Oh You Rationalists!

“Oh you rationalists,” I replied, smiling. “Passion! Drunkenness! Madness! You moral creatures, so calm and so righteous! You abhor the drunken man and detest the eccentric; you pass by, like the Levite, and thank God, like the Pharisee, that you are not one of them. I have been drunk more than once, my passions have always bordered on madness, and I’m not ashamed to confess it. I’ve learned in my own way that all extraordinary men who have done great and improbable things have ever been decried by the world as drunk or insane. And in ordinary life too, is it not intolerable that no one can undertake anything noble or generous without having everybody shout, ‘That fellow is drunk, he is mad’? Shame on you, ye sages!”

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

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A Supernatural Revelation

Faust: …
But now, that deep contentment in my breast,
Alas, wells up no more, in spite of all my best
Endeavours. Oh, how soon the stream runs dry,
And in what parching thirst again we lie!
How often this has happened to me!
And yet, there is a remedy:
We learn to seek a higher inspiration,
A supernatural revelation–
And where does this shine in its fullest glory,
If not in that old Gospel story?
Here is the Greek text; I am moved to read
Its sacred words, I feel the need
Now to translate them true and clear
Into the German tongue I hold so dear.

‘In the beginning was the Word’: why, now
I’m stuck already! I must change that; how?
Is then ‘the word’ so great and high a thing?
There is some other rendering,
Which with the spirit’s guidance I must find.
We read: ‘In the beginning was the Mind.’
Before you write this first phrase, think again;
Good sense eludes the overhasty pen.
Does ‘mind’ set worlds on their creative course?
It means: ‘In the beginning was the Force’.
So it should be–but as I write this too,
Some instinct warns me that it will not do.
The spirit speaks! I see how it must read,
And boldly write: ‘In the beginning was the Deed!’

Goethe, Faust: Part One – 6. Faust’s Study (I)

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The Authenticity of Old Writings

750. ‘Among the many curious stupidities of the schools, none seems to me so ridiculous as the strife about the authenticity of old writings, old works. For I ask you, is it the author or the works we are admiring or censuring? Our sole concern is always and only the author before us; why should we bother about the names when we are interpreting a work of the spirit?’

751. ‘Who can maintain that it is Virgil or Homer we have before us when we are reading the works ascribed to them? But our business is with the writers, and what more do we want? And, indeed, it seems to me that the scholars who are so pernickety about this unimportant matter are no wiser than a very pretty woman who once asked me, with the sweetest possible smile, who was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays.’

Goethe, Maxims and Reflections

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Stages of Life

806. Every stage of life corresponds to a certain philosophy. A child appears as a realist; for it is as certain of the existence of pears and apples as it is of its own being. A young man, caught up in the storm of his inner passions, has to pay attention to himself, look and feel ahead; he is transformed into an idealist. A grown man, on the other hand, has every reason to be a sceptic; he is well advised to doubt whether the means he has chosen to achieve his purpose can really be right. Before action and in the course of action he has every reason to keep his mind flexible so that he will not have to grieve later on about a wrong choice. An old man, however, will always avow mysticism. He sees that so much seems to depend on chance: unreason succeeds, reason fails, fortune and misfortune unexpectedly come to the same thing in the end; this is how things are, how they were, and old age comes to rest in him who is, who was and ever will be.

Goethe, Maxims and Reflections

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The Fools

All the wise of every age are in agreement: it is foolish to wait for the fools to be cured of their folly! The proper thing to do is to make fools of the fools!

Goethe, Kophtisches Lied (Lines 3-7)

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Her Divine Breath

How my heart beats when by accident I touch her finger, or my feet meet hers under the table! I draw back as from a flame, but a secret force impels me forward again, and I begin to feel faint. Oh! Her innocent, pure heart never knows what agony these little familiarities inflict on me. Sometimes when we are talking she lays her hand on mine and in the eagerness of conversation comes closer to me, and her divine breath brushes my lips—I feel as if lightning had struck me, and I could sink into the earth. And yet, Wilhelm, with all this heavenly intimacy— if I should ever dare—you understand. No! my heart is not so depraved; it is weak, weak enough—but isn’t that a kind of depravity?

She is sacred to me. All desire is silenced in her presence; I don’t know what I feel when I’m near her. It is as if my soul beat in every nerve of my body. There is a melody which she plays on the piano with the touch of an angel—so simple is it, and yet so lofty! It’s her favorite song, and when she strikes the first note all my worry and sorrow disappear in a moment.

I believe every word that is said of the ancient magic of music. How her simple song enchants me! And how she knows when to play it! Sometimes, when I feel like shooting a bullet into my head, she begins to sing. The gloom and madness are dispersed, and I breathe freely again.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

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Unattainable Happiness

Distance, my friend, is like the future. A dim vastness is spread before our soul; our feelings are as obscure as our vision, and we desire to surrender our whole being, that it may be filled with the perfect bliss of one glorious emotion–but alas! when we rush towards our goal, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is the same; we are as poor and limited as ever, and our soul still languishes for unattainable happiness.

And so the restless traveler at last longs for his native soil, and finds in his own cottage, in the arms of his wife, in the affection of his children, and the labor necessary for their support, all that happiness which he sought in vain in the wide word.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

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A Stream of Ecstatic Tears

It was still thundering in the distance; a soft rain was pouring down over the countryside and filled the air around us with delicious fragrance. Charlotte leaned on her elbows, her eyes wandered over the scene, she looked up to the sky, and then turned to me, her eyes filled with tears; she put her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!” I remembered at once that magnificent ode of his which was in her thoughts, and felt overcome by the flood of emotion which the mention of his name called forth. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of ecstatic tears, and again looked into her eyes. Divine Klopstock! If only you could have seen your apotheosis in those eyes! And your name, so often profaned, may I never hear it uttered again!

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

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