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Friday
Apr172009

Goethe, "The Humors of Lovers"

An excerpt from the literary memoirs ("Fiction and truth") of this German writer.  You can find the original in the seventh section of this book.

In the company of a host of very worthy people, I had worked through the tedious period into which my youth had fallen.  Sufficient evidence of this can be found in the numerous quarto manuscripts which I left my father; not to mention that the plethora of writing attempts, drafts, and half-completed essays went up in smoke more owing to ill humor than to any of my convictions!  Now I was learning through persuasion, through lessons, through disputed opinions, but most of all through my commensal, the privy counselor Pfeil, I learned to value more greatly what was important, the concision of action, without, however, clarifying where I was to find or achieve this or that.  For owing to the substantial limitations of my status, the indifference of my contemporaries, the reticence of my teachers, the eccentricities of conceited residents, and the wholly insignificant natural surroundings, I was obliged to look for all these things within myself.  Whenever I sought a basis, a sensation, a reflection for my poetry, it was inwards to my own bosom that I had to turn.  I required for poetic representation an unimpeded view of the object or circumstance, and thus could not step out of the circle which grazed me, which was suitable to the formation of my interest.  In this sense I first composed smaller poems either as ditties or in free verse; they sprang from reflections, dealt with events of the past, and mostly assumed epigrammatic turns of phrase.

And so began that course which for the duration of my existence I would be unable to avoid, namely, transforming whatever gladdened or tortured me into a picture or poem and secluding myself so as both to amend my ideas in the face of external stimuli and appease my innermost concerns.  And no one needed talent for such actions more than I, who by his very nature careered from one extreme to another.  Everything I had known hitherto were merely fragments of a great confession, which this little book is an audacious attempt to complete.

My earlier attraction to Gretchen I had now transferred to a certain Anna, whom words cannot describe with justice.  Let us only recall that she was so young, pretty, cheerful, loving and pleasant that she truly deserved to linger a while in the shrine of my heart as a minor saint, to have bestowed upon her every honor which often arouses more contentment to give than to receive.  I saw her every day without fail; she would help in preparing the food that I would relish, and at worst she would bring me the wine I would drink.  Our exclusive companionship around the noonday feast was a guarantee that the small house, rarely visited apart from guests from Mass, merited its good reputation.  There was ample desire and opportunity for conversation.  Yet because she was still not allowed to get too far away from the house, our time together was leaner.  We sang the canticle of Zechariah, played Krüger's Herzog Michel in which a crumpled handkerchief took the place of the nightingale, and whittled away the time in such a fashion.  Since the more innocent relationships are, the less omnifarious they become over time, every bad compulsion befell me.  This led me to make a discussion of the torments that lovers endure and dominate one girl's devotion with my adventitious and tyrannical whims.  On her I permitted myself to vent the foul mood caused by my failed attempts at composing poems, my apparent inability to overcome these failures, and everything which now and then would irritate me.  I did this because she loved me with all her heart and did me every favor she could, and through vulgar and unfounded jealousies I ruined for both of us our finest days together.  For a while she endured this with incredible patience which I was cruel enough to push to the limits.  Finally I realized to my despair and shame that her spirit had drifted away from me; and the fact that I had allowed this to happen without cause or need had to be imputed to madness.  We also had horrific fights by which I gained nothing.  Only now did I feel I really loved her and could not do without her.  My passion grew and assumed all the forms that such circumstances dictated, and in the end it was I who filled the role that she had played until now.  I tried everything in my power to be obliging to her, even to provide her with other joys, because I could not desist in my hope of winning her back.  But it was too late!  I had really lost her.  And the madness with which I took vengeance on myself by bludgeoning my corporality so as to hurt my moral conscience contributed greatly to the bodily ills that cost me one of the best years of my life.  In fact, I might just as easily have wasted away had my poetic gifts and their healing forces not been as helpful.  

Before this happened, I had already become duly aware at various intervals of my bad habits.  The poor child truly inspired pity in me when I saw her hurt without the slightest need.  So often and so intricately did I put myself in her position, my own position, and then that of another, happy couple from our circle of friends that in the end I could not but treat this situation dramatically as torturous and edifying penance.  Hence I derived the oldest of my remaining dramatic works, the short play The humors of lovers, and in this ingenuous piece one became aware of a bubbling passion.  Previously, a meaningful, provocative world had spoken to me and me alone; and in my story with Gretchen and its consequences I had already stared down the same crooked path which so undermined bourgeois society.  Religion, custom, law, status, relationships, habit – all this engaged only the surface of city existence.  The streets girded by magnificent houses were kept clean and everyone behaved himself sufficiently well; but on the inside things looked much emptier, and a smooth outside gilded like a faint daub much brittle and decaying masonry which would crumble overnight and arouse an even more terrible effect as if breaking the peace.  How many families because of bankruptcy, divorce, inveigled daughters, murder, burglary, poisoning had I seen either fall apart or approach the edge of such disasters, and despite my youth I had often lent a helping hand.   My openness seemed to beget trust, my discretion was long since guaranteed, and my actions did not overlook any victims while seeking out the most risk-laden cases.  And often enough I found the opportunity to mediate, to cover up, to dissipate the thunder, and do anything else that could be done.  In so doing, I inevitably experienced a large number of humiliating and hurtful episodes, both for myself and for others.  To give myself a bit of breathing room, I drafted plays and for most of them, also expositions.  But since the complications always had to be frightful and almost all the plays threatened to end in tragedy, I disposed of them one after another.  The only one that I finished, The Accomplices, whose buoyant and burlesque essence seemed fearsome for vague family reasons, caused a certain amount of apprehension when it was performed and gloated in its details.  The explicitly illegal events offended both aesthetic and moral sensibilities, and for that reason the play could not make it onto German stages, even though imitations of it which strayed from the precipice were received with applause.

Both of these plays, without my knowing it, were written from a higher point of view.  With careful acquiescence to moral attribution they interpret rather bluntly the Christian adage: let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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