Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe in Conversation with Things 1

By Wurst, Karin A. | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe in Conversation with Things 1


Wurst, Karin A., Goethe Yearbook


Wir bringen wohl Fähigkeiten mit, aber unsere Entwicklung verdanken wir tausend Einwirkungen einer großen Welt, aus der wir uns aneignen, was wir können und was uns gemäß ist.2

[While we have innate talents, we owe our development to thousand influences of an expansive world from which we select for ourselves what we can and what is suitable for us.]

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe surrounded himself with collections at home ranging from art and cameos, rock formations and bones to wallpaper and furnishings.3 His observations on things are brief and unsystematic, but can be found throughout his oeuvre in various genres. Reconstructing the important role of tangible, inanimate objects in Goethe's spatial environment from his remarks in several of his nonfictional narratives, letters, and essays, I argue that objects serve as a medium for social interaction, such as collecting, gift exchanges, and enhancing sociability. Here we could say with Michael Callon that objects act as "intermediaries for human action."4

In addition, objects serve a more complex role: things support Goethe's form of conceptualizing, clarified spatial relationships, sparked observations, engendered insights, and evoked memories. These often interrelated dimensions in Goethe's thinking on objects and their association with the subject, influenced not only Goethe's lifestyle but also his worldview. This dynamic of intra-activity between subject and object (and to a lesser degree among things), allowed Goethe to stage his environment to maximize the influence of objects in his way of living, which supported his way of knowing.

The more general question raised by Goethe's connection to the object is whether he offered a new way of thinking about the boundaries between subject and object. My argument is that Goethe's ontology favors an open stance of the subject that ascribes a highly significant role to the object in a dynamic interactive relationship as we will explore below.

The Visual Dimension

While the subject-object relationship is a frequent topic in the philosophy of the time, this exceeds the scope of this article, as we focus here on visual dimension. Scholarship on this relationship in the area of the visual arts focuses predominantly on Goethe's life-altering experiences in Italy. My brief summary highlights those aspects of the visual relationship between subject and object that, more generally, also shed light on objects beyond art. Carsten Rhode emphasizes the bliss that Goethe associated with his experience in Italy: "Und diese Augen fanden ihr Glück in der gegenständlichen Welt. Und immer ist von den 'Dingen' und 'Gegenständen' die Rede, die den Reisenden geradezu bedrängen" (And these eyes found their bliss in the material world. "Things" and "objects" are frequently mentioned, which almost seem to intrude on the traveler).5 Ernst Osterkamp's study on Goethe's visual perception of objects in the visual arts sheds light on the careful gaze, the "act of seeing," as the precondition of his ways of knowing: "Einheit von Stoff, Form, und Gehalt . . . erschließt sich Goethe nur im Anschauen . . . [das] Bild existiert nur im Akt des Sehens" (The unity of material, form, and content reveals itself through the visual dimension . . . the image exists in the act of seeing).6 Osterkamp describes Goethe's experience of the gaze at the sensual-empirical object as "Anschauung der sinnlich-konkreten Erfahrung" (perception as sensual-concrete experience).7 Helmut Pfotenhauer likewise notes that in his autobiographical narrative, Italienische Reise (Italian Journey), Goethe favored a "new unburdened autonomous kind of visual comprehension," a form of "pure seeing."8 Evelyn Moore focuses on interpersonal relationships and Goethe's connection to art-not to things-in her reading of Goethe's fascination with visuality.9 Beate Allert alludes to an important dimension that is critical for my argument when she suggests that this new form of visual experience demonstrates that in viewing objects of visual arts, Goethe refrained from asserting control over the object. …

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