Goethe: “When a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past, or, what amounts to the same, of solitude, remoteness, seclusion.”

Earlier in the week, I woke up early, started reading and writing, and then felt down. I pushed myself to go to the bookstore, where I did more reading and writing, talked to a few people, and had some coffee. I felt much better. Driving back, I wondered what had happened: Why did going out feel so much more different than staying in? Why did staying in feel so limiting?

I think there’s something more than purely personal reasons at work. I wonder about what I want whenever I travel: not just to learn through sightseeing or feel free throughout the day, but hear from someone else about where they live and maybe make new friends. You could say “that’s just you,” but I suspect that expanded sense of travel describes the best memories of many of us: a feeling of freedom translating into learning something new, and that in turn becoming so much more. In that case, “going out” and “travel” both bear a close relation to wanting the most out of life.

I’ll concede that part of me feels this to be hedonism. A quiet hedonism, sure, but certainly hedonism when compared with others’ lack of means and suffering.

I guess there were times with simpler joys? Goethe speaks below of “romantic” landscapes, landscapes containing stories, worlds unto themselves:

When a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past, or, what amounts to the same, of solitude, remoteness, seclusion.

If these joys were simpler in one sense (no coffee, no driving, no air conditioned building), in another sense they feel wholly beyond my comprehension. Goethe holds that when a landscape is described as romantic, this means that there is a tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past. “A tranquil sense of the sublime” indicates a calm completely engulfing one who witnesses the awesome power of nature. That power may best be described as terrible: it slowly reaches over and covers walls, occupies and isolates what could be fit for human dwelling, buries the biggest cities. “A tranquil sense of the sublime in the form of the past” is the sense that not only your existence, but all of human history, is a drop in the ocean of time. —Cliché, I know, but the enormity of what you’re seeing is Goethe’s central focus. You’re calm because you can only bear witness.—

That is not all you feel. Solitude, remoteness, seclusion—out here, with the landscape and its story, you are made alone. This sense can’t really be shared; even the most natural friendship reaches across social bonds to find authentic moments. There is a mysticism at work here that makes the only true traveler a wanderer. Someone could reject society and journey outward to see themselves against only the natural world.

It’s strange to think, in my wishy-washy idealism, I’m asking for less than Goethe. Maybe that’s laziness: I don’t need to see an old-growth forest consume old cabins, the extreme landscapes of the Poles, or the wonder of outer space. But it may also be the realization that a drop in the ocean contains infinities of its own. I’m still not entirely sure why I felt better going out, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me.

References

Goethe. Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings. New York: Penguin, 1998.

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