Our Soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realised the Infinitude of Goethe’s imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own. -(Iqbal, Stray Reflections)
The fact that so many people read it merely as a melancholic tale of unrequited love, kind of corroborates how we, in general, are unequipped to naturally reflect on the amazing complexity of our being’s existence in time. In fact, regardless of its original biographical bent, this beautiful narrative is as much about the inexplicable nature of our very existence as it is about the Goethe’s intended catharsis through his protagonist. It is a simple and strong statement regarding man’s fateful desires and seemingly blurred lines between the free-will and determination.
In other words, its Goethe’s way of asking whether a man can choose to be happy or to put it more precisely: is it possible to achieve happiness as an ideal or even pursue it, without being perturbed by nature’s innumerable dictating factors?
I thank you, Wilhelm, for your heartfelt sympathy, for your well-intentioned advice, but beg you to be quiet. Let me stick it out. Blessedly exhausted as I am, I have strength enough to carry through. I honor religion, you know that, I feel it is a staff for many weary souls, refreshment for many a one who is pining away. But–can it be, must it be, the same thing for everyone? If you look at the great world, you see thousands for whom it wasn’t, thousands for whom it will not be the same, preached or unpreached, and must it then be the same for me? Does not the son of God Himself say that those would be around Him whom the Father had given Him? But if I am not given? If the Father wants to keep me for Himself, as my heart tells me?–I beg you, do not misinterpret this, do not see mockery in these innocent words. What I am laying before you is my whole soul; otherwise I would rather have kept silent, as I do not like to lose words over things that everyone knows as little about as I do. What else is it but human destiny to suffer out one’s measure, drink up one’s cup?–And if the chalice was too bitter for the God from heaven on His human lips, why should I boast and pretend that it tastes sweet to me? And why should I be ashamed in the terrible moment when my entire being trembles between being and nothingness, since the past flashes like lightning above the dark abyss of the future and everything around me is swallowed up, and the world perishes with me?–Is that not the voice of the creature thrown back on itself, failing, trapped, lost, and inexorably tumbling downward, the voice groaning in the inner depths of its vainly upwards-struggling energies: My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? And if I should be ashamed of the expression, should I be afraid when facing that moment, since it did not escape Him who rolls up heaven like a carpet?”
And then besides being a heartsick soliloquy of an enervating young lover, its also about those walnut trees which were cut down by the vicar’s wife, those tears in the schoolmaster’s eyes who broke that news or the little Hans who just stop existing one day.
Those of us who do not have the requisite literary skills to fully appreciate the true sorrow in Greek tragedy, would perhaps find nothing better in literature to provoke us to shed a spontaneous tear or two.