Quotes & Commentary #64: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #64: Goethe

And when your rapture in this feeling is complete,
Call it what you will,
Call it bliss! heart! love! God!
I do not have a name
For this. Feeling is all;
Names are but sound and smoke
Befogging heaven’s blazes.


We humans give the name “love” to so many different things that it can be difficult to tell what it means. No word is more overused. Turn on the radio we hear love songs; switch on the television and every show, comedy or drama, has a love story; open a novel, chances are the same is true. We love everything from our children to cheetos, from our friends to our phones. Some people love God and some love Lady Gaga. How can any word accommodate so many different relationships?

Part of the ambiguity comes from our using the word “love” to express three distinct things: feelings, preferences, and values. By “feeling” I mean some emotion felt in the present moment, in this case an emotion of intense pleasure. This is what somebody means when they take a bite of a hamburger and say, “I love this!” We are also expressing a feeling when, with a loved one, we spontaneously say “I love you!” In this sense, the word is purely emotive, comparable to smiling or laughing.

All feelings are, by definition, fleeting and temporary; but we use “love” in calmer moments to express more durable preferences. By “preference” I mean a tendency to enjoy and choose something; this is what somebody means when they say “I love the Beatles.” In less serious moments, we also use the word “love” this way with people, such as when we say “I love my coworkers.” By saying this, the speaker is clearly not expressing any level of commitment to her coworkers; she is only expressing her tendency to enjoy and appreciate their company.

The strongest and, you might say, the most proper use of the word “love” is to express a value. We “value” something when we are willing to act for its sake, enduring inconvenience, pain, or even death in its service. When we value something we identify ourselves with it, making it an extension of ourselves. This is the sort of bond that exists between close friends, family, and romantic partners. And I think it is important to understand love this way, since it explains how it is possible to simultaneously love somebody and be furious at them—which would be contradictory if love were simply a feeling.

Clearly, any good relationship will consist of a combination of these three layers. We feel good in the presence of a loved one, we prefer seeing them, and we value them deeply. Yet is is clearly possible to have one without the others. Specifically, I think a confusion between the emotive and the value aspects of love is what causes people to agonize over the question, “Do I really love x…..?” This is because it is clearly possible to value somebody deeply but to feel angry and hurt in their presence; and conversely it is possible to feel very happy in somebody’s company without being committed to them.

Part of this confusion is unavoidable. This is because it can be difficult to tell how much we really value something. Value is not something we feel and thus is not obvious. Rather, our values are revealed by our actions over a stretch of time. How much time and energy do we devote to somebody? How far are we willing to interrupt our lives for their sake? How consistent is our willingness? We cannot, in other words, simply introspect and feel value. And even when we see that we consistently value something, it is impossible to predict with certainty how long it will last. Thus love, like the rest of life, always requires a leap of faith.

Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.

—Goethe, Faust

For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.

And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.

This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.

Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.

And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.

The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.

The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.

Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.

Quotes & Commentary #53: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #53: Goethe

Not all that’s foreign can be banned

For what is far is often fine.

A Frenchman is a thing no German man can stand,

And yet we like to drink their wine.

—Goethe, Faust

So long as humans have divided themselves into groups, xenophobia has existed. Like many phobias—such as of spiders, snakes, and heights—fear of foreigners has an evolutionary logic. In a time before laws, city walls, and police, when small migratory bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the world, strangers were an acute threat. Violence within one’s own group could be reduced through interdependence and social pressure; but there was comparatively little to deter violence between groups. As such, it made sense to be fearful of strangers, just as it made sense to fear poisonous critters and deadly falls.

But the human environment changes faster than the human mind can evolve. Our fears are often maladjusted to the modern world. We panic when we see rats, bats, cockroaches, and we feel queasy on tall buildings. Yet how many people have phobias of cars or guns, two far more deadly facets of the modern world? Not many, and that’s the point: our brains are attuned to different threats than now exist. The same logic applies to foreigners. The old fear of strangers, once useful and life-preserving, has in our day of nation-states transformed into useless a fear of foreigners. And as everybody in the United States knows, this fear has recently experienced a resurgence.

Xenophobia is nothing new in America. We were never so accepting of immigrants as our national mythology would have us believe. There have been periods of backlash against many different ethnic groups: Germans, Irish, Chinese, and now immigrants from Latin America and from predominately Muslim countries. That this xenophobia is based on provably irrational fears—rampant crime, “job stealing,” or terrorism—hardly affects the deep-rooted emotional response to foreigners. And whipping up sentiment against outsiders, after all, is the easiest thing in the world, since outsiders have no social bonds to the community.

Yet however deeply rooted the fear is in our psychology, it is not ineradicable. A fear of insects is another of our predisposed phobias, since poisonous insects were daily perils for our ancestors. But when I was in Kenya, constantly exposed to legions of flying, crawling, stinging, biting bugs, I soon lost my fear and felt perfectly at home. I ceased to be afraid once I realized that my fear was irrational: the bugs were safe, so long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Similarly, living in an international city like New York reduces xenophobia through daily contact. An irrational fear quickly dissipates when prolonged experience exposes the fear’s lack of basis in reality.

I do not mean to be overly simplistic. Obviously other factors than our primitive wiring affect xenophobia. In the case of Germany and France, for example, those two states competed for resources and power, leading them into conflict and stirring up hatred. And this hatred, combined with political and language barriers, was—despite living in close proximity—sufficient to motivate the populations of those two countries to kill one another in huge numbers, just for their sake of identity. Obviously, proximity by itself is not enough to overcome xenophobic hatred. Both groups must see each other, not as competitors, but as collaborators, with something positive to contribute to one another.

As Goethe points out, I think that cuisine has played a surprisingly central role in promoting inter-group harmony. It is said that music is an international language, but I think food and alcohol better deserve that title. Ingredients, dishes, delicacies, gourmet products, and culinary techniques have traveled far and wide. When it comes to fear of foreigners, perhaps our stomach bypasses our brains. Even the most virulent American nationalist, I suspect, enjoys the occasional Chinese take-out. Food is universal; and sharing food, breaking bread together, is a universal sign of peace.

In the heady days of Trump’s campaign, one of his supporters, Marco Gutierez, warned that, if the Mexicans weren’t pushed out, there would be “a taco truck on every corner.” Perhaps this is exactly what we need, as attacks on immigrants’ rights increase daily.

Review: Faust

Review: Faust

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

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

And what was this play, pray?

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.

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.

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.

Perhaps the translation was abysmal?

Actually, I read the German original.

Ah, I see; please go on.

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.

What about Mephistopheles?

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

And how did you like the plot?

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.

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.

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

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?

This strikes me as just an excuse.

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.

So was he Faust or Mephisto?

He was both, he was both.

(view spoiler)

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