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.

Goethe: “When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.”

When we are called to learn something great, we at once take refuge in our native poverty and yet have still learnt something.

– Goethe (from Penguin’s “Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings”)

I’m ambivalent about corny quotes promoting the value of education. On the one hand, they suck. They’re not the same as making music with a tinny piano or skiing downhill at terrifying speeds. Nor do they give you knowledge of facts or approaches which could shut down people who are all talk and advance a debate or an inquiry.

On the other hand, these quotes are very necessary. You’ll be in a classroom, witnessing attention wander toward oblivion. You’ve got to say something, and you can’t just shout “Wake up!” unless you want to destroy any credibility you have with people. (I guess you could do this if you wanted to be a coach, but that says a lot about coaching in America, none of it good).

So this quote could go two ways: 1) we retreat into our “native poverty” when confronted with greatness, somehow staying immune to it. In other words, we stay losers and learn that much about ourselves. 2) when we try to learn something great, we can only begin from our “native poverty.”

Those two issues, in turn, bring about at least two others. First, for myself, there’s how I act, that if I try to learn about things pronounced great, I show a pronounced tendency to return to my “native poverty” and write utter crap (that reminds me, I have to revise everything on this blog sooner rather than later). Second, there’s our extremely online social media age, where it feels like everyone (except me) is photogenic, telegenic, excellent at public speaking, interviews, self-presentation, and responding to others. Their “native poverty” cannot be fairly called that—they have a skill for self-expression I want. The greatness they seek, to be heard, authentic, inspiring, and eloquent, is not a false greatness, but could be incomplete in some cases. Saying the right thing or promoting thoughtfulness are not the same as preparedness, polish, and confidence.

Greatness may have to challenge your “native poverty” without breaking you. “To learn something great,” then, is about opportunities revealing themselves. It’s not as simple as telling yourself to “take them” or “make something of this thing called an opportunity.” In some unspecified way, they have to speak to you, and then you speak them.

Trilussa, “Happiness”

Maybe I’m not a good writer because I’ll fixate on an image, letting it use me instead of learning how to navigate it. I’ll start thinking about someone, and then we’ll be in the park together, sun shining brightly. Then in Paris visiting museums on a gray, damp day, finally New Year’s Eve toasting with family at a small party. All this will blink in my head between the cereal and snacks aisle, where I have to make a decision alone. Do I want to buy a value-size bag of knockoff Honeycomb for snacking and/or dinner, or do I want to be classy and buy the kettle-cooked sea salt & black pepper potato chips?

Ah, happiness. It feels like a bliss had in the briefest of visions, an end that human life barely touches on, only promising fulfillment. Bees drunk on pollen don’t have to think as far as that. Maybe I can relate to them while acknowledging their superior happiness:

Happiness (from The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry)
Trilussa (translated by John Dowd)

I saw a bee settle
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

I saw a bee settle on a rose petal. It sipped, and off it flew—what’s curious to me is “off it flew.” It did not sip, savor, reflect, experience the entirety of la dolce vita, then move on with nothing left. It sipped, knowing what gave it happiness and goodness, then moved to the next flower post haste. It did not need to reflect because the product of reflection was built into it.

But all the same, it wanted to move on. The rose was just one moment. Maybe it wanted to put together the goodness of those moments—each individually good, the sum total happiness. No, that’s the wrong thought, for the bee doesn’t concern itself with that theme the way my pathetic imagination does, with happiness as ephemeral being central. It builds from concrete goods in each moment, each experience happy in its own way. Should we then assume its whole life to be happy and good? All in all, happiness, too, is something little—I bought the kettle chips; knockoff Honeycomb is too sweet.

Li-Young Lee, “One Heart”

In this house divided—yeah, I’ll indulge the overdramatic—what’s left of what one might call a heart is pretty much divided too. The desire to do better ought to put failure to use, continually refining the human. Instead, “being better” collapses into “fear of failure.” It’s not hard to see why. When I was wading last week through TV clips for my students, looking for examples of admirable people making everyday mistakes, I mostly searched in vain (Lt. Worf was a very happy exception–on being an outsider, dating).

Heroes can be rude or angry or gossipy, not just making errors of judgment about difficult matters, but lacking basic self-awareness, self-control, or even respect for others. I wasn’t looking to excuse these things, but rather to show anything worth doing is worth failing at—you’re not going to be the person you want to be immediately. “Fear of failure” doesn’t only create despondency, but complacency and—worst of all worlds—unrelenting, myopic self-justification. Near perfect images of worthy people make them and what they stand for seem inaccessible.

I’d like to make Li-Young Lee’s “One Heart” my mantra. Memorize it, sing its imperative continually:

One Heart (from poetrysociety.org; h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Li-Young Lee

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Look at the birds: look away from the self for a moment, put self-pity aside. Realize that even flying is born out of nothing. Even flying doesn’t emerge from having something, a recognized set of skills or talents, a sense of accomplishment. It comes from an absence, a lack. Augustine held that evil was a privation, something absent from the good.

Here, realize that possibility is not wrapped in brightness and beauty. It not only implies but depends on failures. Yet the first sky is inside you, open at either end of day. Possibility is when you choose to fly, and it can work with attitudes far from perfect. Only one thing matters, in truth: the attempt to create one heart, to be dedicated, to choose freedom. The work of wings was always freedom, fastening one heart to every falling thing.

Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

I resolved a month ago to become more patient, act more gently, respond to situations rather than react. Now I’ve read this poem of Levertov’s and I feel like I made the most passive, almost useless set of statements to myself. She takes resolution and makes it incarnate–A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light: a being:

Variation on a Theme by Rilke (h/t Ariane Beeston)
Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me -- a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic -- or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

I think all of us would like to be more present, more focused. We might get the dishes done faster or complete a project on schedule. Levertov speaks miraculous presence, as the day is an unfolding manifestation. It begins with “presence,” then confronts her, and in the midst of “sky, air, light” no less than a being is sensed.

This must be, then, “a certain day,” one which will stay with her forever. But her experience consists of nothing other than the day itself, as the day is a being–And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day makes itself felt as a majestic being, not only glowing radiantly, but knighting her, imbuing her with its power. Its power is her power, her “honor” and “task.”

And then, a sound marking the actual hour. A church bell rings, and what may have been thought a reverie turns into a realization. The day’s blow rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can. Often I’ll wonder how I can make good on my resolutions if I am not continually engaged with others. How can I be more patient and gentle when I spend plenty of time alone? An answer lies in acknowledging the day not simply as present, but presence. The “honor” and “task” it gives is possibility, and before one worries about specific efforts or accomplishments, one can understand oneself as a “bell awakened,” ready to communicate that optimism, ready to be present to others, but above all, radiating gratefulness for being.