The BOOKPRESS September 1999

Green Goethe

Steve Chapman

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1729. To mark the anniversary of his birth, Germany has declared this the "year of Goethe," and Weimar, where Goethe lived most of his life, has been named European City of Culture for 1999.

It’s tough to say anything at all about Goethe nowadays, even on the 250th anniversary of his birth. The problem is that Goethe has long since been monumentalized, institutionalized, petrified—but at the same time fragmented and dispersed. Transformed into a cultural commodity, his literary estates have been subdivided into so many private fiefdoms. Goethe, who always thought of himself as a whole man, has been so torn asunder, so partitioned and dismembered, that it is difficult to grasp the original fullness of his personality, let alone master the mass of secondary literature which continues to sprout up around his name.

Even as the European Union is celebrating the official version of Goethe and of the Goethe Period (Die Goethezeit) by elevating Weimar to the status of European Culture City for 1999, restoring old buildings and so forth, it is hard to deny that Goethe remains largely misunderstood and misinterpreted, and that an alternative reading is now more than ever needful.

The portrait of the "Green Goethe" I propose to sketch in this essay is premised on the claim that Goethe was one of the most radical and revolutionary thinkers in the history of Western thought, and the first thinker whose thinking can properly be called "ecological." Combining poetry, science and spirituality, Goethe fashioned something like the type and prototype of an integrated ecological worldview. To press the claim further, I suggest that Goethe is important to contemporary concerns because the kind of thinking about nature which he expressed in his philosophical reflections, in his scientific writings, and in his poetry, is precisely the kind of thinking which will be necessary if Western civilization (now world civilization) is to move towards a more harmonious interaction with the Earth. This year’s anniversary, falling as it does on the threshold of the new millennium, can thus be seen not as a timeless proclamation, but as a timely reminder that alternative ways of thinking can be found within the West’s own cultural resources.

The idea of nature is the fertile ground of Goethe’s creative personality, and provides a useful thread by which we can enter into his poetic universe. Goethe’s poetry is informed from the beginning by an intuition or apprehension of nature. In the early Goethe, physis seems to swell up into a kind of spontaneous poiesis. As Goethe wrote in Book XVI of Poetry and Truth: "I came to regard my indwelling poetic talent altogether as nature’s, the more so as I had chiefly directed it to outer nature as its subject." Or as Albert Schweitzer, one of Goethe’s keenest critics, has observed: "United to Nature in the most intimate fashion, Goethe is creative after the fashion of Nature."

Goethe possessed a deep sense of the creative power dwelling at the heart of nature, which he identified as the power and source behind his own poetry. The early poems especially testify to an intense imaginative engagement with the natural world, and to the creative symbiosis which occurs between the poetic imagination and natural processes. Nature is alive to him in those early years as a living presence and source of unending inspiration.

The "May Song," usually taken to be inspired by Goethe’s youthful passion for Friederike Brion, is I believe more correctly interpreted as a testimony of his passion for nature and as an exploration of what may be called "cosmic eroticism." It is the mark of a strong poet to take the most hackneyed of themes (such as love in springtime) and render it with a refreshing urgency and authenticity. In "May Song," the poet’s address to his lady is rescued from banality by the projection of love as a cosmic force. The poem is less a celebration of human sexual desire (though that’s there too) as of the bonds of interconnection between human beings and the rest of the physical world.

The opening couplet already establishes the theme of the poem as the interaction between the speaking subject and his natural surroundings, linking in typical lyrical fashion the poet’s thoughts of love with his impressions of nature:

Wie herrlich leuchtet
Mir die Natur!
Wie glanzt die Sonne
Wie lacht die Flur

How wonderfully
Nature shines to me
How the sun gleams!
How the flowers laugh!

Goethe’s use of the verb "shines" ("leuchtet") emphasizes here the epiphanic character of nature’s revelation, while the succeeding enjambment to the personal pronoun "shines/to me" ("leuchtet/mir") stresses the interface between objective reality and subjective apprehension. Already in the opening stanza, it is clear that more is going on than mere romantic effusiveness.

This movement from the personal and subjective to the cosmological and inter-subjective is carried one step further in the following stanza:

O Lieb, o Liebe!
So golden schön
Wie Morgenwolken
Aufjenen Höhn!

O Love! O Love!
In golden beauty crowned,
As beautiful as the morning clouds
Rising on the hills beyond.

Is it reading too much into this poem to sense behind this personification of Love ("Liebe") a much older deity: Eros, venerated in Orphic cosmologies as the first born of all creatures and as the primary vital force of the universe? The powerful image of the morning clouds glowing in the radiant light of dawn would seem to support such a reading. In sympathy with his own affections, the beauty of nature appears to the poet as the revelation of a cosmic erotic force, revealed in such epiphanies as the rising sun.

Similarly in the next stanza, after a commonplace declaration ("My lovely girl/I love you so"), the poet enumerates a series of "objective correlatives" (Eliot’s term) drawn from the natural world:

So liebt die Lerche
Gesang und Lust,
Und Morgenblumen
Den Himmelsduft,

Just so the lark
Loves song and air;
And morning flowers
The heavenly dew.

Such attributes are not so much "anthropomorphic fallacies" as intuitions of the sensual-erotic interconnections pervading the universe. While still very early—still very much Sturm und Drang—"May Song" is a precocious poem in which the major themes of Goethe’s mature poetry are already present: the validation of earthly love as a positive life-affirming force, the connection between the life of the emotions and the life of nature, and the veneration of the cosmic Eros whose influence extends through the entire universe.

While Goethe’s love of nature is apparent from his earliest poems, it was his encounter with Spinoza which decisively turned him away from a Christian metaphysical perspective to a worldview which can be described as both pagan and pantheist. In the "Prometheus" fragment, Goethe appropriated the theme of the Titan’s revolt against Zeus to illustrate his own rejection of false transcendence (bad infinities, false metaphysical constructions of God, etc.) in favor of a philosophical and religious position of this-worldly immanence.

Capitalizing on the metaphysical implications of the theme of the Titan’s revolt, the poem combines modern myth-making with metaphysical speculation. Written in 1773 (the same year as Rousseau’s Emil and just after Goethe’s first encounter with Spinoza), "Prometheus" is an epoch-defining poem, signaling a dramatic shift in philosophical outlook from a theistic-transcendent worldview to one in which an organic relation to nature prevails.

After Prometheus has finished hurling invective at Zeus, his Olympian persecutor, he finds solace in pointing to the steadfastness of the Earth.

Musst mir meine Erde
Doch lassen stehen

You must still leave me
My solid earth.

Such faith in the steadfastness of the Earth is of course a very pagan point of view. The Prometheus myth is concerned in particular with Prometheus’ status as benefactor/creator of humankind, his prophetic knowledge (etymologically, "Prometheus" means "fore-seeing") of the limits of Zeus’ reign, and the terrible punishment inflicted on him—chained to a mountain crag, Zeus’ eagles eat at his livers, which grow back every day. The crux of the myth is that Prometheus is punished for being a friend to man (Aeschylus calls him a "philanthropos") as well as having prophetic knowledge relating to the limit of the gods’ powers.

While most Classical sources resolve this issue in terms of some sort of reconciliation, Goethe appropriates the theme to signal his own revolt against any metaphysical notion of God in favor of an earth-centered and human-centered spirituality. Inspired by his recent reading of Spinoza, Goethe’s Prometheus rejects the patriarchal principle of an all-powerful Father God while embracing the image of Earth as a nurturing mother. For Goethe, as for the earliest Greeks, Earth is Gaia, mother of all things (humans, titans, gods), whose steadfastness and irrefutable presence stands as the best argument against metaphysics.

In the second stanza, Prometheus launches a direct assault on the notion of a transcendent upper world:

Ich kenne nichts Armeres
Unter der Sonn, als euch, Götter!

I know of nothing more wretched
Under the sun than you, gods!

Using Prometheus as his spokesman, Goethe seems to be proclaiming here the possibility of a better kind of religion—a religion of attachment to the Earth. Prometheus’ criticism of the gods is in fact nicely balanced by a moving tribute to human emotions and human experiences, whether laughing or crying or simply sitting by the fire to warm one’s hands.

The poem concludes with a celebration of artistic creativity. In the myth—as recounted by Hesiod and Aeschylus—Prometheus created humans and gave them the gift of fire (as well as speech). In Goethe’s poem there is a particular emphasis on the notion of Prometheus as an artist, creating beings who will share the common experience of mortality and care little about the gods:

Hier sitz ich, forme Menschen
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, dass mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, zu weinen,
Zu geniessen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nicht zu achten
Wie ich!

Here I sit, creating men,
According to my image:
A race like me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and be happy,
And not to fret about you
Just like me!

The poem leaves us with a worldview which is essentially pagan, in which human beings are destined to live fulfilling lives here on this earth or not at all, and in which traditional notions of the Godhead are for the most part irrelevant.

Unlike Spinoza’s pantheism, which tended to be cold and cerebral, Goethe’s paganism overflows with life, based as much on intuition and imagination as on logic. What is lacking in Spinoza’s pantheistic system is an appreciation of the part of the imagination, or of the various modes of (inter-) relationship between mind and nature. Goethe takes an important step beyond Spinoza in pursuing the imaginative implications and creative possibilities opened up by non-dualism, and by re-centering the thinking subject as part and parcel of the natural world. This belief in the unity of mind and nature within a kind of reciprocal correspondence is the defining characteristic of Goethe’s poetics of the organic imagination.

In "Ganymede," one of Goethe’s most successful exploits in modern mythmaking, the tale of Zeus’ rape of the beautiful youth is reinterpreted as an allegory of the interpenetration of mind and nature in the moment of visionary insight ("Anschauung"). The poem begins, much like "May Song," with the hackneyed theme of love in springtime. But here, rather than sexual love leading to love of nature, it is the love of nature which becomes increasingly sexualized.

We hear the voice of Ganymede, the good-looking shepherd boy strolling over the hills in the morning sunshine, ecstatically praising nature’s unending beauty and power:

Wie im Morgenglanze
Du rings mich angluhst,

Frühling, Geliebter,
Mit tausendfacher Liebeswonne
Sich an mein Herz drängt
Deiner ewigen Warme
Heilig Gefülhl,
Unendliche Schone!

Dass ich dich fassen m’öcht
In diesen Arm!
Ach an deinem Busen
Lieg ich, schmachte,
Und deine Blumen, dein Gras
Dr’ängen sich an mein Herz.
Du kühlst den brennenden
Durst meines Busens,
Lieblicher Morgenwind!
Ruft drein die Nachtigall
Liebend nach mir aus dem Nebeltal.

In the morning radiance
How you glow around me
Beloved Springtime!
With thousandfold joy of love
Your eternal warmth
Presses into my heart.
Holy feeling,
Infinite beauty!

O that I might grasp you
In these my arms!
But here I lie,
Languishing on your breast,
While your flowers, your grass
Press themselves against my heart.
You cool my bosom’s burning thirst
Beloved morning breeze!
While from the misty valley
The nightingale calls to me full of love.

The opening metaphors which Ganymede uses to suggest the warmth of spring are innocent enough, but they quickly assume more explicit erotic intonations, rendered in such phrases as "joys of love" and "holy feeling."

The language becomes increasingly sexualized in the second stanza until the speaker is shown "languishing" on nature’s breast while the natural world of flowers and grass "presses" itself into his heart. Here, Goethe takes the "nature as lover" theme and pushes it even further, using the erotic background of the myth to cast light on the sexual overtones of the nature lover’s self abandonment.

The third stanza carries the erotic implications of this encounter to even greater extremes, playing up the sexual elements of the myth and culminating in a consummation in which Ganymede practically dissolves into the arms of the "all-loving Father":

Ich komm, ich komme!
Wohin? Ach, wohin?
Hinauf! Hinauf stebsts
Es schweben die Wolken
Abwärts, die Wolken
Neigen sich den sehnenden Liebe.
Mir! Mir! In euerm Schosse
Unfangend umfangen!
Aufwärts an deinen Busen,
Alliebender Vater!

I’m coming! I’m coming!
But where? But where?
Up, I’m driven, up.
Down descend the clouds,
Hearkening to my yearning:
Me! Me!
In your lap
Embracing and embraced!
Upwards to your bosom,
All-loving Father!

In this racy stanza, with its impetuous language and mounting sense of both verbal and sexual excitement, Goethe uses the idea of the encounter with the god to denote a kind of naturalist ex-stasis, a communion of subject and object in an all-embracing wholeness and mystical union. The poem emphasizes especially the reciprocal nature of this union. It is worth noting, for instance, that Ganymede’s initial upward ascent ("I’m coming, I’m coming"—just as suggestive in the original) is thwarted by frustration and uncertainty ("Whither?"— "Wohin?"). It is only when Zeus con-descends to meet Ganymede’s desire half-way that union is achieved (somewhere in mid-air one would assume, recalling the main episode of the myth). It is as if Goethe is saying that the simple urge of the perceiving subject to join with nature is insufficient to achieve consummation, and that what is important is the reciprocal nature of this intercourse between subject and object in the moment of visionary insight, captured in the almost Wagnerian "embracing and embraced" ("umfangen umfangend").

Goethe’s poetics of the organic imagination is perhaps most succinctly expressed in the "Song of the Spirits upon the Waters," composed in the shadow of a gushing cataract at Lauterbrune, near Interlaken, during his first journey to Switzerland. The title of the poem would seem to allude to the beginning of Genesis, where "the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," but the physics underlying the poem has nothing to do with the Biblical notion of creation but recalls instead Thales’ view that water itself is the origin of all things, the "wet soul" of the world. The spirituality which the poem expresses is very much a pantheist spirituality, of listening directly to the creative language of nature.

The "Song of the Spirits upon the Waters" represents a deeper and more direct level of engagement with the poetic possibilities inherent in natural processes than in any of the earlier poems. With its well-wrought metaphors stressing the inter-penetration of the physical and psychic phenomena, the poem imaginatively enacts the identity between subject and object, mind and nature, which I take to be the controlling motif of Goethe’s poetics of the organic imagination. Both the natural metaphors and the directness with which it describes natural phenomena make the poem an obvious candidate for an ecological reading.

The poem begins like a piece of music with the exposition of a dominant theme followed by development:

Des Menschen Seele
Gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es,
Zum Himmel steigt es,
Und wieder nieder
Zur Erde muss es,
Ewig wechselnd.

The soul of man
Is like water:
It comes from heaven
It climbs to heaven
And to earth once more
It must come down,
Forever changing.

What is striking about these opening lines is the economy with which Goethe draws his image, captured forcefully in the comparative "is like water" ("gleicht dem Wasser"). The movement of water through the atmosphere, with its various stages of precipitation, riverrun, and evaporation, forms an extended allegory or parable (Gleichniss) for the operations of the soul, analogizing a vaguely Neoplatonic eschatology in which souls migrate between heaven and earth in an eternal flux and flow.

The poem dwells, as it were, in the area of analogy between natural and spiritual processes and pushes its central metaphor of the soul being "like" water as far as it will go. The imagery of the poem can apply equally well to both water and to the soul—affirming an inner reciprocity between natural and mental processes. The poem deliberately straddles an intermediate axis between the literal and figural registers of meaning with a symmetry so perfect that it is difficult to tell whether Goethe is drawing on natural metaphors to describe the operations of the soul, or on psychological metaphors to describe natural processes.

While the "Song of the Spirits" shows how Goethe’s thinking about nature is enriched by certain esoteric traditions (Presocratic, Stoic, Neoplatonic, etc.) it is also surprisingly modern in its anticipation of insights associated with contemporary ecological thought. In this connection, the paradigms of Gregory Bateson’s mental ecology provide a particularly apt framework for interpreting this poem. The main theme of Bateson’s landmark book, Mind and Nature, is the natural identity or unity of mental and natural processes. In his later work, Bateson was interested in exploring the creativity underlying biological evolution, and comes to the very Goethean conclusion that natural processes obey a logic which has more to do with poetry than with analytic science. In particular, Bateson argues that biological functions obey a logic of homology rather than causality, and that this logic of homology is very much like poetic metaphor. In the last paper he wrote before his death, Bateson went as far as to argue that the unifying principle which links evolution and poetic creativity is, in fact, metaphor. Bateson concludes:

It becomes evident that metaphor is not just pretty poetry, it is not either good or bad logic, but is in fact the logic upon which the biological world has been built, the main characteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental processes [evolution] that I have been trying to sketch for you.

Taking these hints from Bateson, I argue that Goethe’s poem is very much a poem about metaphor, about how natural phenomena obey a kind of metaphoric logic which is like poetry, and about the poetic possibilities opened up by an attentive hearkening to the language of nature. The poem can thus be read as a parable illustrating the analogous metaphoric processes involved in both mind and nature when grasped in a relationship of dynamic unity. Goethe seems here to be affirming a kind of interactive poetry of participatory engagement with nature, even a co-evolutionary participation (or co-creation) with the unfolding poetry of the Earth.

The poem closes with an extended parallelism between the wind blowing the waves and Fate (Schicksal) determining the destiny of man:

Seele des Menschen,
Wie gleichst du dem Wasser!
Schicksal des Menschen,
Wie gleichst du dem Wind!

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