Thursday, March 21, 2013

Goethe, Marx, Utopia

Rene Magritte, Applied Dialectics (1945)
I was reading Friedrich Engel's "Socialism: Utopian and Socialist" the other day, and I couldn't help sensing that some of the terminology reminded me of Goethe. The piece begins with a criticism of utopian thinkers, those men who believed that "pure reason and justice have not hitherto ruled the world" because these have not been properly understood. "The solution of social problems ... the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason." What these earlier utopists (Saint Simon, Fourier, Owen) failed to understand, despite their considerable merits, was that there existed a chain of necessity in historical development and that solutions to the "social problem" would not come with well-intentioned piecemeal changes. There were laws governing change, and, if the conditions on the ground were not correct, the class divisions would continue.

It is in the second section, when Engels begins to speak of Hegel and dialectics, that I discerned echoes of Goethe. Engels criticizes the metaphysician, for whom "a thing either exists or does not exist. ... Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis to one another." He goes on to say, of the metaphysical mode of thought, that it forgets the connection between individual things; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion." It was after reading the following paragraph that I wrote in the margin, "I can see why Marx was attracted to Goethe." Here is what Marx's partner wrote:

"Further, we find upon closer investigation that the two poles of an antithesis, positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition they mutually interpenetrate."

I won't go on, but he is describing the principle of dialectics, of which nature is the proof. Nature works dialectically, not metaphysically.

Rene Magritte, In Praise of Dialectics (1937)
It was at this point that I turned to the Goethe-Handbuch, but there was no article on Marx. Online, however, I found article by Elmar Treptow (Z. f. philosoph. Forschung, vol. 34 [1980]), "Zu Marx' Aufhebung der Metamorphosenlehre Goethes." It opens with the claim that both Marxist scholarship and Goethe scholarship have overlooked the influence of Goethe's MM "Lehre" on Marxist thought, in particular for the Marxist understanding of society and its formation. Treptow proposes to show that Das Kapital is a MMLehre, appropriating Goethe's morphology in order to offer a critical demonstration of an incorrect, "alienated" social metamorphosis.

Characteristic of Goethe's morphology is an aversion to isolation of facts and "mere empirical treatment." As Treptow points out, Goethe applies metamorphoses to the "natural world," organic and inorganic. Variations and manifestations, from the simplest to the compounded, progress according to laws (though excluding a telos of final causes). The foundational law is "Gleichgewicht": nothing can be added to one part that is not subtracted from the other.

Goethe, as Treptow also points out, did not conceptualize human history in morphological terms (though Herder does refer to metamorphosis in his philosophy of the history of humanity). He posited no social "Grundform" that would correspond, e.g, to the "Urpflanze." And while Goethe does not mingle nature and art, art's productive "Formieren" stands in direct connection with nature's likewise productive "Formieren," namely, via "Bildungstrieb." And it is this that influenced Marx, according to Treptow, particularly the concept of "Formenwandel."

Looking back on his Strassburg days, Goethe wrote of his revulsion at the materialism of Holbach's La System de la natur. According to the Wikipedia entry on this work, "mind is identified with brain, there is no 'soul' without a living body, the world is governed by strict deterministic laws, free will is an illusion, there are no final causes, and whatever happens takes place because it inexorably must." But Marxism is materialism with a twist: it has a soul! It was from Hegel, not Goethe, that Marx and Engels drew their notion of "Geist" directing history. Otherwise, I can't see much difference from Holbach's materialism.

There are more echoes of Goethe in Engel's piece. Treptow also mentions that Marx writes of economic "Keimform" or "Zellenform," of the "sinnlichen übersinlichen Wertdings," and of the "Verwandlung" of goods into money and money into goods. Goethe's "structural-genetic" morphology, however, has its "Fundament" in real processes of nature; Marx's is genetic only in terms of logic, or dialectics.

Picture credit: 4 x Complementary

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Founding Father Visits Goethe in Weimar

I had lunch yesterday in the Village with Clark Muenzer. Goethe was one of the subjects of conversation, not surprising since Clark is a Goethe scholar and the incoming president of the Goethe Society of North America. He asked me if I knew that Aaron Burr had visited Goethe in Weimar. As a matter of fact, I did know, having come across that information in Ernst Beutler's article on Goethe, "Von der Ilm zum Susquehanna." Burr, according to Beutler, was the first America that Goethe met face to face, in 1810.

Burr had served with great distinction in several major Revolutionary War battles, yet fell into bitter political rivalry with both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Burr, while serving as vice president of the U.S. under  Jefferson, shot Hamilton in a duel, after which his star began to fade. His involvement with a land purchase scheme in the Louisiana Purchase territory led to a charge of treason; Jefferson did his best to see that Burr was convicted, but failed. At the time Burr met Goethe, he had been living for two years in Europe, having fled the U.S. to escape his creditors. It was a sad trajectory for this Founding Father, who is mainly known today for the duel with Hamilton. Historians believe that Hamilton, who had brought the pistols, intended to have an unfair advantage over Burr, a plan that backfired, so to speak.

In his own diary Burr wrote on January 4 and 7: "chez Goethe." Goethe also mentioned meeting "Obrist Burr aus Nordamerika" on January 4, and again on the evening of February 10. Beutler writes: "What the two spoke about, or the impression they had of each other, remains unknown."

Burr was an Enlightenment man. As a New York assembly member, he sought to end slavery in the state in 1784. He believed that women were the intellectual equal of men; a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft graced his office. He submitted a bill in the New York State legislature that would have allowed women to vote. Moreover, he was the grandson of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. (See this site for more information on Burr.) Yes, one would like to know what he and Goethe talked about. One suspects they spoke in French.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Goethe and utopia

Military in the Communist Utopia of North Korea
My reading on utopia has lent some insight into why Goethe seems not to have been tempted by wishful visions of a harmonious society. In an essay entitled "The City and Utopia," Louis Mumford writes of the immunity to change of Plato's ideal Republic:

"Once formed, the pattern of order remains static, as in the insect societies to which it bears a close resemblance. ... From the first, a kind of mechanical utility afflicts all utopias. On the most generous interpretation, this is due to the tendency of the mind, or at least of language, noted by Bergson, to fix and geometrize all forms of motion and organic change: to arrest life in order to understand it, to kill the organism in order to control it, to combat the ceaseless process of self-transformation which lies at the very origin of the species. All ideal models have this same life-arresting, if not life-denying, property."

(The essay appeared in the Spring 1965 issue of Daedalus on the subject of utopia.)

As early as The Sorrows of Young Werther one hears in Goethe's writings a complaint against the scholar who removes life from the object of study. "Dogmatiker" is another term for the "Gelehrten," as in a letter to Merck: "Es gibt eine andere Art Eigentum für den Gelehrten oder den Dogmatiker, das ist die Gewohnheit, die Begriffe, die er schon erworben hat, die Gesetze, die er gefunden hat, als festgesetzt anzusehen."

Goethe went on to have lots of contact with scholars, in particular scientific men, but his orientation was not to set up systems. Utopias are about "Dauer," not "Wechsel," and they are accompanied by mechanisms that keep things static, fixed, regimented, and standardized. I wonder if Goethe's ambivalent attitude toward military matters plays a role here. After all, before the advent of the factory age, which institution in society was more regimented?

Photo credit: The Politics e-Zine