Transgression

Tischbein - Goethe looking out of the window.

Tischbein – Goethe looking out of the window.

The wish to smash things

“Even the child, forced to be well-behaved, hardly felt at ease. An urge to destroy exists, as a small child Goethe brought it into play. It impelled the boy, one fine afternoon when all in the house was quiet, to keep throwing crockery on to the road because it “shattered so delightfully”. On top of this delight came a less definite impulsion towards something, which awoke quite appropriately in a secluded room. ‘This, as I grew up, was my favourite place, not really sad but full of longing.’ But great things took place beyond the windows, the plain, thunderstorms, the setting sun, a strange world which at the same time was pleasant and near. The child saw children playing, neighbours strolling in their gardens and tending their flowers, groups of people enjoying themselves. Goethe continues, summarizes the effect of all this: ‘ … this very early aroused in me a feeling of loneliness and a longing arising from this which … soon showed its influence and was to do so even more later.’ The adolescent prowled around in dubious company, found a hidden way into and out of the house, and learnt to tell lies. His breezy, cheerful, young, warm-hearted mother certainly did not force him into this but his father, who was too strict, and a narrowly circumscribed life encouraged him not to be too serious about everything. His fine breeding did not last either, even less so the closer the longed-for student time came. Goethe left his parental home with the following feeling: “The secret joy of a prisoner when he has taken off his chains and has almost filed through the prison bars cannot be greater than mine was as I saw the days dwindling and October approaching.” Thoroughly dissatisfied, the departing son sought a life that was more commensurate with him, equal to him.” (Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Chapter 48)

In The wish to smash things, the short opening section to the chapter on the young Goethe (The young Goethe, non-renunciation, Ariel), Bloch introduces a developmental pathway that structures the interplay between youth, resistance and the transgressive spirit, named here Ariel, lion of God, the archangel, the sprite with the divine light, set free by Prospero, the rebellious Angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the leader of the elves in Faust and Shelley’s self-chosen poet name. The life of the young Goethe is one in which, amid a seeming abundance and loving presence, something is missing. It manifests itself in stages, gradually becoming clearer and changing from an anonymous force that takes hold of the little child into an address which is answered by the wellspring of a transgressive and poetic will, taken hold of by the adolescent at the onset of his exodus into the world. Its first appearance occurs in the stillness of a forgotten, beautiful afternoon. A spirit stirs: the child found himself, obliviously, smashing crockery to pieces on the street, from a window of the house, ‘because it shattered so delightfully’, so lustig, so gladly, with so much joy and appetite. Maybe he realized only dimly what he was doing, enthralled by the spirit of the occasion, maybe he had removed the scene and the crockery from the daily normality into which such afternoon occasions and the tableware are routinely enveloped. In Goethe’s few words we sense how the boy, mustered by the spirit of transgression, forgot everything around him, and became with the desire to smash things. Smashing plates – what more appropriate action could the child have chosen to symbolize what it was that he wanted to break away from: the order of the parental house. The symbolon, originally a plate broken in two pieces to create a unique symbol for recognition; only one thing in the world will fit each half. The plate on which food is served, an emblem of home itself, broken into a symbol at the onset of a life, a symbol of a home, the memory of which was never more than a possibility for the future. The action is the fulfilment of a longing, a remaining allegorical emblem of a life, and yet nostalgia is definitively prevented by it and its remembrance; in this it remains true to the nature of the experience of home in the moment in which that experience comes to itself by breaking open a life into an unknown future. A raucous joy comes over the boy. The smashing is a revolutionary moment, reminiscent of the dance on the ruins of the Bastille, the first day of a new calendar, the now experienced as the beginning of a new time, out of chronological time:

“What characterises revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode. The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar presents history in time-lapse mode. And basically it is this same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus, calendars do not measure time the way clocks do.” (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, thesis XV)

It is the sound, as much as the sight, of the plates flying through the air and crashing to pieces, that excites the young Goethe. The rapture of transgression harbours a first, dark intimation of the existential significance of music. The rhythm and pitch of the shards leaves intervals in which the silence that encloses the scene becomes perceptible in two senses: the threatening complacency of the patriarchal order, constantly at work but invisible until aroused. But also the deeper ontological, anticipatory silence of longing of the Wanderers Nachtlied II, the second wanderer’s night song (Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’) is adumbrated here. It is the whole purpose of music to make it perceptible. The scene takes place in a remote chamber of the family house, the favourite hideout of the child. A space of isolation and longing, in which the world, announcing itself through the window, was a welcome stranger, the welcome stranger, still removed from the boy and yet near: a promise of things to come. In the secluded room the desire to smash is experienced more consciously as a longing for something else, the awareness of being alone because the home is not a home. The conjunction of loneliness and longing propels outward, to friends, secrets, a double life, so many attempts at liberation from captivity in estrangement. The moment Goethe the adolescent leaves for university is experienced as an escape from prison, the commencement, finally, of a real journey in the world outside, stepping out onto the street and into a life more fitting. The window in the lonely room has become a prison door under the workings of twinned loneliness and longing; a prison door, however, that can be opened, whose bars can be broken, through which one can step out rather merely than look out. The story recounted here by Bloch shows Goethe’s way from being well-behaved and ill at ease to relinquishing the fetters of fine breeding, that immaterial and desperate throw at an attitude in the face of our true homelessness: the uncanny wonder, das unbehauste Staunen. In the final act of escape, the young poet makes the homeless wonder of existence his provisional dwelling, a magic cloak, a mobile home. We have moved from the desire to destroy, unaware of itself, following a hushed call, to a self-chosen isolation in which a longing for something else could arise and become conscious of itself, at first inarticulate and unsure of its direction but later finding a first obstacle on which to test, sharpen, solidify itself: Goethe’s necessary attempt to free himself from the law of his father, an escape into freedom as the newly begun mission of a whole life, pre-figured in the attraction of becoming a student, a wayfarer, an artist and shaper: a materialist of the spirit in permanent revolt, the lust for smashing the principle of renewal, poesis and expression: Ariel.

The spirit that takes hold of the child is an external but still anonymous force. It becomes an address when the boy is alone in his room, in which the world on the other side of the window is strange, and yet pleasant and near. It is the world itself that beckons the child to come outside; a scene that reminds us of Tischbein’s drawing of Goethe looking out of a window in Rome; we see that he may have remembered how he felt as a child, while now being called out by the polyphony of scents and colours, the sunlight and sounds, the buzz of life in the Mediterranean. What he perceives is a longing, at work in all the world as much as within him. The poet is made in finding out how to heed to this longing. Since Geist der Utopie (1918), for Bloch the address of the world is a question that invites an answer, and as we are part of the world, we ourselves also are a question to the world that wants an answer. The uncanny wonder at the base of the disclosure of self and world is one of question and attempted answer, experimentum mundi. The ultimate question escapes being put into words, no direction at an answer is available, but all speech occurs within its horizon; poetry and philosophy, Dichten and Denken, are answers to this ontological question. There is a difference between an interpretation of the address of the world to the human being in terms of a questioning and one in terms of a calling. The latter is the more familiar one. Heidegger sees the call of Being addressing the poet as a rupture in time, a now that is at the same time new, directed towards the future, but made by Being itself. Being speaks, the call is the event that draws us into the heeding of it, the proper task of the poet. Two opening lines:

-Jetzt aber tagts! Ich harrt und sah es kommen

(Hölderlin, Wie wenn am Feiertage)

-Jetzt komme, Feuer!

(Hölderlin, Der Ister)

In the first poem, the day of celebration or remembrance dawns; it is the remembrance of a beginning, as a remembrance day on a calendar; the poet waited in anticipation for its arrival, he saw it coming, and now it is here. In the second poem the dawn itself is summoned by the call of the poet. Heidegger remarks (Lecture on Hölderlin’s hymn Der Ister) that, as the dawn will come regardless of the call of the poet, we have to understand that call as a response to the call of the dawn itself, as a recognition by the poet. So poetry becomes the disclosure of world, the heeding of an originary, transcendent call; poetic language is the home of being, the place of origin to which being returns when brought to language by the poet. To see the originary moment of disclosure as a response to a question on the other hand pulls us closer towards an understanding of being in terms of the longing we see so clearly at work in the story of the young Goethe. All three stages of the becoming-poet occur in a state of reverie and daydream. A premonition of something to come is fore felt and expressed in all of them; rather than experiencing an order of being that will be there anyway and merely has to be acknowledged in poetic language for it to not only be but also appear, to come into its own, here being itself as much as the being of the poet are still in the making, have to be brought out and realized; being is the realization of what is realizing (Realisierung des Realisierenden); the home of it all is not yet there. There is no overriding sense of obedience required here. On the contrary a deep affinity between transgression, outward being and subjective existence becomes clear in the pre-appearance (Vorschein) of what is to come, from the first smashing of the crockery to the escape from the home that had become a prison. Jetzt aber tagt’s! Ich harrt und sah es kommen. Jetzt komme, Feuer! Both are spoken from the pre-appearance of what is to come and, through the reflective-indicative ‘jetzt’, ‘now’, place the poet in the pulse of time, in the moment and squarely within the dimension of the newness of the future and the anticipation of what is not yet. ‘The daydream is the initial phase of art’ (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, p. 106).

The smashing of crockery is, as it were, a realised daydream, real in a way that is only dimly perceived by the child itself: he is least conscious himself of the wish that motivates him. In many places Bloch refers to Novalis: Der geheimnisvolle Weg geht nach Innen. He renders it: Der geheimnisvolle Weg geht nach außen; the way of mystery leads outward; the secret lies without, a latent and uncanny home (heim). All stages of the becoming of the young poet show this characteristic and are daydreams on the path to realization. Bloch’s ontology of immanent longing places the lonely individual within the world, fundamentally akin to him, in the now moment. That moment is the moment of the promise and the possible realization of of freedom. But both world and human being are still dark to themselves, not yet brought out; moving along the path of the will, the intensity of existence, in a reciprocal relation of question and answer, as in the development of the young poet. The ground of the world and the ground of the human being remain hidden in an immediacy that no ‘now’ can yet fully bring to light and that therefore continues to occasion new now moments. This interpretation of being is not unrelated to the thought figure of the call and the heeding, but it differs in a crucial respect. Being is not yet what it is; it is itself, and we in it, a process of going out to become itself, ourselves. This is a fundamental motif of materialism: thought does not abide by itself but in seizing the now opens up to the new future and to the world that is other, but that may become home. Incipit vita nova, understood in this way, renewed again and again, provides the key to the formative events in the life of the young Goethe and to the interpretation of the transgression inherent in the now-moment of anticipatory consciousness and anticipatory being.

 

 

 

 

 

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