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J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book VII

Chapter III

AT times they had read a little to the patient; Wilhelm joyfully performed this service. Lydia stirred not from Lothario’s bed; her care for him absorbed her whole attention. But today the patient himself seemed occupied with thought: he bade them lay aside their book. “Today,” said he, “I feel through my whole heart how foolishly we let our time pass on. How many things have I proposed to do, how many have I planned; yet how we loiter in our noblest purposes! I have just read over the scheme of the changes which I mean to make in my estates: and it is chiefly, I may say, on their account that I rejoice at the bullet’s not having gone a deadlier road.”

Lydia looked at him with tenderness, with tears in her eyes; as if to ask if she, if his friends could not pretend to any interest in his wish to live. Jarno answered: “Changes, such as you project, require to be considered well on every side, before they are resolved on.”

“Long considerations,” said Lothario, “are commonly a proof that we have not the point to be determined clearly in our eye; precipitate proceedings that we do not know it. I see distinctly that in managing my property, there are several particulars, in which the services of my dependants cannot be remitted; certain rights which I must rigidly insist on: but I also see that there are other articles, advantageous to me, but by no means indispensable, which might admit of relaxation. Do I not profit by my lands far better than my father did? Is not my income still increasing? And shall I alone enjoy this growing benefit? Shall not those who labour with and for me partake, in their degree, of the advantages which expanding knowledge, which a period of improvement are procuring for us?”

“’Tis human nature!” cried Jarno: “I do not blame myself when I detect this selfish quality among the rest. Every man desires to gather all things round him, to shape and manage them according to his own pleasure: the money which he himself does not expend, he seldom reckons well expended.”

“Certainly,” observed Lothario, “much of the capital might be abated, if we consumed the interest less capriciously.”

“The only thing I shall mention,” said the other, “the only reason I can urge against your now proceeding with those alterations, which, for a time at least, must cause you loss, is, that you yourself are still in debt, and that the payment presses hard on you. My advice is, therefore, to postpone your plan till you are altogether free.”

“And in the mean while leave it at the mercy of a bullet, or the fall of a tile, to annihilate the whole result of my existence and activity! O my friend! it is ever thus; it is ever the besetting fault of cultivated men, that they wish to spend their whole resources on some idea, scarcely any part of them on tangible existing objects. Why was it that I contracted debts, that I quarrelled with my uncle, that I left my sisters to themselves so long? Purely for the sake of an idea.

“In America, I fancied I might accomplish something; over seas, I hoped to become useful and essential: if any task was not begirt with a thousand dangers, I considered it trivial, unworthy of me. How differently do matters now appear! How precious, how important seems the duty which is nearest me, whatever it may be!”

“I recollect the letter which you sent me from the Western world,” said Jarno: “it contained the words: ‘I will return, and in my house, amid my fields, among my people, I will say: Here or nowhere is America!’”

“Yes, my friend! and I am still repeating it, and still repining at myself that I am not so busy here as I was there. For certain equable, continuous modes of life, there is nothing more than judgment necessary, and we study to attain nothing more; so that we become unable to discern what extraordinary services each vulgar day requires of us; or if we do discern them, we find abundance of excuses for not doing them. A judicious man is valuable to himself; but of little value for the general whole.”

“We will not,” said Jarno, “bear too hard upon judgment: let us grant that whenever extraordinary things are done, they are generally foolish.”

“Yes! and just because they are not done according to the proper plan. My brother-in-law, you see, is giving up his fortune, so far as in his power, to the Community of Herrnhut: he reckons that by doing so, he is advancing the salvation of his soul. Had he sacrificed a small portion of his revenue, he might have rendered many people happy, might have made for them and for himself a heaven upon earth. Our sacrifices are rarely of an active kind; we, as it were, abandon what we give away. It is not from resolution but despair, that we renounce our property. In these days, I confess it, the image of the Count is hovering constantly before me; I have firmly resolved on doing from conviction, what a crazy fear is forcing upon him. I will not wait for being cured. Here are the papers: they require only to be properly drawn out. Take the lawyer with you; our guest will help: what I want, you know as well as I; recovering or dying I will stand by it, and say: Here or nowhere is Herrnhut!”

When he mentioned dying, Lydia sank before his bed; she hung upon his arm, and wept bitterly. The surgeon entered; Jarno gave our friend the papers, and made Lydia leave the room.

“For Heaven’s sake! what is this about the Count?” cried Wilhelm, when they reached the hall and were alone: “What Count is it that means to join the Herrnhuters?”

“One whom you know very well,” said Jarno. “You yourself are the ghost who have frightened the unhappy wiseacre into piety; you are the villain who have brought his pretty wife to such a state, that she inclines accompanying him.”

“And she is Lothario’s sister?” cried our friend.

“No other!”—“and Lothario knows—?”

“The whole.”

“O let me fly!” cried Wilhelm: “How shall I appear before him? What can he say to me?”

“That no man should cast a stone at his brother; that when one composes long speeches, with a view to shame his neighbours, he should speak them to a looking-glass.”

“Do you know that too?”

“And many things beside,” said Jarno with a smile. “But in the present case,” continued he, “you shall not get away from me so easily as you did last time. You need not now be apprehensive of my bounty-money; I have ceased to be a soldier; when I was one, you might have thought more charitably of me. Since you saw me, many things have altered. My Prince, my only friend and benefactor, being dead, I have now withdrawn from busy life and its concerns. I used to have a pleasure in advancing what was reasonable; when I met with any despicable thing, I hesitated not to call it so: and men had never done with talking of my restless head and wicked tongue. The herd of people dread sound understanding more than anything; they ought to dread stupidity, if they had any notion what was really dreadful. Understanding is unpleasant, they must have it pushed aside; stupidity is but pernicious, they can let it stay. Well, be it so! I need to live; I will by and by communicate my plans to you; if you incline, you shall partake in them. But tell me first how things have gone with you. I see, I feel that you are changed. How is it with your ancient maggot of producing something beautiful and good in the society of gypsies?”

“Do not speak of it!” cried Wilhelm: “I have been already punished for it. People talk about the stage; but none, that has not been upon it personally, can form the smallest notion of it. How utterly these men are unacquainted with themselves, how thoughtlessly they carry on their trade, how boundless their pretensions are, no mortal can conceive. Each not only would be first, but sole; each wishes to exclude the rest, and does not see that even with them, he can scarcely accomplish anything. Each thinks himself a man of marvellous originality; yet with a ravening appetite for novelty, he cannot walk a footstep from the beaten track. How vehemently they counterwork each other! It is only the pitifulest self-love, the narrowest views of interest, that unite them. Of reciprocal accommodation they have no idea; back-biting and hidden spitefulness maintain a constant jealousy among them. In their lives they are either rakes or simpletons. Each claims the loftiest respect, each writhes under the slightest blame. “All this he knew already,’ he will tell you! Why then did he not do it? Ever needy, ever unconfiding, they seem as if their greatest fear were reason and good taste, their highest care were to secure the majesty of their self-will.”

Wilhelm drew breath, intending to proceed with his eulogium, when an immoderate laugh from Jarno interrupted him. “Poor actors!” cried he; threw himself into a chair, and laughed away: “Poor dear actors! Do you know, my friend,” continued he, recovering from his fit, “that you have been describing not the playhouse, but the world; that out of all ranks I could find you characters and doings in abundance, to suit your cruel pencil? Pardon me, it makes me laugh again, that you should think these amiable qualities existed on the boards alone.”

Wilhelm checked his feelings: Jarno’s extravagant, untimely laughter had in truth offended him. “It is scarcely hiding your misanthropy,” said he, “when you maintain that faults like these are universal.”

“And it shows your unacquaintance with the world, when you impute them to the theatre in such a heinous light. I pardon in the player every fault that springs from self-deception and the desire to please. If he seem not something to himself and others, he is nothing. To seem is his vocation; he must prize his moment of applause, for he gets no other recompense; he must try to glitter, he is there to do so.”

“You will give me leave at least to smile, in my turn,” answered Wilhelm. “I should never have believed that you could be so merciful, so tolerant.”

“I swear to you I am serious, fully and deliberately serious. All faults of the man I can pardon in the player; no fault of the player can I pardon in the man. Do not set me upon chanting my lament about the latter: it might have a sharper sound than yours.”

The Surgeon entered from the cabinet; and to the question how his patient was, he answered with a lively air of complaisance: “Extremely well indeed; I hope soon to see him quite recovered.” He hastened through the hall, not waiting Wilhelm’s speech, who was preparing to inquire again with greater importunity about the leathern case. His anxiety to gain some tiding of his Amazon inspired him with confidence in Jarno: he disclosed his case to him, and begged his help. “You that know so many things,” said he, “can you not discover this?”

Jarno reflected for a moment, then turning to his friend: “Be calm,” said he, “give no one any hint of it: we shall come upon the fair one’s footsteps, never fear. At present, I am anxious only for Lothario: the case is dangerous; the kindliness and comfortable talking of the Doctor tells me so. We should be quit of Lydia; for here she does no good; but how to set about the task, I know not. Tonight I am looking for our old Physician; we shall then take farther counsel.”