Weird Shit I Think about while Walking the Dogs

Top: a photograph of the Refuge at sunset. Bottom: a painting I did two years before I moved here or saw the Refuge.

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.

ChatGPT and Goethe

ChatGPT is not reliable as far as Goethe as concerned. First it told me that Goethe wrote “Wanderer’s Night Song” when he was an old man (he wasn’t an old man when he wrote it), and then, when I corrected it, the bot apologized and gave me a lovely but incorrect poem as the Marienbad Elegy. I had to say, “Dude, that’s not it.” It apologized, had another look, gave me a fragment of the correct poem, then told me to go to various websites to find the Marienbad Elegy, in other words, “go look it up.” 🤣 Just a warning that if you’re asking it for Goethe, you have to check its work. Maybe in the brave new world of the future, poetry isn’t going to be a big thing whatever forum the bot ends up with.

Last week I read that the bot seldom scores higher than a B- on most of the exams it’s been given which makes sense.

And what is the Marienbad Elegy? When Goethe was 73 he fell in love with a 17 year old girl and asked her to marry him. She refused. Goethe’s view of youth and age was a little different, but the reality of the situation was almost 60 years…

After he more-or-less got over his broken heart he wrote, when he was 77, he wrote…

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!


Kind of the obverse of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.

Otherwise? Nothing much going on in the Bark of Beyond and that’s fine. The temperatures have warmed up to more-or-less normal for this winter. I don’t mind the cold, but it can be mildly challenging when the cold water hose to your washing machine freezes. In that situation, the important things are to be grateful it’s a hose not a pipe and to warm up the room.

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.

Museum and Beans

Yesterday I went to the museum to talk to the new director about the grand re-opening and my little part in it. She’s amazing. The interesting thing is that I discovered she has met Goethe. A book fell on her head in a bookstore and she met Goethe that way. She’s just starting to get to know him, and it might not work out, but it might. As I’ve read everything and own a lot and don’t need it anymore, I packed up a bunch of books yesterday and took them to give her. She was very happy to have them and I had my first ever conversation about Goethe in which no one was bored. All of us have treasures, and all of us know we’re not going to live forever. When I can, I want my treasures to go where they will be treasured.

I’m still working on my presentation. I’ve timed it, and it’s within the 20 minutes to which I limit myself so all is well. I may share it later.

The beans are growing like MOFOs out there. I don’t know if I’ve ever had happier beans. There are two growing in the same spot, but they don’t care. There are at least 23 beans in that little plot. The sunflowers are doing a pretty good job keeping up with them. I should probably have started the tomatoes sooner because I doubt they’ll reach maturity, but that’s OK. The grocery store has them, too. I apologized to the beans yesterday for not having named them or having published “their” poems, but they let me know they are themselves their poems so it’s all good. I read an article recently that said plants don’t like us to touch them. I guess that’s probably true, but after five years — now six — growing them, I am SURE my beans like having me around.

I know there’s another hearing today. I thought last night that I already know what happened. I’m happy there is evidence. I don’t think I want to play anymore. I’m kicking aside the door stop and closing the door on this one. All I can do, I have done.

Hello MARTHA KENNEDY, Your Primary Election ballot has been counted by Rio Grande County Elections. Thank you for voting!

Boiled Eggs

A while back, the above meme was on Facebook. I feel that when any major holiday rolls around. Yesterday I boiled eggs. OK, only 2, and one went into a salad and the other is for the dogs, but I boiled eggs. I could color that remaining egg, but it’s pretty as it is. Out in the Big Empty the geese are beginning to sit on their nests. We deferred to a gander who was protecting his woman last time we were out there. He stood on the road and Bella, the dogs and I just waited until he either crossed or turned around before we went forward. It’s his world; not mine

Goethe’s Faust begins on Easter Saturday. Faust has forgotten it’s Easter, but is reminded by his pal, Wagner (no not that Wagner that guy appeared a couple generations later). Faust is old, disillusioned, has studied everything possible, and wonders “Is that all there is?” And, “How come I still don’t get it?”

As a character, I don’t “like” Faust much. I think he’s mostly a vehicle for Goethe to make his point and explore his ideas, but I have no way to know that for sure. Here’s Faust indulging his dismay at the reality that no matter what we do, we cannot ever really know what’s going on. Faust, however, is about to drag out a big, dusty, tome and begin practicing magic. But, just as it is with everything we humans do, nothing he does will work as he expected it would.


I HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Magister, doctor styled, indeed,
Already these ten years I lead,
Up, down, across, and to and fro,
My pupils by the nose,—and learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!

“I Have No Idea What’s Going On”

One of life’s biggest enigmas — for me anyway — is when to rely on reason and when to follow my heart (not that they are mutually exclusive). Sometimes our minds betray us. Sometimes our intuition is completely insane. As a kid, I learned not to trust myself, but who knows us better than we know ourselves? Each life is its own pathway to the self. The one consistency in our lifetime is that we are there for the whole show.

When I was trying to figure out what to do in 2014 after my job had been “given away,” and I was 62, old enough to retire, my neighbor (one of the sanest people I’ve ever known) Andy Lopez said, “Follow your heart, Martita.” I listened to Andy, and I did what he told me to do. I listened to my heart. Anyone who could talk to a horse the way he talked to Brownie, or raise kids as brave, smart and free as his, was worth listening to. Still my mind was involved saying, “You won’t have enough income to sustain your life here, Martha.” That was the push and it didn’t take Andy or my intuition to see that.

As I type, I have two photos in front of me. One is of a restaurant in Zürich that’s decorated for Christmas and has a painting of Goethe on the front with the words that Goethe had stayed there with the Duke of Weimar in 1779. It was once the home of Caspar Lavater who was a famous phrenologist in the 18th century. He was also the pastor of the church that shares a square with the restaurant, St. Peters. The photo is important to me because it was this painting that awakened me to Europe. I hadn’t read anything by Goethe when I first saw this building, but it was enough that I could realize — suddenly — how many feet had walked on those streets and for how many centuries. That is NOT America.

As far as I’ve been able to understand, phrenology was an attempt to understand the human mind by evaluating the shape of a person’s head. It is now called a pseudo science, but back in the 18th century, when modern science was just beginning, it was not pseudo. While it sounds absurd to us today, it was a start. Still, it is pretty absurd to think that the outside of the head can be an indication of moral values, intelligence. He didn’t invent this. The theory that the shape of the head indicated all kinds of metaphysical attributes had been around thousands of years already. Lavater systematized it and traveled to various cities talking about it. He and Goethe were friends. I guess he had good things to say about the shape of Goethe’s head…

I have a kind of dent in the top of my head. I know exactly what it signifies. It is symbolic of the time my brother hit me in the head with a hammer. He watched too many cartoons.

The other photo in front of me? 27 years ago. One of the greatest days of my life, and I — thankfully — knew it at the time. In the photo, the day is just beginning. The sun is rising over the desert. The sky is cloudless, early-morning blue. The people in the photo are smiling, excited to be setting out. The photo says nothing about the turmoil behind the smiling faces, the silent battles between head and heart.

Twenty years…

“Oh wow! It’s been 20 years since 2001! Where were you at 9/11?”

That’s where we are today. 10 years, 20 years, 1 year. These markers mean a lot to humans. Why do these anniversaries matter? Though, I have to admit it was amazing to learn that my cousin was in NYC in a cab when it happened.

Last year was my 50th high school reunion — not celebrated, of course, it’s going on now.I wanted to talk to my high school classmates about their lives over the past 50 years, but not enough to actually drive 150 miles with a less-than-perfect shoulder. I went to high school with some amazing people (probably we all did) and I wanted to find out about them. Couldn’t we do that any time? But we don’t.

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. (this section originally posted in 2015)

9/11 opened the door to much of what we’ve seen in the past year (four years? five years?) A 20 year war? The acceptance of untruths and dishonesty in the name of patriotism (not new: the normal way of accepting the unacceptable). A lot of stuff started on that day that had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. GWB saying, “You’re either for us or against us,” resounds through the country today.

I dunno. I don’t understand us at all. Humanity is a confusing kaleidoscope and I’m as confusing as any of it.

Featured photo — the first Scarlet Emperor Bean seeds of 2021.

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.”


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?”


“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…


One of my favorite authors when I was younger was Nikos Kazantzakis. He’d probably be a favorite writer now that I’m NOT younger, but I read everything. Yeah, right? It began when I saw Zorba the Greek sometime in 1974 when I’d recently gotten my BA and was (I felt) trapped in a terrible, violent marriage that kept getting smaller and smaller. The lines from the movie (that are also in the book) “You don’t want any trouble? What then DO you want. Life is trouble. To live life, you must undo your belt and look for trouble,” resonated, and informed me. The marriage ended a few years later and I continued reading Kazantzakis. The next line from one of his books comes from The Odyssey, a Modern Sequel. The line (as I remember it but I could be wrong) is, “This is the earth. The bloody arena of men’s souls.”

And so it is.

Recently Amazon told me that there is a film — Kazantzakis — that was recently made. I began watching it last night and it’s brilliant, beautiful, and brought all those books back into the front of my consciousness. The film is a biopic and necessarily rushed to fit into just under 2 hours as Kazantzakis lived through most of the 20th century’s major upheavals and was a literary and political force himself. I like that it focuses on his writing and doesn’t dwell on psychological motivations or things that many biopics of our time seem to, about things no one can even know. Kazantzakis recorded his own life, anyway, so it doesn’t really need to be second-guessed, and these film makers don’t. The film is in Greek with subtitles.

But at one point, after the Nazi occupation of Greece is over, the Kazantzakis character makes a comment about Goethe as having been a hero of the Nazis.

I wanted to know more about that so I spent a little time this morning looking into it. It only makes sense that he would have been, not because of Goethe’s OWN philosophy and ideas, but because it was an aspect of German nationalism at that time to claim to the Nazis every good thing that ever happened in Germany was evidence of a master race.

I didn’t find a whole lot to shed light on this for me, but I found a beautiful essay from 1999 (the year of Goethe’s 250th birthday, which I celebrated!) I want to share with anyone who might be interested. I “met” Goethe in 1998 and he evolved into the best of many “dead” friends I’ve had in my life. 

Goethe: Does this legendary literary figure have anything to offer us?

The article says most of what I have to say in response to that question. I don’t think transient politics were a focus of Goethe’s thinking or life. He lived through an invasion of Weimar by the Prussians and the Napoleonic wars. I am not sure what he would have done in Nazi Germany, but I do know that he wasn’t there. I’m going to keep looking into this question, but I agree with the author: “…everyone is aware of the canonical status Goethe’s work enjoyed during the Nazi period. This tells us more about cultural manipulation than it does about him…”

I thought it was cool that two of my very favorite writers at least met in this casual way in this lovely film.