Jack’s Naughty Bits: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, R

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Jack's Naughty Bits

You have found a magic lantern and a few rubs brought forth its occupant. He’s kind of a bottom-drawer djinn so you’re only entitled to one wish and not even one of your own devising. But he’s not all bad, so he asks you, “Whaddaya want, Love or Art?” And which do you pick, the consummate romantic relationship or the great Work, suspecting that having one pretty much negates the chance of the other? Love or Art — that’s how it’s normally presented, and most of us don’t question the dichotomy.

But why should they have to be mutually exclusive? Does every artist need to be tortured and loveless? Must every great lover be consumed by passion to the exclusion of all else? We imagine both artists and lovers as addicts: the artist is Picasso, surrounded by women but loving only himself and his work; the lover is — yes, who is the lover? How would we have heard of him? Each day spent in a rhapsody of sexual bliss — who would have time to paint or write, or even buy milk? I once arbitrated a dispute between a couple over how much sex they should have; she was arguing for four times a day; he said once every other day. Her reasoning was obvious — the more the merrier. His? That he was only able to work because of the sadness of his life. His artistic fuel derived from discontent; having sex every day would make that discontent go away, and with it all his ambition. I advised for once every other day, with marathon weekend supplements.

My own humble life has been an attempt to reconcile impulses in both directions. There are those rare people who seem to have balanced their seduction and career schedules (Wilt Chamberlain, for example, scoring at will in both sex and hoops), but when I want real inspiration, I look to literature. Specifically, to an elegy of Goethe’s. Germany’s greatest writer was a lifelong student of the erotic arts and wrote a number of scurrilous verses (some of which I featured a few weeks ago). He also had an enormous collection of penis-centric art and curios from around the world, and I suspect he was something of a perv. Yet his Roman Elegies reveal his most romantic side, none more than the Fifth (which I’ve translated below). Its theme is not the separation of Love and Art, but how the former can be used to facilitate the latter. And I ask you, if it’s possible, is there a greater synthesis?


R?mische Elegien V by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I find myself now on classical ground, filled with joy and inspiration;
Voices from past and present speak loudly to me, all full of charm.
I turn the pages of the Ancients and follow their counsel;
My hand doesn’t tire, and each day I find a new delight.
But when the night comes, love occupies me otherwise.
And if the result is that I’m only half as learned, I am still doubly happy.
But then, is it not a kind of learning when the lovely curve of her bosom
I admire, and let my hand slide down her hips?
Then I can truly understand a marble sculpture; I conjure and compare,
I see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.

And if, being with my beloved, I am deprived of some daylight hours
She makes amends by giving me all the night’s hours in return.
What’s more, we’re not always kissing, but often speak with reason;
And when she falls to sleep, I lie beside her and think a good deal.
And frequently while in her arms I have composed beautiful poems,
Softly measuring the beat of the hexameters, tapping my finger
Along her naked back. She breathes softly in a gentle slumber,
And her breath glows through me, to the depths of my chest,
While Cupid stokes the fire . . .