Goethe’s Resolve


Goethe’s Italian Journey

“I have had plenty of time here to discover two of my capital faults, which have pursued and tormented me all my life. One is that I could never be bothered to learn the mechanical part of anything I wanted to work on or should have worked on. That is why, though I have plenty of natural ability, I have accomplished so little. Either I tried to master it by sheer force of intellect, in which case my success or failure was a matter of chance, or, if I wanted to do something really well and with proper deliberation, I had misgivings and could not finish it. My other fault, which is closely related to the first, is that I have never been prepared to devote as much time to any piece of work as it required. I possess the fortunate gift of being able to think of many things and see their connections in a short time, but, in consequence, the detailed execution of a work, step by step, iritates and bores me. Now it is time for me to mend my ways. I am in the land of the Arts; let me study them really thoroughly, so that I may find peace and joy for the rest of my life and be able to go on to something else.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, July 20, 1787, Rome

In many ways, this excerpt highlights much of why I’m so fond of Goethe. I’ve come back to reading him more and more since first reading “On the Metamorphosis of Plants” in college. Here he’s talking about his efforts at studying painting and drawing during an extended stay in Rome. On the same trip he worked on several plays, operas, poetry and novels, and gathered data which later informed his scientific writings. Perhaps it’s a delusion, but I take heart from his refusal to narrow his interests. I enjoy the frankness of his journals and letters, and he definitely makes my list of famous dead people I’d invite to dinner.

While I have spent much time at refining “mechanical” skills, I also feel like I spend much time trying to master things “by sheer force of intellect.” I can see that I too have a tendency to balk at the physical execution of a project once I can clearly envision it in my mind. I am trying to think about focus this week as it is clearly not my strongest skill. So it is time to shorten the chain, restrain my mental wanderings, and mend my ways.

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