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  • Goethe’s Petrofiction:Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene
  • Jason Groves

The passionate interest in rocks shared by several figures in Goethe’s last novel goes well beyond a child’s amusement or a collector’s enthusiasm. This allure of the inorganic—what the novel refers to as die Neigung zum Gestein—also suggests an ontologically precarious propensity of life toward an inorganic state (FA 10:287).1 Insofar as ecological thinking today widely takes the form of what one ecocritic calls a “‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth,’” this unsettling inclination of Goethe’s late work positions him as our forerunner.2 Heterogeneous and xenophilic, this Neigung contains at least four variant readings within the context of a geologic turn in the age of Goethe: it is the magnetic “attraction” of stone that for Goethe indicates the hangover of a primordial era in which the interaction between organic and inorganic forms was more dynamic; it consists in an erotic “affection” for a mineral other, which is observable in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (hereafter Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering) in Montan’s desire for intimacy with mountains; it partakes in the widely held eighteenth-century belief in the “tendency” of the planet’s climate toward a crystalline state of absolute zero, as proposed by Charles Buffon in Les époques de la nature (1778), which Goethe had read with great interest and which had inspired his abandoned Roman über das Weltall (Cosmic Novel) as well as many of the cold worlds of Romantic literature; and the Neigung consists of the “draw” of minerals in an emerging capitalist system based on resource extraction, while also literalizing the reification of social relations in such a system. The popular literary motif of the cold heart—disseminated throughout the age of Goethe but perhaps most prominent in the 1827 fairy tale of this name by Wilhelm Hauff—can be read quite effectively as an allegory of such capitalist exchange.3

In the contemporary epoch of the Anthropocene—a proposed geochronological unit that would account for the intimate entanglement of human activity and earth systems and thus mark a decisive break from the present interglacial state referred to as the Holocene—each aspect of this Neigung has returned: political ecology’s concern with the vitality of nonhuman bodies;4 the rise of queer ecologies and ecosexualities that embrace (literally and figuratively) mineral bodies;5 an ongoing spatial turn in literary studies that has diversified into geopoetics, geophilosophy, and geocriticism6 and the unprecedented economic draw of mineral resources in the second stage of [End Page 95] the Anthropocene, the postwar period known as “the Great Acceleration,” in which the exploitation of natural resources and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations begin to increase exponentially.7 Thinking through the inclination of Goethe’s writing and thought toward stone(s)—what I refer to as his petrofiction—takes on a new urgency in the geological epoch of the Anthropocene. Dating the beginning of this epoch is still the subject of contention, but the chemist and climatologist Paul Crutzen, the single figure most associated with popularizing this term, proposes the latter part of the eighteenth century, when polar ice cores begin to show increasing global concentrations of greenhouse gases.8 This date, Crutzen notes, coincides with James Watts’s design of the steam engine in 1784. Remarkably, this date also coincides with the beginning of Goethe’s study of granite—and with it the beginning of what could be called his geopoetic thought.

In writing of Goethe’s “petrofiction” I seek both to draw attention to the centrality of the geological in his literary writing and to expand prevailing uses of this term. First coined in 1992 by Amitav Ghosh in his review of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, “petrofiction” originally referred to fictional writing, like Munif’s novels, that was explicitly about the “Oil Encounter” between the Americas and the Middle East. While oil, its extraction, and the global petroculture and its role in transforming the planet’s climate undoubtedly play a crucial role in the Anthropocene imaginary—to the extent that petrofiction has been construed not just as a genre but as a...