Charakter and Typus

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The Slender Sadness and Other Truths

In 1907 the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck wrote an essay called “Charakter and Typus” where he said, “Goethe’s short poems have a strange ring to them. They are entirely impersonal; in fact, you could say of them that they are not created by a person, but by nature. In them a person is not seen as an ‘I,’ but as a part of something else.”

Groddeck was distinguishing between poets who bring “news of the human mind” and poets who bring “news of the universe,” which is the title Robert Bly would adopt for his anthology of poets who write not so much like Narcissus, but like poets aware of their inconsequential place in the universe.

And talk about going against the tide! Groddeck even dares criticize Shakespeare. Why? For the Bard’s strength is his incisive commentary on the human animal, one that seemingly acts and lives and dies among other humans with little regard or mention of the natural world around him.

“Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible, at least not in the way Shakespeare and Beethoven go about it…. The only poet who could make anything out of it is a man who sees in human beings a part of the universe, for whom human nature is interesting not because it is human, but because it is nature.”

Bly quotes a short Goethe poem here, one where a man gets “the news” that counts:


Wanderers Nachtlied II
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

There is a stillness
On the tops of the hills.
In the tree tops
You feel
Hardly a breath of air.
The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon
You too will be silent


Bly goes on to write in greater depth about nature and writers / poets who make it their muse:

“The psychic tone of nature strikes many people as having some melancholy in it. The tone of nature is related to what human beings call ‘grief,’ what Lucretius called ‘the tears of things,’ what in Japanese poetry is called mono no aware, the slender sadness with the incessant wheel of of reproduction, going on without pause.”

As an example of a poet understanding nature’s predominant role in human life, Bly cites Yeats:


W. B. Yeats


Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died.
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.


Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Ninevah.


As Bly explains, “When Yeats says, ‘Locke sank into a swoon,’ he is summing up sixty years of experience during the Industrial Revolution, in which the inventiveness of human beings seemed a prophecy finally come true.”

As a metaphor for human mastery over nature, Bly goes to William Irwin Thompson, who pointed out the Crystal Palace built in 1851: “… in this palace, for the first time in history, steel beams were used, with glass, to enclose living trees. That was a great triumph for the Old Position, because it said that human consciousness, now intensified and narrowed into ‘technology,’ had succeeded in its ancient war with the consciousness of nature, and won.”

And this is where we are today, Bly says. A land that brought us Augustine, the railroad and airplanes, the Nuremberg rallies, doctors’ “war on death.” Bly calls it “Locke’s dizzy spell.”

“To feel the contrast between our contemporary experience when we look at an object or a hillside, and the experience that is possible when an ‘opened’ human being does that, we have to go far back into the past of the human race.”

For Bly, Yeats’ second stanza in “Fragments” does just that, in the name of truth.