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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.


Mozart and Haydn’s Beautiful, Selfless Friendship

“If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent, how extraordinarily sensitive!”

Mozart and Haydn’s Beautiful, Selfless Friendship

Few acts of creative courage are more vulnerable-making than sharing our labors of love with others, but especially with our heroes — those whom we admire as masters of our chosen craft and whose opinions we reverence as a supreme metric of merit. The terror at the prospect of disappointing those mentors and role models, of having them perceive mediocrity where we have aimed for greatness, is a singular terror familiar to all who have devoted their lives to bringing something new and beautiful and significant into the world, be they scientists or artists.

Two centuries before artist Ann Truitt’s beautiful reflection on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, one of humanity’s greatest artists, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791), conjured the same metaphor as he confronted that peculiar terror in entrusting his labor of love in the hands of his dear friend and mentor Joseph Haydn.

The two composers, a generation apart, met in Vienna around Christmas of 1783. After sensing a great kinship of spirit, they moved quickly across the concentric circles of platonic relationships and arrived at the center of a deep friendship. Having already admired Haydn for years and even considered him his teacher, Mozart composed six string quartets dedicated to his friend and hero. In the late summer of 1785, he presented them to Haydn in a beautiful letter included in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — that forgotten 1991 treasure edited by Eudora Welty, which gave us Welty’s warm wisdom on friendship as an evolutionary mechanism for language and Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak’s beam of kinship and mutual appreciation across the Iron Curtain.


On September 1, 1785, 29-year-old Mozart writes to 53-year-old Haydn:

To my dear friend Haydn.

A father who had decided to send out his sons into the great world, thought it his duty to entrust them to the protection and guidance of a man who was very celebrated at the time and who, moreover, happened to be his best friend.

In like manner I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and very dear friend. They are, indeed, the fruit of a long and laborious study; but the hope which many friends have given me that this toil will be in some degree rewarded, encourages me and flatters me with the thought that these children may one day prove a source of consolation to me.

During your last stay in this capital you yourself, my very dear friend, expressed to me your approval of these compositions. Your good opinion encourages me to offer them to you and leads me to hope that you will not consider them wholly unworthy of your favour. Please then receive them kindly and be to them a father, guide and friend! From this moment I surrender to you all my rights over them. I entreat you, however, to be indulgent to these faults which may have escaped a father’s partial eye, and, in spite of them, to continue your generous friendship towards one who so highly appreciates it. Meanwhile, I remain with all my heart, dearest friend, your most sincere friend.

W.A. Mozart

That year, Haydn wrote in a letter to Mozart’s father:

I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.

But most heartening of all is the complete absence of professional jealousy between the two composers. To be this invested in the success of another, in their personal and professional actualization, in their creative blossoming, is a rare gift indeed — increasingly so in today’s heartbreakingly competitive culture. Haydn’s generosity of spirit toward his young friend shines most luminously in a letter from the end of 1787:

If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent, how extraordinarily sensitive! (for this is how I understand them, how I feel them) — why then the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers… but should reward him, too: for without this, the history of great geniuses is sad indeed, and gives but little encouragement to posterity to further exertions… It enrages me to think that this incomparable Mozart is not yet engaged in some imperial or royal court! Forgive me if I lose my head. But I love this man so dearly.

When Mozart died four years later at only thirty-five, Haydn eulogized him with the assertion that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” In history’s hindsight of a quarter millennium, Haydn’s praise appears to be an understatement.

Complement with Mozart on the creative process, his daily routine, and his magnificent love letter to his wife, then revisit the touching beams of appreciation and generosity between other pairs of genius: Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, James Joyce and Heinrich Ibsen, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.


How Libraries Save Lives

One woman’s story of how a bookmobile transported her away from a deadly life and toward her human potential.

How Libraries Save Lives

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries. “If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed,” Joseph Mills wrote in his ode to libraries. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians.

A beautiful testament to that emancipating, transformative power of public libraries comes from one such troubled little girl named Storm Reyes, who grew up in an impoverished Native American community, had her life profoundly changed, perhaps even saved, by a library bookmobile, and went on to become a librarian herself. She tells her story in this wonderful oral history animation by StoryCorps:

The piece was adapted into an essay in Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) — the collection of tender, touching, and deeply humane stories edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay that also gave us pioneering astronaut Ronald McNair, who perished in the Challenger disaster, remembered by his brother.

Here is Reyes’s story, as it appears in the book:

Working and living in migrant farmworkers’ fields, the conditions were pretty terrible. My parents were alcoholics, and I was beaten and abused and neglected. I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle.

When you are grinding day after day after day, there’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. You may walk down the street and see a row of nice, clean houses, but you never, ever dream you can live in one. You don’t dream. You don’t hope.

When I was twelve, a bookmobile came to the fields. I thought it was the Baptists, because they used to come in a van and give us blankets and food. So I went over and peeked in, and it was filled with books. I immediately — and I do mean immediately — stepped back. I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things minimal. Of course, I had read in the short periods I was allowed to go to school, but I’d not ever owned a book.

Fortunately, the staff member saw me and waved me in. I was nervous. The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” He explained there was no catch. Then he asked me what I was interested in.

The night before, an elder had told us a story about the day that Mount Rainier blew up and the devastation from the volcano. So I told the bookmobile person that I was nervous about the mountain blowing up, and he said, “You know, the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanoes. Then I saw a book about dinosaurs, and I said, “Oh, that looks neat,” so he gave me that. Then he gave me a book about a little boy whose family were farmers. I took them all home and devoured them.

I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find a place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word.

When I left, I went to vocational school, and I graduated with a stenographer’s degree. Then, when Pierce County Library had an opening, I applied and was hired. I got to spend thirty-two years helping other people make a connection with the library. I have a deep, abiding commitment to them. Libraries save lives.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly humanizing Callings with Thoreau on the sacredness of public libraries, Robert Dawson’s photographic love letter to public libraries, and Maurice Sendak’s forgotten, fantastic vintage posters celebrating libraries and reading.


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