Conversations with Goethe: or who to call when life is pear-shapedSeptember 27, 2010
Following transcript of interview with John Armstrong stealthily swiped from ABC Radio National: The BookShow
Goethe is often remembered only as a figure of literary genius, with little relevance to the way we live today. Yet Goethe was driven by much more than the desire for literary success: he wanted to live life well. In Love, Life, Goethe, John Armstrong subtly and imaginatively explores the ways that we can learn from Goethe, whether in love, suffering, friendship or family.
At the centre of this project is happiness: in an imperfect world, how can we live well with what we have, and accept what we haven’t? Armstrong seeks to challenge some of the negative preconceptions surrounding this central figure of German – and European – culture, and to show how ‘getting to know Goethe’ might enrich our lives.
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Lyn Gallacher: Yes, it’s a case of Love, Life, Goethe: How to Be Happy in an Imperfect World. It’s a wise and thoughtful book that we’ll be discussing today by John Armstrong which, for me, brilliantly connects the author of Faust with a kind of necessarily modern wisdom.
John Armstrong is an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Melbourne and he’s also the author of Conditions of Love and The Secret Power of Beauty. At one point in the process of writing this book Love, Life, Goethe: How to Be Happy in an Imperfect World, John became anxious and despondent which is not an unusual thing for an author wrestling with a manuscript, but what is unusual is who he turned to for solace. It was his deceased subject who sat down beside him on the sofa and told him what to do, which isn’t something that’s revealed until the end of the book, but I thought, perversely, that this would be a good place to begin our conversation.
John Armstrong: Yes, the book ends with a description of the sort of situation I was in about half way through writing this book, and I felt that Goethe is this big figure, what am I doing in trying to write the book, and I imagined Goethe actually coming into the room and sitting down and sort of talking me through it and giving me a bit of consolation, a bit of encouragement. I imagined the sorts of things that he would want to say to someone like me who was, you know, 200 years later coming along and writing about his life. What would he want to say to me? And this was quite important to me in getting the book done, and I just had this idea that I should just include it at the end as a sort of memento of the project.
Lyn Gallacher: Well, let’s hear what Goethe said to you.
John Armstrong: He’s trying to sum up how he sees himself, as I imagine. He says to me (this is Goethe speaking):
[reading from My aim in life… to …how to cope with difficulties.]
Lyn Gallacher: This imaginary exercise seems quite important actually because it’s your understanding of what Goethe is saying to you rather than simply figuring out what he’s thinking, which is not actually what Goethe would have wanted you to do. Goethe himself wasn’t interested in what other people thought but what he thought that other people thought, and so in a way you’re doing that as well.
John Armstrong: That’s right, there are always little hints in any big writer in the past about the way they imagine a biography being, and there are some quite startling things in Goethe. There’s one point where he’s writing his own autobiography which he did in his 60s and he says in book 16 (so we’re kind of like three-quarters of the way through the project) and he suddenly says, ‘Of course I’ve never understood anyone. No one’s ever understood me. Nobody ever understands anyone.’ And you think, but hang on, we’re at book 16, you’ve been telling me all about your life. And I think it’s the sense that…what he was really getting at is it’s what you take from your encounter with this person, with me, and that was actually the attitude that Goethe himself had to the people he admired. So there’s a point where he’s discussing the great philosopher Spinoza, and Goethe says, ‘Well, I confess I never really understood Spinoza but I really enjoyed reading him because of the effect that it had upon me.’ Goethe took a lot from Spinoza but it wasn’t really a kind of close academic study, and I was picking up on those hints that that’s almost Goethe saying, ‘You can treat me like this too. I’m not a fragile object. You can take what you want form me.’
Lyn Gallacher: ‘And make me into something that I may not have been before.’
John Armstrong: That’s right, but ‘make me into something that’s important to you,’ that’s the message that I felt was coming through in Goethe’s view of how he wanted to be understood.
Lyn Gallacher: Because otherwise this sort of thinking is actually dangerous, irrelevant and fruitless. The whole project is a kind of a process of thinking about the process of thinking, so unless it means something and has a kind of a practical and positive effect on your life it is in fact anal, self-obsessed and pointless, that’s just the disease of knowledge and intelligence.
John Armstrong: Goethe was very struck by the way in which extremely clever and well-informed people could be living very unsatisfactory lives. He first encountered this in his father. Goethe’s father was a very nice man in some ways but he was a real pedant, and he was very knowledgeable but he was a sterile character, the sort of character that Marcel Proust calls the ‘celibates of art’, that is people who are very admiring but never do anything themselves. And Goethe could see that his father was intellectually sophisticated but not very good at actually dealing with human relationships, and the contrast that really struck the young Goethe as a child, I suppose, was with his mother. His mother was not instructed in higher learning, his mother didn’t spend her time reading philosophy books like his father did, but his mother was very, very good at getting close to people, making people feel comfortable and making things interesting. I think Goethe was very much affected by this potential failure of intelligence alongside the potential success of someone who’s not necessarily that intellectual but has got, as it were, their finger on the pulse. Of course Goethe managed to know a lot, he was very clever, he’s not someone who rejected reading and thinking but he was always very conscious that reading and thinking are part of life and need to be understood, and if they’re going to work they have to be a contribution to life.
Lyn Gallacher: As an example of this practical wisdom, there’s a little incidence in his childhood where he’s afraid to go to bed. Tell that story.
John Armstrong: What happens is that Goethe…we’ll call him Wolfgang because he’s only six or five years old at this point, and his parents have decided it’s time for him to sleep without a light on in the nursery, and he and his sister are sharing a room and they have to manage to get to sleep on their own. For any parents a very poignant moment, it’s a quite difficult enterprise to get your child to do this. But little Cornelia and Wolfgang are a bit disturbed by the dark, and they were living in this rather…this very old house that had lots of nooks and crannies, it was very dark. It was quite exciting during the daytime but I think a bit troubling at night, and there would be lots of floorboards creaking and that sort of thing. Their parents said, ‘You’re to stay in bed.‘ But little Wolfgang and Cornelia creep out of bed and their father is waiting for them in the corridor, and he jumps out and terrifies them. And Goethe says now, what was the situation? Well, the imaginary horrors of the nursery were now just competing with the very real horrors of the corridor. And then his mother has a go, she says, ‘What do you really like?‘ He says, ‘I really like eating pears.’ She says, ‘Well, I’ll give you a beautiful pear in the morning if you stay in bed tonight.’ And he stays in bed, and it’s to him it was so simple.
Lyn Gallacher: Yes. And what I like about that story is that you can see the way his mind works in that he has kept that little childhood anecdote and given it a wider meaning, a sort of a philosophy of life in this tiny moment, and that seems to be one of the other really appealing things to him; when he tells his own autobiography, it’s not his grand achievements, it’s these tiny little ‘aha’ moments that are very domestic, very real.
John Armstrong: That’s right, it’s a really surprising thing about Goethe. Because he’s this big name we think, what’s he going to tell us about his life? Will it be sort of like ‘when I got such and such an award, when I was given my patented nobility, when I met Napoleon’ and these kinds of things. But actually it’s not like that. Goethe is a real artist of the meaning of small things, the grandeur of small things, and also he was alive to the formative impact of childhood. One of the first people to think that if you really want to get to know someone, if you really want to understand yourself, you should pay a lot of attention to quite small things that might have happened in your childhood that are emblematic of the person you become.
Lyn Gallacher: And in this he’s almost opposite to his best friend Schiller who does the compete reverse; has these big ideas and then has to kind of personify them, reduce them to an individual situation, whereas he sees the individual and then has the big idea. Is that one way of putting it?
John Armstrong: This is Schiller’s way of thinking about it. The relationship between Schiller and Goethe is very poignant for me. If you’ve got these two very creative, I suppose very ambitious, intellectual men…
Lyn Gallacher: Who define their time too.
John Armstrong: Yes, but they disagree about a lot of things but they actually become very good friends. And a lot of this was Schiller’s imaginative work in trying to explain to Goethe why they should be friends. It’s almost like trying to convince someone to love you, saying, ‘I know I’m a bit awkward in this way, but really, if you understand yourself and you understand me, you’ll see that we’re going to be fantastic together.’ And Schiller sets out to do this, and that’s a very personal project. But amazingly Schiller elevated this discussion to say, ‘We are two kinds of human archetypes and it’s very important that we go together.‘ So he saw himself as representing one major current of human thought and longing which is to start with ideals and then give those ideals particular shape, and that can happen in literature when you want to express some great philosophical thought, and then you say, well, how can I get characters to enact this? That’s kind of the way Schiller liked to work, and he saw Goethe as starting out with a sensitivity towards particular things and then expanding out from that and finding the much larger resonances. So it’s kind of like Schiller is up there in the sky straining to come down to Earth, and Goethe is in the Earth kind of elevating and straining to come up. It’s quite an erotic image actually…and they sort of join tighter, they come together. And I think Schiller was right in saying that these are two very fundamental human tendencies and he saw his relationship with Goethe as acting out the thoughtful history of humanity. Amazing.
Lyn Gallacher: So we’ll backtrack a bit, because by the time he’s friends with Schiller he’s already written his best-seller, he is well established, he is highly regarded, one of the most popular writers of his day, so we’ll go back to the beginning of his career, but as we do we’ll take that idea of love because you’re talking about how important it was for these two men to have a friendship which you almost use the word ‘love’. ‘Love’ is the first word of your title of your book, and love is actually also very central to the first famous work that Goethe wrote.
John Armstrong: Yes, this is The Sorrows of Young Werther which is, I think, one of the finest descriptions of the process of falling in love. About the first third of the book shows us Werther meeting this woman called Charlotte and falling in love with her. It’s presented in Werther’s letters to a friend, so we’re tracing, moment by moment, day by day, the growth of this infatuation, the deepening of it into love, the way in which someone who…you know, he just sees in a carriage…they go to a party together, and gradually she becomes more and more important in his imaginative life and his emotional life. It’s done with complete psychological realism, that sense of ‘this is just exactly what it’s like’. It’s as if you think, how did Goethe know what has gone on in me? When I first read this I thought, someone has told him my secrets! It’s amazingly recognisable and I think that Goethe has an astonishing ability to combine honesty (that is, he shows us what it’s like) with artistry. It happens seamlessly and with such beauty. This is one of the great novels of the history of literature, but it’s so unsurprising that it was also a best-seller in the day, it is amazingly well written, and that opening part is just this evocation of this very, very intimate, powerful experience of falling in love.
Lyn Gallacher: And so much so…people identified with it at the time so much that they dressed in the clothes of the main character and were said to have suicided with the book open at the page. Even though you said that’s not confirmed it was a nice little touch.
John Armstrong: Yes, there are many, many kinds of identification that go on with it. Werther is someone who’s very easy to identify with because his soul is so open to us, it’s the transcription of his inner life that we’re reading. We feel we know this person more closely than we know anyone else because he’s telling us so honestly what it’s like for him, and I think it’s very easy to identify with him. But also Werther gets into a lot of trouble. The woman he’s so in love with, Charlotte, is actually not that interested in him. She likes him but she’s not in love with him, and she is quite keen to get married to someone else who is a really nice man and they can be absolutely sure they are going to happy together. She’s made this very sensible decision about her life, and Werther’s great passion doesn’t gel with the practical concerns of life that Charlotte is really taken up with. So we’ve got this amazing description of passion not finding a successful way to make things work in the world. So all this intense love and depth of feeling in Werther can’t make Charlotte love him, can’t make a good relationship between Werther and Charlotte, or Lotte as she is often called in the book. I think this is something that so many people identify with very strongly, that it’s so normal for us to feel that our great longings are not met by the world. Werther becomes a kind of symbol, a hero of unrequited love, but more broadly than that, of the things that we feel passionate about not working out in reality. Werther’s suicide at the end is a sort of protest, or just a feeling of ‘I can’t go on, I can’t live with this, with the world being like this, that the finer, more intense my passion, the less chance it has of working out in reality, that’s intolerable’. I think a lot of people identify with that aspect of the book as well. I still do.
Lyn Gallacher: And so if we’re reading Goethe as a guide to life, which is what you encourage, that is why you then need knowledge, which we were a bit dismissive of earlier, and also art, because knowledge and art can lift us out of that cycle of our own emotions that becomes obsessive and neurotic and suicidal.
John Armstrong: That’s right. Goethe wrote Werther quite early on in his career, he was in his mid 20s when it came out. The rest of Goethe’s work can be seen as a response to the question; what do you do if you don’t kill yourself? There is a way in which Werther has not provided us with a solution. He’s provided us with an amazing problem, and knowledge and art are two of the crucial things that can make a life liveable and worth living and satisfactory, even though you’ve got unrequited love, even though you’ve got Werther’s problems. Art becomes increasingly for Goethe a kind of focus of those passions, that longing to…that what is important to you should find a concrete outlet, and so takes up a lot of the internal demands that were going into Werther’s relationship with Charlotte, and art becomes the proper home of these. Knowledge is, again, for Goethe a discipline, it’s a way of trying to keep your mind on track. So yes, Goethe has concerns about the limits of what knowledge can do in a life, how much it can contribute, but that’s only about how much. He certainly takes intellectual discipline very seriously, but he’s alive to the fact that intellectual discipline on its own doesn’t make for a good life.
Lyn Gallacher: This discussion that we’re having about his early work does in fact lead very neatly to Faust because the questions are the same. Faust is not actually really about selling your soul to the devil, it’s about how to live after you’ve had that moment of ‘I can’t go on’.
John Armstrong: Yes, exactly. Faust starts out as an academic. He’s in fact a very successful academic, but it starts with his immense frustration with his life. So he’s, like, ‘I know so much, I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Theology, I’ve read everything, but my life isn’t satisfying to me.’ And he goes into complete despair and he thinks of ending his life. So really you’re absolutely right, that the rest of Faust is an examination of, well, what would make life worth living? And the role of Mephistopheles or the Devil in Faust is not like the traditional anxiety that there’s a kind of evil force that one has to be protected against. Mephistopheles is not a kind of satanic figure by any means, it’s not like that. Mephistopheles is a source of energy and also of a kind of willpower and insistence. Now, that can go very, very wrong, so Mephistopheles is a bad guy but he is also the representative of an important force in life, and I think that we should understand Faust as the story of how this character, Faust himself, comes to absorb some of that drive, some of that will to say, ‘Okay, I’m just going to do this thing, I’m going to pursue pleasure, I’m going to pursue power, I’m going to get on in the world,’ without just becoming a creature who’s only concerned about those things. But Faust does need to absorb much more of that kind of energy and drive.
Lyn Gallacher: And just to cut to the end of Faust, what happens is that he doesn’t in fact go to hell. There’s a very neat twist. I’ve not read it and I don’t want to spoil it for people who might, but at the same time could you tell us that twist about how it’s Mephistopheles..? He just so cleverly turns the whole thing around.
John Armstrong: Yes, it’s really that Mephistopheles thinks he has made a bargain with God for the soul of Faust, and that is that if Faust ever finds human life satisfactory then that will show that man doesn’t really need God because human life is enough and therefore Mephistopheles will claim the soul of Faust. Mephistopheles doesn’t understand the situation. God has made no bargain with Mephistopheles. God has in fact set up this situation where he says, ‘I’m going to bring Faust to the light,’ this is what God wants to happen, but his way of doing that is for Faust to encounter the stronger, more complex, more difficult forces of life. So Mephistopheles is going to show Faust about sexuality, about money, about power, about strength of character, these sorts of things. It’s through his encounter with this that Faust is saved. So this is not at all the way Mephistopheles sees it but it’s, as it were, the God’s-eye view of what’s happening.
Lyn Gallacher: It is an incredible way of balancing the message. On the one hand, the intelligence that he gains makes him suffer because once you eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge you are aware of the pain that you inflict on others…
John Armstrong: Exactly.
Lyn Gallacher: …and you are aware of your own shortcomings, you have hopes then, you have disappointments, you’re no longer satisfied with the small things in life which might have been a cup of tea or a cake.
John Armstrong: Yes. There’s a really tricky moment in Faust…it’s a very long play and it’s split into two parts. The end of the first part, Faust has seduced a woman…well, he’s actually been in love with her, this woman called Gretchen, but he abandons her in his wider pursuit of life. He doesn’t really mean to but it does happen and it’s absolutely terrible for her. He comes to see that this is something he has done. Part two starts with Faust forgetting, and it’s a very shocking thought. We have an image of life in which holding onto memories and dealing with the things that we’ve done and so on is very much part of an idea of moral growth and development and so on and there’s a lot to be said in favour of that. But one of the things that I think Goethe is getting at here is that life isn’t an ideal project and that for someone to survive and to get on and lead a productive and interesting worthwhile life, they may sometimes just have to forget, they may just have to put something behind them.
Lyn Gallacher: Which was actually also how he dealt with the invasion of the French army, and he was criticised for that. He managed to live quite happily under Napoleon. He just thought, ‘Well, I feel very loyal to what Germany was and is but I’m not going to turn my back on all that France represents,’ or whatever. There was some kind of…and this is also interesting because it means that this living in an imperfect world is not actually to do with shutting yourself off to the problems of society, there is still a relationship to the imperfect world.
John Armstrong: Very much so. Goethe was very involved in getting things done, but I think he was surprisingly willing to say, ‘Look, the world just is imperfect and I’m not going to spend my time bewailing that fact and lamenting it and saying if only the world were perfect, if only people were different, if only people weren’t selfish, if only Napoleon wasn’t the head of the French government…but he is and we can’t do anything directly about it, or that if you’re going to do something about it, it’s not just complaining.’ That’s a very important but also very difficult message to hear. Think about how hard it is in one’s own life to say, ‘I’m not just going to spend my time complaining and mouthing off about all those things one doesn’t like.’ And that’s often part of thinking of oneself as a good person. I’m a good person because I’m angry about this thing that I’m not doing anything about, really. And I think Goethe was very concerned about harbouring our resources and our mental strength and saying don’t just mouth off about things, if you want to do something, do something. Otherwise get on with what you can do.
Lyn Gallacher: In fact, let’s just diverge for a moment. Tell me about the moment when they met.
John Armstrong: Well, Napoleon is at the sort of high-water mark of his success, and he has this fabulous conference where he gets all the subordinate rulers to come and, in a sense, do him homage.
Lyn Gallacher: And this is over breakfast?
John Armstrong: Well, it goes on for a long time, and one morning he’s at breakfast and Goethe is summoned and there’s Napoleon, with one hand he’s eating a bit of sausage, with the other hand he’s directing his armies, telling the ministers what to do, and then Goethe comes in. He’d been very much impressed by The Sorrows of Young Werther, and he talks to Goethe about the book, and in fact Napoleon had written a novel.
Lyn Gallacher: See, I didn’t know that; Napoleon the novelist.
John Armstrong: Yes, and I think it was very interesting that Goethe was one of those people who made it look like, for modern Europe, that you could be a really energetic person in the world and also write a serious book, with a kind of romantic, philosophical character to it. It would have been inconceivable for Louis XV or Louis XVI to have written a book because kings didn’t do that sort of thing, other people wrote books. The king is the one who receives everything. Goethe was important in that he started this idea that it might be possible to be a deep person as well, and Napoleon I think was very much picking up on that.
Lyn Gallacher: And didn’t he point out some flaws in the plot that perhaps Goethe could go away and work on?
John Armstrong: This must have been one of those very annoying moments where I’m sure Goethe was thinking, well, would he expect me to tell him what he did wrong at the Battle of Austerlitz or something? It was quite good but you could have just made a little flank manoeuvre there. And there was a great mystique (I suppose much of which had come from Napoleon’s supporters) that Napoleon had identified some extraordinary hitherto undiscovered fault in the novel. It’s a very, very peculiar idea that there could be a flaw in the novel that only one person had seen.
Lyn Gallacher: As we began, you end this book with an imaginary letter or speech that Goethe gives to you. I get the feeling that you’re also wanting to have a complete philosophy of life, drawn out of this material, and somehow you do kind of achieve it.
John Armstrong: I do want to try and draw together an overall view of life. It’s a slightly more grown-up version of the way I started getting interested in philosophy when I was 14, 15. I thought it would be really cool to have a system of one’s own. I’d heard that Hegel had a system and Kant had a system, and I thought I want one of those too. But I didn’t know what you had to have in it to make this thing, I thought you just start with some strange proposition and then try and fit everything else around it. So it’s been an aspiration that’s been growing up, I hope, a bit over the years. What I’ve been trying to bring out in a number of different books is the centrality of the quality of our relationships to ideas, to people, to things, to works of art, to our own memories, to ourselves. And that quality of relationship really aspires to the condition of love. Love is our name for the highest quality of relationship that we can sustain or we have. By understanding that relationship we’re understanding quite a lot about ourselves and also about the things that we care about, and so I’m trying to build up a view of life which has this quality relationship at its centre. The book on Goethe is an attempt to put that into practice. I’m saying; what do I love about Goethe? What high quality of relationship could I try and have with him, find with him?
Lyn Gallacher: Could the ending of this book have been what Goethe loves about you?
John Armstrong: Ah well, I did write a sentence right at the end…we opened with this; I was feeling despondent, I imagined Goethe coming into the room and telling me about himself, and then right at the end of that I thought what I wanted was a real relationship in which Goethe can, as it were, turn around and say, ‘But in my way, I love you.’ And that seemed to me the most completing aspect. And in a way it sounds silly because we’ve got this great figure, he doesn’t know me or anything like that, but I think it’s important to say if you’re going to invest all your emotional energy and so on, it shouldn’t be unrequited, that Goethe should feel this attachment back in imagination. So this idea of being loved by Goethe seemed to me terribly important for the project, but I chickened out at the end when I came to write it down, I thought it would seem too weird.
Lyn Gallacher: But it’s important to your universal scheme, your complete philosophy of life, that this is a positive and can’t be unrequited love because in that there would be a whole lot of negative energy and it would turn out to be self-obsessed and it would be focusing on things in life that are negative. For you to focus on things in life that are positive and enriching and give you those wonderful moments where things seem to make sense, you need the love to be requited.
John Armstrong: Yes, exactly; you should love the things that can love you back because…not because we’re selfish but because that’s a richer relationship.
Lyn Gallacher: So that, in a nutshell, could be the John Armstrong guide to life, aka Goethe. Thank you very much for joining us today.
John Armstrong: Thank you.
Lyn Gallacher: John Armstrong, and his book is called Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World, and it’s published by Penguin.
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