Guests and Keys

There is a poem that like an Escher drawing that seems to wrap in and out of itself indefinitely: Der Schlüssel by Goethe and Schiller, in Die Xenien: Willst du dich selber erkennen, so sieh, wie die Andern es treiben. Willst du dich Andern verstehn, blick in dein eigenes Herz. "If you are to come to know yourself, you see, how others carry on. If you are to understand others, gaze into your own heart." This poem is called, "The Key." I have been thinking today about the strangeness of people who are otherwise "intellectuals" and "sentient" beings who erect walls of their own making in judgement of what they see. How many amputees are among us, with hearts - the key to circulation, to different modes of knowing - sawed off in a wakeling box. Who is the Houdini who could relocate and turn that key - to pump through the Escher-like drawing of Der Schlüssel.
Of course, the poem was written for its own ends, in its own context - inspired by other poems, in turn, written for their own context: Martials's Xenia, based on a satirical tradition of Saturnalia. His epigrams poke fun at the consumerism and carnivalesque that marked the sign of his times (which he was dismayed with: his parents sacrificed to afford him a good education, unprofitable at that time; as he earned his keep by writing, he bowed to trend). His poems, too, Rimell argues, were up for consumption.
Thence, the poet and the marketplace. But what Goethe and Schiller were doing was different; taking the lead to attack their detractors. There is no modesty in Die Xenien: Der letzte Märtyrer begins something like, "Also you really cook me, like Hus perhaps, but truly!" Jan Hus was a 15th C. Czech priest who in more modern times has been viewed as a figure of national self-determination, seeking a national democratic church in the then Bohemia. So here are Goethe and Schiller "perhaps" comparing themselves to a church-figure who had been burned at the stake.
But then, Goethe is associated with the beginnings of world literature, writing about Weltliteratur in several essays - he was seeking the universal. He was seeking a far larger key than most people, who, stuck in their wakeling boxes as they are, can barely see the key to their own door. While Goethe was not burned at the stake, there are still many cultures that view him as their patron; certainly, world literature owes to him a great debt. The little countries often wait for validation from the far larger Outside.
And here we may come to the true meaning of ξενία or xenia: the courtesy shown to those who are far from home, or being hosted. I was also thinking today about an older couple I know who even in the hardest of times opened their doors to people from all walks of life, including adversaries. This is rather different from the satirical approach in Goethe's and Schiller's poems. Kenning the keys to ksenia, if we can afford any in the wakeling heart...





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