Essays on German and Comparative Literature
A new world, Faust's last vision, Goethe's last vision: not a peacefully sweet Utopia, but a world fought for, a world to be defended every day, soil won from the bottomless, destructive element, the water; not ready-made land into which we just have to move, but earth created by our own hands, made fertile by the rhythm of our work and life. Free people on free soil: free not by virtue of brief and seal, but free because this land is created out of the nothingness, and because these people are creating it.
A man whose life has been filled with work, a poet crowned with fame as no other in centuries, a human being who suffered more intensely than any other man—and now when the lights grow dim, there is no gloating over great achievements, there is no bitterness over great disappointments, there is a vision of new living things, an echo of the words which, at about the same time, at the age of eighty-one, he spoke when he was told that his only son, his hope for the future, had died: 'Over graves—onward!' And it might be that the example of the old man in his stately house in the city of Weimar holds a promise and a hope for all humanity, especially for a world which has stood before so many graves, and a time which has become paralyzed by smugness or by fear and doubt.
We need not strain our eyes too much in order to recognize the rough outlines of Faust's envisaged new world, in order to give it an at least approximately correct name: a frontier and frontiersmen, land to be wrung from the hold of the unknown and dangerous, bulwarks built by the communal efforts of a new nation,—who, and who in this country, could fail to call these people on free soil by their proper name? Indeed, ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Goethe was fascinated by the experiment whose name was America: and if we may dismiss as a whimsical jest the remark of the septuagenarian that he, were he only twenty years younger, would like to set sail and settle in this new world, there are indications aplenty that the older he became, the more attentively and curiously he watched this young nation which was growing up under his eyes. In the great novel of his old age, Wilhelm Meister. Journeyman, America, now called by its proper name, appears again as the vision of a new life and a new society, and we know how eagerly he listened to those young men who came to visit him from Massachusetts and Maryland, when they gave him information pertaining to their country. There is warmth in his voice whenever he speaks of America, a cordial and paternal 'good luck to you,' a joyful feeling as if these faraway people who may never have heard of him, were his true children, going the way he wanted the new generation to go:
America, you're better offIf we listen closely enough to this little congratulatory poem, we may be inclined to think that it contains a slightly left-handed compliment. For what he finds so enviable and fortunate about this new country is not that it has things others don't have, but that it does not have things others, unfortunately, have. America has no memories, no spectres rising out of the twilight zone of the human heart and human history, no ghosts which haunt the living and make their hands tremble. Geologist that he is, he even believes (and we know that he was quite wrong in that) that the very earth upon which this new nation has grown holds no memories of violent volcanic outbursts by which old and hidden formations of the soil are vehemently thrown onto the surface, that the basalt, witness of such explosions, is lacking in the make-up of this 'newest earth.' The hour that strikes over this country is always morning, its illumination the light of early day. Newly opened spaces where expansive and active motion is still possible, newly born time not yet overshadowed by the broodings and memories of yesteryears—this is the bright vision for which Goethe found the name: America.
Than our continent, the old.
You have no castles which are fallen,
No basalt to behold.
You are not disturbed in your inmost being,
In the very pulsation of life
By useless remembering
And unrewarding strife.
Use well the present—and good luck to you!
And when your children begin writing poetry,
Let them guard well, in all they do,
Against knight-, robber-, and ghost-story.