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No. 899:
Linger a While . . .

Today, I meet the engine that drove 19th-century technology. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Today, two old threads of my life finally wove together, and I learned something about post-Industrial-Revolution technology.

The first thread was a line from a WW-II movie where the hero quoted Goethe to the heroine: "Linger a while, thou art so fair." I found the line strangely compelling. I never forgot it.

The second thread arose when I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, back in 1980. I'd just been offered my job here in Houston. It was going to be a good job, but I couldn't bear leaving Kentucky.

Then, one magical evening, my dog and I walked out through the University farm behind our house. The dog ran through the high grass. Fireflies were out. Waves of firefly light rippled outward -- as far as the eye could see. It was a night of such perfect crystalline beauty as to melt your heart.

And in that moment, I knew I would accept the Houston job.

Is that a crowning piece of illogic? Well, today I found the full text of the Goethe quotation. It explained at last what'd happened on that surrealistically lovely night in Kentucky.

Faust uttered the line while he negotiated with the Devil. You see, Faust didn't strike a bargain with the Devil, he made a bet. Faust bet that he could never be lured into settling down on any Earthly pleasure -- that his spirit would remain restless.

The Devil agreed to the bet, and Faust spoke:

When I say to the Moment flying;
'Linger a while -- thou art so fair!'
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
And my final ruin I will bear!

Goethe was a Romantic poet, and this was a primary Romantic sentiment. A driving restlessness is the mainspring of the creative person. Faust hurls his challenge at Satan: "When did the likes of you ever understand a human soul in its supreme endeavor?"

Goethe spent 41 years, on and off, writing Faust -- 1790 to 1831. During those same years, Watt's engines marched out of England and transformed the world. All the while the Romantic poets told us we had the intellectual power to shape nature. "I will not rest from mental fight," cried William Blake.

So, when I faced overwhelming contentment that night in Kentucky, I knew on some visceral level that I had to turn my back on it. So, in 1817, four American engineers who'd never seen a canal began building the almost 400-mile Erie Canal. So, in 1825, Marc Brunel began an unheard-of tunnel under the Thames River.

And here was the engine behind all that -- Romantic discontent with anything but a world being rebuilt over and over in the human heart -- Faust raging at Satan that he would never say to any rare and perfect moment, "Linger a while, thou art so fair."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Katz, B.M., Technology and Culture: A Historical Romance, Stanford. CA: The Portable Stanford Book Series, 1990, See especially, pp. 100-101.

There are countless translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust available. Check your library. My translation of the four lines is a compromise among several versions. I'm grateful to James Pipkin for valuable counsel on this episode and to Tom McConn for drawing my attention to the Katz source. The original German text of the Goethe quotation goes:

Werd' ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zu Grunde gehn ...

Different scholars use the word Romantic in different ways. Some experts in German literature might not accept Faust as part of the Romantic movement. I've used the word Romantic in the more general way that many English scholars use it.