Once upon a time there was a woman who loved German. First she had been a girl who loved French and she remained that person for all her life. But when she got older she got interested in those big words that you can only make in German like Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit), and Kaufhaus (store).
So she started learning German.
She read tiny little books about famous artists: Mozart, Dürer, and Beethoven. She loved reading about Mozart’s strict dad, and Dürer going to Italy.
But then she read about a writer she didn’t like. There was something about him that made her kind of mad.
This started with all the fuss about him.
Have you read Faust?
Have you read the Sufferings of Young Werther?
Have you read Egmont?
Have you read the poetry?
Have you read the autobiography?
Have you seen his desk in Frankfurt?
Have you been to the house where he had sex with woman a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, and k? What about the house where he had sex with woman q,r,s,t,u, and v?
Did you know he met Napoleon?
Did you know he was a scientist?
Do you know this quote or that quote or this quote or that quote?
The author the woman didn’t like, was – of course — Goethe. The woman sat in class after class, where people would lift their eyes heavenward and intone Goethe’s name like it was a kind of gooey chocolate sundae to be savored as it melted.
Then you had to bury the sundae dish in a fancy coffing, and erect a huge monument over it.
The woman got into the habit of not liking Goethe. He was overrated, possibly a spy for his government, and he was – she found out – truly horrible to writers he didn’t like. Like Kleist, whose career he pretty much stymied.
Then there was the matter of Goethe’s best friend, Schiller. The woman read the correspondence between the two, and it was clear that Schiller – himself a brilliant poet and dramatist – didn’t really like Goethe either, but forced himself to be nice to him, so as to survive in a literary environment virtually controlled by the great G-Man.
There are, in fact, a lot of literary and artistic huge successes to hate. Andy Warhol sounds like he was pretty much a jerk. And how nice do you think Heminway was?
But in the end, there is only so much that can be gained by not liking a writer or artist.
Just the other day, the woman taught a poetry workshop to people who just came because they were interested, and – on a whim – she showed them an excerpt from Goethe’s early novel, the Sufferings of Young Werther. “I’m alone with Goethe,” someone wrote, and a poem came out. “I feel at ease with this,” said someone else.
“Wow,” said someone else. “He’s so cool. How do you say his name?”
And in this way, the woman was obliged to reconsider her opinion. She could see that Goethe – who lived, after all many many years ago – still spoke to people, and spoke to artists.
So, she decided she would stop disliking Goethe. He was too important to discount, too helpful to other writers to ignore.
But she still liked Schiller and Kleist better.