Field of Science

Goethe and Hemingway: Quantified

Photo by Martin C. Eisenloeffel 
Welcome to the digital Weimar. The theme: linking art and science. How does art influence science? How does science influence art? Beauty, elegance, simplicity? Lets ask Goethe, Goethe, the last great polymath!

The Perimeter Institute's Quarks to the Cosmos festival presents Quantifying Goethe. Now experience simultaneously the Penderecki string quartet's quantum computer inspired music and an excerpt from Milan Kundera's Immortality chapter 17:

Strolling down a road in the other world, Hemingway saw a young man approaching him from a distance; he was elegantly dressed and held himself remarkably erect. As this dandy came closer, Hemingway could discern a slight, raffish smile on his face. When they were separated by just a few steps, the young man slowed his walk, as if he wanted to give Hemingway a last opportunity to recognize him.
    "Johann!" Hemingway exclaimed in surprise.
    Goethe smiled with satisfaction; he was proud that he head succeeded in producing such an excellent dramatic effect. Let's not forget that he had long been active as a theatrical director and had a sense of showmanship. He then took his friend by the arm (interestingly, even though he was now younger than Hemingway, he still behaved with the indulgence of the elderly) and took him on a leisurely walk.
    "Johann," said Hemingway, "today you look like a god." His friend's good looks caused him sincere joy, and he laughed happily: "Where did you leave you slippers? And that green eye shade? "And after he stopped laughing, he said, "That's how you should come to eternal trial. To crush the judges not with arguments but with you beauty!"
    "You know, I didn't say one single word at the eternal trial. Out of contempt.  But I couldn't keep myself from going there and listening to the proceedings. Now I regret it."
    "What do you want? You were condemned to immortality for the sin of writing books.  You explained it to me yourself."
    Goethe shrugged and said with some pride, "Perhaps our books are immortal, in a certain sense. Perhaps." He paused and then added softly, with great emphasis, "But we aren't."
    "Quite the contrary,"  Hemingway protested bitterly.  "Our books will probably soon stop being read. All that will remain of your Faust will be that idiotic opera by Gounod.  And maybe also that line about the eternal feminine pulling us somewhere or other..."
    "Das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan," recited Goethe.
    "Right. But people will never stop prying into your life, down to the smallest details."
    "Haven't you realized yet, Ernest, that figures they talk about have nothing to do with  us?"
    "Don't tell me, Johann, that you bear no relation to the Goethe about whom everybody writes and talks. I admit that the image that remained behind you is not entirely identical to you. I admit that it distorts you quite a bit. Still, you are present in it."
    "No, I'm not," Goethe said very firmly. "And I'll tell you something else. I am not even present in my books. He who doesn't exist cannot be present."
    "That's too philosophical for me."
    "Forget for a moment that you're an American and exercise your brain: he who doesn't exist cannot be resent. Is that so complicated? The instant I died I vanished from everywhere, totally. I even vanished from my books. Those books exist in the world without me. Nobody will ever find me in them. Because you cannot find someone who not exist."
    "I'd like to agree with you," said Hemingway, "but explain this to me: if the image you've left behind has nothing to do with you, why did you lavish so much care on it while you were still alive? Why did you invite Eckermann to join you? Why did you start writing Poetry and Truth?"
    "Ernest, resign yourself to the idea that I was as foolish as you. That obsession with one's own image, that's man's fatal immaturity. It is so difficult to be indifferent to one's image. Such indifference is beyond human strength. One becomes capable of it only after death. And even then it doesn't happen at once, but only a long time after death. You still haven't reached that point. You're still not mature. And yet you've been death... how long, actually?"
    "Twenty-seven years," said Hemingway.
    "That's nothing. You'll have to wait at least another twenty or thirty years before you become fully aware that man is mortal and be able to draw all the consequences from that realization. It won't happen any sooner. Just shortly before I died I declared that I felt such creative power within me, it was impossible for it to disappear without a trace. And of course I believed that I would live in the image I left behind me. Yes, I was just like you. Even after death it was hard to me to accept the idea that I no longer existed. You know, it's really very peculiar. To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn't know how to mortal. And when he dies, he doesn't even know how to be dead."
    "And do you know how to be dead, Johann?: asked Hemingway, in order to lighten the gravity of the moment. "Do you really believe that the best way to be dead is to waste time chatting with me?"
    "Don't make a fool of yourself, Ernest," said Goethe. "You know perfectly well that at this moment we are but the frivolous fantasy of a novelist who lets us say things we would probably never say on our own. But to conclude. Have you noticed my appearance today?"
    "Didn't I tell you the moment I set eyes on you? You look like a god!"
    "This is how I looked when all Germany considered me a pitiless seducer," Goethe said with an almost grandiose air. Then, moved, he added, "I wanted you to take me with you into your future years in precisely this way."
    "Hemingway looked at Goethe with sudden, gentle indulgence: "And you, Johann, how long have you lived since your death?"
    "One hundred and fifty-six," Goethe answered with some embarrassment.
    "And you still haven't learned how to be dead?"
    "Goethe smiled. "I know, Ernest. I've been behaving differently from what I've been telling you just a moment ago. But I permitted myself this childish vanity, because today we are seeing each other for the last time," And then, slowly, as one who would speak no more, he said these words: "You see, I have come to the definite conclusion that the eternal trial is bullshit. I have decided to make use of my death at least and, if I can express it with such an imprecise term, to go to sleep. To enjoy the delights of total nonexistence, which my great enemy Novalis used to say has a bluish color."
The entire Perimeter institute performance of Quantifying Goethe is shown below. The video above is an excerpt from the 29th minute.

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