Sketches on Goethe’s Italian Journey

I have had the opportunity recently to catch up on some reading, and I have been enjoying immensely Goethe’s Italian Journey. The translation I have been reading is the 1962 Penguin Classic translated by W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer. This has been a quite inspirational read, and in this post I wanted to sketch out some of my own notes, impressions and insights.

Tischbein's Portrait of Goethe: Wikipedia

Tischbein’s Portrait of Goethe: Wikipedia

Goethe had achieved great fame as a poet and author in his twenties, but in 1775 at the age of 26 he escaped to Weimar, at the request of the extremely young eighteen-year old Duke and Duchess, where he took up duties as a civil servant, at times having responsibility for mines, the War Department, and state finances. By 1786, as we are told by the translators, Goethe was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and so stealing himself away in the dead of night, he followed his dream to tour Italy, escaping to improve his painting, and to steep himself in a study of classical architecture, sculpture, and painting.

Goethe's sketch of Mount Etna

Goethe’s sketch of Mount Etna

One of the things I have learnt most from studying Goethe, his science much more than his poetry, is his way of observing the world. In this journey not only does Goethe contemplate the arts, but at each and every moment he is observing the changing landscapes not just with the eyes of an artist, but through the eyes of a highly accomplished scientist. I am most familiar with his works on colour and plants, but in this journey we discover just how much Goethe delights in his study of mineralogy and geology.

Very early on Goethe states his desire to stay within sensory experience during his journey:

I console myself with the thought that, in our statistically minded times, all this has probably already been printed in books which one can consult if need arise. At present I am preoccupied with sense-impressions to which no book or picture can do justice. The truth is that, in putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life. How far will my scientific and general knowledge take me? Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? How much can I take in in a single glance? Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?

Look at just how modern this quote seems. Could it not equally apply to this current age, with an obsession with data, big data, where we have lost a sense of the meaning of our human and lived experience? Look at how mindful Goethe is consciously attempting to be, not wanting to lose himself in abstract and intellectual thought.

For someone whose fame arose from his writings, Goethe is well-acquainted with the limitations of language:

One may say what one likes about the written or the spoken word, but there are very few occasions when it suffices. It certainly cannot communicate the unique character of any experience, not even in matters of mind.

For Goethe, his desire to improve his artistic skills, through lessons in Italy from some of the great artists of this era, is driven by his idea to understand a phenomena as a whole:

The artists like giving me lessons because I am quick to understand. But understanding is not the same as doing. Quickness of understanding is a mental faculty, but right doing requires the practice of a lifetime. However, feeble as his efforts may be, the amateur should not despair. The few lines I draw on the paper, often too hasty and seldom exact, help me to a better comprehension of physical objects. The more closely and precisely one observes particulars, the sooner one arrives at a perception of the whole.

We can make a little more sense from Goethe’s approach to the study of phenomena, be they art or natural, through what Maria and I call the holonomic operating system:

The Holonomic Operating System

The Holonomic Operating System

Goethe is consciously and mindfully starting his observations in the sensory realm. Here he describes his thoughts having visited Sicily:

My old habit of sticking to the objective and concrete has given me an ability to read things at sight, so to speak, and I am happy to think that I now carry in my soul a picture of Sicily, that unique and beautiful island, which is clear, authentic and complete.

Goethe uses these same powers of observation to observe the dynamic processes found in nature. It is on his Italian journey that he develops what will become his theory of the metamorphosis of plants, a theory which although will be ignored by the majority of scientists and philosophers, will nonetheless inspire Charles Darwin in the following decades:

I am on the way to establishing important new relations and discovering the manner in which Nature, with incomparable power, develops the greatest complexity from the simple.

If you talk with many complexity scientists, they will tell you that new insights from both the study of complex and chaotic systems in the last few decades has allowed scientists to begin to reach this type of insight. But here we have Goethe, without the aid of monumental computational power, gaining these same insights through his deep powers of observation of the dynamic processes in nature.

I highlight the word dynamic here since in this scientific era, the social order was one of stability. Religion dominated the social order, and nature was seen as stable. But here we see Goethe with a determination to master his skills in concrete observation, and see what is actually in front of his eyes, rather than allowing social norms to hijack his thinking process.

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c. 1776-80. Credit: Tate, London 2013

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c. 1776-80. Credit: Tate, London 2013

Goethe, being of the greatest writers of his time, proves to be one of the greatest travel journalists of his time, and many of his trials and tribulations, which describes with both equanimity and at time great humour, appear quite familiar to the modern reader, such as the litter-strewn streets of Palermo, which can be attributed to the embezzlement of public funds by the politicians, just as we see in São Paulo and my new country of Brazil today.

We hear less from Goethe in terms of how he develops his insights on the metamorphosis of plants, but as he continues on his travels, his way of seeing deepens profoundly. However, Goethe first acknowledges that this is a huge undertaking:

My botanical insights are taking me further and further. My basic hypothesis remains the same, but to work everything out would take a lifetime. One day, perhaps, I will be capable of giving a general outline.

It is clear how much the nature Goethe finds in Italy inspired him:

What I have always said has been confirmed: there are certain natural phenomena and certain confused ideas which can be understood and straightened out only in this country.

What I have discovered is the pleasure in discovering the context in which well-known quotes are written. For example, one of Goethe’s great insights comes to him as he takes a pleasant evening walk:

Suddenly I had a flash of insight concerning my botanical ideas. Please tell Herder that I am very near to discovering the secret of the Primal Plant. I am only afraid that no one will recognise it in the rest of the plant world. My famous theory about the cotyledons has now been so elaborated that it would be difficult to take it any further.

What Goethe is attempting to do is to understand the dynamics of the plant in itself, without recourse to an intellectual framework or theory. He is moving from concrete observation directly to intuitive insight, hence his concern that his notion of the plant will not be understood.

It bears repeating just how much Goethe is doing on this journey. Undertaking the development of his theory of the metamorphosis of plants would be a gargantuan task for any mere mortal, but Goethe is doing this while developing a number of poems and plays including Iphigenie and Tauris (sometimes while suffering seasickness), sight-seeing, letter-writing, taking drawing lessons, collecting minerals and gems, and also while being the guest of countless members of the aristocracy although in principle attempting to remain incognito.

Goethe’s is experiencing epic poetic dreams, and one day he takes a walk to attempt to meditate on their meaning, but while doing so is seized by what he calls another spirit which has been haunting him those last few days:

Here where, instead of being grown in pots or under glass as they are with us, plants are allowed to grow freely in the open fresh air and fulfil their natural destiny, they become more intelligible. Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy suddenly came back to my mind: Among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant? There certainly must be one. Otherwise, how could I recognise that this or that form was a plant if all were not built upon the same basic model?

Goethe develops this theme in his letters a few days later:

The Primal Plant is going to be the strangest creature in the world, which Nature herself shall envy me. With this model and the key to it, it will be possible to go on for ever inventing plants and know that their existence i slogical; that is to say, if they do not actually exist, they could, for they are not the shadowy phantoms of a vain imagination, but possess an inner necessity and truth. The same law will be applicable to all other living organisms.

Goethe is understanding the coming-into-being of the plant, and is perceiving the intrinsic and dynamic dimension of nature which is only accessible to the intuition. He is attempting to articulate the fact that he is comprehending a real phenomena and not just one that is subjective and which is imagining. This is a radically different approach to understanding phenomena in nature, and as we shall see, also contributes to Goethe’s personal transformation, one which he only fleetingly references.

He begins by telling us early in his journey how he is developing a new-found inner peace:

Now I have arrived, I have calmed down and fee as if I have found a peace that will last for my whole life. Because, if I may say so, as soon as one sees with one’s own eyes the whole which one has hitherto only known in fragments and chaotically, a new life begins.

His observational approach provides huge dividends in his life:

I have seen and thought even more. The world is opening itself to me more and more, and all that I have long known intellectually is now becoming part of me. What an early-to-know, late-to-practice creature man is!

Ultimately, this may seem quite clichéd, but as we join Goethe on his travels, we bear witness to his inner transformational journey. Goethe is discreet, and does not divulge too many details about his turmoil and inner battles, but we can see how his thinking evolves to lead him towards a happier and more peaceful way of living and being:

The rebirth which is transforming me from within continues.

Though I expected really to learn something here, I never thought I should have to start at the bottom of the school and have to learn or completely relearn so much. But now I have realised this and accepted it, I find the more I give up my old habits of thought, the happier I am.

May Heaven grant that, on my return, the moral effect of having lived in a larger world will be noticeable, for I am convinced that my moral sense is undergoing as great a transformatio9n as my aesthetic.

In this article I have just tried to provide a few of my own sketches, pencilled outlines which give a small taste of the feast of this travelogue. It remains essential reading for those who enjoy the classics, but also will inspire many who are looking for a more authentic way of being in the world. Goethe’s writing is sensational for me, insightful, poetic, contemporary and descriptive, almost as if we are looking through Goethe’s self-same eyes. Nowadays Youtube is full of GoPro camera footage recorded from the helmets of sports enthusiasts, giving us ever more intimate perspectives on activities we will never ourselves undertake. But Goethe takes us internally, via the sensual, into his intuitive perception, and that is a priceless experience very few have managed to articulate even to this day.


3 responses to “Sketches on Goethe’s Italian Journey

  1. Finally got to read this…wonderful, thank you! I can’t get enough of Goethe and this gives me the perspective on this part of his life I was seeking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s