“…happiness is complex and difficult and worth striving for.”

Hi Everyone: this posting is from a few months back, but we’re getting a spate of new visitors from the WSJ Forums and I want to make sure they don’t miss some of the good old stuff. As for the rest of you, well, it never hurts to reread a little Goethe. – Hillary

From a Wall Street Journal review of a new biography of the writer Goethe:

“Directing sensitivity inward, relishing alienation from the world — these are things that artists have traditionally been expected to do, at least since the days of the Romantic movement that Goethe helped to set in train. As Mr. Armstrong makes clear, Goethe himself took an opposite course, producing great art through active, positive involvement with the age in which he lived.

“The success of Gatz and Werther brought Goethe an invitation to the court of the young Duke Carl August at Weimar. He went not as a poet laureate or tutor, as one might expect, but as an administrator, soon becoming responsible for the small duchy’s mining operations, its army and its roads.

“Weimar was to remain Goethe’s home for the rest of his life. He eventually cut back his administrative duties, but he devoted himself with the same dedication to everything else he undertook: serious and detailed research into geology, anatomy, botany, optics and the theory of color; travels in Italy to immerse himself in the culture of the ancient world and to see its monuments; lessons in drawing that made him a competent amateur artist. Central to all this was Goethe’s intense friendship with his fellow poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, an alliance that helped turn Weimar into the center of a literary renaissance such as Germans had dreamed of for a generation or more. [See footnote – HR]

“Throughout it all, Goethe wrote…

“Mr. Armstrong paints a nuanced picture. Firm of purpose, impatient of anything he saw as inessential, his Goethe is yet supremely human…Happiness is what Mr. Armstrong considers most attractive and most unusual in his subject. The happiness Goethe sought and found — in an age more given to anxiety and strife — combined self-confidence, self-knowledge and self-control with an imaginative openness to all that the world has to offer.

“Carlyle saw in him the same quality and called it wisdom. There is nothing smug about it. Mr. Armstrong’s account of Goethe is appealing precisely because it shows that happiness is complex and difficult and worth striving for. “All we devise and do is exhausting,” Goethe wrote, “happy the man who doesn’t get weary.” He never did.”

Love, Life, Goethe
By John Armstrong
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 483 pages, $30

Notes from Hillary:

1. If you’re already comparing your “output” to Goethe’s (writing, science, drawing, etc.), and finding yourself lacking, remember that one reason he was so productive was that he was rich and probably had a lot more control over his time than you do.

2. Note the “centrality” of Goethe’s “intense friendship” with Shiller, and the profound effect the two men had, not just on each other, but on their society. I am fortunate to have, at present, two intense friends and collaborators, and they are an incredible source of support. Please work to locate and cultivate intense friends and collaborators of your own.

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