Writing about Goethe and the Marienbad Elegy the other day naturally drew some comments. One was “What 17 year old wouldn’t want to marry a 73 year old man? Kind of late-life midlife crisis.” I’ve thought some of the same thing, like “What was Goethe THINKING?” and “Shouldn’t he have seen reality for what it was, just let it go, saved himself some of this pain and all of his pride?” I didn’t particularly see the mid-life crisis aspect, but maybe. Still, his actions seemed absurd — and also totally expected.
One of the things Emerson had to say about Goethe was that as an artist he never aged, even having the courage to fall in love — and declare his love! — when he was an old man.
I definitely agree that love takes courage.
Goethe had a theory of personality and soul that I have always found very interesting and mysterious. Somewhere among my souvenirs is his essay, which, of course, I can’t find now. He wrote about the timelessness of an individual entelechy. An entelechy is defined generally as the soul, but for Goethe it was more than that; it was the motive power of the self. It is the force that drives a living thing to become what it is whether it is a plant or an animal. The entelechy pre-dates the birth of an individual organism and personality and survives the death of the biological organism that contains it. It does not exist in time.
“The persistence of the individual and the fact that man rejects what does not agree with him, are proofs to me that such a thing as an entelechy exists…” 1830, Conversations with Eckermann
That idea has always explained to me WHY Goethe proposed marriage to this young woman. In his mind, it would seem, there was a recognition of a pre-life connection and maybe he thought she would see it, too. Goethe writes about this kind of thing in his novel, Elective Affinities which was made into a film — a strange film — but definitely watchable and entertaining starring Isabelle Huppert. Honestly, the film doesn’t have much energy but how could it when it is based on a very arcane theory of love? I liked it, and I’d watch it again, but I’d have to buy a $40 DVD, so…
I have no idea if my theory about WHY Goethe went ahead and proposed marriage to this young woman holds water at all, but the idea of entelechy captured my imagination a long time ago when I realized that most of the authentic things I do seem motivated by something that is not exactly my will. Strange coincidences have occurred throughout my life, such as writing about the members of my own family without even knowing it — well, I knew I was writing — I didn’t know the characters would turn out to be my ancestors, long story, not telling it here, but… Another one? Doing a painting of the Refuge before I’d ever seen it. Sometimes it feels to me that “I” just kind of walked into this body as a vessel for now. My earliest dream (that I remember) is me walking down a hospital corridor lined with doors and being pressured to choose one. I opened one to find a clown who took off one mask and then another. Well, that’s a good description of my mom. 🤣
I looked online to find the essay but found only essays about the essay, commentaries and analyses pertinent to whatever each writer cares about none of it really useful to me.
As I’ve hit the 7th decade of my own life something seems very clear. This body which has been a lot of fun and has done well by me is not “me.” I remember back when I reached an age when I thought I “looked like myself.” I was in my 40s and I distinctly thought, “This is the me I was meant to be” as I looked in the mirror one morning before school. The face was mine. The hair was mine. The clothes were mine. It was very strange. And THIS person? The inner person thinks she’s pretty awesome, fragile and funny, yet strong.
How did Goethe see his 73 year old self? Did he even see it or was it completely irrelevant to him? I don’t think I will ever know, but the little poem I posted the other day gives a big clue.
When I was still a youthful wight,
So full of enjoyment and merry,
The painters used to assert, in spite,
That my features were small—yes, very;
Yet then full many a beauteous child
With true affection upon me smiled.
Now as a graybeard I sit here in state,
By street and by lane held in awe, sirs;
And may be seen, like old Frederick the Great,
On pipebowls, on cups, and on saucers.
Yet the beauteous maidens, they keep afar;
Oh, vision of youth! Oh, golden star!
What does this entelechy take away from each of the lives it inhabits? Does it learn? Or is just a “creature” with a mission to be? Does it remember? I suspect it does, but memories are not all that accessible. Goethe’s explanation of what happens to the entelechy when a being dies sounds a lot like Einstein. The entelechy is energy, and energy cannot be lost in the universe.
Clearly our timeless entelechy is not the sum of ourselves. Within each life, a timeless entelechy will continue to create, experiment, imagine, and persist. It matters much more to me that Goethe NEVER stopped doing creative work. Maybe, ultimately, it mattered more to Goethe, too.
Today I walked Teddy. He was marginally good. We started in a calm, lovely afternoon but halfway into it, the front began to enter the San Luis Valley and the wind came up. It’s OK. We’re used to it. Many cranes and geese.
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