“One must be something in order to do something.”
By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.
In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.
Eckermann writes in the introduction
That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.
But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.
Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.
Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:
A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!
Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:
On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.
In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:
Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.
But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:
The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.
Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:
One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.
Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.