Goethe and holism:
If someone were to say of me that I had not been reared to live in America but in Victorian England or maybe the republic of ancient Greece or Rome I should not take it amiss, and if that critic were to go on and say that this anomaly was my greatest weakness and my only strength I should respond with pleasure thinking that somebody thought I had a strength at all.

Our parents made a concerted effort to create an environment in which there would be ample access to the wisdom of the ages and ample opportunity to run and play.  I cannot imagine a better childhood. 

The Victorians continue to be my sentimental favorite.  And just from time to time auld England comes through with an historical perspective that charms me.  NATURE has just done so.  (Mathew Bell, In Retrospect: Elective Affinities NATURE vol. 516 no. 7530 December 11, 2014 page 168 reviewing Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, J. G. Cotta 1809) In my delight I have the impulse to write and thank them, but upon reflection they must be heartily sick of hearing from me already, so I’ll just ramble a bit here.

It has been said that Goethe’s poetry started out as sentimental, morphed into Romantic and wound up as Modern.  I don’t think Modern deserves such praise.  At all events the book referred to above is as romantic as all get out, sentimental tragic, delusional, wallowing in self pity, you know how it goes:  good old Teutonic stuff. 

The issue for the reviewer, and I do take his point, is that Goethe comes in on the tag end of the enlightenment.  Prior to that, ever since the close of the ancient world, intellectual activity had been under the protection of, and of course controlled by, the Church.  There just wasn’t any other game.  Come Newton and people could think independently of the power structure: all right, non-starter, could think somewhat independently if they had the money.  And think they did.  Science and the Industrial Revolution made great changes.  But the romantics came along and said, “Ah, but you are all focused on tiny details (which we are too lazy to study) and miss the Big Picture.”  So far as I can tell, that attitude still rules the intellectual roost.

Goethe was a brilliant writer.  I’m not sure I ever read a line by him that I did not envy.  But although the article treats him with great respect as regards his scientific accomplishments, which were substantial, I can’t get away from the fact that his personal life was deeply disturbed by Rh incompatibility, which he lived along side of but never actually noticed.  If there was ever a time for the Big Picture to come into its own, that was it.  The horror that this disease was producing and would continue to produce for many years could have been averted by exactly the kind of observation, comparison with other data and indifference to social expectation that were Goethe’s strengths.

In the book, as I read the review, the protagonists regard love as a sort of a chemical reaction and it all ends in tears.  They missed the Big Picture.

Well I’m not so sure I can boil love down to chemistry.  Of course there is the hormonal thing and there are social issues.  But “normal,” by which I mean biologically successful love, depends on kinship; that’s been shown by Bateson using Japanese quail.  And I fear that “abnormal” love may under certain circumstances be equally compelling.  Call me a reductionist if you must.  But before anybody seeks to outline the big picture, that person really ought to know the details. 

I quite expect within a year to be able to say, in effect, “that atom has a certain effect because, according to the rules of chemistry, it is here and not over there, and the extension of that principle shredded Babylon, ignited the French revolution, summoned (in the sense of bringing up a devil) National Socialism from Hell, savaged the Soviet Union and today leaves the Western world rudderless before sworn enemies with passionate intensity, who make steady inroads.  If that’s reductionist, so be it.  Don’t you think we ought to do something?

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