Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Goethe I


To the chagrin of one who'd spent practically his entire life in America's sunbelt, that first winter in Ann Arbor was brutal: The sun didn't shine. From my neighbors I learned it hardly ever came out in winter. Between Thanksgiving and Easter, Michigan gave residents the experience of exile in northern Siberia.

But this Saturday morning the sun did shine, and feeling extra energy, I decided to go to the Library Book Sale. Tonsor had told me about this venerated local institution held every Saturday morning in the basement of the downtown Ann Arbor library. He suggested it would be an inexpensive way to build up my professional library. Many classics from U of M professors' estates ended up on the shelves, selling at $1 for a hardback, 25 cents for a paperback. 

It was serious business, the Library Book Sale. Patrons including many grad students lined up before the 9 AM starting bell, grocery bags in hand, quivering, ready to do combat with the other patrons to snatch up the books they wanted. The naked displays of bestiality put even my dogs to shame.

Tonsor already had a collection of 10,000 books.[1] He went to the Library Book Sale not to expand his professional holdings but to buy picture books for his grandchildren. That was sweet. And sure enough, on this Saturday morning he and Caroline showed up after the initial throng had charged the basement.

Goethe spent virtually his entire
adult life writing Faust.
We hailed each other from a distance but stuck to our work because patrons elbowed their way to the front if you showed any distraction or weakness. After about a half hour of jockeying, I'd managed to fill two grocery bags and queued up to pay. The Tonsors were right behind me. When he saw that I had found a good edition of Goethe's Faust, his eyes lit up through his thick glasses.

"That is a very fine edition, Mr. Whitney. I hope you profit by it as much as I have. Every morning I start my day reading Goethe and the German missal."[2]

Caroline added with a good-natured chuckle: "Yes, Stephen starts his day reading about the Devil in us, then steels himself to do battle with us the rest of the day!" 

"That's true," Tonsor said with a quick gust of laughter. "The Devil is in us all, as is the angelic. As Goethe said, Wo viel Licht ist, ist starker Schatten. Where there is much light, there is stronger shadow."[3]

After we had paid for the books and were walking to the exit, Tonsor lavished praise on his idol: "In his wealth of observations about life, Goethe was 'by far our greatest modern man.' He was also the last great classical writer of European civilization, as Virgil was the last great classical writer of ancient Rome. He was an outstanding humanist, for he grasped the tragedy of the modern mind and perceived the abyss toward which we rush."

I responded inadequately: "I had the opportunity to read a bit of Goethe in my German classes back at Colorado State, but I didn't read him at all when I lived in Germany, which I now regret."

"That is to be regretted," Tonsor said disapprovingly. Caroline's sympathetic instinct kicked in and she frowned at him: "Maybe Gleaves had other things he needed to read!"

"When in Germany, one should read Goethe," Tonsor said firmly, determined to win the point.

"Well, I hope to correct my negligence now," I said. "I'm afraid I'll have to undo some of the instruction I had as an undergraduate. The English professor who assigned our class excerpts of Faust was reputedly one of the last Stalinists in the academy: Dr. Bates presented Goethe's tragedy as a critique of the insatiable desires capitalists stir up to keep the exploitation of the working class going. So his Mephistopheles is a very dapper bourgeois capitalist, nothing at all like the Devil of medieval folklore." 

Tonsor grunted. "Vulgar Marxists -- they are Johnny-one-notes who bleach all the color out of life! To see Goethe's Devil as a glorified robber baron is to miss the entire point. Mephistopheles is not so difficult to understand. Know yourself, know your desires, and you will know Mephistopheles."

"Stephen!" protested Caroline, her frown returning. She looked at me sympathetically.

Tonsor dismissed her: "I don't mean my comment to be taken personally. It's the universal message of Goethe's Faust."

"You'll have to tell me what it means," I said with a forgiving grin.


When we walked out into the sun, the temperature was still below freezing; none of the snow piled on William Street was melting. My professor didn't seem to notice the cold. Now that he had the opportunity to talk about Goethe, he started breathing in little puffs as his mind revved to a white heat. I had been around Tonsor enough to know that he saw his confrontation with modernity through the lens of many authors. That was what informed his intellectual history. Out on an icy Ann Arbor sidewalk, I was about to learn how to see modernity through Goethe's gimlet eye. And one needed to plumb Goethe's confrontation with modernity in order to understand Tonsor's confrontation with modernity. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832),
Germany's greatest humanist and one of Stephen Tonsor's
most important guides to comprehending,
confronting, sifting, and testing the modern world.

"Goethe," Tonsor said -- and once the name escaped his mouth, Caroline saw a lecture coming and retreated into the warmth of the library -- "Goethe is like quicksilver. Just when you think you get him, he slips away. That is the quality of all great poets. As you know, Goethe's Faust was Western civilization's most brilliant poem after Milton's Paradise Lost or Dante's Divine Comedy. Because of this singular achievement, Goethe stands in the same relationship to the modern age as Shakespeare does to the Renaissance, Dante does to the Middle Ages, Virgil does to ancient Rome, and Homer does to ancient Greece. To come to an adequate understanding of modernity, one must at some point retrace the steps along the trail blazed by Germany's greatest poet.

"And what should I look for along that trail?" I asked.

"A form of integral humanism that recognizes the challenge of being a 19th- and 20th-century man. Goethe grasped the modern psyche in all its maddening complexity -- its tangle of complementarities and contradictions, its tensions and frustrations, its desires and aspirations. His humanism challenges the reductionist that one always finds in the ideologue -- whether that ideologue is your Marxist professor who sees man only as a material being; or a Gnostic Albigensian who hates man's very material being.

"Goethe helps modern readers understand that this complexity is both the glory of our humanity and the source of our woe. You see it in Faust, who is ever desiring. Because of his desire to know, he has mastered many branches of knowledge and has tried to learn all the secrets of nature he humanly can, but without ultimate success. His unquenchable desire clashes with his status as an in-between creature, someone who is both an angelic beast and a beastly angel, and therefore limited.

"All of us can identify with Faust's existential frustration. We are not totally at home with the beasts because we have too much reason, too much spiritual aspiration, to live like an animal. And we are not totally at home with the angels because we have a body with a body's desires -- too much earthiness, too much libido dominandi. So we are neither the one thing nor the other but something in between -- now pulled up toward Heaven, now pulled down to the dust. The conflicts between the two cause us considerable dis-ease and misery, to the point that we are inclined to feel alienated even from ourselves. Caught in such a state, we can never find any peace. We want to love, but are smacked down by selfish desires. We want to be altruistic, but once our motives are unmasked we just play for the crowd's applause. We want to possess the light of knowledge, but at every turn encounter the darkness of unfathomable mystery. It goes the other way, too. We go on a binge of buying at the mall, or of sexual debauchery in the bedroom, and before long we have to stop either because of physical exhaustion or because our conscience pricks us to stop. We are constantly reminded that we are an in-between creature who can never settle, never be satisfied, never be happy.[4]

"Man," I said chiming in, "the biped who walks the Earth not with four legs but with two so that he can look up at the stars. It sounds reminiscent of Paul's theology in the New Testament where he writes of the never-ending battle between our animal and spiritual selves --"

"What I do, I do not understand" said Tonsor, "For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate."[5] 

"And that reminds me," I continued, "of a brilliant metaphor that captures man's complexity. I think it was the Catholic humanist E. I. Watkin who pointed out that man's contrary desires are symbolized by the Cross, which is made both of the horizontal crossbeam that points out toward creation as well as the vertical post that points up toward Heaven --"

"And down toward Hell," added Tonsor quickly. 

"And down toward Hell," I duly added. "So, applying Watkin's metaphor, we could say that this in-between creature, man, belongs exclusively to neither the horizontal nor the vertical; that the two principles are hardly ever harmonized; so the resulting tension between them creates constant dissatisfaction, conflict, and misery."

"Yes, Watkin's metaphor captures the reality of our anthropology well," said Tonsor in his definitive way. "The Christian would point out that the horizontal and vertical principles are ultimately reconciled by Christ's death and resurrection: the great consummatum est[6] -- It is accomplished -- which gets us back to Goethe's emphasis on Tätigkeit: activity, doing, exertion, movement, which to Faust is the only remedy to desire.  


"But Goethe's genius was not theological. It was, rather, poetic and psychological and historical. By that I mean Goethe understood modernity's relationship to man's inner conflict. He observed that modernity has dramatically expanded the possibilities of our horizontal experience but not of our vertical existence. The past five hundred years have seen spectacular developments in the horizontal possibilities of our lives, brought about by a succession of world-historical events -- the Age of Exploration, Commercial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and French Revolution. Each promised man a more satisfying life on the horizontal plane of his animal existence. Each stokes the flames of his desire -- for more territory, more purchasing power, more command over nature, more self-knowledge, more economic growth, and more self-determination. But where during the past five centuries were the corresponding ethical or spiritual advances? The existential gap between our spectacular material advances on the one hand, and our perceived spiritual stagnation on the other, perfectly frames the modern problem. 

Mephisto, by Mark Antokolski (1884)
"Given man's complex anthropology and the developments of the last five centuries, we can now better appreciate Goethe's Devil, Mephistopheles. He is not like the medieval Devil who is alien to you and me. Rather, Goethe's Devil reminds us of us -- because he is us. Goethe's genius was to pull Mephistopheles out of the breast of his very own readers, that part of ourselves that is lured by the excitement of material possibilities: all the physical sensations, recurring pleasures, and unleashed animal desires. And as the representative of the animal in us, Mephistopheles makes a bargain with God. Mephistopheles wagers that he can get Faust to feel so completely satisfied with his earthly nature, that the good doctor will forget his spiritual nature that connects him to God. Mephistopheles wagers that Faust will busy himself so completely on the horizontal plane that he will neglect, abuse, and forget the vertical plane. Mephistopheles wagers, in other words, that Faust will become thoroughly modern -- and dehumanize himself.

"You will note that the nature of this wager is quite different from that found in the Book of Job. In the Old Testament, Job must lose all things on the horizontal plane in order to gain what is necessary on the vertical plane. By contrast, in Goethe's Faust the protagonist will gain everything he wants materially but lose it all spiritually -- until the very end. At the end it is clear that Faust cannot save himself. It is only God's mercy that saves him, which is the husk of a very Christian message.

"Mephistopheles represents something else that would resonate in a Christian culture. When called upon to explain who he is, he declares, Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint -- I am the everlasting 'No,' the spirit who always denies. My purpose is to undo the work of creation.  

"As we see at the end of the drama, Mephisto is the one who is denied. He fails because he does not fully understand what a man is. No matter how intense are the earthly, sensual desires of a man; no matter how tempting the wealth and power and worldly successes he might achieve; they can never leave a man entirely satisfied. There is always that something in Faust that makes him raise up the earthly thing to the heavenly plane. It's because man, in his maddening in-betweenness, nevertheless has conscience, imagination, and the spark of the divine. He has the capacity to combine his contradictions and make something better of them. So, for instance, Faust cannot just have sex with Gretchen and be content with the physical satisfaction of the act; he has to raise the experience to a higher level and fall in love with her!

"For all these reasons, one can with justification say that Faust defines the modern human being --"[7]

That was the punchline I had been waiting for. The words hit me like a blast of wind. But the circumstances did not allow any time to linger. Caroline, who had checked out her book, was coming out of the library. 

Feeling the game clock running down to zero, Tonsor wasted no time wrapping up: "Make no mistake: Goethe was no orthodox believer -- he did not give his assent to the God of the Christians -- but his Faust teaches us what the loss of Everyman's faith in the transcendent would mean to the Western spirit, much as Nietzsche would do, even more forcefully, several decades later. With the arrival of the modern age -- which supplanted the Age of Faith and along with it medieval scholasticism and Renaissance Platonism -- Western man crossed a threshold that has given him abundance on the horizontal plane of his bestiality, yet poverty on the vertical plane of his spirituality. Grasp this existential fact, and you have the key that unlocks so much that has vexed man during the last five centuries. As the years pass, the distance between modern man's wonder at the horizontal and his memory of the vertical only widens. And that existential gap goes far to explain why modern man in his dissatisfaction chooses to be distracted by his Promethean capabilities -- whether to use the state to extend his power, or to use violence to eliminate the other, or to use ideology to justify his exquisitely refined hypocrisy."


At this final thought Tonsor offered Caroline his physical support so that she would not slip on the ice -- just as he'd offered me his intellectual support so that I would not slip on ideology. 

As the Tonsors said goodbye, I remained standing on William Street, aware of the cold wind on my face and feeling that Goethe might have correctly diagnosed my poverty and misery. 



[1] Ann Tonsor Zeddies conversation with GW, East Grand Rapids, MI, June 17, 2017.

[2] Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, MI, July 7, 2017.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Götz von Berlichingen, Act 1, 1773.

[4] Reminiscent of Tonsor's interpretation of Faust is Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, trans. David Dollenmayer (New York: W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2017), ch. 33.

[5] Paul, Romans 7:15, New American Bible translation.

[6] John 19:30, Latin Vulgate translation.

[7] Cf. A. N. Wilson, "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans: They Gave Us Goethe and Bach," Independent, July 12, 2008, at URL 

No comments:

Post a Comment