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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.

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Goethe’s Graphically Daring Diagrams of Color Perception

How a misguided refutation of Newton inspired artists and philosophers with a new visual aesthetic.

“To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” Wassily Kandinsky wrote in 1910 as he contemplated the spiritual element in art and the three tasks of the artist. This notion of harmony was more than a metaphor for Kandinsky — he argued for an actual sonic quality of color, in which he believed absolutely: “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would try to express bright yellow in the bass notes, or dark lake in the treble.”

Kandinsky’s conviction was inspired by Goethe’s theory of color and emotion, published exactly a century earlier as part of the great German poet’s polymathic explorations of art and science. (A few years earlier, those explorations had led Goethe to use poetry to popularize the cloud classification system, which we continue to use today.)

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Goethe’s ideas about color were an attempt to refute Newton’s theory. Although most of them were eventually invalidated by science, their creative value remained of intense interest to artists like Kandinsky and philosophers like Wittgenstein.

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Perhaps most important, they paved the way for a new aesthetic of visual representations of scientific concepts and phenomena, soon reflected in visionary works like Popular Science founder Edward Livingston Youmans’s 1854 diagrams of how chemistry works and the eccentric Victorian mathematician Oliver Byrne’s graphic interpretation of Euclid’s elements.

Color wheel designed by Goethe in 1809

Goethe believed that there were only two pure colors, blue (“a darkness weakened by light”) and yellow (“a light which has been dampened by darkness”), but he was particularly interested in morphology — the study of forms. His theories of color were also heavily rooted in morphology — from his color wheel, a symmetrical arrangement of six colors against Newton’s asymmetry of seven, to his geometric diagrams of how the relationship between darkness and light shapes color.

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More than a century before Fritz Kahn pioneered infographics and long before graphic design emerged as a discipline, Goethe’s diagrams, recently digitized by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Sweden’s Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, stand as a graphic voice far ahead of its time.

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Complement with Goethe’s timely thoughts on the discipline of discernment in your media diet, then revisit the story of how contemporary color pioneer Josef Albers revolutionized visual culture and the art of seeing.

HT Open Culture

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The Courage to Despair: Goethe, the Inner Tension of Creativity, and What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

“[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”

The Courage to Despair: Goethe, the Inner Tension of Creativity, and What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a 1914 letter to a depressed Rilke. “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin observed a generation later in contemplating why emotional excess is essential for creativity.

This capacity to wrest meaning out of inner turmoil and transmute darkness into light is perhaps the defining feature of the creative spirit, and no one has captured it more beautifully than the British diplomat and writer Humphrey Trevelyan (November 27, 1905–February 9, 1985) in his introduction to the 1949 edition of Goethe’s autobiography, Truth and Fantasy from My Life (public library).

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

With an eye to Goethe’s remarkable longevity as an artist who continually reinvented himself within his lifetime and went on to influence generations beyond, Trevelyan considers the two key qualities an artist must possess in order to maintain lifelong creative vitality. Echoing Rilke’s notion that the creative person must “live the questions” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s conviction that art is a matter of “making your unknown known… and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Trevelyan writes:

It seems that two qualities are necessary if a great artist is to remain creative to the end of a long life; he must on the one hand retain an abnormally keen awareness of life, he must never grow complacent, never be content with life, must always demand the impossible and when he cannot have it, must despair. The burden of the mystery must be with him day and night.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s insistence on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist and Martha Graham’s notion of the “divine dissatisfaction” at the center of the creative life, Trevelyan adds:

[The artist] must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy. Many lesser poets have it only in their youth; some even of the greatest lose it in middle life. Wordsworth lost the courage to despair and with it his poetic power. But more often the dynamic tensions are so powerful that they destroy the man before he reaches maturity.

Complement with Marina Abramović on turning trauma into raw material for art, Rilke on what it takes to be an artist, Robert Walser’s poetic portrait of the creative spirit, and E.E. Cummings on the agony of “the artist with capital A,” then revisit Goethe himself on beginner’s mind and the story of how he helped pioneer the cloud classification system we use today.

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Harry Clarke’s Beautiful and Haunting 1925 Illustrations for Goethe’s Faust

“Part of that power which would do evil constantly and constantly does good.”

Great works of literature penetrate our psyche with what Frederick Douglass called “aesthetic force” — the beautiful and sometimes sublime experience they create courses through us, inevitably changing our interior landscape. This, perhaps, is why beloved works of literature lend themselves so powerfully to aesthetic interpretations like William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” and Gustave Doré’s striking art for Dante’s Inferno.

In 1925, the great Irish stained-glass artist and book illustrator Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931) was commissioned for a special edition of Faust (public library) — a take radically different from Eugène Delacroix’s illustrations for the Goethe classic, created exactly a century earlier.

Clarke’s unmistakable aesthetic, which became a centerpiece of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and which he had applied to Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination just a few years earlier, lends the Goethe masterpiece an additional dimension of haunting beauty — the kind that calls to mind Rilke’s famous assertion that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

Complement the Clarke-illustrated Faust with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Tove Jansson’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

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