Most revered Herr Geheimrath von Goethe,

         I could like your "permanent reality of world literature," where a man just goes on living so long as he has something vital to say.  I suppose it is an old idea.  You offer "Homer" as your exemplar, a name going back centuries before letters, although he still sings to the living.  Among the many questions raised by the Homer problem is therefore also that of the human spirit after death.

       Odysseus having journeyed through Cimmerian night down to Persephone's Grove, summons the thirsty shades by pouring out blood of the living.  One who comes to drink is his mother, Anticleia.  She tells her son that when

                                         Life leaves the white bones,
                                         The spirit, dreamlike, flits away
                                         And hovers to and fro.
How else could you, Herr Geheimrath, participate in a quest that reaches far beyond any individual?  You are certainly part of the living world today, as you say you have been since your awakening as a child.  You remind me how I also share the vanity of Cicero, thrill with Beethoven's chords, or wheel in Luther's anguish from his little daughter's coffin to hurl my doubts at a young student: "Where were you sixty years ago?"  In sharing such feelings, we the transitory impart continuance to a spirit that "hovers to and fro."

       I think we have to accept a kind of general consciousness which flows from generation to generation. I advance this not as a theory, but only as experience. Most adults have known a certain confusion of identity, often with the one or the other of their parents, especially in the years after a parent's death.  We are bemused to acknowledge this difficulty in distinguishing our particular life from the larger continuum. Perhaps it is a misconception that consciousness is an individual affair--or that it had ever been confined within a cage of white bones, as Anticleia supposes.

       Our awareness arises in the first place, and is maintained by, constant intercourse among innumerable voices within us and round about us.  We squint from a tiny angle of perception out onto a large world. All our lives we try to share with others.  To the extent they are receptive to us, these other souls heighten our own --immortality, to use your word.  Can I not just call it consciousness, an enduring quality which, like color, appears to attach to material beings, but is not identical with them?  When I fall into the sleep which will no longer support life in my cells, so that they begin to decompose, then my self-awareness will fall asleep, too, or so I must suppose. But there remain others and others who continue to reflect that ongoing awareness from which I was never excluded.  We may not have immortality, but we do impart it to those who produced us.  Cicero lets his brother Quintus argue the mystery of immortality by the shining example of Hercules, once a historical figure but now glittering continued presence among the stars. Having found a place in the self-awareness of the world, the hero lives in the personality of others.  Was it any different when he was alive?  Framing it in this way, Cicero lets immortality seem familiar, if no less mysterious.

       In Book IX of the Confessions Augustinus is poring over Psalms, conscious of himself, as always, only coram deo, in God's eyes. His self-awareness arises from the perception of God gazing upon him.  He wishes his misguided Manichaean friends could understand the importance of this communion with the all.  Perhaps if they could just be present while he reads Psalm iv (aloud, as always), but without his knowing they were there--for if he knew, and if they knew he knew, then his reading might be less persuasive to them.  With this thought in mind he wrestles with Psalm iv, by no means alone, since God is present for him, and so are his Manichaean friends, for he hears what they would be saying, were they there. You and I are in attendance too, of course, and Dr. Luther looks up from his struggle to translate, for right here in Psalm iv he achieves one of those brilliant breakthroughs enabled by passionate empathy. Centuries later,  cognitive researchers take their turn, evoke archeological digs and modern linguistic science to illuminate his text and vindicate his passion.  The translators for the Anchor Bible see Psalm iv as a rain-making incantation. Their hybris now provokes so many others that I can no longer distinguish the shadowy forms crowding around us here in Persephone's Grove. My own Psalter smells slightly of the oil from ancient lamps, and its pages are damp with tears. Who is not here--are the Manichees of my own day, the believers in good and evil, and their ability so deftly to discriminate between the two that they strut their wisdom before man and God.  But they, too, partake of all-enveloping consciousness, and by virtue of that reality are no doubt immortal also.

                                                             In all humility, I remain your faithful

                                                                                               J. W. Worthy

Please return to Professor Worthy's Page                                                                               Home

or see the correspondence with Goethe,                              and in any case, send your criticism.