No. 2: On Goethean Learning as Collection

Thinking about learning as a collecting is a really striking way to consider it I think, it’s a metaphor Goethe frequently used:

“The whole universe lies before us, like a great quarry before the master builder, who only deserves this name if he can put together with the greatest economy, purposiveness and firmness these chance natural masses according to a primal image formed in his own mind. Everything apart from ourselves consists only of elements, indeed I may well say everything about us; but there lies deep within us this creative force which is able to call into being what is to be and does not let us pause or rest until we have given expression to it outside ourselves or about ourselves, in one way or another.”

-The Uncle; Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, Book Six

The Uncle is a minor character in Meister who appears more towards the later portion of the novel. He’s given no name besides “The Uncle” by Goethe, and his house and estate features more prominently as a location the other characters gather at than he does as a character. Schiller comments about him however:

“The Uncle, with his singular idiosyncrasies for certain natural objects, is highly interesting. Precisely such natures have so marked an individuality and so full a measure of susceptibility as The Uncle must possess, in order to be what he is … It is evident that into this character you have put more of your own nature than into any other.”

-Schiller to Goethe; July 3rd, 1796 [Letter CLXXIX]

Basically The Uncle is a collector, references are made to his collections of books, natural specimens and scientific “experiments” and most importantly of all, fine art. His collection of paintings is one of the central motifs of the book, first appearing long before The Uncle himself all the way back in Book One, Chapter Seventeen.

In a later, minor work, “The Collector and His Circle” from 1798, another Uncle appears, again a collector of fine art, to discuss aesthetic principles through a series of pseudo-literary epistles.

The primary similarity between Goethe and The Uncle resides in their shared love of collecting, and incessant collecting of things is one of those uniquely Goethean traits that made Goethe Goethe. He was one of the greatest connoisseurs of fine art of his time. There’s a room in his house called the “Juno Room” to this day for example, so named because of the plaster copy of Juno displayed there which he acquired while in Italy.

As part of his day job he undertook the (re)opening of a pair silver mines, sitting on the commission overseeing the project, being responsible for the selling of shares and the raising of capital etc. The exposure he received to mineralogy while working on the endeavour developed into more than a mere professional concern however, and overtime it developed into a lifetime hobby of his. It became one of his hallmark idiosyncrasies even to carry with him a rock hammer wherever he went, and to always return from an evening walk with an armful of mineral samples he couldn’t resist chipping off for himself. In the “Italian Journey” he repeatedly is forced to reprimand himself for overloading his baggage with specimens for his collection.

He even exhibited his books in glass cases. He was a collector through and through, and it’s a trait of his that, in a way, actually defines his working method and style as a writer.

Goethe was a prolific writer, and his major works are all masterpieces of the highest order, ~five or so dramas, his three mature novels, the epic “Hermann and Dorothea” etc. But below them was this rich substratum of fragmentary and secondary material, and this was like the soil his best writing tended to always grow. Among these minor works we’re talking thousands upon thousands of letters, novellas, fairy tales, theatrical prologues, fragments and drafts of every variety.

One of the really incredible things about him was his ceaseless intellectual development. We don’t see him enter the mature phase of his literary career until he was into his forties, and the works he finished while in his seventies are some of his most adventurous brilliant productions.

In the long term what we start to see is a convergence of his method of writing and the literary style he employs. His final novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years” is perhaps the greatest example of what I mean and this is where his character as a collector becomes really significant. The book is, frankly, radical even by modern standards, existing only as this forever mysterious collection of vaguely related meta-fictional inserts. In it the Wilhelm Meister character is given during his journeying all these different books to read by the people he encounters, and those works are reproduced as self-contained pieces of meta-fiction in full as Wilhelm reads them himself.

There are four (though the exact way they should be counted is a matter of serious contention) novellas (one of which is even a “free” plagiarism translation of a story by a French author), two independent collections of philosophical aphorisms, extensively reproduced correspondence between the characters and even a travelogue recorded by somebody in their journal.

We relate individual cases under the idea of some whole, and the whole never exists by itself, independently of those cases, but only through the relationship the parts have to one another. Goethe the collector was just a master at arranging the parts of something to convey larger ideas. For example, let’s say I want to use one wall of a room to focus on a particular painter or style or epoch of fine art. I’m obviously limited to displaying a cross section of several works that together somehow articulate a unifying aesthetic idea.

Or perhaps let’s say I task you with picking five records that together capture the essence of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”. It’s not just the particular records you select, but the story they tell when thought of in the same idea, it’s how they relate to one another. The idea of “Wall of Sound” production comes out between the cracks, emerging from the negative space between the parts connecting them.

Goethe even approached science in this way, explaining his method in the essay “The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject” to be one of “collecting” essentially a number of experiments (ie. parts) and arranging them into a coherent series.

Goethean learning is exactly this brand of creative collecting of knowledge. You assemble discrete pieces of information, and bring them together into a synthesis, which is really like a gallery of paintings almost. And the art is in curating your collection, picking the best, most representative specimens and arranging them alongside one another harmoniously. It’s a way of seeing things that absolutely fascinates me, and over time I’ve come more and more to conceptualize my own studying and reading using Goethe’s metaphor.

It’s something I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to others, it’s a genuinely powerful way to control and consciously direct the process of knowledge acquisition. And I repeat, it’s also actually a pretty enjoyable way to go about things.

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