On Love (1)
In poetry lives a language that may nearly be lost to
us in the ordinary world, the language of feeling. So much trumped-up emotion, or was it
the phrases people used? Spectacles of grief, betrayal, tenderness, deception unfolding
via the public media: who knew how to speak of them properly? Only art, or perfect
artlessness, speaks truly of emotion; or how should I know accurately what I feel? In the
roar of the world's prose the expression of emotion is easily falsified; emotion, readily
On the computer screen appears the face of Goethe. This is a wonder. A
presence is here. Robert Kelly wrote, elated, that he loved it because of the light
that seems to stream forward through the image towards the viewer. Goethe comes at me, his
face alive with light -- that famous Mehr Licht! of his dying words
rather gorgeously obeyed.
Goethe, in the image of Gabriele Leidloff's radiograph of his Life
Mask, presides over this issue.
Imagine a flock of crows sweeping across the European land mass.
Auden wrote a funny, exasperated little essay about
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethes first novel, the one that made him
a world-wide literary sensation. When he wrote Werther he was probably in a
disturbed state, said Auden, for, a year after its publication he wrote:
I am falling from one confusion into another. And so, to clear his mind
(perhaps of the woman he loved without hope), Goethe became a civil servant, of high rank,
at the court at Weimar. Reading the novel now, Auden suggested, we are still fascinated,
but not in the way Goethes contemporaries would have been. To us it reads not
as a tragic love story, but as a masterly and devastating portrait of a complete egoist, a
spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself and
having his way at whatever cost to others. The theme of the egoist who imagines himself to
be a passionate lover evidently fascinated Goethe, for, thirty years later, he depicted a
similar character in Edouard, the husband in Elective Affinities.
Auden has no sympathy for a such a character, who might, faintly, have
resembled the young Goethe in the misery of his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff; he
cannot think Goethe would have wanted his readers to admire the self-centered narcissist
he created in Werther. What a horrid little monster! Auden calls that
archetype of the Romantic lover.
Literary life is not short of narcissists. They are the
hero of their own books! In a recent issue of The Nation, Patrick Smith, an
author, looks soberly and critically at the publishing fad of memoir of the
last decade, and finds it annoying and trivial (because everyone has a story and, as
with the harmonica, anyone can make noise); he excepts the -- necessarily, few --
books which attain literary stature. He proposes that too many of these lesser memoirs
have been written from mere personal reasons, for exposing secrets and confessions
("voyeurism") rather than exploring the growth of the writers
self in the larger historical world. He thinks this peculiarly American trend began during
the cold war, because of our inability as a nation to come to terms with what we
have done -- at home and abroad, to ourselves and others -- over the past half century....
Having departed so far from our ideals, we are losing our ability to converse honestly
among ourselves. Ours, then, is the problem of history without memory.... And in
privatizing history, what are many memoirists doing if not acquiescing in this
When we recognize this distinction,[w]e arrive at a curious,
unexpected truth, he concludes: that the purely personal is not the stuff of
the memoir but its enemy.
Criticisms well-founded and -aimed: but for the moment I am drawn to
Patrick Smiths comment about our losing our ability to converse honestly among
ourselves. Who can disagree with him? Will it be thought frivolous of me for calling
on Goethe to complete the thought? He, too, considered the triviality of self-involvement,
or narcissism in literature, but from the perspective of Poetry. (He thought Prose marked
a late stage of human development, and defined it as dissolution into the
Ordinary, marked by Common Sensuality; imagine the delight of conversing
with this man). In a fragment of 1832, called Advice for Young Poets, he
The German language has now reached such a high level of development
that anyone can express himself according to his ability; he can do this in prose or
poetry, and in any way appropriate to the subject or feeling he wishes to convey. As a
result, anyone who has reached a certain level of education through listening and reading
and has attained some clarity about himself, may soon feel the urge to communicate his
thoughts and opinions, his insights and feelings with a certain eloquence.
However, it might be difficult, if not impossible, for the young
person to realize that by so doing little has, in fact, been accomplished....
Unfortunately, a sympathetic observer will soon notice that the
youthful enthusiasm suddenly begins to diminish. The clear, fresh spring is muddied by
sadness over lost joy, by pining for what is lost, yearning for the unknown and
unobtainable, by discontentment, railing against any and all obstacles, and the struggle
against ill-will, envy, and hostility. The happy group disbands and scatters as
How difficult it is therefore to explain to someone with any degree of
talent in any field that the muses are glad to accompany life but are totally unable to
Though in public he addressed them gently, privately he had spoken more
sharply to Eckermann about the youthful poets of his day: [They] all write as if
they were sick and the whole world an infirmary.... That is a real misuse of poetry, which
is given to us after all to reconcile the differences in life and to make human beings
accept the world and their condition.
Insufficient; his counsel was again sought, and so he offered
Further Advice for Young Poets:
The most important point can be briefly stated: The young poet
should give voice only to what lives and can and will live on, whatever its shape or form.
He should refrain from all contrariness, all antagonism and condemnation, anything which
merely negates, because that is unproductive.
I cannot recommend to my young friends emphatically enough that they
see to it that as their poems acquire a certain facility in rhythmic expression they also
gain significantly in content.
Poetic content, however, is the content of one's own life. That content
cannot be given us by anyone; others may mar it perhaps, but not spoil it. Vanity, that
is, every form of complacency without merit, will be treated as the worst offense.
Poignantly, he added: You will not grow if you keep on mourning a
beloved whom you have lost through separation, unfaithfulness or death. It is a useless
poetic pursuit, no matter how much skill and talent you may lavish on it.
On Love (2)
Oh what do I know about love? I think Ive known
love; but what did I know? I confess I do not know what my feelings are; this may have
always been so. Often I find that I think one thing and feel another, I act on some other
thing that is unknown beforehand and a mystery to me.
On Love (3)
Anna Maria Ortese: I meant to say that love
contains nothing real (as reality is currently defined). It consists wholly of the pain
and splendour of incipient knowledge.
Patrick Smith, What Memoir Forgets, The
Nation (July 27/August 3)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ESSAYS ON ART AND LITERATURE, in THE COLLECTED WORKS ed.
John Geary (Princeton University Press)
___________ , THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER and A NOVELLA, tr. Mayer and Brogan, poems
translated and forward written by W.H. Auden (Modern Library)