Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rereading Goethe’s Faust 4: Going Through My Notes

As the subtitle suggests, this doesn’t have much of anything to do with Faust, but I’m throwing it here anyhow. On the one hand, it has to do with thinking about where I am in life as I embark on my 68th year – my 67th birthday was a couple of weeks ago (December 7). And that’s why I’m rereading the text. Faust changed direction late in (his fictional) life, and that’s what I’m doing, with graffiti as a vehicle for that.

Or at least trying to.

* * * * *

What I hadn’t realized – or at any rate, I have no memory of having once know it – is that Goethe worked on this text his whole adult life. He started it as young man and finished it in his old age. Given that, I’d think a look at whatever manuscripts we’ve got would be fascinating. And one thing I’m thinking is that Faust’s change of life-direction surely must reflect Goethe’s own change in direction as he matured. Part II, after all, is his addition to the basic legend, which otherwise ends badly for Faust.

Why would I think that? Well, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s late romances reflect a change in his outlook as he matured (in At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation?). If Shakespeare can do it, why then so could Goethe. And I’ve just read that Oedipus at Colonus is the product of Sophocles’ old age. Makes sense. This is a play, after all, in which Oedipus is valued for what he’s gone through in life, not tossed out in the wild as he was in Oedipus the King.

Sophocles: 497/496 to 406/405 BCE
Antigone: 441 BCE
Oedipus the King: 429 BCE
Oedipus at Colonus: 405-6? BCE

* * * * *

But what has this to do with me going through my notes this morning? I’ve been going through my files on cultural evolution and thinking about bringing my current set of posts – on the direction of cultural evolution – to a close. That will bring a certain closure to the work I’ve been doing throughout my career. Just what kind of closure, that’s tricky, and it’s a secondary matter at this point. I can get around to that in a later post.

For now, suffice it to say, it will bring closure. And a bit of redefinition, too. I’ve always thought of myself as a literary critic with a bunch of other interests. My degree, after all, is in English Lit, though I wrote this strange dissertation full of this other stuff from the cognitive sciences and comparative psychology – a lot of what has come to be called evolutionary psychology in the last two or three decades. It was a literary text, “Kubla Khan”, that set me on my initial lines of inquiry and, though my undergraduate degree is in Philosophy, for all practical purposes, literature became the focus of my undergraduate studies.

Literature could do that because, in those days (the 1960s), it was evolving toward a general study of human life and everything. Literary scholars had come to annex a pile of other disciplines and put them to work in service of literature – philosophy, history, psychology (mainly psychoanalysis), sociology/political science/economics (mostly Marxism of a humanistic sort, loosely conceived). If you wanted to make sense of it all – a Faustian quest which I certainly had as an undergraduate and even perhaps as a graduate student – then literature is what you ended up studying.

And so I’d always thought of myself as a student of literature with these other interests that I’ve also been studying. But I’ve recently decided that, though my degree is in literature and perhaps I’ve spent more hours on literature than another other one thing, I’ve really been studying culture all along. Literature has been a vehicle for that.

Well, I now feel that, at long last, I know how to think about culture. As I indicated up top, I’m coming down the home stretch on a series of posts that started back in late September with a post to 3 Quarks Daily, Macroanalysis and the Directional Evolution of Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels. That took me on a tour of pop music in 20th century America and thereby reminded me of an essay I read in my freshman year at Hopkins, Talcott Parsons, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World.” And that essay has had an enormous influence on how I think about culture and social change. Well, I’ve got one more post to write and finish out that series and prepare to put that aspect of my intellectual life on the shelf.

If need be, it will be able to take care of itself. Won’t need me to coax and guide.

* * * * *

The thing is, I figure that what happened to Shakespeare as he moved from histories and comedies, to tragedies, and then finally to romances, that happened to his personality, to the deployment of his psycho-social attitudes, desires, and dreams. That was about personal maturation through the life cycle, as studied, for example, by the late Erik Erikson. Is that what happened to Goethe as well? I don’t know.

But that’s NOT what’s happened in the course of my intellectual career, from my early fascination with myth and “Kubla Khan” through my doctorial work on literature and cognition and on up to my current work on digital humanities and cultural evolution. As far as I can tell, my intellectual evolution was a purely intellectual matter.

It didn’t start out that way, of course. When I first became interested in “Kubla Khan” I was also walking the edges of counter-cultural exploration of mysticism and psychoactive drugs. I was looking for the kind of revelations those things bring. “Kubla Khan” was intertwined with that. After all, Coleridge claimed the poem came to him in an opium reverie. By the time I’d gone off to Buffalo for my PhD, however, I’d managed to separate my intellectual life from those transcendental longings. That’s the point of my early autobiographical essay, Touchstones.

My sense is that, in that respect, Faust’s quest for knowledge is quite different from mine. He hasn’t made that separation, and that’s why the sign of the macrocosm had such a powerful effect on him.

Will he make that separation by the end of the story? Is that what will allow him to go into land reclamation? I don’t know.

As for me...

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