Saturday, April 22, 2006

Goethe's Manly Mind

Emerson's final lecture in Representative Men is Goethe; Or, the Writer. A better title for the lecture might be "Emerson's Rules for Writers." Emerson, I am learning, is a man of definite opinions, and here there is no shortage of them. "Society has no graver interest than the well-being of the literary class," asserts Emerson. The literary class is the class of scholars and writers, not of readers. "Men are born to write" and it is their job to observe and "report on the doings of the miraculous spirit of life that everywhere throbs and works." Where others might say something is undescribable, a writer knows this is nonsense: "He believes that all that can be thought can be written, first or last; and he would report the Holy Ghost, or at least attempt it." If a writer fails in the attempt, he begins again and tries once more to find the right words. Out of all the different classes of people, it is the writer who sees "connection where the multitude see fragments." It is the writer who is "compelled to exhibit facts in ideal order, and so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns." If the writer is not respected, it is no one's fault but his, because

how can he be honored, when he does not honor himself; when he loses himself in the crowd; when he is no longer the law-giver, but the sycophant, ducking to the giddy opinion of a reckless public; when he must sustain with shameless advocacy some bad government, or must bark all the year round, in opposition; or write conventional criticism, or profligate novels; or, at any rate, write without thought, and without recurrence, by day and by night, to the sources of inspiration?
I get the feeling Emerson would be disappointed with the state of the publishing industry these days. Emerson chooses Goethe as his representative writer. Goethe was the philosopher of the multiplicity of his time, he had a "manly mind," a master of encyclopedic knowledge, the "soul of his century." Goethe "had a power to unite the detached atoms again by their own law." He "clothed our modern existence with poetry." Goethe was impatient with conjecture and rhetoric; wrote in the plainest and lowest tone; "defined art"; and "said the best things about nature that ever were said." Best of all, he could see "at every pore" and had a "gravitation towards truth." The character of Mephistopheles in Faust receives ardent praise because he was created not from myth and superstition but organically from pure intellect, from the very shadows of the mind of Man. The novel Wilhelm Meister also garners praise. The book is "the first of its kind, called by its admirers the only delineation of modern society." The novel is for people of intellect, those who are looking for light reading should take their small minds elsewhere. Goethe has talent, but that's not all. Talent is important, but a writer also needs a personality. Because, according to Emerson, "it makes a great difference to the force of any sentence, whether there be a man behind it, or no." When one reads a book with a man behind it, one sees "his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble,--can go far and live long." I'm thinking that what Emerson means by personality, we would call "voice." Yet, with all that Goethe has going for him, he still comes up short. Emerson faults him for being "incapable of a self-surrender to the moral sentiment." Goethe is devoted to truth, something for which Emerson praises him, but it is "truth for the sake of culture." Goethe you see, does not turn is formidable abilities to seeking the "highest unity." He brings together the arts, sciences, and events, but he is no artist. He may be spiritual, but he is no spiritualist. Goethe touches the intellect but he does not touch the heart and for this reason, according to Emerson, he can never be "dear to men." Still, Goethe has brought back to the book some of its "ancient might and dignity." He teaches courage. And he proves that "the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted." Genius is possible in any era. Emerson concludes:
The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in arts, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality, and a purpose; and first, last, midst, and without end, to honor every truth by use.
Cue musical crescendo. And now, for the vocabulary lesson.
  • crotchet. Noun. At first I thought this was a typo and should be crochet. The word crotchet is correct and actually does come from crochet which means "hook." However, crotchet is a perverse or unfounded belief or notion. Emerson: "The ambitious and mercenary bring their mumbo-jumbo, [...], and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude, who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet."
  • menstruum. Noun. Menses; also a solvent (archaic). Emerson: "In the menstruum of this man's wit, the past and the present ages, and their religions, politics, and modes of thinking, are dissolved into archetypes and ideas." My guess is, Emerson is using the word in its archaic sense unless Goethe had some weird kind of brain hemorrhage. A further look into the origins of this word helps it make more sense. It was used as an alchemical analogy comparing the supposed agency of a solvent in the transmutation of metals into gold with the supposed action of menses on the ovum. My brain cells devoted to Feminist Theory are on overload right now with this one.
  • osteology. Noun. The study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures. I should have known this one, but Emerson's use of it in a crazy--to modern medicine--theory, threw me. Emerson: "In like manner, in osteology, he [Goethe] assumed that one vertebra of the spine might be considered the unit of the skeleton: the head was only the uppermost vertebra transformed."
And that brings me to the end of Representative Men. But it is not the end of Emerson, oh no. Because next week I start in on The Essential Writings. The first essay to be tackled: "Nature"