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The Art of Sympathetic Enthusiasm: Goethe on the Only Opinion Worth Voicing About the Life and Work of Another

In praise of the “loving sympathy” that makes life worthy of living.

The Art of Sympathetic Enthusiasm: Goethe on the Only Opinion Worth Voicing About the Life and Work of Another

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in contemplating human nature, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” A generation later, W.H. Auden echoed this sentiment in his insistence that the only worthwhile criticism is celebration — a conviction which I myself have held and placed at the center of my life for as long as I can remember.

Long before Auden and Russell, another titan of thought in language articulated this ethos with unsurpassed poetic precision.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) offers a lovely counterpoint to the impulse toward criticism with an edge of cynicism that has only swelled in the centuries since:

I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality, and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.

It is no small challenge to preserve and transmit original sentiment across centuries and cultures, surmounting the barriers of time and translation. Goethe’s words, popularized by John Burroughs’s 1896 classic, Whitman: A Study (public library), originally appeared in an 1887 issue of MacMillan’s Magazine. The article claimed that Goethe was “in his old age” at the time of his reflection on this central truth of creative work, but this was untrue. I was able to trace the origin of his words to a variation — likely due to translation — penned in his prime, indicating that this faith in the sympathetic and the celebratory as the only real comment upon art and life was a longtime animating ethos for the polymathic poet. In a letter to Friedrich Schiller from the spring of 1796, translated by George H. Calvert and published in 1845, forty-six-year-old Goethe writes:

In treating of writings as of actions, unless one speaks with a loving sympathy, a certain partial enthusiasm, the result is so defective as to have very little value. Pleasure, delight, sympathy in things, is all that is real, and that reproduces reality: all else is empty and in vain.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on the difficult art of counter-criticism, then revisit Goethe on beginner’s mind, the courage to despair, and his theory of the psychology of color and emotion.

Published April 3, 2018




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