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Review of Goethe’s book by Stefan Pullman “The Breath of the World” - Culture

Review of Goethe’s book by Stefan Pullman “The Breath of the World” – Culture

At the end of a long life, Johann Wolfgang Goethe almost gave up. He wrote in 1817: “For more than half a century I have been famous as a poet, both at home and abroad, and at best I can be considered a poet.” As for physical and organic phenomena and the pursuit of serious considerations enthusiastically and silently, this is not well known and has received less attention. “

We have received a number of these statements, especially from later years. It applies to the physiology and color physics, in which he worked for more than 40 years, but also to his other research on nature: geology, biology, anatomy, meteorology and many other areas of science. Together they constitute, in addition to literature and official writings, the third part of life’s work. And it is by no means the least of it, and the pride of its author went to him more than poetry. But these writings hardly found recognition. Goethe sometimes encountered sympathizers with him. They remained exceptions, and Goethe rarely saw himself honored as the pioneer he understood himself.

Many biographers wanted to find an unknown Goethe. In recent times, there has been an increasing number of life stories that promised a spiritual hero hitherto hidden and finally revealed: How did he feel about women, especially Charlotte von Stein and Christian Volpius? Was he responsible for the death sentence? What was he blaming him for his son’s misfortune? Did he serve as a spy against the Masons? Autobiographies became more numerous as the preoccupation with the poet’s supposedly hidden pages became increasingly commonplace.

He devoted himself with a passion to the anatomy of the elephant skull and the cultivation of beans

The situation is different with a large work that introduces the naturalist to Goethe to a larger audience: above all the eleven volumes of “Writings on the Natural Sciences”, published between 1947 and 2011 by the German Leopoldina Academy of Natural Scientists. (18 volumes added with comments) is the basis for the book that Munich editor and publisher Stefan Pullman devoted to “Breath of the World”. In this he understands “Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the experience of nature”. Fortunately, the title is misleading. Much more than a programmatically conceivable “experience,” meaning an immediate admiration, this chronological work revolves around Goethe’s natural research, from the natural history collection in his parents ’home to notes on clouds Goethe drew during the weeks and months before his death.

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Compacted for current purpose and understood in short sections, this material creates a vivid picture of research that may still be radical and should not be science yet, at least with regard to academic routine and forms of communication. You can leave yourself curious, and soon this motivation will also include fulfilling scientific standards, for example in preparing experiments.

What comes out of Goethe is not a little, starting with the exploration of the abandoned mines in Ilmenau and the plan to write a “novel of the universe”, through his studies on the anatomy of the elephant’s skull or the cultivation of the broad bean. To occupy in colored shades, with photosynthesis or meteorology. Stefan Pullman writes: “You must get used to the idea that Germany’s greatest poet was a scientist, not also and not by accident, but because of inner drive and conviction.” It remains to be seen whether “one” would do something like this. But Stephane Pullman is right about this.

Stephan Pullman: Breath of the World. Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the experience of nature. Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2021.650 pages, 28 €.

Summarizes this story with care, care and elegance. Given the size, complexity and diversity of the holdings, his observations represent an extraordinary achievement, especially since he has also succeeded in introducing technical issues into an understandable context. He also mentions to what extent Goethe tried to make his colleagues aware, and how some of his colleagues on the subject, such as George Christoph Lichtenberg, subtly conveyed their doubts, or to what extent the conversations with Alexander von Humboldt meant to him. However, Stefan Polman does not explain what the distance or rejection was based on. In any case, it cannot be the usual debate among scholars, resistance is too systematic. And he did not think much of how Goethe, a balanced man in all respects, would turn into forms of conflict with Isaac Newton, his self-made adversary in matters of optics and color, which also led to the previous sanction. The usual decency among colleagues is lagging far behind.

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Nearly 60 years between Goethe’s first natural research and his last drafts of a theory of weather. His earliest works still belong to “natural history,” as he called the science practiced by a few ordinary people at the time, which was based on belief in a divine order or “chain of beings.” It was dedicated to “watch.” When Goethe died in 1832, scientific disciplines developed and experience generally became a means of knowledge. However, contrary to what Stefan Pullman thinks, this change is not merely progress.

Thus, the natural sciences aim at “law”, in the simplest possible basis that must form the basis of the multiplicity of phenomena, while natural history can make its peace with pluralism. But who or what decided the truth should be quite simple? In this respect, Goethe never gives up his links to natural history, for example in his “color theory”, which not only partially explains the contrast with Newton at least, but also guarantees, contrary to all prejudices, that of the colors “what It still exists – it’s recent – you can read about it in the publications of the Berlin philosopher Olaf L Muller, Wuppertal physicist Johannes Grippe Ellis or the Swedish research community on the Swedish physicist Per Salström.

However, this literature does not appear in Pullman, just as it has overlooked the most recent discoveries in literary studies (Joseph Vogel) or in philosophy (Eckart Forster). Instead, it is said briefly that Goethe “lost the process which he attempted to take against Newton and the consequences of his theory of colors”.

In the end, Goethe must win, against the specialty, as the representative of the college, the environment and the sensuality

The publisher describes Stefan Pullman’s book as a “wonderful biography,” but the name of the genre does not apply more to the company than the picture on the cover, in which Tishbein’s famous painting “Goethe in Campania” turned into mucus. The most famous literary works appear, often when the interests of the naturalist are reflected in them. Early love stories have also been discussed in detail. The actual examination of the poetic works is omitted, however, even when natural inquiry, as in “Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahren” or in “Wahlverwandschaften”, becomes the subject of literature directly in both content and form.

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There is no doubt that Pullman’s priorities lie elsewhere, particularly in the second half of the book, and the simple story of a court official Goethe and Sachs Weimar is dealt with in passing. If the book were called “Goethe – A Biography of the Naturalist,” one would ignore these weaknesses. The publisher submits a different claim. In addition, Pullman removes the intellectual acuity from the difference between Goethe’s natural research and the emerging natural sciences by subjecting Goethe’s work to a modern and contemporary ethic of dealing with nature. In the end, Goethe must win, against the specialty, as a representative of the college, the environment and the sensuality.

Such a program cannot be carried out without a certain degree of hostility toward history and spirit: “This is another topic for Goethe: that he links the study of nature with its concrete experience, not in laboratory conditions, but in the open air.” In general, the author draws his hero and himself over and over again to readers, against a misleading update. That is why the young Goethe had to take “jungle baths” in order to “heal the spiritual wounds of his unhappy love,” while Helena declares “Faust” to be “old Marilyn Monroe” and that old Goethe is the actual inventor of the “Gaia theory.” The poet and naturalist was created, and his biographer asserts, “The view of our planet that combines experience and science as a large living being.” What a subsequent relief to Goethe in serving “us” in this way.