Is this a real quote?

Few people have the imagination for reality

I have seen it attributed to Goethe in 1815, but I cannot find the source..


1 Answer 1


The earliest appearance of this quote that I can find is here:

For a short while she [Diane Arbus] studied with Berenice Abbott, who photographed New York and James Joyce and collected [Eugène] Atget. Abbott thought photography was the ultimate art form of the twentieth century because it demands speed and science, and she was fond of quoting Goethe: “Few people have the imagination for reality.

Patricia Bosworth (1984). Diana Arbus: A Biography, p. 67. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The quote does not seem to come from any translation of Goethe, nor does it resemble Goethe’s style, but possibly it is Abbott’s own paraphrase or summary of a passage by Goethe. It has something of the flavour of maxim number 592:

Es gehört eine eigene Geisteswendung dazu, um das gestaltlose Wirkliche in seiner eigensten Art zu fassen und es von Hirngespinnsten zu unterscheiden, die sich denn auch mit einer gewissen Wirklichkeit lebhaft aufdringen.

It takes a special turn of mind to grasp formless reality in its essential nature and to distinguish it from the figments of the imagination which, all the same, thrust themselves urgently on our attention with a certain semblance of reality.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1907). Maximen und Reflexionen, p. 128. Weimar: Verlag der Goethe-Gesellschaft. Translated by Elisabeth Stopp (1998). Maxims and Reflections, p. 84. Penguin.

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