Thursday, January 22, 2015

Goethe, Nobility, and the Average Man

I am reading Goethe’s Italian Journey and I must say that it is a true delight. Goethe is the perfect combination of brilliance and humility. He shows his brilliance constantly, from his observations regarding the geology of the regions through which he travels to his observations on the behaviors of the people he meets. With the former, even though he clearly demonstrates his breadth and depth of learning, you do not feel either lectured or condescended to by him.  With the latter, you get insight and judgments combined with real respect for everyone, from pauper to nobility. He is a refreshing tour guide through Italy.

A good example of this combination comes when he is discussing some buildings designed by the Italian architect Palladio, who was a classicist:

 Looking at the noble buildings created by Palladio in this city, and noting how badly they have been defaced already by the filthy habits of men, how most of his projects were far beyond the means of his patrons, how little these precious monuments, designed by a superior mind, are in accord with the life of the average man, one realizes that it is just the same with everything else. One gets small thanks from people when one tries to improve their moral values, to give them a higher conception of themselves and a sense of the truly noble. But if one flatters the “Birds”* with lies, tells them fairy tales, caters daily to their weaknesses, the one is their man. That is why there is so much bad taste in our age. I do not say this to disparage my friends; I only say – that is what they are like, and one must not be surprised if things are as they are. (Part I, Sept. 19)

 Goethe is as correct now as he was in 1786. And if you read Italian Journey, you trust that Goethe truly is not disparaging anyone. Build a truly great, beautiful building in a city – how long before someone defaces it? And why would they? What is it that compels so many of us to see greatness and to want to bring it down a notch? Is it that beauty and greatness make us feel ashamed that we cannot rise to such beauty and greatness, so we turn around and attack and deface in order to bring the thing causing us shame down to our level?

We seek to tear down anything and anyone that seeks to lift us up, to make us better. And we seek to raise up any demagogue who comes along and tells us the lies we want to hear. This is why politicians are popular and poets are not. But then, the poets have mostly become demagogues themselves. Our postmodern kitsch art is demagoguery run wild. It seeks to tear down all beauty it encounters and flatters us with lies, tells us fairy tales, and caters to our weaknesses. A poem or a building that gave people “a higher conception of themselves and a sense of the truly noble” would be attacked.

And yet, this is simply how people are. And we shouldn’t be surprised.

Does this mean we should give up? I think it’s clear Goethe would say, “No.” We should not give up. We should not surrender. We should, rather, continue to seek to ennoble our fellow human beings. We have given up too soon. People can be ennobled. I see it all the time. I see it happening throughout history. It is a slow, gradual process. Thus, it is ironic that artists and philosophers have given up on ennobling right when it’s working. Well, perhaps not all of them. While many of us may be like Goethe when he went to hear a popular singer, feeling that “As a “Bird” I feel I am a failure” (Part I, Sept. 20), it is often those popular works – pop culture – which manage to bring everyone else along anyway. This is perhaps precisely because pop artists respect the common people.

Goethe seems to balance himself between the popular and higher values. His art was both extremely popular with everyone and extremely respected by artists everywhere. In this he is much like Shakespeare. They both shared a desire to raise people up, penetrating insights into human nature, and respect for people no matter their station in life. This combination makes them the greatest writers of all time. And this combination – or any one of them, quite frankly – is what is missing in postmodern art and literature. Only rarely have I come across it in any human being. 

* "Birds" is a reference to Goethe's play, an adaptation of Aristophanes' "Birds." 

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