of what I have now learned the Catholic church wanted me to feel. My friend and I retreated from that place and took a walk in the woods.

 

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Ceiling, Einsiedeln Abbey

 

It was interesting to learn, however, that the baroque (which led to the Rococo)  was (in Januszczak’s opinion? Or really?) a church sanctioned art movement that was part of the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent had sent out the order? Edict? that Catholic churches should VIVIDLY depict Bible stories on their walls in reaction to the burning of the idols. Einsiedeln is one of the pilgrimage churches and, according to Januszczak, pilgrimages were big during the baroque and rococo. This also made the pilgrimage churches even richer BUT they had to give the pilgrims some bang for their bucks which contributed to their ornateness. I believe that. Churches I’ve visited that were NOT pilgrim churches but were decorated around the same time are still ornate, but not over-the-top, every square inch peopled with saints, angels, madonnas, and various random people in the “audience,” the faces of donors.

I wasn’t even clear on the YEARS that comprise the baroque and rococo, but watching the program I got it. It was much of Goethe’s lifetime. When I realized that I thought of Goethe’s incredible mind that was, literally, everywhere — science, poetry, drama, erotica, government, mining, botany, geology on and on — and realized that the zeitgeist was such that the fecundity and fluidity in the visual arts and music was everywhere, as elaborate and wildly creative as a rococo ceiling.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/agile/

Don’t Beat Up My Friends

Yesterday I read an article from The New York Review of Books, “Super Goethe” by Ferdinand Mount.

More or less it is a review of a recent biography of Goethe by Rudiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. I made it most of the way through this book until I realized that having read Goethe’s autobiographies (with a grain of salt and a grin) this book was, for me, gratuitous. I didn’t finish it. Goethe wrote a LOT about himself and I felt OK having let him tell his tale. I don’t take issue with Safranski’s book. This review, however?

I have a huge problem with retroactive judgements of historical figures and this review concludes with the intimation that, in another time and another place, Goethe would have been a Nazi.

Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s false. No way to know that because Goethe did not live in another time and another place and just because Weimar is near Buchenwald doesn’t mean Goethe would have been a prison guard, or worse, but Mount concludes his piece with, “I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

I happen to love Goethe, but that doesn’t mean I “know” him. I can’t. But when I look at the past I try to see past the hazy fog of intervening historical events to what had NOT yet happened.

  • In Goethe’s time, there were only the beginnings of what would be the Industrial Revolution. Marx was born when Goethe was 69.
  • When Goethe was a young man and made a journey to Switzerland, the United States of America was three years old and did not yet have a constitution.
  • Voltaire was alive; the Age of Enlightenment was in full force.
  • Goethe lived during the French Revolution. What he saw of it, what he knew of it, would have been FAR different than what we know of it. From Goethe’s perspective it was wanton death on the streets and the destabilization of life for millions of ordinary people.
  • Goethe was the son of a lawyer. Education in his family was extremely important, but it was not the common lot of most people to have the chance to go to school.
  • There was no “Germany.” That geographical blob on the map was a very loose assemblage of small duchies, principalities, etc. Imagine a big hunk of land broken up into hundreds of very vulnerable Liechtensteins and Monacos. When Goethe — or anyone at that time — wrote about “German cultural identity” they were writing about something that didn’t exist.
  • Goethe -SAW war. He was sent to be a correspondent about fighting in the Alsace. His descriptions of this are harrowing. He was never the same person afterward, either. He wrote about refugees from war, too, and problems they had becoming part of the culture to which they had refugeed.
  • Mount has written that Goethe admired Napoleon, a statement that is — miraculously — both true and false. They met. Napoleon could speak of Goethe’s novel, Sorrows of Young Werther but apparently had no directly knowledge of Faust. Goethe admired Napoleon, but only up to a point. Because Goethe was ALIVE at the Napoleonic moment, he would NOT have seen Napoleon the way I do or the author of this article does.
  • Science — as we understand it — was new. The scientific method was being, at that time, defined. Goethe was a contemporary of Newton. Goethe was himself a good scientist and far more influential than most of us are aware.

I will never know who Goethe really was. I like that he wrote very direct erotic poetry. I like that he was irreverent and reverent with life and language, both, at the same time. I appreciate his intellectual curiosity. I like that he believed a person needed to constantly learn, to explore, to nurture curiosity. In the time in which Goethe lived, there was no big push to specialize, and he didn’t. I like that he asked, “What if?” I appreciate his willingness — desire — to learn. I admire his resilient sense of wonder. I know he was misogynistic and thought people who wore glasses were trying to be something they’re not. I don’t know if he would have liked me; I even kind of doubt it. But, that’s OK. I probably wouldn’t have known him if I had been alive during his lifetime. But I’m not. I’m here, now, and I have been able to reap the fruits of his long lifetime of work. I like that he composed poetry such as this:

From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing,
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, and now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many-hued reflection we have life.

(Faust Part II, Act I, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Featured image: The Rhinefalls, ink sketch by Goethe

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/inheritance/