Monday, July 27, 2015

Goethe and granite

Granite (1968) by Isamu Noguchi (Yorkshire Sculpture Garden)
I have been thinking about Goethe and nature since reading Jason Grove's article on "petrofiction" in the current volume of the Goethe Yearbook. (See my posting on that article.) It strikes me that natural phenomena, e.g., granite, always represented something to Goethe, but it was a stand-in. Thus, my earlier question: did Goethe's heart leap up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky? My answer was no: I do not believe that he was an enthusiast of rainbows or of other natural events. The earth was simply the theater –– the Schauplatz –– of such phenomena, but the production itself stood for something greater, for the workings of so-called Nature. He collected "the rocks of time," as Heather Sullivan put it in a 1999 article in the European Romantic Review, but it was his very collecting activity, with thousands of mineral specimens and rocks stored in neatly labeled boxes, that distinguishes Goethe's interest in the natural world from that of, say, Wordsworth.

Isamu Noguchi (1929) by Winold Reiss
I was led to the image above of Isamu Noguchi's 1968 work Granite after reading a review of a biography of  the Japanese-American sculptor: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera. There is a lovely Noguchi Museum in Queens, which I visit at least once a year, visits inspired to some extent by my interest in the subject of Goethe and granite. Noguchi's "aesthetic," especially the simplicity of his works, seems at first glance Japanese-influenced, which can be seen in the gardens in which his works are frequently situated as lone, solitary objects, as in a Japanese garden. At the same time, because of my experience of living in Japan for several years, I always felt that there was something un-Japanese about Noguchi. The review of the biography explained why that is the case. Although his father was Japanese, his mother was a "bohemian" American lady who raised him on her own. And although he spent several years as a child in Japan, he did not grow up there and in fact did not speak "adult" Japanese.

If it speaks to you, it is a metaphor
I have to admit that rocks (like rainbows) do not really "speak" to me. But they clearly spoke to Noguchi, and the reviewer of the biography revealed that it was not Japan that provided Noguchi with inspiration: "It was [Constantin] Brancusi who first revealed to Noguchi the incalculable metaphorical richness of stone, an intuition upon which so much of his subsequent career would be based."

The reference to metaphor reminds me of what Denis Donoghue wrote in his 2014 book Metaphor: "Metaphor, more than simile or metonymy, expresses one's desire to be free, and to replace the given world by an imagined world of one's desiring." This desire is a very modern one, and the more I learn about subjects like ecocriticism, the more I am struck by the influence of Romanticism, by the way that  nature –– the earth –– has become "an imagined world of one's desiring." But did Goethe ever, like Noguchi, "listen to stone"?

Image sources: Nigel Homer; American National Biography; Photius

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