October 22, 2017
Goethe's "More Light!"On this day in 1832 Germany's greatest literary light gave the world his last metaphor, this time unintended. As he sat in his Weimar house holding the hand of his daughter-in-law, Ottilie, Goethe spoke of the walks he would take in the warmer months ahead, made some reference to a girl of his youth, and breathed the name of his equally famous, long-dead friend, Friedrich von Schiller. But wanting another shutter opened to the morning sun, the author of Faust called to a servant for "More light!" Then his finger traced a word on the air, he shifted in his chair, and he fell asleep, dying at some moment well before anyone realized.
Forty years earlier, Goethe had approached one battle between the French revolutionary army and the interventionist Prussian forces as an opportunity to gather research for his unconventional theory of light and color. He was "to be found rambling through the great Valmy bombardment...studying the effects of shockwaves on eyesight, of light on dust", writes translator Christopher Middleton in his introduction to Goethe's poetry. This investigation's findings would be added to Goethe's work in several sciences -- anatomy, biology, botany, geology -- and to his government role as an arts administrator. All these activities fed his passion to divine the signs of an ultimate plan in history and his efforts to wrestle the German language into "a living texture". It is not hard to understand why Goethe is venerated in Germany not only as the master poet that the world knows but also as a national monument.
Grappling with these cosmic themes throughout his career, Goethe completed a last major section of his autobiographical writings and what was called his "chief business," Faust, Part Two, in his final months. He had worked with the masterpiece for 60 years. The poetic drama about a bargain with the devil for the gift of knowledge, or "how to live," reflected Goethe's own hunger for more light in a universe expanding through science and art. Unlike Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan version, in which Faust is condemned to hell, Goethe the Romanticist will create redemption for the scholar who had sold his soul.
Blinded as his life nears its end, Faust then suddenly seems to see with spiritual light:
Here wisdom speaks its final word and true,
None is of freedom or of life deserving
Unless he daily conquers it anew.
Pure light reveal.
Those who their lives deplore
Truth yet shall heal;
Rescued, no more the thrall of evil cares,
Soon with the All-in-All
Bliss shall be theirs.
With one of the world's greatest works of literature completed, Goethe said, "My further life I can now look upon as a pure gift, and it is now at bottom immaterial what I do, and whether I do anything at all or not." His own gift to the world had been delivered. His writing would cause shutters to open in countless eager minds seeking more light.
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