No Comment, Quotation — January 23, 2012, 10:41 am

Lessing: In Praise of Laziness

Faulheit, jetzo will ich dir
Auch ein kleines Loblied bringen.—
O—wie—sau—er—wird es mir,—
Dich—nach Würden—zu besingen!
Doch, ich will mein Bestes tun,
Nach der Arbeit ist gut ruhn.
Höchstes Gut! wer dich nur hat,
Dessen ungestörtes Leben—
Ach!—ich—gähn’—ich—werde matt—
Nun—so—magst du—mir’s vergeben,
Daß ich dich nicht singen kann;
Du verhinderst mich ja dran.
Laziness, now I’ll sing you
A little song of praise,
Oh what a challenge it will be
To craft a song worthy of you
But I’ll do my best
For after work comes the soundest rest.
The highest good! He who possesses you
Will lead a life without annoyance
But I—yawn—I—tire—
So please forgive the fact that
I can’t sing your praise;
You, after all, hinder me in the process.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Lob der Faulheit (1747), reproduced in Werke, vol. 1, p. 77-78 (G. Göpfert ed. 1970)(S.H. transl.)

One of the key aspects of Lessing’s voluminous writings on literature and literary esthetics is the relationship between Witz, Humor and Genie—three concepts that can be rendered by their English cognates, wit, humor, and genius (though only in the second case is the English word really coterminous with the German). In general, Lessing valued the English tradition for its development of a kind of humor distinct from the then-prevailing French tradition of ridicule. The English approach reflected a genuinely humanist tradition with foundations in antiquity; in this context, Lessing repeatedly cited a passage from Pindar: “????? ? ????? ????? ???: ???????? ?? ?????? ??????????, ??????? ??” (“Wise is he who knows things through himself”).Olympian Ode 2.86 Humor is fundamentally valid when it helps us appreciate the human condition by laughing at ourselves, or at a foible or shortcoming common to us as human beings. Humor that stings like a wasp, denigrating or humiliating another, is often false and likely to lead one morally astray.

This innocent, simple poem is a solid, lighthearted demonstration of Lessing’s principle, and a reminder, much like the works of Mozart, that the lighthearted, self-deprecating aside that aims for a simple chuckle may well be linked to serious genius, whereas a mocking, venomous, ill-spirited attack rarely is.

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Listen to a setting of the poem by Franz Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XXVIa) (1781), performed by Rüdiger Buell, with Ulrike Zeitler on the piano:

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