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Autobiography by John Oxenford Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

this book is amazing — it is clear where Nietzsche developed some of his ideas. Goethe stands as a clear example of the strong, creative nature which Nietzsche so often extols. It was fun to read through Goethe’s discussion of his alchemical experiments, and his very neo-platonic views on Christianity. His take on atheism is interesting and is something which modern religious thinkers could really get a hold of. He is utterly unafraid of science — he is fascinated with the world and one can easily imagine him drinking in modern physics, and Darwinism and anything else without blinking. He rejects out of hand and with good humor philosophy which is used as an armature for despair.  Contemporary thinkers are much more vain than he was, and in the manner predicted by Nietzsche, because science has failed to give them the certainty which superstition once did, have rejected concepts such as meaning and significance and produced a series of gloomy books about why this is necessary. Goethe rejects this move with good humor, and without thereby falling into anything which might be equated with creation science.

Goethe’s personality is also grand, and his writing is delicious. Of course I am reading him in translation so I don’t get his sense of the sound of German, but his sentences are wonderful and complex, and his manner of developing his thoughts over pages is a theater of concepts which is entertaining on it’s own entirely independent of what concepts he happens to be discussing. I wonder if that is related to intelligence — does a highly intelligent persons mind just craft complex thoughts like that (as Simone Wiel has suggested) or is it a stylistic choice — could anyone learn to do it?

The reflection on the public reception of Werter in Book XIII is magnificent, and the whole book should be read just to understand this passage. It would not be enough to just read the passage — I think his comments would come across as snide if you hadn’t been introduced to his tone in the preceding chapters. His honest chagrin at the public’s inability to understand the work, and the insistent curiosity as to, for example, the true identity of Lotte is wonderful to read. As is his comment, which is deeply interesting in a writer, that the gulf between writer and audience is total. I don’t think he makes that comment in hyperbole — so then who is he writing for? Other writers? Himself? He trolls the observation out in the middle of a chapter where he has dealt with his own suicidal feelings, and then draws it back again and says no more about it.

The passage on the failed eye surgery, performed as a study of a decent man in an unfortunate circumstance is brilliant.  We see a good man who is performing what must have been almost a miraculous cure. Then something goes wrong, and he almost knows it ahead of time. It turns out to be the case, and we consider in detail how he reproaches himself. The image of Nietzsche’s higher man is so clear here — this is the man we are talking about. He goes above and beyond — yet he is still mired in his humanity. He is his own toughest critic, and in a sense he is so exaulted that he exites nothing but suspicion from others — and his work itself is held to an impossibly high standard. That shame that he feels on having been less then perfect, when he has already been more than human — what is that? It is a remarkable passage.

What is most amazing about this book, besides the lovely full sentences, is that scattered thoughout it are utter gems of thought. Small, almost accidental observations which leap out and almost make you put the book down. I would like to go through it again with a butterfly net, and capture some of these quotations — maybe for a future post.

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October 27, 2008 - Posted by | 40th Birthday Project

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