Tag Archives: Egmont

Goethe & Schiller Bromance: Egmont & Don Carlos

Two fisted play reading today–Goethe.s Egmont in my left hand and Schiller.s Don Carlos in my right hand! Who would have thought? It.s a strange coincidence that brings them together. I.m writing on psychological errors or slips that lead to unexpected outcomes in Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward on the Tragic Stage (at least that.s the name of the book today, the title changes daily!). It so happens that Posa.s slip and Alba.s slip had been classified together as the type of error that results when we use the ‘if I were you, I would do this’ mental construction. What happens is that Posa thinks he understand Carlos because ‘if I were Carlos, surely I would do this…’ and Alba thinks he understands Orange because ‘if I were Orange, surely I would do this…’.  Of course, Carlos and Orange both behave contrary to expectation because Posa is not Carlos and Alba is not Orange. And so Posa and Alba.s strategy turns into tragedy. But that.s not what I.d like to share with you, diligent reader today. What I.d like to share is the striking similarity of subject and perspective in Egmont and Don Carlos. It really is striking. I hit myself for never noticing it before. But sometimes, it.s hard to raise things above the conscious threshold unless it.s really right there in front of your nose. Which is–by good ol’ good luck–the case today.

You may know that Goethe and Schiller were the best of friends. A bromance of genius. Not only that, it was an artistically fruitful union. They exchanged notes and encouraged one another. They were also joint editors of a literary journal founded by Schiller, Die Horen. Contributors included Schlegel, Herder, and the von Humboldt brothers. They corresponded with quite an exalted crowd. Lots was going on. So, at first, I had thought that the parallels between Egmont and Don Carlos were naturally due to their many discussions and correspondences. Wrong. Schiller premiered Don Carlos in 1787 and Goethe finished Egmont the following year. It was only after Goethe had finished Egmont that they met for the first time. And it would have to wait to the next decade before they would begin their friendship in earnest. It.s sure inconvenient when the data undermines our expectations, isn.t it? But, one can see from the parallels why they would become friends. So, ‘what are the parallels’, you ask? Well, dear reader, here they are!

First there is the subject matter. The Beeldenstorm or Iconoclastic Fury was raging through the Low Countries. Here.s what it looked like:



Kreuz_von_stadelhofenThe Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Protestants–and, if riots were anything like the ones today, trouble making bums–were going around abusing Catholic images and ransacking cathedrals. This did not please Philip II of Spain, who was bringing together the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This is the point of contact between the two plays. While Don Carlos ends on the April day before Alba is dispatched to quell the Beeldenstorm raging through the Low Countries, by a happy coincidence Egmont begins with Alba fast approaching Brussels on an August morning.

The brotherhood of man, the price the oppressor pays to maintain the status quo, and the price the liberator pays to lift off the oppressive yoke: both playwrights use the Beeldenstorm as a launching point into similar themes. Not only that, they achieve a unity of thought. There is a dawning brotherhood of man that transcends religion and nationality, even though its moment only arrives the day after tomorrow: the old guard represented by Philip in Don Carlos and Alba in Egmont yet rail against the dying light. There is also a price that the oppressor must pay to maintain the status quo, and that price is the bond between the father, steeped in tradition, and the son, who feels the animal spirits of innovation. In Don Carlos, father sacrifices son to the Inquisition. In Egmont, Alba triumphs over Egmont, but not before Egmont passes the torch of Enlightenment onto Ferdinand, Alba.s son. Finally, there is in both plays a bittersweet ending for the heroes who die in uncertainty of the outcome and are only vouchsafed a posthumous day of celebration. How.s that for uncanny parallels in two independently written plays which were concurrently written?

I wonder how much their similar worldviews, or, I should say rather, Weltanschauungen, contributed to their friendship? It.s good that it did, because, if I remember correctly, it was Schiller who prodded Goethe to take up and finish the monumental second part of Faust. Goethe had relegated the work to the scraps bin because, well, it was just too monumental: the marriage of Classicism and Romanticism, the journey of a man over an entire life, the struggle for redemption. And, of course, the almighty and all mystical Ewig-Weibliche or eternal-feminine that is called to save Faust at the last second. Just thinking about how dedicated Goethe and Schiller were to Doing Melpomene.s Work gives me the goosebumps. Remember, Goethe was also a full-time politician and scientist as well! So with that thought, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am doing my part in Doing Melpomene.s Work.


Do you believe in synchronicity? You call an old friend the same moment he picks up the phone to call you. Or you publish a paper on some arcane topic and find out a colleague halfway around the world has come up with the same idea independently and at the same time. Or you.re walking on the beach, reminiscing on your childhood dog: it would have been her birthday. Just at that moment, another dog comes bounding towards you as if you were old chums, same breed. You ask the owner the dog.s name and find out the name.s the same as well. Synchronicities are meaningful coincidences. Or coincidences so striking that they break the brain in thinking about them.

Diligent readers will remember the blog yesterday about the Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa Goldberg Variations concert. During the after concert question period with the artist, there was an extended discussion of Glenn Gould.s interpretations of this work. Well, how long has it been since Gould.s captured the headlines?–lo and behold he did it this morning on Yahoo Finance:

How Apple and Its Products are Inspired by Canadian Great Glenn Gould

What are the chances of that–that I would hear a talk on Gould and see him on the next day.s headline? Hard to say. But it feels almost as though the coincidence is meaningful. Sort of in the same way dreams feel meaningful. You feel it but it.s hard to put your finger on the significance.

Today was a big day for synchronicity. It.s almost as though one leads to another. Before the concert, I had gone running with my friend LH. We.re in training for the TC10K. The route takes us along the Gorge Waterway by the bridge over the Gorge Narrows. LH was saying there had been a big commotion there in the last few days: a fellow had jumped off the bridge and was floating face down. The firemen had sent a whole brigade down there and succeeded in reviving him. It.s speculated alcohol and a broken heart may have played a role. Well today, I was reading Goethe.s Egmont. In that play, Clara ditches Brackenburg for Egmont (I can see why, Brackenburg.s a doting sort of ninny). Brackenburg.s reaction to being dumped, however, caught my attention: he thinks to throw himself in the water and to sink face down. I imagined that maybe it was the tragedy of Brackenburg playing out again. Only not in Brussels but on the Gorge hundred of years later in some sort of eternal return.

Tillicum02Gorge Narrows

I.m the last person that would believe in mystical crap. The only thing I believe in is in doing Melpomene.s work. But the idea of synchronicity is fascinating. I had been introduced to it at the right age. When I was seventeen, EA.s father lent me a copy of Jung.s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. It was Jung that came up with the idea. He collaborated with Wolfgang Pauli of quantum mechanics fame (ie the Pauli Exclusion Principle) so there is some scientific credence. But of course scientists look more towards Littlewood.s Law than synchronicity to explain coincidental events. Here.s how Jung described synchronicity:

All natural phenomena of this kind [eg exceedingly rare coincidences] are unique and exceedingly curious combinations of chance, held together by the common meaning of their parts to form an unmistakable whole. Although meaningful coincidences are infinitely varied in their phenomenology, as causal events they nevertheless form an element that is part of the scientific picture of the world. Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events. Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge has so far been unable to reduce to a common principle.

Now the thing about Jung is that he.s a damn fine writer. I.m one of those people who cares less  about fact and is more persuaded by style. Shoot me. But, mystical crap aside, couldn.t the world be organized around the mind in some sort of meaningful way where synchronicity is possible? After all, science tells us that to break down a quantum state (Schrodinger.s Cat or wave/particle duality) a conscious observer is required. If a conscious observer can ‘do’ something to the world by the act of observation, couldn.t some of these ‘coincidences’ be ascribed to the echoes of consciousness? Okay, sorry, that was off the deep end!

But one thing is for a certainty. By watching out for synchronicity, the wonder and mystery of being alive are increased when we think we have seen it. We do not live in a universe which feels neither obligation or compulsion to us. And that today is good enough.

Do you believe in synchronicity? Or what do you believe? Littlewood.s Law perhaps? But what fun is that?