Ecocriticism, Goethe’s Optics and Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten: Emergent Forms versus Newtonian “Constructions”

Heather I. Sullivan


Long viewed as an anomalous assemblage of tales formulating either social or aesthetic developments, Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, in fact, presents a sequence of perceptual categories relating to his optics and his exploration of our interface with the physical world around us. From the troublingly inexplicable sounds of the ghost stories through the embrace and renunciation of physical desires to the final, idealized visual spectrum of the Märchen’s colors and lights, the tales’ path explores how physical perception is enmeshed with interpretation. Hence the Unterhaltungen relates to ecocriticism’s interrogation of human- nature environments in that both Goethe and ecocriticism seek to change our perception itself so that we might recognize the “emergent forms” in which we inevitably participate (rather than simply “control” them). Both also seek to comprehend the artificiality of the damaging “constructions” wrought by Newtonian science (according to Goethe) or by the view that the natural world is naught but static material awaiting our “enlivenment.” (HIS)

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