Quotes & Commentary #16: Claude Lévi-Strauss

Quotes & Commentary #16: Claude Lévi-Strauss

The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.

Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss made this exclamation while he was describing the increasingly pervasive influence of Western culture on the rest of the world. It is worth quoting the preceding sentences:

Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe.

Lévi-Strauss wrote this in 1955, and it has only gotten more true. Of increasing concern is the damage we have done to the natural world. We have polluted the air, changed the climate, and succeeded in imperiling our own survival with our machines. We have hunted species to extinction, we have introduced other invasive species to wreak havoc, and we have disrupted whole ecosystems. Truly, it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which we have altered the globe—all too often causing problems for other species.

When is the last time you went somewhere truly natural? Have you ever? I don’t mean a park, a nature reserve, or a forest. I mean places where you can’t see any signs of human tampering. The closest I have ever come to this has been in Canada, when I have paddled a row-boat to the side of a lake, and walked into the pine forest. But even there, without any humans around for miles, I could still hear jet skis and speed boats humming in the distance. And even if I couldn’t hear or see any signs of human activity, the very forest has been altered already by human activity. Both moose and bear are hunted in those parts.

Ironically enough, this environmental damage—damage that now poses a grave danger to us—has been caused by our miraculous technology, the same technology that allows us to lead such comfortable lives. Our addiction to convenience will someday cause us a very great inconvenience.

But Lévi-Strauss was not primarily interested in the environment. Rather, he was thinking about culture. He was bemoaning the emergence of a global culture, primarily Western in origin: a culture that would soon swallow up all the traditional cultures that anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss were interested in studying. To quote Lévi-Strauss once more: “Mankind has opted for monoculture; it is in the process of creating a mass civilization, as beetroot is grown in the mass.”

To an enormous extent, this has already happened. I know this very well. Once, while I was studying in Turkana, a remote part of Kenya, I walked into a store. On the radio was Rihanna; on the shelves were products I recognized: Oreos, Pringles, Coca Cola.

Here in Spain, English is slowly taking over. There are English slogans in advertisements, there are hundreds and hundreds of English language academies, and more and more public schools are bilingual. And Spain is comparatively behind in this regard, partly because Spaniards already speak an international language. If you go to Portugal or Germany, for example, where American movies and shows are consumed in the original language, seemingly everyone can speak English, or at least understand it. Western culture is taking over the globe, and American culture is taking over the West.

It would be unreasonable to regard this is an unambiguously bad thing. At the very least, it has the potential to make the world more peaceful. When we become more similar; when we eat the same foods, watch the same shows, and wear the same clothes; when we speak the same language and have the same values; when, in short, we are all part of the same culture, it will be more difficult to persuade people to dress up in uniforms and kill each other. Well, I hope so at least. And besides, there’s nothing necessarily nefarious about this process. People have voted with their wallets, and voluntarily opted into this mass culture. Every time somebody watches an American show or wear Western clothes, they are reinforcing this process, regardless of their ideological beliefs.

Even so, I find something terribly sad about this growing uniformity of the world. There are no wild places anymore, and even foreign cultures are less foreign. Many people, myself included, are still afflicted with Wanderlust; but where can we wander to? Travel is cheaper than ever; for that reason, more people than ever are traveling; for that reason, traveling is no longer an escape. This is why I loved studying anthropology, and why I loved reading Lévi-Strauss, with his tales of adventure and hunter-gatherers in the rainforest. Such things promised a more substantial escape, at least in imagination.

To quote Lévi-Strauss once again, “I can understand the mad passion for travel books and their deceptiveness. They create the illusion of something which no longer exists but still should exist, if we were to have any hope of avoiding the overwhelming conclusion that the history of the last twenty thousand years is irrevocable.

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 1:9

Today in my history class I showed my students a similar quote, this one by the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: “The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.”

I asked my students to tell me what this quote means. Both the language and the philosophy were a bit advanced for them, yet one student hit upon the basic idea: people are always the same. We may change our world, and we can change our behavior, but we can’t change our nature.

True, in many ways the present is manifestly different from the past. Technology has advanced, science has expanded our knowledge, and political institutions have become more democratic and fair. Trade and industry have made us so wealthy that even modest citizens can afford pleasures considered a luxury a short time ago. We live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before; and we live in a society that, however imperfectly, is more tolerant of more different types of people—atheist, gay, black—than at any other time. In short, notwithstanding our endless limitations and our serious problems, progress is possible.

And yet every step forward is a victory over ourselves, a victory over our darker nature. Human history is an endless war of virtues against vices. Civilization is not the inevitable result of human intelligence, but a prize that countless generations have fought to achieve. Progress has been anything but linear. We have stagnated, and we have retrogressed. The same mistakes, follies, and brutalities have been repeated endlessly through time, over and over, each generation forgetting the lessons learned by the last one.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But as the historian Will Durant reminds us: “History is an excellent teacher with few pupils.”

I used to think that progress was natural and inevitable. I grew up believing that racism, at least in its more brutal variety, had been largely eradicated. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and the acceptance of homosexuality seemed in retrospect like the unavoidable result of progress. It was only natural that we had become more tolerant, and the future would be even more accepting than the present.

And now? Now I see clearly that all these accomplishments, all these victories of toleration over racism, sexism, and homophobia, were hardly inevitable. Rather, they were the hard-won fruit of a bitter battle, a battle that is far from over, which in fact will never be over. The future may be different from the past, and that which shall be may be different from that which has been, but only if we fight for it. If we are complacent, if we take things for granted, then truly there will be no new thing under the sun.

Quotes & Commentary #14: Aristotle

Quotes & Commentary #14: Aristotle

Anger seems to listen to argument to some extent, but to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order, or as dogs bark if there is but a knock at the door, before looking to see if it is a friend; so anger by reason of the warmth and hastiness of its nature, though it hears, does not hear an order, and springs to take revenge.

—Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics

Just yesterday I had an interesting question posed to me. Of the seven deadly sins—gluttony, lust, envy, greed, wrath, sloth, pride—which one afflicts me the worst? I thought it about it for a while. Certainly I am afflicted by each deadly sin. I can be lazy, arrogant, selfish, and all the rest. But I think my outstanding challenge has always been my capacity for rage.

I used to be an angry person. Just ask my brother, or any of my old friends. The smallest things could set me off: a joke, a passing remark, a perceived slight. And when I got angry, I lost all control. Once I threw my cell phone at my oldest friend (thankfully, it hit the guitar he was playing instead of striking him) and snapped it in half. Another time, I kicked a good friend in the back, causing him to fall over in the street. And I can’t tell you how many times I beat up my brother when I was a kid.

It is revealing that, almost always, I can’t even recall what made me so angry in these situations. Usually it was something very trivial. Big things don’t provoke rage in me, but little things do. I become enraged when I’m hungry and I can’t find a place to eat. Or when I’m impatient and stuck somewhere. Or when somebody is being silly when I’m in a sour mood. My mood makes the crucial difference. When I’m hungry, tired, stressed, or otherwise irritable, my patience disappears and I have a tendency to snap at people. I lose my ability to empathize and become a selfish, egocentric man-child.

A big part of growing up, for me, has been learning to control my anger. To do this, I’ve had to recognize that anger is almost always illogical and unwise. Rage, indignation, and outrage are dangerous emotions, because they convince us that they are justified. Indeed, anger can feel extremely empowering. We are never so sure that we are right and others wrong than when we’re enraged. And yet, as Aristotle points out, it is when we’re angry, indignant, and outraged that we are most prone to being wrong, precisely because we feel unshakably sure that we’re right.

Anger is just a defense of the ego. When we feel that we are being undermined, or slighted, or treated unjustly, our anger is a way of preventing our ego from being damaged, of preserving our sense of self-worth, of reaffirming our own perspective. Yet by defending your ego, you acknowledge that it’s vulnerable; and even if you retaliate, you can’t undue the injury that’s been done to your pride.

It is one of the hardest things in the world, but also the most rewarding, to actually listen when you’re being criticized rather than to retaliate. I know from painful experience that the urge to fight back can be nearly overwhelming. Instead of understanding what the other person is saying, we immediately start thinking of how to refute them. But how can you refute someone when you haven’t heard what they’re saying? And how can you convince them when you don’t acknowledge the validity of their experience?

When something seems untrue, unjust, or unfair, then your whole body and mind can tense up in protest. But in these moments it is crucial to remember that what seems true to you may not seem true to somebody else, and what seems fair to you might seem unfair to a friend. Most of all it is important to fight the angry tendency to mishear what other people are saying. To do this, extra effort is necessary, the effort to listen and understand. Do not be like Aristotle’s dog and bark before you know who’s at the door.

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

Quotes & Commentary #13: Edward Gibbon

“History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon does not merely assert this definition of history. In the thousands of pages of his magnificent book, he chronicles every type of vice, wickedness, immorality, imprudence, venality, depravity, villainy, and man-made calamity that has occurred beneath the sun.

For me, reading Gibbon was a thoroughly sobering experience. Nine out of every ten rulers was hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, or malicious. Religious sects spilled each other’s blood over tiny differences of doctrine. Wives poisoned their husbands, fathers executed their sons. Whole cities were destroyed, whole populations slaughtered. Good men were disgraced, bad men elevated to the height of power and respect. Whatever lingering sense of cosmic justice I had before I read that book—the sense that, in the end, most wrongs are righted, most crimes punished—was destroyed. History has no moral compass.

As a writer, Gibbon was at his best when he was portraying decadence. The Roman Empire began as one of the most noble and impressive creations of the human species. Then, slowly but inevitably, the great edifice began to collapse. Sadistic and cowardly emperors took the throne. The love of wealth replaced the love of glory. The desire for gain, comfort, and security destroyed the old Roman ethic of respect, loyalty, and bravery. Institutions slowly crumbled from abuse and neglect. Respect for knowledge was lost, then knowledge itself. Tolerance of differences faded, then the society became pervaded with a sterile uniformity of opinion.

When I first read Gibbon’s book, I thought that his emphasis on moral decline—the decline in values and character—was, at the very least, a superficial explanation for Rome’s decline. Aren’t values and character just adaptations to, and products of, social and economic circumstances?

After witnessing this election, I am inclined to give Gibbon’s view more respect. The degree of incompetence, cowardice, short-sighted ambition—in a word, decadence—displayed by the political class, the media, and the populace, is nothing short of embarrassing.

The debate was rarely, if ever, substantive. We were not seeing two competing philosophies of government, or two rival solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, we saw two outdated candidates who, in different ways, promised nothing but a recapitulation of the past.

Hillary was symbol of the political establishment. She explicitly linked her goals to her husband’s and Obama’s legacies. She would not do anything radically new, but protect (and maybe expand) the work that Obama accomplished against a Republican onslaught. And Trump, with his promise to Make American Great Again, explicitly placed America’s glory days in some idealized past, where white men with little education were able to work good blue-collar jobs and were socially superior to every other demographic group.

(And while I’m at it, it’s worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was hardly an exception to this. He more or less promised a return to FDR’s New Deal.)

In other words, Clinton promised a return to the 1990s, and Trump to the 1950s.

I can’t help but find both of these campaigns pathetic. Trump’s platform was emptier than a vacuum. His policy suggestions were bad jokes. He is so clearly, so obviously ignorant, and so transparently a con man. But I think it shows that there is something terribly wrong with the political establishment if the best defense they could put forward was Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

As a politician, Clinton has been consistently tone-deaf and uncharismatic. The entire ethos of her campaign was out of step with the country’s mood. The most persuasive reason to vote for her was to prevent Trump from winning. She had no new ideas, but only promised to continue the old ones—and I think it’s obvious by now that lots of people have no love for the old ideas. Many, including myself, were excited to have the first women president. But I think it’s significant that this was the most exciting thing about Clinton.

The media was also consistently pathetic during this campaign. Time after time after time, they predicted Trump would lose. This would be the end of the Republican party, a historic disaster from which they wouldn’t be able to recover. And yet, they gave Trump free air time. They treated his lies like valid opinions. His buffoonery brought them too much revenue, and they focused on profit rather than the truth. The old pundits analyzed, editorialized, and forecasted, and what they said had nothing to do with reality. Over and over, the political, economic, and social elite showed that they had no inkling of what was happening in the country.

In sum, I can’t help but see this election as an unmistakable sign of decadence in the United States. On both sides the campaign was intellectually empty, absent of any new ideas, explicitly focused on preserving or bringing back the past, and fueled by fear rather than hope. And I know from reading Gibbon that when you elevate a narcissistic, demagogic, and incompetent man to the height of power, the results are seldom pretty.

Why are we in the midst of a moral decline? I certainly cannot say. At the very least, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that this era will likely furnish ample material to historians of the future, as they document our crimes, follies, and misfortunes.

Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

Quotes & Commentary #12: James Joyce

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

—James Joyce, Ulysses

I can’t imagine a more appropriate quote for today, the day I learned that Donald Trump had been elected president.

This morning I fully expected to wake up to news of Clinton’s victory. Even though I wasn’t very happy with Clinton, I was still excited for the first woman president. But I was much more excited to never have to look at, think of, or talk about Donald Trump ever again.

The truth is, I have developed an unhealthy loathing for the man—not just as a politician, but as a person. This hatred is unhealthy because it gives Trump, an egomaniac, exactly what he wants: power over my attention. Unwittingly I got sucked into his reality show world, watching out of spite just to see him lose. Instead, I lost.

This morning I went to work with a pit in my stomach, a feeling of impotent, nebulous anxiety. Seeing the gloomy faces of my coworkers, blanched and speechless, only tightened the knot in my gut.

It wasn’t long before the initial shock wore off, my powers of denial began to fail, and the full enormity of what happened hit me. My reaction was more physical than intellectual. I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t think, talk, or do anything remotely productive. I could just sit in sullen silence, trying to hide my feelings from my students.

But James Joyce’s quote reminds me of something. History is nearly always a nightmare. Corruption, bigotry, xenophobia, the lust for power—these have been with us from the beginning, and always will be. The wicked leaders far outweigh the decent ones. Trump is not new, merely a new manifestation of something very old: a demagogue who represents and draws upon the darker impulses of our nature.

If by history we mean the ceaseless tide of human action, propelling us forwards and backwards, raising us to the heights and sinking us into the depths, then it is impossible to awake from history. As long as humans are humans, history will be, in the words of Edward Gibbon, “little more than a register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” History is the constant, heroic, and ultimately doomed attempt to fight against entropy.

But besides the literal meaning, I also like to interpret this quote in another, more psychological, way.

Trump is an archetypical example of a man who places value in external things. For him, this thing is winning. He needs it like a drug, in ever-increasing doses. While it may seem like a strength, this craving to win is really the product of a crippling weakness: the need for constant validation.

When you identify your own value with something external—whether it be money, love, or whatever—you doom yourself to a hamster wheel existence. You spend all your time pursuing it. But when you get it, you immediately want more; and when you don’t get it, you feel worthless.

For me, this is the history from which I am trying to awake. Instead of chasing things, I want to enjoy them. Not that there is anything wrong with pursuing a goal—to the contrary, it is the most admirable thing you can do. But you can pursue goals without wagering your sense of worth and identity in the bargain. You can treat the hustle of life as a necessary, exciting, and vexing game, not the ultimate judgment of your value.

Donald Trump does just the opposite. In his world, if you lose then that makes you worthless, an insect, a nobody, a loser. And if you win, your life has been validated. He identifies totally and completely with the outcome of the game of life. Because of this, no matter how successful he is, he will always feel a gnawing sense of emptiness at the core of his being. No win will ever be enough, and every loss will be devastating.

The reason I am thinking along these lines is that I am now reading Epictetus, the former slave who became a Stoic philosopher. Because Stoicism grew up amid political turmoil and instability, it is a philosophy ideally suited for disastrous times.

Epictetus teaches that external things (like elections) are always ultimately beyond our control. Of course, you do what you can, and you must do so. But you are not obligated to be agitated when it doesn’t go your way—as will frequently happen. Indeed, agitation serves no purpose. Either act, or be tranquil. We cannot always control events, but we can always control how we react to those events.

This Stoic lesson will be increasingly necessary in the coming years, if we are not to wear ourselves out with worrying. It is especially necessary with a man like Trump, who is so addicted to attention. When I talk to friends, watch TV, or look on Facebook,  I am constantly surprised by how completely he has captured the attention of the entire world. And this is exactly what he wanted. It’s the only thing he’s good at. Whether you love or hate him, chances are that you can’t stop thinking about him.

But letting Trump totally dominate our thoughts and moods is giving him the ultimate victory. It is giving him exactly what he craves. And ultimately this stress and anxiety will not make us any more effective in countering his proposals or fighting against his influence. To act appropriately, we must remain calm and focused; and to do that, we cannot, must not, let Trump so totally invade our thoughts and destroy our ability for reflection and thoughtful action.

And we certainly cannot let ourselves, like I have done, become obsessed with our hatred and loathing for the man. To act hatefully is to sink to his level. To become obsessed with beating him is to let him win the ultimate battle over your soul.

All power fades, all tyrants die, and everything, good or bad, is swallowed by time. History can indeed by a nightmare; but like a nightmare upon waking it will one day vanish into nothingness.

Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. Enjoy what you have. This is how we can awake from history.

Quotes & Commentary #11: Alexander Tocqueville

Quotes & Commentary #11: Alexander Tocqueville

I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America.

—Alexander de Tocqueville

This is quite a pessimistic quote to choose on election day, but I feel it’s appropriate after this grueling election season. For me it has been a thoroughly disheartening affair with little to redeem it.

Trump is a problem—a thoroughly disgusting human being—but only a part of the problem. It is too easy, and too satisfying, to rant about how bad Trump is. No superlative is strong enough to capture his vileness. But vile people have always, and will always, exist. The depressing thing is that this man, so obviously unfit for the presidency, has gotten so close and indeed might win.

It’s very easy to point fingers to the media. And there is some truth to this accusation. The amount of free airtime given to Trump, the double standard that has always been applied to him, the fascination with scandals over substance—all this has characterized this year’s election coverage.

The intellectual level of political discussion has been comparable to the interviews on reality shows. We are voting for personalities, not policies; we hear about controversies, not conflicting ideas. After every debate, the “viral” moment is inevitably something that has nothing to do with the politician’s plans or values. We haven’t even approached a rational discussion. We are voting between two public personas, each with their own package of scandals. Waiting to hear the end result of this election is frighteningly similar to waiting for the finale of a reality show.

But is it completely fair to blame the media? After all, newspapers and cable news need to make money to stay in business; and that has been increasingly difficult lately. Because their existence is now so precarious, they simply cannot afford not to seek as much profit as they can. This provides a serious disincentive to report substantive, serious discussion, since by their nature such discussions are difficult and time-consuming. Simple, dramatic, eye-catching, easily-digestible headlines sell more papers and generate more revenue. And why do such things sell better? That’s not the media’s fault: it’s ours.

In any capitalist system, the supply is always shaped and driven by the demand. Our tastes, our preferences, and our values form the demand for our media content. And these tastes, preferences, and values are apparently, on the whole, so shallow that we cannot even approach a thoughtful discussion.

I am not old enough to really know if it was ever otherwise, or whether such shallowness is a persistent feature of democracies. Yet I can’t help suspecting that this is a bad omen. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but Trump is such a sumptuously, startlingly, indecipherably unsuitable candidate that it is hard to resist the conclusion that something has gone badly wrong.

Of course, every society is vulnerable to duplicitous demagogues. Even Athens succumbed to Alcibiades. What most vexes me about Trump’s rise is that he is not even a skilled demagogue. He is a bald-faced liar, one of the most obvious con mans I have ever seen, a man without strategy or subtlety.

Trump may lose tomorrow. But unless we figure out how to elevate our public discussion, and attain Tocqueville’s independence of thought and freedom of debate, we will continue to be vulnerable to people like Trump.

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

—John Milton

Like nearly all good quotes from Paradise Lost, these words are spoken by Satan. He is both commenting on his own expulsion from heaven a well as his plans to disrupt God’s plans through guile and craft rather than force. (He tried using force first, but his army lost.)

This maxim strikes me as true with regard to both physical and intellectual force. If one person is stronger than another, one army better trained and equipped than another, one nation richer and bigger than another, they might be able to have their way through force alone. And doubtless, many have used force successfully. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it is seldom possible to completely defeat an enemy’s strength. Battles are costly, and destruction takes valuable resources. Usually the fallen enemy limps away to fight another day. What’s more, when you use force, you make more enemies than you defeat. There are innumerable examples of this. Through belligerent foreign policy, the United States has often undermined its own security this way, by inspiring hatred in the hearts of many while defeating the arms of a few.

This lesson is equally true in intellectual battles. Let’s say that you and I are having a disagreement. Let’s also say that I am almost certainly wrong, and you almost certainly right. Nevertheless, if you convince me by force, against my will, if you are condescending and contradicting, even if you’re right, you will only inspire resentment and bitterness in me. I will dig in my heels; I will struggle and strain; I will look for every possible argument, however farfetched, to combat you, just because my pride will be on the line. Every intellectual fight is inevitably a fight about something besides the ostensible subject. Every argument becomes a fight of egos, not of minds, and thus a battle in the purest sense. We are never less well disposed to empathize with another person’s point of view if we feel that they are trying to do us harm.

With varying levels of success, I try to apply this lesson whenever I have a disagreement. The trick, I’ve found, is to always try to find some truth in what your partner is saying. (Call them a partner, not an opponent.) Tell them all the ways they’re right before you say any of your own ideas. Then, even if you disagree, don’t frame your comments as contradictions to what they said. Instead, treat your ideas as additions to their ideas, as different bricks in the same structure. This way, you will have an ally instead of an enemy, and they will be much more well disposed towards agreeing with you.

Review: Faust

Review: Faust

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Student:
Hey Professor, I could use a hand,
I just read a play I didn’t understand.

Professor:
And what was this play, pray?

Student:
Faust, the one you assigned the other day.
I simply can’t wrap my mind around it;
I read it carefully, but I am left confounded.

Professor:
I have, alas, studied philosophy,
Literature, history, and poetry.
I have some time that I can set aside;
So I will do my best to be your guide.

Student:
Gosh, thanks! So where should I start?
I suppose at the most conspicuous part:
The language, it was strangely various;
Both in style and quality, it was multifarious.
One moment, it is regal and poetic;
Other moments it is hasty and frenetic.
Doggerel alternates with highfalutin;
At times colossal, at others Lilliputian.

Professor:
Perhaps the translation was abysmal?

Student:
Actually, I read the German original.

Professor:
Ah, I see; please go on.

Student:
I hope you won’t think I’m a moron,
But I also thought the drama lacking;
Even though Faust does all this yacking
About his tortured soul, his weary spirit,
I found his actions downright incoherent.
He alternately scorns the world and yearns—
For what? What does he wish to learn?
Although supposedly full of all these riddles,
I found him a bit superficial.
In short, it’s hard to care about his fate,
When all he does is whine and prate.

Professor:
What about Mephistopheles?

Student:
With him, I was somewhat more pleased.
He has at least a bit of spice;
His naughtiness is rather nice.

Professor:
And how did you like the plot?

Student:
That actually perplexed me a lot.
For one, it’s not a tragedy,
Since the play ends happily.
And what was with Walpurgis Night?
Yes it was fun, but it didn’t seem right
To interrupt the action so severely,
So pointlessly and cavalierly.
Some critics admire that scene, “it’s po-mo,”
They say, but I say “Oh, no!”
And what was with Valentine?
He sticks around for just one scene,
And if I am to be concise,
He struck me as a plot device.
To be honest, from what I gleaned,
I can’t tell why this is so esteemed.
It was nice and all, but I find it queer,
That Goethe is compared with Shakespeare.

Professor:
I can understand the plight you’re in,
It’s hard to know where to begin.
Goethe is a slippery fellow;
Reading him is like juggling jello.
He was a touch mercurial;
Often brilliant, occasionally dull.
He was a dabbler through and through
There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do,
Or at least try; which is partly why
The language goes from low to high.

Student:
Certainly he was heterogeneous;
But why do you think he was a genius?

Professor:
In some ways he was like Faust;
He studied all, and all renounced.
He was skeptical of all modes of thought;
And found faults in everything he sought.
His distrust of tidiness
Is why the play is such a mess.
If reality is in disarray,
So shouldn’t be his play?

Student:
This strikes me as just an excuse.

Professor:
Everyone is entitled to their views.
Yet consider Goethe’s sophistication;
In him there is no mystification.
In renouncing reason, he does not turn,
To superstition, but instead learns
To spread his mind in all directions;
At once seeking, through reflection,
To transcend all worldly views,
While remaining coarse and worldly, too.
His wisdom soars above, and crawls below;
It is both cheap and tawdry, and it glows
And grows, expanding ever and anon—
Here one moment, in another, gone.
He was, in short, a universal man;
Easy to admire, hard to understand.

Student:
So was he Faust or Mephisto?

Professor:
He was both, he was both.

(view spoiler)

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