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An Arcadian Affirmation

The following is Paul Lee’s chapter from Unusual Associates: A Festschrift For Frank Barron

If we could take a long walk, Frank, I would propose we follow in the steps of Goethe, who, just over 200 years ago, took one of the great walks of all time–his famous Italian Journey. Let’s say the walk exemplified your lifelong concern for creativity. Goethe was one of the most creative figures of all time, and his walk was his response to a crisis of creativity. He dropped out of German culture and went on a personal quest, a kind of identity crisis. I have taken his quest for the urplant–an idea peculiar to him, a kind of morphological exemplar of plant evolution–as a metaphor for his journey, translating the urplant into the problem of the vital root of existence, the crisis of industrial society, which Goethe anticipated and made the subject of his Faust.

Goethe took a slogan from the time for his walk: Et in Arcadia Ego (“And I Am In Arcadia”). It meant the unambiguous affirmation of the goodness of creation: Arcadia is equivalent to Eden. It is slightly transposed into an affirmation of the goodness and sweetness of life as lived in the face of death. Erwin Panofsky (1936) has an essay on the famous painting of Poussin with that title. The themes of the walk have been close to me ever since coming to Santa Cruz, our own Arcadia, where we affirmed our egos, such as they are. I remember when you first arrived on campus and embraced me in friendship.

Now I don’t know what to think, as I look back over the terrain of the last decades, now that we are growing old. I thought I had it figured out, but now I’m not so sure. All the themes–the urplant, the vital root, the integrity of the organic, the Big Lie that the synthetic, through chemistry, is equal to the organic, the self destruction of industrial society, the smashing of the atom–does not necessarily figure out anything. It may be a construction of wishful thinking, garden reveries, watching the daffodils bloom. But the themes are close to my heart, and whether or not they are defensible has yet to be determined. It may be that nothing fills the void.

In any event, we still have time to talk, and this is the story I have to tell as we take our walk.

These themes were made evident to me in the Chadwick Garden, 25 years ago. I started the Student Garden Project (UCSC) with nothing in mind, and a few weeks later Chadwick arrived, as though by providence, and took it on. I thought of Chadwick as our Goethean gardener in his transmission of the vitalist tradition from Goethe through Steiner to himself, as the man who replanted the vital root of existence in the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society. He gave us a second chance in his restoration of the vital integrity of the organic order of nature, undermined by the victory of physicalist science and the triumph of artificial synthesis–the Big Lie: organic equals synthetic and factories are plants.

Goethe’s Italian Journey began in September 1786 and lasted two years. It became the model for German youth, as part of a love affair between German culture and the idea of the classical, as well as a love of Germany for the Southern climes of Italy and Greece. Goethe was meant to be the embodiment of the idea of the classical–the purpose of the Italian Journey was to take on this classical form in that metamorphosis of forms Goethe made one of the leading themes of his life. His journey to the Southern climes to experience firsthand the remains of classical culture was representative of every educated Germans’ longing to take on classical form.

Moreover, Goethe, as the leading man of letters of the German nation, and one of the greatest of poets, represented the tradition from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Milton to himself: the epic tradition of the perfect tense, the inner heart of the classic tradition.

I like to think of the Archaic Smile on the sculpted faces of the ancient Greek gods as the expression of this epic poetry. It has the strength of origins. What are they smiling about? They smile because they precede the subject/object split, brought on by rational self-consciousness and the culture of the book predicated on literacy. They smile because they inhabit the perfect tense of transcendent time. It is a time of dreaming innocence, a time of youth, a time of elemental powers that are still intact/ It is Arcadian Time. Et in Arcadia Ego. And I am in Arcadia. It is the spiritual landscape of a garden in the mind.

The motto of Goethe’s Italian Journey was Et in Arcadia Ego. And I am in Arcadia. I am in the perfect tense of the Arcadian garden where the sweetness and goodness of life is enjoyed as a whole. Complete. Fulfilled. Where right fruit never Falls. It is the classical expression of the unambiguous affirmation of the goodness of creation from the point of view of its end, an affirmation from the grave. The famous rendition of this expression in a painting by Poussin, which hangs in the Louvre, shows Shepherd youths in wrapped meditation before the inscription on a tomb, which they have come across in the wilderness. The inscription is the voice from the tomb– it is death’s illumination of life:

“I, too, I was once alive and enjoyed what you enjoy. I, too, experienced the goodness and sweetness of life. I, too, was/am in Arcadia.”

Past perfect. Present perfect. Future perfect. The perfect tense of accomplished action.

Culturally, the perfect tense ended with Goethe. He was the last to participate in it directly. Now we have to reconstitute it, after this period of its collapse, thanks to reductionist physicalistic science and the takeover of technology. The development of industrial society ruined the perfect tense. It was traded for daylight savings time on the assembly line. We became estranged from our essential or true being.

Fortunately, there has been a secret transmission of the perfect tense, the onion big us affirmation of the goodness of creation, from Goethe to us. Steiner called it the “etheric”. Call the Goethe Legacy– it was submerged for a century and a half, when it had to go underground, but the transmission remained intact. It surfaced again at the very point when it looked as though it was lost, when Alan Chadwick came to Santa Cruz and planted a garden in the tradition of Goethe.

The way back to Goethe goes through Rudolf Steiner who was editor of Goethe’s scientific writings at the Weimar Archive. Out of an intensive study of Goethe’s botany, Steiner developed biodynamics as a system of horticulture and agriculture, which Alan Chadwick practiced, amalgamating it with the French Intensive system. Thus was the vitalist tradition brought to Santa Cruz, along with the reaffirmation of the inviolable integrity of the organic order and a practice that nurtured and supported it.

It was appropriate that Goethe was especially devoted to Botany because he had such a strong sense for the integrity of organic nature, an integrity that would be undermined just before his death. Goethe must have sensed that botany would be an endangered subject matter in the swing towards Newtonian mechanism and the Triumph of the new physics, in alliance with mathematics and chemistry, determining what counts for knowledge and culminating in the physicalist refutation of vitalism.

Physicalism represented the trend of reductionism, of experimental laboratory procedures, a trend that would provide the foundations for the emerging industrial society, a trend that Goethe fought against with all the power of his talents. Faust is the scientific in the intellectual who is willing to sell his soul to the devil in order “to unveil nature’s mysteries.” Faust is the exemplar of the scientist as eunuch, the castrated soul.

To combat this trend, Goethe tried to refute Newton’s Optics and the physics of color in his famous prism experiments and his work on color theory. According to Edward Land of Polaroid, Goethe was right in his opposition to Newton, although few share this opinion in the historical judgment of Goethe. Goethe was regarded as a poet who dabbled in science, where he should have had enough sense not to stray.

The life and death struggle of a new era about to be born and Goethe’s profound intuition of the cost to organic nature is mostly missed by those who favored the physicalist victory, namely, practically every scientist.

The struggle was developed in the third, fourth, and fifth decades of the 19th century. Goethe died In 1832, between the origins of organic chemistry, the chemistry of artificial synthesis, and the origins of Existentialism, the protest against industrial society and the fate of human existence in it. Urea, the nitrogen waste part of urine, was synthesized in 1828, in the experiment that spelled the end of vitalism and the victory of Physicalism

Existentialism began in the Berlin Lectures of Schelling during the school year 1841-42. In his class sat Bakhunin, the Russian anarchist; Engels, Jacob Burkhardt; and Kierkegaard. We have Kierkegaard’s class notes, 75 pages, what Tillich called “the ur-text of existentialism,” now translated into English by Howard Hong of St. Olaf College.

I remember looking over some books in a bookstall in the Kensington area of London and coming upon The Lives of Great Chemists and thinking there might be a chapter on Wohler, the man who synthesized urea. Sure enough, there it was. Imagine my surprise when I read:

He received his early Education from his father, who interested him in nature and encouraged him in drawing and in his hobby of mineral collecting. Friedrich carried on a brisk exchange of minerals with his boyhood friends, which he continued even in later life. On one occasion he met the old poet Goethe, who was examining specimens in the shop of a mineral dealer in Frankfort. (Jaffe, 1931, p. 155)

I have conjectured in a fanciful way that the encounter was what Goethe needed to go home and finish Faust. He had met him– the Faust-to-be, the man who undermined the Integrity of the organic and ushered in the era of the artificial/synthetic supplanting of organic nature.

Goethe understood the threat to the organic represented by the emerging trend of Physicalism, in which any entity was understood to be nothing more than a combination of physical and chemical forces. It is in the context of this threat to the integrity of the organic that Goethe’s theory of the urplant takes on symbolic significance.

The urplant was a metaphysical vision meant to withstand the uprooting of the organic order on the way to industrial society. I think of the urplant as a metaphor, an image, of the vital root of existence: in our time, endangered beyond anything we can think or say, as if Goethe’s worst premonitions have been realized. formerly, The urplant is a part of Goethe’s botanical studies. He had in mind that plant, a tree, that would be the morphological exemplar of all plant development. He coined the term morphology in order to talk about his interest in plant forms and the evolution of plants, as developed in his main work– The Metamorphosis of Plants.

Think about the symbolic significance of this urplant, this vital root of existence, as the prophetic anticipation of the tragedy of industrial society and its path of self-destruction because it is a world without roots, a world of artificial synthesis, a world above the given world of nature. Goethe the Vitalist stands as a prophetic witness against the emergence of this world which he foresaw and which now has us in its self-destructive grip.

Goethe anticipated the uprooting of the organic and the eventual triumph of the trend of artificial synthesis on the part of physicalism when he formulated his theory of the urplant. It is one of the more difficult aspects of Goethe’s thought, partly because of the symbolic overload. I have come to understand it theoretically, but I have not been able to experience it in practice as Goethe did. It leads one to think that he had a higher order perception, a greater ability to see things, the formative forces in things, which we can no longer see as a result of the reductionist trend.

On the 3rd of September, at 3:00 am, Goethe “stole out of Carlsbad; they would not otherwise have let me go. (Tagebuch, 11786, W.A. III, 1, p.147).

On to Munich. Innsbruck. Over the Brenner. The shores of Garda. Verona. Venice.

He told no one where he was. He concealed his whereabouts.

“I was in a life and death struggle.”

This crisis in Goethe’s life was a crisis in the life of Western culture. Goethe’s Italian journey is the symbolic quest for the origins of culture at the very moment when they were being undermined. The urplant is the symbol for these cultural roots.

It is typically German to speak of ur-whatever. The urplant, the urmensch, the urtext, urlandschaft– Goethe even thoughts about an urox, when he saw the prehistoric remains of an ox dug up. It is a difficult word to translate because we have no equivalent in English–original, primordial, form, idea, none of them convey the metaphysical ring of the German.

The urplant was Goethe’s metaphysical vision. He saw botany as the endangered subject matter given the trend toward Physicalism and the Newtonian emphasis on mathematics and physics. Botany was endangered because it was concerned with Organic entities. Vitalism was about to be refuted when the alliance among chemistry, physics, and math was consummated.

The urplant was the symbol of what Physicalism would reject. The urplant was the principal of the integrity of the organic against its reduction, through so-called Organic Chemistry, to its inorganic limitation. This is the key point! If you think of the loss of the botanical basis of health care, in the field of medicinal herbs, as a consequence of the Vitalist defeat and the Physicalist victory, you have an example. Synthetic drugs replaced medicinal herbs in our health care system. It was possible to synthesize any isolated and identified chemical structure found in organic nature. You no longer needed the plants. Factories were now called plants. As Jacques Loeb, one of the great chemists of the 19th century said: “[T]he ism is fundamentally identical with that of the laboratory in the factory.”

Goethe was guided to the oldest botanical garden in the western world, founded in Padua in 1545. He was searching for the urplant. He is said to have found it in the Palm, a dwarf Palm–Chaemerops humilis. The palm, growing in the middle of the Padua garden, was already over 200 years old, planted in 1546. After his visit, the Paduans renamed it “Goethe’s Palm”. They built a glass tower to encase it. I saw it with my own eyes when I paid a visit to the garden with my friend, Rolf Von Eckartsberg. When I saw it I thought: “Well, what do you know? The vital root of existence squirreled away under glass in the oldest botanical garden to wait out the rise, triumph, and self-destruction of industrial society as a world above the given world of nature and therefore devoid of vital roots.” There it was, alive and well, in Padua.

Goethe thought of the urplant as the morphological exemplar, the essence of plant form, informing every plant as the principle of organic Integrity in the evolutionary development of plant forms.

In a similar way, based on his interest in morphology and structural development, Goethe thought of the urmensch. When he reached Sicily, under the influence of Homer, he looked for those human beings of Greek descent who exemplified the primal form, the arche, the archetype of the human. He wanted this form for himself. The German in him sought to be actualized after the type of the Greek figure. The Greeks captains of the Gods in their perfect form satisfied this longing, and beautiful transformed in just this way when he gazed on them. Goethe’s search for the urplant was guided by the hope that in the Lush vegetation of Italy and Sicily he might find an actual plant he could just designate as an example of what he meant. He knew he would recognize it when he saw it.

But more basic to the respective ur-whatever: urplant, urlandscape, ur-ox, was a metaphysical principle that I have called “the vital root of existence,” the principal against which the governing trend, the spirit of the age, recoiled, as exemplified by Kant. It was against this recoil from the unknown root of existence that Goethe fought with all his heart.

From the German philosophical tradition to the dilemma of existence and industrial society, the move is made to the transformation of human beings into things, cogs in the machinery of production and consumption.

The central point of contention was the integrity of the organic order for which the urplant was the conceptual model. Undermine this integrity and there goes the vital root of existence. In this context, German philosophy and German culture is the wrestling mat, the testing ground, for the struggles to come, now that we know more than we can take in about our mortal combat with industrial society.

Again, in the garden of Palermo, Sicily, Goethe thought he saw it once more, this vital root, this urplant. He was reading Homer in the botanical garden in Palermo, and he came to the passage in which Odysseus wins shore on the island of Phaeakia–the kingdom of Alkinous. Odysseus, Adrift at sea for days, saved from drowning by little life preserver from the goddess, manages to crawl ashore and find shelter in an olive thicket–olive and wild olive:

he made his way to a Grove above the water on open ground, and crept under twin bushes grown from the same spot– olive and wild olive thicket proof against the stinging wind or Sun’s blaze, fine soever the needling sunlight; nor could a downpour wet it through, so dense those plants were interwoven. To save two men or maybe three on a winter nut, a night of bitter cold. Odysseus’s heart laughed when he saw his leaf bed, and down he lay, heaping more leaves above him.

A man in a distant field, no hearthfires near, will hide a fresh brand in his bed of embers to keep a spark alive for the next day; so in the leaves Odysseus hid himself, while over him Athena showered sleep that his distress should end, and soon, soon. In quiet sleep she sealed his cherished eyes.” (Fitchgerald translation).

From the humble palm in the Paduan garden to the olive tree of Odysseus in the garden of Palermo where Goethe read his Homer, we have the constellation of figures that show us the urplant. It is appropriate for a German that the urplant is represented by a tree. For Germans, culture means planting a tree. It means the affinity with the green mountain glade. The urplant of Goethe is the principal of forestry among the Germans–” Whosoever has not planted a tree is not a human being”– is one of Goethe’s maxims. Forestation and fatherland are united in the German sense of place.

Goethe’s urplant is an idea that satisfy the need for roots, which Germans more than anyone else have made into a metaphysical quest.

Goethe’s urplant idea was not taken up by botany because it was theoretical, although that charge was a bone of contention for Goethe. The accusation that something was merely an idea was an insult. Ideas were visions, and they had a practical aspect. There was no division between theory and practice for Goethe. He was eager, as well, to overcome the subject-object split. He “saw” the urplant, with his Mind’s Eye and said as much in his famous discussions with Schiller, whom he met in 1794 six years after his return from his Italian Journey.

They had been acutely aware of one another in a kind of reverse magnetism, and then one night they met and it turned out to be a version of that peculiar kind of gemütlichkeit a perfect example of Goethe’s “elective affinity”. They fell into a discussion of Goethe’s botanical ideas, and when Goethe got to the urplant, Schiller said: “That’s just an idea and not an experience!”

Goethe was stunned–he experienced his ideas. The Paduans had built a glass tower over one of them. Goethe drew a picture of the urplant for Schiller. Schiller knew the difference between pictures of imaginary plants and actual plants. Goethe had seen the urplant on his Italian Journey. Schiller had not shared these experiences and therefore did not understand what Goethe meant by the urplant as a “ground phenomenon”: “A ground phenomenon is not to be equated with the fundamental principle, yielding many kinds of consequences but is to be regarded as a basic appearance, within which the manifold is to be discerned”. For Goethe, “the archetypal plant is the primordial form, the basic structure, the shaping principle of plants, which need not only be constructed by the understanding but can also come directly to our awareness in intuition”.

Schiller’s reply to the urplant was: “How can any experience ever be given which should be appropriate to an Idea? For that is precisely what is characteristic of the latter, that an experience could never be adequate to it” (Biographische Einzelnheiten, Artemis ed. XII, pp. 622-623).

As difficult a time as Schiller had with the meaning of the urplant, he had an easier time analyzing Goethe’s character. In the famous letter to Goethe, Schiller wrote:

“You take the whole of Nature together, in order to get light on the individual; you seek the explanation of the individual and the sum of Nature’s manifestations… to provide your imagination by means of your intellect with the material which the real world could not give it, and so to produce your Greece as it were from within, by an intellectual process.” (cited in Trevelyan, 1941, p. 192 ff.)

In these words Schiller gave back to Goethe his lost confidence in the rightness of his struggle to recapture Greek standards in life and in art, and so is Chief the highest form of existence of which man is capable.

While in Italy, Goethe was initiated into the Arcadian Society, a society of poets with a distinguished history. He tells of the initiation ceremony in his Italian Journey. This may have prompted him to take the motto for his Journey, the popular phrase Et in Arcadia Ego. It was a phrase popular at the time. Poussin’s great painting of the shepherd youths, as we mentioned, is the visual expression of the phrase in a great work of art, the Arcadian affirmation, the triumph of “yes” in the sadness of the finite.

The metamorphosis of the urplants when the urplant is a tree, now an olive, now a palm, now a linden, is like the metamorphosis of the gardens in which the urplants grow, in Padua, in Palermo, on the island of Phaeakia, in Odysseus’s bedroom on the island of Ithica.

We left Odysseus in the hands of Nausikaa on the island of Phaeakia when we referred to Goethe, reading just those passages in the garden of Palermo, the urgarden of Alkinous, the garden of an everlasting spring, where ripe fruit never falls, true Arcadia. Read on with Goethe in Homer.

Now Odysseus has returned home. He is back in Ithica. The wily strategist, the man of many guises, the great tactician, who resists revealing himself to Penelope until they acknowledge their secret sign–their bed, one post of which is a living olive tree, rooted in the ground, around which Odysseus staked out their bed and built their bedroom.

Penelope tells the nursemaid to move it out into the hall for the stranger.

Odysseus lets down his guard and rants and raves over the moving of his bed. Now Penelope knows it is their secret sign; her husband comes home to her at last. And so the swimmer off the island of Phaeakia having won shore, crawls onto land, clotted with brine, having escaped the abyss behind, so they rejoice, her arms pressed around him as though forever.

So there you have it, Frank. The Arcadian Affirmation, from Homer, through Goethe, to us. We have known the beauty and sweetness of life in the midst of having to die. We have shared the gift of friendship and the bond it entails, and now we acknowledge this bond in a book dedicated to you.

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