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HEATHER I. SULLIVAN Seeing the Light: Goethe's Marchen as Science—Newton's Science as Fairy Tale Introduction: A Fairy Tale of Science Written in the "Symbols" of Nature Light permeates Goethe's enigmatic 1795 Märchen, appearing in such manifold forms and reflections that it may come as a surprise that it refers rather straightforwardly to, well, light. Most interpretations of this tale begin with disclaimers about how its opulence renders it luminous with meaning and yet ultimately and intentionally opaque;1 I begin instead with the assertion of clarity.The play of light in this text mirrors many aspects of Goethe's critique of Newtonian optics.2 While the lights of the fairy tale may also reflect scores of ideas including the shine of poetry or aesthetics,3 the Schein of Schiller's Ästhetische Briefen the enlightenment,5 theater lights,6 and the French Revolution described in its framing tale, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten,1 their primary role is to highlight, as it were, the role of light in the perception and interpretation of phenomena. Light in Das Märchen is the concrete, scientific topic with which Goethe was obsessed for much of his career, through which he felt he had accomplished far more than in any of his literary works, and on which he was actively working during the writing of his fairy tale.8 Goethe sees light as a complex problem whose very nature, as well as our mode of perceiving it, must be completely reassessed. Rather similarly to discussions in phenomenology and contemporary physics, he believed that perception and nature are not two separate subjects but rather always connected.9 Thus the discussion of light in the Farbenlehre and all of the work leading up to it is very much about "learning to see,"10 and so harmonizing with the world.11 Seeing the light in Das Märchen means recognizing Goethe's quest to reopen the scientific inquiry into light and color in order to free it from its dark Newtonian world of misperceptions. Goethe condemned Newton in many ways and with much ardor; indeed, he berates Newton with rancorous accusations of "Verblendung," and "Sophistereien," that border on the unspeakable,"die ganz nah an Unredlichkeit grenzen."12 In just the one short essay from 1793, "Über Newtons Hypothese der diversen Refrangibilität," Goethe compares him to the creator of illusion in theater, a deceptive magician, an egotistical leader of a horde of unquestioning followers, and of being similar to the "Catholic church's readiness to condemn" Goethe Yearbook XIV (2007) 104 Heather I. Sullivan anyone who thinks in a slightly different way as heretic. For this essay, however , the most relevant of Goethe's critiques is surely the fact that he considered Newton's Optics itself to be naught more than "fairy tales.'This he states repeatedly: "Und doch ist jene durch Bedingungen sogleich zerstörte Lehre [Newton's] noch immer die gültige: sie wird gedruckt, übersetzt und das Publikum muß diese Märchen zum tausendstenmal bezahlen."13 Again: "Die diverse Refrangibilität ist also ein Märchen" (FL 374); and that everything, "von welcher uns Newton so gern überreden möchte, als ein leerer Wahn, als ein beliebiges Märchen anzusehen ist" (FL 382). Goethe declares that Newton's optical theories are dishonest and deceptive fairy tales that reflect only his own ego. Thus, as Newton wrote science that was naught but "fairy tales," Goethe responds in turn by creating Das Märchen as a fairy tale of science. I examine this "fairy tale of science" here in three sections.The first section notes the prevalence of light in the tale, with particular attention to the "LRR-lichter" as the impetus for all action and as the fluid quality of Goethean perception. The antics of the Irrlichter dramatize the priority of movement itself in the text, especially how it is initially restricted but then finally opened up to a continuous flow. Understanding movement in reference to light also provides a visual layout for the developments in Das Märchen. This layout comes from Goethe's experiments with prisms where light shines on two sides set across from one another (the river) so that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-9087
Print ISSN
0734-3329
Pages
pp. 103-127
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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