Monday, June 29, 2015

Goethe and Environmentalism

Volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook arrived in the mail last week. The editors of the Yearbook, as in volume 20 (on Goethe's lyric poetry), are devoting a part to a special subject, in the case "Goethe and Environmentalism." It is edited by Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar, two scholars whom I have not yet met but who are both at the University of Sidney in Australia. A glance at the notes to their introduction to this special section of the Yearbook indicates that they have already published much on the subject of Goethe and environmentalism.

I will probably discuss the introduction and the articles in at least two posts. But let me preface things by some notes I made as I was traveling by bus to Newark Airport several weeks ago. It is hard to believe when traveling that stretch of highway that New Jersey is known as the Garden State. My thoughts concerned how this "landscape" would fit in with the aesthetic categories of Beauty or the Sublime. Bodmer had a category called "das Ungest├╝me," or "the turbulent," but it referred to forces that have a calamitous effect on humans and are beyond their control or understanding. An example would be the Lisbon earthquake. The sublime in nature, in contrast, is something we can come to understand.

Pulaski Skypike
Unlike those categories, the New Jersey turnpikes do not represent natural phenomena. Everything is the result of practical human activity, not of natural beauty or sublimity. To an eye accustomed to make aesthetic distinctions, the highway environment can only be regarded as ugly. There seems to be no orderliness, just a hodgepodge of railroad tracks, warehouses, abandoned tire cemeteries, toll booths, advertising signs right and left and overhead (auto dealers, Burger King, and McDonalds, Toll Booth Ahead) and of course cars, cars, cars and trucks, trucks, trucks speeding forward at 80 miles per hour. The purpose of most of the activity is commercial, and many people today, if they are not outright wanting to abolish commercialism, prefer their commercial environment to be gentrified, like the center of an imagined New England town.

A billboard you can smell
The activity on the turnpikes is too grossly commercial, without seemingly any appeal to our higher faculties, in particular our feeling for beauty. And commercialism, as we know, contributes to the degradation of the environment. But if we use our reason, as Kant urged us to do, we also come to recognize that all that commercial detritus is part of a great economic machine that also provides us with the goods and services we need for our lives.

The above as a preface to my own thoughts on environmentalism, which I too often find to be the newest version of an old phenomenon, Zivilisationskritik. Stay tuned.

Photo credits: Porlier Outdoor Advertising Company; Tom Kaminski/WCBS 880; North

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