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Goethe in Marienbad

Christopher Bamford

Goethe’s great theme—in poetry, in science, in fiction, in drama, in human relations, as in life—was always unity in multiplicity (or division) and multiplicity in unity. As he put it: “To divide what is united and unite what is divided is the very life of nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal syncresis and diacresis, the rhythmical breathing of the world, in which we live and move and have our being.” (Theory of Color)

Like the old alchemist Maria, Goethe knew that creation and consciousness arise as Primal Love between One and Two, Unity and Duality. He understood that in the moment that Unity looks at itself it sexualizes or polarizes and begins the sequential processes of expansion and contraction whereby, reuniting, it becomes conscious of itself. Years of patient observation and study of nature, society, and his own heart had taught him how unity divided to become a field of love that unfolded through embodied affinities. Over and over again he had seen how these affinities, through their perpetual self-transcendence, determined the harmony of the relationships specifying the individualized powers of the universe—all yearning to be brought together again in unity. In everything Goethe did—whether in science, poetry, drama, or fiction—he sought to realize the famous adage attributed to Ostanes: “Nature rejoices with nature; nature conquers nature; nature restrains nature.”

For Goethe, the name of this nameless One-Many/Many-One is Nature. Goethe’s great love was always Nature, and Nature was love and Nature was the All. For him, the love that was Hildegard’s greening power of nature, Dante’s “love that moved the stars,” and the love that brought two human beings into unity, was a single love.

One sees this clearly in his famous early poems “May Song” and “Ganymede”:

How gloriously
Nature shines!
How the sun glitters,
How the meadow laughs!

Buds burst
From every twig,
A thousand voices
From every bush,

Joy and delight
From every breast.
O earth, O sun!
O happiness, O desire!

O love, O love,
Golden beautiful
As the morning clouds
On yonder hill…

Maiden, maiden,
How I love you
How your eye glances!
How you love me!

As the lark
Loves singing and air
And morning flowers
Love heaven’s fragrance

So I love you
With warm blood:
You give me youth
And joy and courage

For new songs
And dances…


How in the morning’s radiance
You glow all around me,
Spring, my beloved!
How, with love’s thousand delights,
Your eternal warmth,
Your holy feeling,
And unending beauty,
Press upon me.

Oh if I could hold you
In these arms!

At your breast
I lie, I languish.
Your flowers, your grasses
Press on my heart.
You cool
My breast’s burning thirst,
Sweet morning breeze!
Where the nightingale calls out
Amorously to me from the misty valley…

Nature was always and everywhere for Goethe one with the “eternal womanhood” celebrated at the end of Faust:

Everything transitory
Is only a symbol;
The unattainable
Here become event;
The indescribable
Here is done:
Eternal Womanhood
Draws us on.

Nature, for Goethe, was all. As he wrote: “Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to step out of her, and powerless to enter deeper into her…” Unceasingly, she shapes new forms. Whatever she does is new, yet always the same. She is the only artist, working up “the simplest material into utter opposites and arriving, without a trace of effort, at the greatest perfection, at the most exact precision, always veiled beneath a certain softness. Each of her works has its own distinct essence, yet all form one eternal life. Becoming, and movement, are in her, but she does not advance. She changes eternally, and never rests…” She has always thought and always thinks; though not as a human does. Above all, he claims:

Her crown is love. Only through love can one come close to her. She makes abysses between all beings, and all desire to intermingle. She isolates all in order to draw all together, holding a couple of draughts from the cup of love to be fair compensation for the pains of a lifetime.

In his Metamorphosis of Plants, he showed that from seed to seed a plant was only “leaf” metamorphosing through a seven-stage process of contraction and expansion. While his Treatise appears to be purely botanical, Goethe alludes at its beginning to its being something more. He calls the complete process—whose summit is reached in the union of sexes—“a spiritual ladder.” Elsewhere, he refers to “metamorphosis in the higher sense,” saying that it had already been excellently portrayed by Dante. Both of these metamorphoses are processes of purification (the progressive spiritualization of matter), renunciation (death and resurrection), and ennobling, around and creative of a central point. The endpoint, the seed, described as “the highest degree of contraction and development of its inward self,” comes after the hermaphroditic union of male and female in the corolla, from which fruit and then seed emerge. It is in fact clear that, just as the old alchemists saw all processes as essentially those of sulphur and mercury, so Goethe understood the metamorphosis of plants as an unfolding sequence of conjunctions or unions, deaths and resurrections, between male and female elements.

17 April 2012

Tagged Under
love, Sufism, wisdom, divine, poetry, Islam, alchemy, green hermeticism, divine feminine, Rumi, Goethe, Divan, Hafiz,
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