Goethe

Forty-five years ago I sat to learn and read German under Mark Walton, the son of a Hungarian Jewess and Austrian Catholic.  An Anschluss refugee to the United States, Herr Walton got teaching certification at USC, translated for the Army and the German prisoners-of-war in the Northwest, and afterward gave generations of Californians a solid grounding in German, French and Latin.  He even dated Ida Lupino’s sister once or twice.  Through all that he remained an exotic, European immigrant-come-citizen, with Austrian accent beneficial for modeling Hochdeutsch – “high German” and mannerisms deeply traditional to his homeland.  He remains among many dozens perhaps the best teacher I ever had; how many of the others gave me so thoroughly another language, another culture?

In the third and fourth years we read Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and others; I still possess a slim novel by Adalbert Stifter, a gift of my teacher. This much I carried away from Goethe then as we read  Faust and learned one could not possess the world except to one’s own peril.  I did not know then that our reading method meant “thinking translation” that emphasized connotative, intuitive comprehension as much as accuracy to the meanings of words and idioms.  That training has paid dividends over the years in master’s and doctoral studies, and I enjoy employing it all I can in looking at Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy, and now again Goethe [try a light, guttural “Grrr-tuh’].

Here, I encounter Wilhelm Meister and his lifelong education while I read Matthew del Nevo about pentecostalism in relation to Rosenzweig’s Johannine Third Age, marvel at the new syntheses that appear among those who grapple with “the new thinking” (which is Bible-old, I tell you), and see how it connects with such varied truth conduits as Newman, Bonhoeffer and Soloveitchik.  I am compelled to reexamine, perhaps genuinely to understand, Goethe for the first time in ways not possible forty-five years ago.  I think Herr Walton knew that; I regret not to have looked more deeply than I did over the years, though I am grateful for the seeds planted at that time.