Goethe’s got it goin’ on

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”— Goethe

I’ve always liked this philosophy, and what better day than a snow day to heed his words?

Well, let’s see: it’s a snow day without snow (gotta love Houston), so the kids are home but not playing outside. No snowmen or women, no snowball fights, no sledding or tubing or ancillary snow-related activities. No giant snowbank on which Harry could leave his yellow mark, and certainly no homemade snow ice cream.

Instead, it’s 10:30 a.m. and the kids are immersed in video games and iTouch pursuits. When they become bored from those, they will likely move on to Nickelodeon.  The washing machine is humming, the dishwasher is doing its thing, there’s a long list of things to do, and none of them coincide with Goethe’s missive.

Ok, wait, I will turn on my iTunes while I type this, so I am hearing “a little song” (some Jack Johnson to drown out the hum & clank of the labor-saving devices). I will attempt to speak a few reasonable words, but suspect the result will more likely be a rambling blabbityblah instead.

With the humming & clanking sufficiently quieted, I got to thinking about Goethe and who he was and what kind of a person he must have been to utter the above suggestion, which is so simple yet deep. He’s basically giving me a recipe to daily happiness. I like that. I need that. I’m digging Goethe.

If I stretch back into the deep recesses of my grey matter, I recall that he was a German writer in the 1800s from a good family. After some trouble in school, he was home-schooled, and his mama encouraged his love of the written word, just like my mama did. He’s described as a polymath, a word that’s always intrigued me. Of course the Greeks defined it best and used it to describe someone as “having learned much. ” While Goethe is perhaps best known for his written word (he was called the supreme genius of modern German literature, after all), he also was into nature, politics, and painting. A real Renaissance Man.

Goethe’s insights on plants & animals paved the way for naturalists like Charles Darwin, and I like to think that Goethe opened the door to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Our modern-day jokes about the shallow end of the gene pool wouldn’t be nearly as funny–or true–without either of these guys. Don’t know why, but I find that interesting.

Politically, he was conservative and thought the revolutionaries in France were wasting their time because people couldn’t possibly govern themselves. He was a fan of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots. Which is all fine & good as long as the principalities want to be ruled and the despots are indeed benevolent. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Seems Goethe anticipated being remembered for as a painter, but he gained his fame as a writer. He did study colors extensively, and considered his Theory of Colors to be his most important work. He believed that colors developed from “the dynamic interplay of darkness and light.” I’d venture to suggest that this concept does not apply strictly to art. If I were a better student with more patience and time, I’d love to investigate this concept and expand on it. But alas, the laundry calls and the dog-hair tumbleweeds grow. Goethe probably didn’t do his own laundry, and I bet he wasn’t troubled by the accumulation of dog hair on a tile floor. He was busy pioneering the idea of physiological effects of color, which is intriguing because he lived in a rather black & white world. Imagine how he’d react to our technicolor lifestyle.

Since he was famous for his writing, I thought I’d break out my copy of his most well-known poem, Faust, (anything to avoid tacking the to-do list) but then I remembered that it’s really, really long. I remember it being billed in one of college courses as relevant and timely for our modern world, but I don’t have that kind of time to sit and read it.

A little Carl Sandburg, perhaps. His stuff is easy to bite off into manageable chunks. Fog is my favorite. I’m not a cat person (d0n’t flame me, cat lovers, I don’t not like them I’m just more canine-inclined). I do like the image that Sandburg paints of “little cat feet.” If you don’t know this poem or are a little rusty on its simplicity, allow me:

“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”

Simple, beautiful and I can read it in about 10 seconds. Yet the imagery will resonate with me long after. I think Goethe would approve.



3 Comments on “Goethe’s got it goin’ on”

  1. Plenty of snow up here in Dallas/FT Worth. I spent half the morning watching TV and laughing at idiots out on the highway doing donuts. Guess I should be grateful that I don’t have to get out there and join them.

  2. Ed says:

    You got me thinking about how things relevant and timely can be seen as too time-consuming, particularly when couple with the concept of labor-saving devices. Despite accomplishing more and more quickly than our predecessors we seem to spend less time heeding Goethe’s prescription. As for “fog” I was always intrigued by the “and then moves on” part. I like how it avoids meaning anything or making a point. Fog just comes, stays a while, and leaves, but even that’s not an end as fog will creep in again on its little cat feet without notice. Seems like life itself, often happening all around us without us noticing.

  3. Bobby says:

    ha! a snow day without snow, awesome! you’re lucky not to be in the northwest; I heard from my tennis buddy, Dennis, and he’s suffering with snow dump after snow dump.

    Wow, sneaking in a little German philosopher stuff, eh?

    I’ve always enjoyed Richard Brautigan’s strange, post-beatnik humor:

    “At the California Institute of Technology”

    I don’t care how God-damn smart
    these guys are: I’m bored

    It’s been raining like hell all day long
    and there’s nothing to do

    (written January 24, 1967, while poet in-residence at the California Institute of Technology)

    I can imagine Goethe sitting around some university, bored out of his mind as well!


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