Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Literary "Idea," Goethe, and Me


I took up Goethe's Faust again today, summertime style. Last summer I stumbled through a frilly translation that didn't quite stick, then in the fall I tackled Marlowe's Doctor with some success. But according to almost everyone, Goethe seems to be the man to go to for a good Fausty story. So I thought I should give him another go. Today I stuck my feet in the kiddie pool, popped open a beer, and flipped to the yellowed intro pages of a crusty 1963 Walter Kaufmann translation.

Since I haven't made it to the text yet, I want to talk about some fun things that came up in the introduction, the most fun of the things being a critique of that very German quest for ideas and profundity, and how this relates to creating and discussing literature. Both Goethe and Kaufmann have a laugh at their fellow, more-serious Germans, and Kaufmann offers insight and a little twentieth century revision on Goethe's conversations.

There are many excerpts from conversations with Goethe in the intro -- apparently he was such an amazing conversationalist that his friends often wrote down everything he said. Here is one on literary ideas in his work:

"[People] come and ask me what idea I sought to embody in my Faust. As if I myself knew that and could express it! 'From heaven through the world to hell,' one might say in a pinch; but that is no idea but the course of action . . . Indeed, that would have been a fine thing, had I wanted to string such a rich, variegated, and extremely versatile life, as I have represented in Faust, on the meager thread of a single central idea! It was altogether not my manner as a poet to strive for the embodiment of something abstract. I received impressions -- impressions that were sensuous, vital, lovely, motley, hundredfold -- whatever a lively power of imagination offered me; and as a poet I did not have to do anything but round out and inform such visions and impressions artistically, and to present them in such a live manner that others would receive the same impressions when hearing or reading what I offered . . . My opinion is rather this: The more incommensurable and incomprehensible for the understanding a poetic creation may be, the better."

As a long time student of literature who has always been interested in criticism, and as a recent acquaintance with a lot of those profound Germans, I have been wondering the past year or so how all these ideas are supposed to end up in the literature. Are they put there consciously? Most wouldn't think so, but they ask the author (if he or she is alive) about it, just the same. They look to his life and the life of his mind for clues. Are they just "there" in every text? Those critics who stay "within the text" also expect something to sort of magically happen in there; to jump out at them or point to some universal big picture. Why should they think there is something there at all besides what Goethe calls "impressions"?

I love the search for answers and profundity myself (Ha, I love that word "profundity"-- it almost makes fun of itself), and while it would be prudent and wise to continue to analyze criticism from this point of view (to prove to myself it's what I'd like to do maybe?), I want to go a different direction.

Goethe's little mini-speech here is profound in that it is a writer talking about writing, and perhaps no one understands what he is saying here better than another writer. A creative, poetic, imaginative sort of writer that is -- not a critic or a scholar. (Sorry if this hurts the feelings of any academic writers out there, but we all read that stuff in the journals and you can't tell me it's creative or impressionistic!)

So I write these stories and poems, and I never think to myself, "Ah yes this is symbolic of the American Dream" or "How do I make this more like a descent into hell?" Who does that? (Hacks, maybe.) So I can see why Goethe finds it so funny that anyone would ever suspect that writers write to fulfill some profundity quota.

When I write I think "How do I explain this weird guy I saw at the diner?" or "How do I get across the smell of this kitchen?" Whether I write a woman giving birth, a dog chewing a cow pie, or a man eating a taco, I'm concerned with that specific impression that I have of the way that person or thing is, and I'm concerned with adding up the words to equal something like that impression, so that the reader can see the same thing.

I have so much more to say about this but I see it's July now. and I started this thought on June 22. I'll come back for more soon. My own profundity perversion keeps me from publishing in a timely manner.

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