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Of Goethe and Making Connections

One of the central components of the cultivated person is the ability to make connections. In a way, that's what education is all about and those who remind us that it is a life-long process are right on the mark. At school, the gathering of data is a given; the excellent school, however, does not consider it an end but a means, the ultimate goal being the inculcation of a mental process that, in time, becomes automatic and involuntary. Just as the knee jerks at the mallet's tap, the mind responds to the stimulus of information, triggering innumerable questions of who, what, when, where, and why.

Of course, we do not all respond to the same information. In this age of specialization and consumerism, it is not unusual to find folks who seem to be turned on only by their parochial area of interest; and others whose Geiger counter only registers at the prospect of material goods or passive entertainment. Sadly enough, one even knows people — mercifully few — whose verve goes no further than their own creature comforts.

At the other pole is the truly multifaceted person — the man or woman whose unique energies and talents are manifest on many levels, who is either blessed with the gift of creation or, lacking that, at least endowed with the lesser gift of deeply revering creativity. Many of us qualify for the latter category; few for the former, and those who do constitute the Titans upon whom our civilization is built and sustained.

One such icon is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and a grateful civilized world is preparing to pay tribute to him in 1999 on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Although a working familiarity with Goethe's major works remains an integral ingredient of the German speaking world's education, Goethe's currency — with the possible exception of Faust — has diminished sadly in America. The fact is that Goethe, quite apart from being arguably the greatest of all German poets-dramatists-novelists, perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the time. Or better said, like any true bearer of a Zeitgeist, he was the embodiment of the era that was about to come.

Far from isolating himself from the world-at-large to dwell in Olympian rarefication, Goethe found nourishment and inspiration in earthly things, in folk songs and stories, in myths and mysteries, in nature and science. His genius, says The New Columbia Encyclopedia, "embraced most fields of human endeavor." He was fascinated by human nature and reconciled to human frailty and the power games people play called politics. Not only did he have strong political views but perhaps his greatest commitment was to be politically committed. When Napoleon met him in 1808, he remarked, Voilà un homme! — a giant recognizing and deferring to an even greater giant.

From what we can tell, Goethe was a late bloomer and not one to whom everything came easily. His childhood was perfectly ordinary, but he seemed to intuit early in life that there were connections between seemingly unrelated things, and that one needed skills and tools to discover relationships. He set about acquiring the disciplines he needed and, being so inquisitive, he needed many. He studied law and music, physics and biology, art and language — always language — mastering French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He translated Diderot, Voltaire, Cellini, and Byron into German and had a lifelong passion for Shakespeare.

Goethe's own writings have influenced composers throughout the ages. In the Barenreiter catalogue alone, one may find definitive editions of works by Beethoven (Egmont, Incidental music to Goethe's tragedy), Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust, after the French translation of Faust, Part I), Gounod's operatic Faust, the many Schubert Lieder on Goethe texts, an opera by Giselher Klebe, and songs with orchestral accompaniment by Hugo Wolf and Winfried Zillig. As long as there are humanists in the world, the spirit of Goethe will remain intact — witness Albert Schweitzer's 1949 journey to America to address the Goethe Festival in Colorado on the bicentennial anniversary. (They tell the story of Schweitzer's long train ride. On the stretch between Chicago and Denver, a little old white-haired lady stared and stared and finally mustered up the courage to approach him. "Pardon me," she said, "but aren't you Albert Einstein?" Without skipping a beat, Schweitzer responded, "No, madam, but I can introduce you to him." There was another humanist.)

True, the world is not peopled by Goethes or Einsteins or Schweitzers. They have always been and will always be set apart, in their own worlds, expending energies we mere mortals can barely fathom. And yet, these paragons are very much of this world, both in their make-ups and in their legacy. Just as the great artists, scientists, thinkers and doers of history soak up the fundamental stuff of mankind, so do they cast it out again, radiating their own creativity upon the world. Sometimes it takes a little while for the rest of us to catch up, for the dawning to come as to what we of the lay society have inherited. And sometimes, these priceless bequests fall, for a period, into disuse, only to be rediscovered by subsequent epochs.

Wagner knew what he was saying in the final act of Die Meistersinger: "Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!" ("Don't ever scorn the masters' name, and give their art its due!"). We have been endowed with a great heritage, a repository of achievement that is, at times, difficult to interpret and understand. But the effort is worth it. It helps us to understand others and to live more productively with ourselves. And all we have to do is make connections....

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