Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Art, Nature, and the Poesy of Plants in the Goethezeiti A Biosemiotic Perspective

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Art, Nature, and the Poesy of Plants in the Goethezeiti A Biosemiotic Perspective

Article excerpt

Sometime around 1800, toward the end of his period of programmatic neoclassicism, Goethe took time out from his official duties at the Weimar court, and from his own scientific research, to compose a perfect Petrarchan sonnet addressed to the relationship between "art" and "nature." While seemingly in flight front one another, we are told in the opening stanza, the apparent divergence of the entities thus named actually effects their unforeseen reunion: "Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen, / Und haben sich, eh man es denkt, gefunden" (Though art and nature seem sore disunited / Yet each, before you think, to each is turning).1 Reassured by this apparent reconciliation of nature and art, the speaker declares that his antipathy ( Widerwille) (whether to the one or the other or, perhaps, to their apparently antipathetic trajectories) has also disappeared, and he now finds himself drawn equally to both. This bold beginning raises a series of questions, arising in no small part from the multivalence of the very terms "nature" and "art," which are only partially and indirectly answered in the following stanzas. "Nature," as Raymond Williams remarks in Keywords, is "perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language," and judging by the lengthy entry in the Grimms' Deutsches Wörterbuch, the same can certainly be said fot Natur in German.2 One wonders, then, what conception and dimension of "nature" is in play here? "Art" is somewhat less prodigiously polysemous, but it was significantly more so in Goethe's day. While we tend to associate this word primarily with the sphere of aesthetic production, as in the creation of works of art, around 1800, Kunst, like "art" in English, could also refer to activities that would today be classified in terms of "craft." Such crafty "arts" could also include the experimental techniques deployed by those who had adopted Sir Francis Bacon's novum organon in order to induce "nature" to surrender "her" closely guarded secrets.3 What kind of "art" is this, then, that is seemingly so at odds with "nature"? Why are they in flight from one another? And on what basis, and in what manner, might their apparent reunification be effected?

In this essay, I propose to explore these questions from an ecocritical and ecophilosophical perspective. In particular, I wish to reconsider German Romantic-era understandings of the interrelationship of art and nature from the perspective of the burgeoning new field of multi- and interdisciplinary study that became known in the 1980s as "biosemiotics."

Biosemiotics entails the examination of those multifarious and multifaceted communicative processes (semiosis) that are intrinsic to the existence and interactions of all living organisms (bios). Discussions of the historical antecedents of biosemiotics not infrequently allude to the legacy of German Romantic biology and Naturphilosophie. Prisca Augustyn, for instance, refers to the "Romantic Biology or natural organicism of Kant, Goethe, and Schelling that sees nature as creative force and creation at once, where perfect form is found in plants and animals as in poetry or art," as the "bedrock of biosemiotic thought."4 Similarly, Donald Favareau, in his detailed "Evolutionary History of Biosemiotics" acknowledges the importance of German Romantic thought in the intellectual milieu of one of the major forefathers of biosemiotics, the German-Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), and its legacy in his language.5 Such legacies nonetheless remain underresearched and even appear at times to be a source of concern to contemporary biosemioticians. For example, Tommi Vehkavaraa is at pains to distinguish the account of the continuity between biological life and human mental activity developed by another biosemiotic forefather, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), from that of Schillings Naturphilosophie,6 while Romantic science does not even rate a mention in Favareau's "Brief History of the Sign Concept in Pre-modernist Science," which appeared in the inaugural issue of the journal Biosemiotics in 2008. …

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