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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ideas and Shit

Back in April I started a list of ideas, and having only done about two (about) of them, I'll post the rest here to kick myself in the corduroy blog-pants.

Defense of Rock series: Dionysian/Wagnerian music as per the Nietzschean definition of good tunes, rock studies v. theater studies/film studies/etc

Ada Lovelace Apology (I was supposed to write about a woman in technology on Ada Lovelace day, but I am just not enthused about such things. Though I'd really like to write about Ada herself! Lord Byron connection, you know...)

More rock philosophy on: the grand illusion, money

The philosophic background -- philosophy in the curriculum

Academic guilt anonymous

A year of S/Z

Humor in Philosophy

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And for your entertainment (since I am still not productive after the Euro trip) here is a conversation about romance novels and pasta:
10:41pmRobyn

making fun of romance novels came up in todays blog post

10:41pmHenry

I saw that, haven't read the whole thing

10:42pmRobyn

and then when i searched for covers on the net, i found that there all kinds of are people making joke covers

10:42pmHenry

oh those are great

10:42pmRobyn

i wanted a scottish one, and sure enough, there was "For the Love of Scottie McMullet"

10:43pmHenry

HA

10:43pmRobyn

:D :D Made my day

10:44pmHenry

http://worldoflongmire.com/features/romance_novels/

did you see this site?

10:45pmRobyn

Sex train. HA

I found a blog where a girl posted up three real covers that were just as sick

10:46pmHenry

really?

10:47pmRobyn

http://thelitconnection.wordpress.com/2008/02/26/3-cheesy-romance-novel-covers/

heart mate rocks my world

10:48pm>Henry

that's some cat on that cover

10:49pmRobyn

the guy is not even a romance novel cover guy

hes like a math teacher or something

who goes clubbing with his cat on weekends

10:49pmHenry

maybe a D&D nerd

brb

10:50pmRobyn

k. the author of heart mate actually left a comment on the blog and she wasn't mad at all

10:53pmHenry

I completely forgot to start the pasta first :(:(

oh well

10:54pmRobyn

i thought you had the water on already?

10:54pmHenry

it was boiling

just without the pasta

10:54pmRobyn

im sorry, i distracted you with rippling muscles

10:55pmRobyn

im reading an exerpt of heart mate now

it is unbelievably bad

i have read romance novels that were at least funny

this is unreadable

10:56pmHenry

what's the setting?

10:56pmRobyn

there isnt one

10:57pmHenry

I was hoping it would be a math class

10:57pmRobyn

its a burly magical guy rolling a set of dice

he owns a magic shop

or some shit

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The publisher must have read some of the online complaints and laughs about this cover, because they updated it to a close-up of the sinewy tattooed arm of a leather-vested hunk.