From GoetheJ. W. von, GeheimratDear Professor Worthy,
To J. W. Worthy, Professor
One must begin to wonder just what this correspondence of yours is all about. Your opening letter to Augustinus no doubt appeals to all who feel the powerful urge to write. But with your letter to me the tenor then suddenly changes. Cicero has set you to wondering not about writing, but about reading. Like a rabbit you hop about in every direction. Augustinus returns to console you in marital problems, but with his own theological axe to grind, of course. My good superintendent and factotum Herder brings in comparative historiography, and now we are being schoolmastered on political systems.
It is high time we returned to the more civilized topic of literature as art. You and your respondents have not yet arrived at its true dynamics. Permit me to recapitulate once more.
You remark Job's passionate drive to record his trials, but Cicero wants to stress the quality of writing among his contemporaries. This leads you, with John Wesley's help, into exploring the question as to just what a "classic" might be. --Well, that is a matter of subjective judgment. Intimate questions arise, one's personal origins, unique experience, and so on. Your discourse has nudged your reader to introspection. Why, for example, do I read the "classics"? Well, my father brings tutors into the house; they teach me Latin and Greek before I even start school; they assign my Terence, my Virgil, my Caesar, my Nepos, and, yes, my Cicero. This may not be the whole truth of course, and we should not toss fodder to the banausics, but it is true that the classics are those works cultivated by the schoolmasters--whether we like it or not.
Where do the schoolmasters get them? These are timid old men with large noses to sniff out the trends of the day. My teachers were not yet enthusiastic about Homer--Virgil was still their exemplar of the poet. But Homer becomes the intellectual trend of my youth. On my romantic wanderings I do not leave my pocket Homer behind. Winckelmann is said to have taught himself Greek exactly that way. What is Homer to me and Winckelmann? What is every young man looking for? We all seek direction, inspiration, what shall we do with our lives in order to make our mark, to distinguish ourselves from the great unnumbered mass? First of all, we part ways with our old schoolmasters.
Homer beckons us to join him, as others have, that we, too, may find our place in the ranks of the immortals. How narrow our day-to-day hum-drum compared with that permanent reality of world literature, where a man goes on living so long as he has something vital to say! That is the view of my century, and I daresay of most centuries. Here is the point where Herder comes into my life, who proclaims that there may arise other Homers. Many ages have their genius loci who brings his own unique culture to life, as Homer breathes immortality into his Bronze Age Achaeans. For us, the recent example is Shakespeare, fulfillment of English genius--Voltaire to the contrary notwithstanding. And I? Am I not product of continental genius with its characteristic climax in the century of Martin Luther, Doctor Faustus, Hans Sachs, Lucas Cranach, Till Riemenschneider, and--yes--Gottfried von Berlichlingen with his Iron Hand? Master Herder takes a look at that play of mine and says, "Shakespeare has utterly ruined you!"
Well, I have wandered off into the anecdotal. But I hope my point is clear: "fame is the spur." The young man of energy, typically despising the transitory day-to-day of material existence, finds the higher reality in an inner world of his own hopes, plans, imaginings. His limitless fantasy has but one drawback: it is admittedly so subjective. In literature, on the other hand, the true reality, the mind's reality, becomes an objective world. Homer is truly "out there," these three thousand years confirmed by any and all who would hear, who would read. The material world is ephemeral, and the vital inner world dependent on it. But Homer endures, while the saecula circle round about him. I am confident that the student of literature is driven by the same impulse as the writer himself, emulator of an enduring tradition. Here is an objective reality which transcends our squalid everyday moment.
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