Goethe and the Modern Age: World Literature and the Modern Mind

5 Apr
Goethe and the Modern Age: World Literature and the Modern Mind
It is not a new thing that man is frightened as he views himself in the immensity of the universe. Science has merely made that immensity more palpable. The distance between the stars was always thought to be immense, but it is only recently that a measure has been named to record it: they talk of light-years. As the realization of these dimensions began to dawn in Europe in the last century, expressions of this fright made their appearance in literature.
Kierkegaard did not hesitate to cry out his fright, and from his fright he made his magnificent “leap” into confidence. That leap, however, is inimitable; it is not available to everyone, though he claims that the leap is precisely the continuation, the logical product , of the dread. At all events, his remorselessly honest descriptions of his fright is one of the greatest contributions of the nineteenth century.
Nietzche was frightened. Fright struck from a veritable aurora borealis of brilliant defenses and fertile suggestions; but his principle bulwark against these alarms appears to us more and more meretricious.
Carlyle and Emerson and Browning return again and again to the threat to identity under the glacial tracts of time and space, but it is precisely because they do not seem to be sufficiently frightened that their works do not seem to “prepare the coming of a world literature.”
Goethe was not frightened. It can be said that Goethe derived his confidence from gazing deep into the very matters that awoke alarm in others.
At first glance the theory which he erected as a bulwark seems to be not unlike the vague pantheisms that flourished at the margins of American Unitarianism. he took much from Spinoza but invested his God-in-Nature with so specific function that Spinoza’s share is scarcely recognizable. His attitudes to the Christian tradition is alternately respectful and hostile. He has told us that he viewed many aspects of God as represented in the Old Testament with revulsion and certain representations of divine operation in the New Testament as “blasphemies against God and His revelation of Himself in Nature.”
From the heart of the universe, he declared, there pours out a stream of energy ceaselessly operative. This energy presses on all things; its action is to mold chaos into significant form.
This is the doctrine of Gestaltung. “No one will realize that the highest operation of Nature and Art is Gestaltung and that Gestalt is the requirement that, under the laws of order, each thing may become, may be, and may remain an individual and significant entity.” This law he had seen in the microscope; he had seen it in history, in art, and most of all in his own life–this urging on of the random and the incoherent towards meaningful shape.
The shapes towards which all things tend are not determined in advance. (Goethe held many reservations against Plato.) This Wirkende –achieving force –is ewig–it will never come to an end. Our becoming, our striving, Faust’s striving, is pulled as it were through the iron gates of necessity, chance, hope, and love, and the puzzling contrary obstacles set by the daemonic, but the pattern towards which we move is not determined in advance. The world and each one of us in it are the collaborators on our ultimate form (“ultimate” itself only applicable to a stage, since the operations is eternal).
This Ewig Wirkende views all this activity with a sort of remote and genial benignancy. In some passages of Goethe, our Nature God glows with love, but the love which exists in Goethe’s concept of nature is of another thought-world than that which is radical in Christian doctrine.
The Ewig Wirkende has no tears. it does not hear our supplications. It does not grieve over our mistakes. The whole erring planet may go up in smoke, but the Ewig Wirkende will continue gloriously, joyously, pressing chaos into new significant forms. It has enough material in hand: it has enough time at its disposal; it is the All and it is eternal.
There is, however, another factor. This God-in-Nature wishes us well–you and me and all artists and all species of animals and plants; it wishes us to develop into ever more excellent states, but–
But– We cannot be sure that it will–as it were–connect with us,as we could wish. It is capricious. it does not necessarily reward our merits of hard work or our longing.
All we can do is to work, to wait and to hope–and perhaps be passed over.
Because nature is also playing. There are these daemonic forces lurking about its action. Play is a by-product of joyous creativity. It interrupts and impeded the equalized beneficent operation of this force.
Goethe and the Modern Age
The International Convocation at Aspen, Colorado 1949
Edited by Arnold Bergstraesser (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago ©1950) pp. 221-223


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