Letters and diaries: Meetings of great minds throughout history

Momentous meetings of our times
July 15, 2020

Beethoven and Goethe meet in the summer at the fashionable Bohemian spa of Teplice. The composer was then 41, the poet 62. Beethoven later reported: “How patient the great man was with me! How happy he made me then! I would have gone to death, yes, ten times to death for Goethe.”

Goethe wrote to his wife: “I have never met an artist so self-contained, so energetic and so fervent.” But shortly after he wrote to a friend noting: “His talent astounded me; nevertheless, he unfortunately has an utterly untamed personality, not completely wrong in thinking the world detestable, but hardly making it more pleasant for himself or others by his attitude. Yet he must be shown forgiveness and compassion, for he is losing his hearing, something that affects the musical part of his nature less than the social.”


Ludwig Wittgenstein, aged 22, arrives in Cambridge to study philosophy under Bertrand Russell, aged 39: Within weeks Russell had decided that Wittgenstein was a genius: “Some of his early views made the decision difficult. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: ‘There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.’ When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.”

Wittgenstein, for his part, later told his friend David Pinsent that Russell’s encouragement had proved his salvation, and ended nine years of loneliness and suffering, during which he had continually thought of suicide.


Salvador Dalí, aged 34, visits Sigmund Freud, 82, in Hampstead, London: Shortly after his flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Dalí sketches Freud’s portrait. Dalí had been a fervent admirer since 1922 after reading The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud exclaimed: “That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder they have civil war in Spain if they look like that.”

Dalí recalled the meeting as one of the most important experiences of his life. Whenever he could, he boasted that he had obliged the founder of psychoanalysis to reconsider his entire view of surrealism.