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

Lessing: In Praise of Laziness

olddozin
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.

Remembering Gotthold Ephraim Lessing on his 283rd birthday.


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

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn
Article
A Goose in a Dress·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Through Itself is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult.”
Illustration by Steinman and Tear

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today