by Robert Tobin
Cushing Eells Professor of Humanities

May 17, 2008

Dark Strivings: Thoughts on Leaving Weimar, Washington

 

Baccalaureate Address by Robert Tobin

Congratulations, graduates! Congratulations on being about to receive the degree of bachelor of arts, which guarantees to the world that its holder is a broadly educated person.  Congratulations on graduating from college, which is one of the great rites of passage in our society, indicating the end of the period of general education. Many of you may not know right now what you are going to be doing next year, but it is certain that you will be in a host of different types of activity, in an amazing variety of physical locations. Virtually none of you will be doing the same thing as any of your fellow Whitties. All of you will be striking out on your own path.

At this moment, it is a privilege for me to get the chance to say a few words to you, especially because I too am moving on, taking advantage of an offer of a new and different type of professorial position in Massachusetts. This transition in my life has forced me to think seriously about the advice that we traditionally give to our graduates at this time of year.

There is of course a difference between us — I’ve been here a lot longer than most of you. I arrived in the fall of 1989. If I had come just a few years earlier, I could now be saying that I had been here for as long as the graduating class had been alive. But since most of the class of 2008 was born in 1986 or ’87, I’ll have to be satisfied with saying that I have been here for as long as most of you can consciously remember.

When I first interviewed for the position here, someone asked if I would be comfortable in such a small town. I knew then what I hope you job seekers know now: even if you would be happy with any old job, pretend at the interview that you really want that particular job. So I said that I had heard that eighteenth-century Weimar, a great center of German culture about which I happened to be writing my dissertation, had had only about six thousand residents.  The human scale of the small town and the small college has for centuries — even millennia, if one considers the amazing cultural productivity of the many small communities of ancient Greece — proven itself to be a fertile ground for creating works of art, literature, scholarship and science.

This comparison between our small college town and the classical home of Germany’s humanist tradition has stuck with me. I have spent many years trying to cultivate the sense that I lived in a community not unlike such a center of artistic and intellectual activity as Weimar. Indeed, I have long wanted to write a novel based on some of the racier episodes of life in the eighteenth-century German-speaking world, but set in contemporary Walla Walla — and that novel would be called Weimar, Washington.

One question in that novel might be, why would one ever leave such an idyllic environment as Weimar, Washington? Many graduating seniors, terrified of the uncertain prospects of the future, would like to stay. And many alumni, nostalgic for the good old days, often think wishfully of returning. In order to explain why it can be a good thing to leave Weimar, Washington, despite the pain that such a departure can cause, I’ll spend a few moments on a work of literature that was largely composed in the German Weimar — Goethe’s Faust. I happen to have been teaching it this semester, which means I’ve been thinking about it, talking to students about it, and reading their thoughts on it.

In the Faust story, an ageing scholar makes a deal with the devil, allowing him to abandon his cloistered academic environment and live life once again, this time to the fullest. For a scholar like myself — entering what is probably the second half of my life — this is a very compelling tale indeed.

Goethe’s version is particularly spectacular and monumental.  After making his deal with the devil, Goethe’s Faust trades in a life devoted to philosophy, law, medicine and theology, for a life devoted to a an approach that the twentieth-century American character,  Auntie Mame, has perhaps summed up best: “Life’s a banquet and most suckers are starving to death!”

Faust begins with a love affair with a young girl (more on that in a moment). Then, as a finance minister, he invents paper money. With his riches, he devotes himself to living out the ideals of classical antiquity, concluding with a marriage to Helen, the most beautiful woman ever. After raising a child with Helen, he returns to public affairs, leading a successful military campaign. Ultimately, with the aid of a system of dikes and canals, he turns a stretch a beachfront property into a whole new country: Holland.

In terms of literary history, the unusual thing about Goethe’s Faust is that he is ultimately redeemed. Goethe has an eighteenth-century optimism about the human condition. His god tolerantly assumes that we humans may constantly err, but that nonetheless “in his dark strivings, a good person knows the right way.”

Before we continue with these dark strivings, let me add that Goethe’s optimistic ending also has to do with the special terms that Goethe’s Faust negotiates: Faust insists that as long as he doesn’t say to the moment, “tarry, thou art so beautiful,” he will be free of the devil’s influence. The way Goethe sets it up, as long as Faust strives (however darkly) for something better, he will be saved. On the other hand, he will be damned if he ever “tarries” or lingers, which is to say becomes complacent and satisfied with the devil’s offerings.

In my opinion, Faust is redeemed because he is not satisfied with all the crappy mediocrity that life throws at us.  Faust indulges in his physical desires. He aspires to political power, money, a family life, military might, big real estate deals and development projects. But doesn’t subsume himself in the mundane details of these pursuits.

I hope that you have studied enough literature, however, to know that you should tread carefully when you rely on a text to help you negotiate the shoals of life. Let’s look more closely at the first experience that the aged scholar desires after his deal with the devil:  a love affair with Gretchen, a beautiful young woman. Did I say “young”? According to the text, she’s at least 14.

Looked at soberly, the story is pretty miserable. Faust courts Gretchen, impregnates her, then goes by himself to Walpurgisnacht, a wild witches’ Sabbath, which could quite appropriately be staged as a drug-fueled rave, or –more staidly — as the senior party at Barnaby’s. While he’s dancing with pretty witches, Gretchen, unable to come to terms with Faust’s new morality, kills her newborn infant. Wracked with guilt, she goes mad. The conservative society in which she has grown up and which she cannot escape condemns her to death for infanticide and executes her.

Not only does Faust get off scot free, but — at the end of the drama — it turns out that her prayers in the afterlife have helped save him.

What possible moral can we draw from this tale? I think Goethe understood and wanted his readers to understand just how badly Gretchen is treated. When his god says that people err as long as they strive and that in their dark strivings they know the right way, he knows full well that sometimes people make really big errors and that their strivings are really dark. At the same time, although it may be hard to swallow, Gretchen’s prayers for him in the afterworld suggest that, in Goethe’s worldview at least, there was something good about their relationship, as tragic as its consequences were.

There are plenty of moments in human and natural history that can lead us to contradict and reject Goethe’s optimism about the possibilities for human development. But at this particular rite of passage — graduation — when so many of us are darkly striving to leave comfortable places like Weimar, Washington, where we could become complacent and self-satisfied, optimism is in order. I hope that not many of us are in the position of wreaking the kind of havoc on others that Faust does on Gretchen, but I’m sure that most of us will make errors as we move on.  Our dark strivings will at times be obscurely motivated and incomprehensible to our loved ones. Even the good and beautiful things that we do will leave behind regrets. But as we leave Weimar, Washington, I think we need to take the risk of hoping and believing that after such tragic storms there will be a rainbow and that rainbow will reflect the vast diversity of experiences that wait in store for us.

Thanks to all of you and good luck in your journeys!