I have concluded that Goethe was born too soon. True, he made it into the Romantic Era and that’s good or else he might have been writing classical poetry, writing poetry like Mozart wrote music that stultifies the brain with 18th Century cultural plaque within 15 minutes of the overture (or the preface if it was Goethe’s bad luck to be born too soon). But he made it past that nonsense far enough to give Faust a good Hollywood ending that makes us all feel better in the face of our endless despair.
But he did not make it to the Industrial Age. The Zoetrope was invented the year after Goethe died. He could have used one. It would have served him well as proof to his ingenious contention that “Nature leaves no gaps.” One cannot prove that in writing. One cannot, in any language imaginable, demonstrate that Nature leaves no gaps. One cannot do it with time-lapse sketches of poke salat leaves. But it can be demonstrated with a Zoetrope. (A little tertiary “Eureka!” to interject here: The concept of levels, the concept of boundaries between the levels, boundaries between interior and exterior, singular and plural, between the hierarchically holonic nested Russian dolls—you’ll get the picture if you’re half bright—makes the existence of gaps explicit. We could say that Goethe could say that AQAL is unnatural—an unnatural enactment—thus my pre-boomer demographic status gives me license to list it as a perversion.)
I think Glistening posted this from Goethe, but it can stand to be repeated:
“The Germans have a word for the complex of existence presented by a physical organism: Gestalt. With this expression they exclude what is changeable and assume that an interrelated whole is identified, defined, and fixed in its character.
“But if we look at all these Gestalten, especially the organic ones, we will discover that nothing in them is permanent, nothing is at rest or defined everything is in a flux of continual motion. This is why German frequently and fittingly makes use of the word Bildung (formation, development) to describe the end product and what is in the process of production as well.”
I have some issues here—in process there are no end products—but the point is “nothing is at rest or defined…” Let me write that again, “nothing is…defined.” Nothing is defined.
I want to put this in the process context of Jeff Bellsey’s fb request for Whitehead texts, and the previous to last Goethe concall with its language patterns as exemplified by Jim Davis’s exclamation “It’s the abyss!”
What brings Whitehead into this mix of course is Goethe’s observation of the obvious: “everything is in a flux of continual motion…” When Goethe is aligned with Whitehead in the realm of process two distinct arise, the distinctions between a metaphysician and a scientist. Whitehead focuses on the idea of process, Goethe looks at the evidence of it. Whitehead makes process primary, Goethe just mentions it in passing. Whitehead makes process the law, so to speak. Goethe gathers the facts. I mention this because law is an abstraction that is culled from the past in a feckless attempt to regulate a future. It would be totally inconsequential save for the perplexing civilian habit of imagining a well dressed emperor. On the other hand facts are just facts—this is a leaf and a leaf is a leaf is a leaf. Among trial lawyers it is well known that the side with the facts has the high ground and that is all that has to be argued. In the absence of facts, a lawyer has to develop a theory of the case and argue the aerial law. It is a poor position to try to hold.
I like this on the subject of process that Goethe wrote in his gathering of the facts:
“If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole. At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, yet nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression itself.”
“All the effects, of whatever kind, that we note in experience cohere in the most persistent way, pass over from one into another; they undulate from first to last. That one separates and opposes them; that one conflates them is unavoidable. Yet this had to give rise to boundless opposition within the sciences. Sclerotic, divisive pendantry and mystical transports both bring evil in train. But those activities, from the basest to the highest; from the tile that crashes down from the roof to the luminous spiritual insight which rises up in you and which you communicate all these join themselves into a continuous series. We shall attempt to express it: accidental, mechanical, physical, chemical, organic, psychic, ethical, religious, genial.”
What I find strange in Goethe’s practice of science, in his time lapse drawings, and in his focus on the metamorphosis of observed and observer is his concern with the phenomenon as a noun, a piece of evidence that would contribute to the Ur-phenomenon of that noun. He seems to take the verb “to process” or the present participle, “processing,” for granted. It is the given. How much did the noun privileging Indo-European languages in which he wrote and spoke condition his thought? It is obvious that they conditioned his writing because that is the nature of the language, especially in its written form. But thinking and writing are not the same thing. I wonder if the metamorphosis of the observer was not an attempted end-run around the language to get the scientists in his wake to comprehend what he was really studying—process. Ah, there but for fortune and a zoetrope go we.
I wonder if Goethe was ever tempted to go behind the phenomenon as noun to get some kind of self-transformational grasp on the Ur-Phenomenon of the engine, the magical engine that spread the profuse panoply of everyday growth, and development and even the never ending evolutionary transmutation before him like an infinite banquet, the legendary pitcher that would never run dry. From what they dealt out to us in the book and in the Janus Head Mag, it did not appear that he went after that particular Ur-. Maybe he though it was metaphysics and he was a scientist, above such nonsense; maybe he thought he would have to deal with the abstract, the siren’s call illusion of significance, cheap demi-thrills and self-congratulatory entertainment.
Goethe was not born in an advantageous time. He was too late and he was too soon. He was too soon for Darwin and Maxwell and Boltzman and Schrödinger, men who made clear the Ur-phenomenon of process. It is not abstract, it is wonderfully material and it is contained linguistically in a verb phrase: “generating entropy.” You can read all about it here.