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Leonardo Reviewssection includesreviews o f books,journals and otherpint publications, CD @ducts, vidxos andfilm,softUaw and new technologies, conferences,exhibitions and otherevents in thefild o f art, science and technology.Additional reviews can befound in Leonardo Electronic News, Leonardo Currents and theFine Art, Science and Technology (FAST)electronic database. GOETHE’S BOTANICAL WRITINGS translated by Bertha Mueller,with an introduction by CharlesJ. Engard. Ox Bow Press,Woodbridge, CT, 1989,258 pp. Trade $42.00; paper $17.50. ISBN: 0-91802468-4. Reviewed RudoljArnheim, 1200Earhart Rd.,No. 537,Ann Arbor, MI 48105, U.S.A. If this book were left to the limited use of the specialistsin botany, artistsand scientistswould miss one of the most enlightening and inspiringguides to productive thinking.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was not only a great poet, prose writer and dramatistbut also an accomplished observer and discoverer in such fieldsas botany, zoology, anatomy and the phenomenology of color. The present book, first published in 1952 by the University Press of Hawaii, is a most carefully edited and translated introduction to Goethe’swritings on botany, and it also offers an invaluable selection of his writings on this intuitive artist’s dealingwith exact scientific problems. As Goethe distinguishesfour kinds of approach to the study of nature-the utilizers,the factfhders, the contemplatorsand the comprehenders (p. 92)-he conjoins all four types in principles such as, “Inan organic being, first the form as a whole strikes us, then its parts and their shape and combination” (p. 86). Throughout Goethe’s life, the problem of how to combine the immediacy of observationwith the concepts of the intellect remained theoretically insoluble , although in his practical proceedings he gave us an exemplarymodel of just such a synthesis.The conflict was dramaticallyillustrated by his encounter of 1794with Friedrichvon Schiller-the opening of a lifelong friendship-when Goethe sketchedfor the fellow poet his theory of the Urpflanze,the archetypal plant, and then Schiller, inclined to reason in the Kantian manner, shook his head and said, ‘Thatis not an experience, it is an idea.”Whereupon Goethe retorted, “It can be most welcome to me that I have ideaswithout knowing it, and can even see them before my very eyes”(p. 217). In his approach to natural science, Goethe acted “asa born poet, who, in order to dojustice to his subjects, always seeksto derive his terminology directlyfrom the subjectsthemselves, each time anew“(p. 159).This poetical vision, however, made him also grasp the overall likenessin the variety of appearances.Thus he envisaged what we would call the canonical type of the plant “assuch,”the archetypal plant, of which all actualvarietiescan be understood as particular manifestations. To this underlyingform of organisms, describedby him as their morphology, he applied the concept of metamorphosis . Form, he realized, comesabout by the developmentfrom a primordial unit, which he recognized for botany in the leaf. From the seed to the crowning flower, %e thought to show that the organs of the vegetating and flowering plant, though seeminglydissimilar,all originate from a single organ, namely the leaf. ...” (p. 77) Similarly,in his anatomicalstudies he derived the skull from a set of vertebrae; and when in 1791 he picked up a battered sheep’sskull from the sand of the dunelikeJewish cemeteryin Venice, he realized instantlythat the facial bones likewise could be interpreted as originatingfrom vertebrae (p. 237). This same artisticabilityto see a whole emergefrom one of its elementsand to detect unity in a diversitymade him dis cover the intermaxillarybone in the upperjaw of the human skull,whose absence had been believed to mark the anatomicaldifference between humans and other mammals. Metamorphosis endowsform with life by combining two tendencies, the linear verticalityof growth and the grouping around a center. As the plant unfolds around its core, it also strives upward, and this synthesisof spatial symmetry and temporal sequence expressesitself in the spiral. The spiral, familiar to the artistfrom the serpentine figuresof the Baroque and Hogarth’sline of beauty, combines rotation with propulsion, staticcomposition with dynamicaction. The interaction of oppositesenlivened Goethe’s discourse throughout his descriptionsof the wealth of natural form. The rhythmic contraction and expansion of the heart, the systole and diastole,which drive lifegivingblood through the body, were his favorite metaphor for the antagonism of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
pp. 85-86
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-04
Open Access
No
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