Thursday, April 15, 2010

Two—At Least

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen;
Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,
Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;
Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
One wills to part, to rid itself, to cleave;
One would hold fast with savage love-lust
To the world with gripping hard organic force;
The other hoists itself by power from the dust
To the domains of higher ancestors.
    Goethe, Faust, Act I.

In my generation certainly—and I assume continuing to this day—that first sentence from this part of Goethe’s Faust—has served as a kind of marker in the lives of most thoughtful people who grew up in a German culture. The two souls within our breast are a matter of experience. Then as the years roll on and different ranges of experience mold us, we become aware of even more layering within. We discover more personae within ourselves, each the product of structures of experience that can be differentiated.

This came to mind today when, troubled by an article in the New York Times, I let myself comment on it without the usual restraints. To be sure, awareness of our various persons is better than ignorance. Attempts to force the self to express itself in a single mode is a kind of violence to nature. I’m well aware that I’m quite attached to many things that, from another perspective, I can view with equanimity—and that that attachment in itself, if it is permitted expression, can serve as a kind of teacher. But my own awareness of these differences causes me to put my thoughts on three different blogs, each with its own boundaries.

Needless to say, multiple personalities suggest a lack of integration. Here I turn to another great poet and storyteller for an appropriate image to sum up how to handle many selves each having its domain, its passions and its interests. I turn to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings:

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

If we change the context here from the Darkness to the Light, the solution to the problem comes. There is one Ring that rules, and being aware of it—and its relation to the others—produces integration in the whole while leaving each other ring to rule in its own realm.

The translation of Goethe’s verse is mine.


  1. Oh, yes, this is well done.

    I'll never read or hear those lines from the Lord of the Rings again without remembering this optimistic take on the theme!