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“everything is leaf. . .”

By Lisa Robertson
Sketch of Old and New World Vegetation by Goethe

Sketch of Old and New World Vegetation by Goethe

As did Rousseau, Goethe botanized. At the De l’Allemagne show now up at the Louvre, pages from his herbarium are exhibited alongside more recent ones from Paul Klee. They’re near Goethe’s ink-wash sketches of clouds, a series of small watercolour studies for his Theory of Colours, and a five-foot-diameter octagonal piece called “Grand écran de la théorie des couleurs” constructed of colored paper squares pasted over canvas, in 1791-92. I’m attracted to the vulnerability of the 225 year-old dry, pressed plant material pasted down with little blue paper strips. It makes me think of the pressed and delicately mended sea-foam embroidered silk 1930’s lingerie once belonging to my grandmother, sent to me in the mail by my mother last year. I should make of it an herbarium page.

The museum wall-text reminds the viewer that it was Goethe who coined the word ‘morphology’; just a bit of research later on revealed that he was also responsible for bringing the word ‘metamorphosis’ forward from the classical literary and mythological canon, into the contemporary discourse of the biological sciences. He defined morphology as dynamic process inherent to organism—the form of a plant was a changing unit; morphology studied that form as it changed.  “Everything is leaf” he wrote in 1787, in a letter to Charlotte von Stein, but for Goethe a leaf was not an actual unit, but an idea realized by diverse manifestations: seed cotyledon, foliage and floral organs are all different forms of the ‘leaf’ idea. In 1786, he had written to von Stein “It is a becoming aware of the form. . . with which nature is always only playing, as it were, and in playing, brings forth its manifold life.”

That form is game, vitality, love, feels integral to a thinking about language, which Goethe did too, in a 1815 manuscript poem called Ginkgo Biloba—three four-line stanzas above a pasted-on pair of double-lobed ginkgo leaves. Translated, the second and third stanzas read:

Is it a living being,

Which has separated in itself?

Or are these two, who chose

To be recognized as one?


Answering this kind of question,

Haven’t I found the proper meaning,

Don’t you feel in my songs,

That I’m one and double?

[anonymous translation by wikipedia contributor]

When I was looking at this handwritten poem in the display case at the Louvre, I overheard the man next to me knowledgably telling his companion that it was a poem about the lungs. Not able to read German, I immediately accepted his interpretation. Leaf and lung seemed similar enough. Now that I know that he couldn’t read German either, his explanation doesn’t feel wrong. He was reading the leaf.

In a public conversation with the poet Trish Salah in Toronto a few years ago (we were participating in Margaret Christakos’ Influency Salon), I was too hasty to oppose politics to aesthetics, and Trish reminded me that aesthetics is desire. Her inference was that where there is desire, there is politics, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since. It’s not the unit, not the substantive iteration, that makes form potent, but the manifold variation in response to desire or need. We could say that history’s formal relationship to the present is morphological. The poem is one place where we can observe this dynamic; politics is another.

I’d like to give this ginkgo biloba back to Trish now, this little sprig, this lung-camisole.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Lisa Robertson.