Goethe said, amongst many other clever things during his lifetime that “we are shaped and fashioned by what we love”. Like all other statements which reinforce the idea that we are captains of our own destiny, there is an onerous, if not a frightening, edge to this statement: one must take responsibility for one’s own actions. If you are spending hours of every week in a vegetative state in front of the TV or wasting away hours scrolling through celebrity tweets – well, then that waste of time is no-one’s fault but your own, and is certainly not to be laid at the door of a tawdry, celebrity-obsessed culture or the crippling power of modern media to keep you enslaved. As I said, Goethe’s statement is onerous, if only because it robs us of such comfortable scapegoats.
Goethe’s point can be mightily empowering, if embraced in the right way. A prime example of someone latching on to this sentiment is Jay-Z. In his 2010 memoir Decoded, Jay-Z says of his formative years that he and his fellows “were kids without fathers … so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves … Our fathers were gone but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
Thus Goethe’s maxim became for Jay-Z an enormously potent means of overcoming all of sorts of familial and societal narratives which would otherwise keep the nascent rapper down. He forged his own narrative and, in his own words, inspired the world he was to make for himself through a conscious adoption of that which he would love. As a strategy for living well, it hasn’t served him so badly.
Fionnuala Barrett is a freelance writer who blogs at http://basilexposition.wordpress.com/