I cannot say too often how very fortunate and blessed I am to have had wonderful parents. My father, the excellent educator that he was, often read to my sister and me appropriate works he considered important for a child to hear and to discuss. One of these was Der Zauberlehrling by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in all probability the greatest German writer and poet of all times. The poem’s English translation is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” A film version of the poem was made by Walt Disney and may have appeared in the Hollywood film Fantasia many years ago. The text of the poem both in German and English is available through Google and I recommend you read it.
Short summary of the poem: The sorcerer leaves his house. His apprentice (notice the same word as in the recent TV show The Apprentice, created by Donald Trump), is now in charge. This being a fine opportunity to test his learned mastery of the trade, he wastes no time to do so. Wishing to take a bath in absence of his master, he uses a magic formula to transform an old broom into a servant with head, arms and legs, and bids the broom to fetch water from a nearby stream and pour it into the tub. No faster said than done. The broom does its work but, alas, only too well. Without stopping, more and more water arrives, fills not only the tub but all containers and when these are filled the water overflows into the house. With no end in sight to the ever increasing inundation, and various attempts to stop the broom, the helpless and desperate apprentice takes an ax and cuts the broom in half to make an end to the disaster. Alas, to his horror, there are now two broom-servants and the action is multiplied. Unsuccessfully, he tries to recall the magical formula that is needed to undo his sorcery run amok. Screaming for the return of his master, the latter arrives. With the simple words, “Into the corner, broom, broom; be what you were before!” the disaster stops.
As is the case with ancient poems and ballads or even children’s rhymes such as for instance with “Humpty, Dumpty” by Mother Goose, the innocent sounding lines carry a political message.
Because I am fascinated by analogies, this poem speaks to me with regard to our political situation today. The poem warns against overestimation of self which we encounter in the daily tweets of our president. The transparency of these tweets points to the man’s egomania and megalomania which might very well stem from his insecurity and his constant need to be reassured that he truly is “the stable genius” he has called himself. The poem suggests a situation where a person summons helpers to be his allies whom often he is unable to control which is especially true in the field of politics.
Goethe, the poem’s creator, also points to the danger of humanity’s illusion that power is stronger than wisdom and that one’s intoxication with power leads to out of control situations and chaos. The poem further suggests that return to the original order can save the chaotic situation that leads to disaster.
Can we learn anything from this poem? I think we can, perhaps with another analogy. I just learned that a sinkhole developed on the grounds next to the White House. Might this not suggest that now would be a good time for the “swamp” next doors to be “drained,” an expression coined by Mr. Trump. A self-fulfilling prophecy by our president?