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  • Aus dem Leben der Form: Goethes Morphologie und die Nager by Eva Geulen
  • Joel Lande
Eva Geulen. Aus dem Leben der Form: Goethes Morphologie und die Nager. Berlin: August, 2016. 160 pp.

The crux of Eva Geulen's Aus dem Leben der Form: Goethes Morphologie und die Nager can be found in a distinctive approach to a passage that every reader of Goethe's scientific writings is familiar with. The German language, according to Goethe, has "für den Komplex des Daseins eines wirklichen Wesens das Wort Gestalt. . . . Betrachten wir aber alle Gestalten, besonders die organischen, so finden wir, daß nirgends ein Bestehendes, nirgend ein Ruhendes, ein Abgeschloßenes vorkommt." Over the course of ten compact and densely argued chapters, Geulen shows that Goethe's morphological theory may have organic life as its focus, but it also presents a generalized theory of form. According to this [End Page 308] line of argumentation, organic life and its study exhibit, in exemplary fashion, attributes that are instructive beyond the scientific domain. Such an approach allows Geulen to suspend temporarily a number of standard interpretive questions: Are Goethe's Hefte zur Morphologie about nature or art? Are they literary or scientific? In the closing chapters of the book, Geulen returns to these all-tootempting questions, and introduces a number of bold theses worthy of serious debate.

By restoring Goethe's morphology to its proper level of generality, Geulen's book aims to fulfill a number of desiderata. Aus dem Leben der Form offers a compelling and sophisticated interpretation of Goethe's morphology that can simultaneously lay the groundwork for a theory of form with broad analytic potential. A further goal of this impressive study is to demonstrate that Goethe's morphological theory is not just the object of study in the Hefte zur Morphologie, but also the principle embodied in their composition. To put it in the most rudimentary philosophical vocabulary, Geulen's book seeks to show the unity of the form and content of the periodical that Goethe published between 1817 and 1824. Hence, Goethe's morphological writings constitute, by argument and design, a concept of form that does not adhere to the boundaries between art and nature and that itself is neither exclusively literary nor scientific. Indeed, one of the great rewards of Geulen's book lies in the resemblances it draws out in Goethe's treatment of all four of these central categories.

This may sound like tall order for a diminutive volume, especially since its approximately 150 pages have as their center of gravity a rather inconspicuous section from the Hefte zur Morphologie. Geulen's book departs from and repeatedly cycles back to a review Goethe wrote of a volume of copperplate prints and two essays by Eduard d'Alton. As the penultimate contribution to the fourth and final notebook in the Hefte, the review of d'Alton's book on the "gnawers" becomes, in Geulen's hands, the prism through which diverse strands of Goethe's morphological thought are refracted. Peppering her interpretation with words and phrases lifted from the d'Alton review, Geulen even embodies, on a stylistic level, Goethe's artful appropriation of the review genre. Written with as much vigor as rigor, Geulen's book succeeds in persuading the reader that the seemingly peripheral gnawers hold a (but, as the author emphasizes, not the) central key to Goethe's morphological thought and, what is more, that this morphological thought is very much worth chewing on today.

Upon first encounter the title of Geulen's book, one cannot help but wonder why the gnawers deserve such a privileged place in a study of morphology. The choice is surprising, to be sure, and it is a surprise that redounds to the author's benefit. As Chapter 3 demonstrates, the gnawers, which are distinguished by the incessant activity of their front incisor teeth, provide an acid test for Goethe's morphological thought. As has long been recognized, he maintained a long-standing interest in the construction of the jaw in living beings and believed that it played a unique role in the interchanges between animal and environment. The gnawers, meanwhile, pose a serious challenge to fundamental...