Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ortega y Gasset on "Goethe from Within"

Man, with all his preoccupations and efforts, is delivered over to the outward, to the world around him and must try to know it and make it serviceable to him to the extent required by his ends. But concerning himself he knows only when he is satisfied and when he suffers, and only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself, teach him what to seek and what to avoid. For the rest, man is a confused creature; he knows not whence he comes or whither he goes, he knows little of the world, and above all, he knows little of himself.

The above report of a 1829 conversation of Goethe with Eckermann is quoted by José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) in his 1932 essay "In Search of Goethe from Within" (Pidiendo un Goethe desde dentro). I have read the essay many times (the translator is Willard R. Trask), and every time I do so I come away with an increased understanding. Ortega was quite knowledgeable about Germany and German culture. He had gone to Germany in 1905 to study, and was a student of the famous Neo-Kantian scholar Hermann Cohen. Among others, he was a friend of the equally famous Romance scholar Ernst Robert Curtius

In 1932 Ortega y Gasset (on the cententary of Goethe's death) announces his objections to biographies of Goethe heretofore, which all express, in "contourless vocables" (e.g., "Titan," "genius"), "sterile Goethean bigotry." These biographies (excluding that of Georg Simmel) are built "in accordance with the optics of monuments," as if their authors were commissioned "to create a statue for a public square." They go around Goethe; they never work underneath. Instead, Goethe must be constructed from within.

Ortega focuses on the phrase "Only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself" from the passage from Eckermann. He finds it surprising that no one has emphasized the contradictions between the "optimistic" Goethe -- for instance, his botanical image of life according to which all proceeds calmly with "gentle cosmic necessity" -- and his "constant, painful preoccupation with his own life, with himself, which will not let him relax for an instant." Why have his biographers not explained why  man who seems to have been fortunate in every way was also, from documentary evidence, a man who "spent most days in a state of depression"?

In Ortega y Gasset's opinion Goethe was a "perpetual deserter from his inner destiny." The amorous flights in Goethe's life were not in the service of his authentic vocation, as his biographers claim. Ortega y Gasset will have none of this, but, first, one must have an idea of what he means by inner destiny.

"Life is, in itself, forever a shipwreck," according to Ortega. It is only our consciousness of shipwreck, being the truth of life, that constitutes our salvation. The "I" that is us does not consist of our body or our consciousness or our soul or character. We have those, just as we have parents or a liver or were born in a certain place. Our "I" found itself with all these physical and psychical things when it found itself alive. "You are the person who has to live with them, by means of them ... You are not a thing, you are simply the person who has to live with things, among things, the person who has to live, not any life but a particular life. There is no abstract living." In this way of thinking, life consists of the I finding itself while submerged in what is not itself, "in the pure other," which is environment. (One hears Heidegger and the Existentialists in these ideas.)

For Ortega y Gasset, Goethe's destiny was "to soar and sing," to revolutionize Germany's literature and, indeed, the literature of the world. The Goethe of Strassburg, Wetzlar, and Frankfurt seemed to point in that direction. Instead, he went to Weimar, and in that "sterile flask he magically dessicated into a Geheimrat, slowly changed into a statue." Though irremediably a poet, he forces the poet to visit the Ilmenau mine. He begins to lead a spectral, unssatisfied life between poetry and reality. Then, having accustomed himself to this life, Goethe ends by not needing reality. Instead, "everything evaporates into symbol." True life, for Goethe, thus becomes something that will be to a concrete life what the Urpflanze is to each individual plant. But, says Ortega, this is a reversal of the truth of life, which is "precisely the inexorable necessity to make oneself determinate, to enter into an exclusive destiny ..." Symbol is avoidance.

There is much more to this powerful, insightful essay, and one can argue with the author's conclusions. I wrote my dissertation on Goethe's pre-Weimar works, on the subject of "how Goethe became Goethe," because it seemed to me that Weimar constituted a major breach. Unlike Ortega, I am of two minds about whether the post-Weimar oeuvre was worth the move, but it can't be denied that, for non-Goetheans, the "late" Goethe is something like an acquired taste. From early on, of course, Goethe was satisfied with a small audience. By cutting himself off from the larger public (for instance, those readers who would like him to have continued in the vein of The Sorrows of Young Werther or of the early poetry) he was doing what he wanted to do and, in a different sense, fulfilling his own destiny.
The picture of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's has nothing to do with the Spanish philosopher. The afterlife of famous writers moves in unanticipated directions. Thus, there is a branch of Tiffany's in Madrid, indeed, in a landmark building, at 10 Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset. According to Tiffany's press release, this is the city's premier location, referred to as "the golden mile" for luxury shopping.

Picture credits: Squirm (painting of Burggarten Goethe monument); Paramount Pictures/Getty Images


Zentrist said...

Geothe's interest in "fate" seems to have rubbed off on Nietzsche. "Amor fati" is arguably the core of Nietzsche's thinking and way of life. It also helped me get through school and indeed, life itself, one day at a time.

Zentrist said...

Does Nietzsche pick up where Goethe left off? Nietzsche's preoccupation with "masks" sounds like it comes from the Weimar Goethe. Hence Deconstruction, Derrida, Sotomayor, etc. Moreover, I really like the point made, one, I recall, that Karl Jaspers, in exasperation, once made: "Just live! Enjoy life!"