Despite my quite wonderful liberal education, some of it was lost on me. Names and dates got lodged somewhere in memory, but didn’t tie to things in my limited experience. Now, as I grow older, I am enjoying going back and putting things together, my curiosity about people and history not only intense, but more able to be satisfied than ever, since a quick internet search can provide, if not perspective, at least references and directions in which to look.
There Is a Garden in the Mind, though frustratingly circular, has sent me exploring in several different directions! Not surprisingly, Paul Lee, who has a Lutheran background like my own, has a point of view. His thesis is that what currently counts for knowledge in Western civilization, the moment in which “the hard sciences lined up against the soft ones no longer deserving the name science,” was the moment Friedrich Woehler artificially synthesized urea in 1828. At this point ‘organic’ chemistry was born, a “swindle which was the beginning of all confusion,” since it was said that the chemistry of the living organism is fundamentally identical with that synthesized in the laboratory.
Lee watched as the University of California at Santa Cruz became a research facility, where the laboratory superseded the organic garden he and Alan Chadwick tried to establish as a teaching tool. Lee names the opponents in science physicalism and vitalism and traces the lineage of vitalism from Chadwick, to Rudolf Steiner (whose name was so incendiary it could not even be mentioned!), to Goethe. Lee believes that “the plight of human existence in industrial society is wedded to the plight of organic nature. Both are at risk together.” This is quite the point of view of my character Line, a dedicated gardener and mother.
I wanted to look back at this background to controversies around the concept of “organic.” Which is why I have just finished a biography of Goethe, a holistic thinker who lived from 1749 to 1832. Though I may have encountered him in college, Goethe seemed to me one of those musty writers whose lengthy works I would never read. (Randy Newman’s delightfully wicked album Faust is about as close as I have come!)
Goethe was a grownup. While he had no illusions about the depths of misery people could sink to, he also felt that happiness was the sane and normal goal of existence. He felt that people must be disciplined and have goals, while remaining open to pleasure and joy. About art he was unequivocal: “Most modern productions are romantic, not because they are new, but because they are weak, morbid and sickly. And the antique is not classic because it is old, but because it is strong, fresh, joyous and healthy.”
“Goethe occupies a position whose time has never come, but whose time is always,” writes Armstrong. “Idealists, progressivists and socialists have never liked Goethe’s acknowledgement of the conservative, material basis of happiness – which the majority of people have always taken seriously. But Goethe is, at the same time, intensely rich in his awareness of the complexities of the human heart – our desperate longing for love, our folly and confusion, our sexual depths, our craving to make sense of life. Thus he is unsettling to complacent, conventional or reactionary readers.”
Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but I am delighted that it led me back to Goethe. I must say that I agree with his views on life and art. Goethe wrote the defining “bildungs-roman,” or story of education and development of an individual, Wilhelm Meister. To some extent the series So Are You To My Thoughts has this intent as well, in showing how the lives of Line, Marty and Paul unfold.