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The Poetics of Perception
Goethe's Process Poem

 

 

 

 

Goethe’s Process Poem

 

Hyatt Carter

 

 

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which first appeared in 1534, renders Job 9:11 as follows:

 

 Siehe, er geht an mir vorüber,

 ehe ich’s gewahr werde,

 und wandelt vorbei,

 ehe ich’s merke.

 

 Lo, He passes by me

 before I am aware of it,

 and is transformed

 before I can take note of it.

 

The German verb wandelt, meaning “to change,” or “to transform,” expresses a nuance of meaning not found in the King James version:

 

 Lo, He goeth by me,

 And I see Him not;

 He passeth on also,

 But I perceive Him not.

 

Goethe quotes Luther’s rendition of this verse as a thematic statement at the beginning of “Formation and Transformation,” the first section of his book On Morphology. Bertha Mueller, translator of Goethe’s Botanical Writings, observes: “Luther’s version contains the core of Goethe’s morphological thinking, namely, that each organic formation is a chain of transformations . . . In the passage from Job, Goethe interprets the ‘He’ as the active God-Nature as revealed in the development of organic life.” (p. 21)

 

“Formation and Transformation,” Mueller’s translation of Bildung und Umbildung, suggests an ongoing process of making and remaking, creating and re-creating, which is at least a first approximation of Whitehead’s idea of “concrescence.”

 

Parabase, a prefatory poem on the frontispiece of On Morphology, also resonates with this theme:

 

 Freudig war, vor vielen Jahren,
 Eifrig so der Geist bestrebt,
 Zu erforschen, zu erfahren,
 Wie Natur im Schaffen lebt.
 Und es ist das ewig Eine,
 Das sich vielfach offenbart:
 Klein das Große, groß das Kleine,
 Alles nach der eignen Art;
 Immer wechselnd, fest sich haltend,
 Nah und fern und fern und nah,
 So gestaltend, umgestaltend —
 Zum Erstaunen bin ich da.

 

My translation:

 

 So joyously, many years ago,

 And so eagerly, my mind strove

 To discover, to experience,

 How Nature in creativity lives.

 And it is the everlasting One,

 That reveals itself in the many:

 Small is great, great is small,

 Everything after its own way;

 Ever changing, ever constant,

 Near and far, far and near,

 Shaping, re-shaping —

 In Wonder at all this am I here.

 

Note the gestalt (shape or form) in gestaltend and umgestaltend and how these two words repeat the pattern of Bildung and Umbildung.

 

A polar rhythm pulsates throughout the poem . . .

 

 Zu erforschen, zu erfahren

 Klein das Große, groß das Kleine

 Immer wechselnd, fest sich haltend

 Nah und fern und fern und nah

 So gestaltend, umgestaltend

 

. . . pulsing with a rhythm—the oscillation between two phases—that finds pervasive expression throughout the universe and operates at every level of reality, whether it be the ebb and flow of tides, the rhythms of heartbeat and breath, or atoms that vibrate many billions time per second.

 

This little poem is big with process themes, such as creativity as the very life of Nature:

 Zu erforschen, zu erfahren,

 Wie Natur im Schaffen lebt

 To discover, to experience,

 How Nature in creativity lives

 

The many and the one find expression in:

 

 Und es ist das ewig Eine,
 Das sich vielfach offenbart

 And it is the everlasting One

 That reveals itself in the many:

 

In this line we hear the Whiteheadian theme of permanence and change:

 

 Immer wechselnd, fest sich haltend

 Ever changing, ever constant

 

The penultimate line reverberates again with the theme of creativity:

 

 So gestaltend, umgestaltend —
 Shaping, re-shaping

  (or)

 Creating, re-creating

 Forming, transforming

 

The poem begins in joy (Freudig war) and ends where Plato says philosophy begins, in wonder (Erstaunen). Whitehead concurs:

 

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”1

 

 

In Goethe’s great drama, Faust, there is a quatrain that suggests that the world is of such “immensity” that, to fully feel or prehend it, we must go beyond even wonder. Faust himself utters the lines:

 

Doch im Erstarren such’ ich nicht mein Heil,

Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil;

Wie auch die Welt ihm das Gefühl verteure,

Ergriffen, fühlt er tief das Ungeheure.2

 

Two translations:

 

And yet in torpor there’s no gain for me;
The thrill of awe is man’s best quality.
Although the world may stifle every sense,
Enthralled, man deeply senses the Immense.

Natheless in torpor lies not good for me,

The chill of dread is man’s best quality.

Though from the feeling oft the world may fend us,

Deeply we feel, once smitten, the Tremendous.

 

Although the second translation comes closer, neither conveys the full impact of what Faust utters in the second line:

 

Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil

 

Schaudern means “to shudder” and so the line reads:

 

Shuddering is the best part of being a man

 

When we shudder, awe is no longer an abstract notion; it becomes a concrete feeling, a visceral feeling. And what is felt, and felt deeply, is the Ungeheure: the vastness, the immensity, the darkness of reality. Is this one of the reasons why Shakespeare wrote his great tragedies—to invoke in us feelings of the Ungeheure?

 

 

Notes

 

1. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168-69.

 

 

2. The quatrain is in Goethe’s Faust, Zweiter Teil, “Finstere Galerie” (lines 6271-6274).

 

 

 

 

HyC

 

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