California Literary Review

Goethe and Tagore – Unexpected Interests


March 26th, 2007 at 3:13 pm

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“When a child begins to understand that a given point does not have a predetermined predecessor, that the next path between two points should be thought of as a line, even before he traces it with a pencil, then he experiences a certain pride, a relief. And not without justification. For then is the source of all thought opened to him, ideas and realization ‘power and action’ become clear to him. Philosophy discovers nothing new for him, the geometer on his part initiated the basis of all thought.” Thus wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in his Wilhelm Meister. Such reflections are in keeping with the notions widely held before and during Goethe’s time, that geometry is a sort of natural science, the science of the motion of things around the world. For Goethe to have discerned connections between the arousal of human cognition and appreciation of elementary geometrical notions, suggests his familiarity with disciplines outside the strictly literary realm.

Goethe is among the figures of modern enlightenment who represent the phrase renaissance man in all its truth and glory — an epithet which mindless use has since cliched. Although Goethe’s contribution to poetry and drama shine as brightly as they should, they have largely overshadowed his commitment to scientific endeavor. His interest and enterprise in natural science, which occupied him for decades, places him almost on the same level as Linneas. The extent of Goethe’s involvement with the sciences has even led critics to suggest an interference with his literary pursuits; he should have written more poetry instead is a complaint often heard.
Goethe’s interests in science extended to mathematics — a subject he approached with a deep insight but without notable appreciation of the techniques. His statements reveal the colors of his understanding of the scheme and schema, “Mathematics is entirely false in the claim that it provides infallible conclusions. Its entire certainty consists of nothing but identities. Two times two is not four, it is still two times two and, for short, we call it four. Four however is nothing new. Thus does it persist in its development, except that in advanced formulas, the identity is lost from sight.” Or the more grandiose pronouncement, “The Pythagoreans and the Platonists thought that all consists of number, even religion, but God must be sought elsewhere.” Even as we wonder at the great depths these words seem so easily to plumb, we are also aware of the prisms Goethe’s mathematical vistas passed through. Ideas such as G.H.Hardy’s mathematical reality would most likely have found little favor with him.

However, Goethe’s notable absorption in scientific queries vis-a-vis his native literary instincts, points to an enigmatic duality that sometimes affects creators of art.

“Whenever I could lay my hands on books on astronomy, I read them with great interest. Often the road became rocky with mathematical formulations, but my mind pushed itself over such obstacles. That experience revealed to me that in our first exposure to a subject, we may not understand everything, but such gaps hardly prevent the progress of our studies. Like the proportions of earth’s water and land, what we do not understand far outsizes what we do, but still we move on and are touched by the joys.” This is Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in the preface to his Visvaparichay (Story of the Universe). Incidentally, the book is dedicated to the Indian scientist Satyendranath Bose, who collaborated with Albert Einstein on the Bose-Einstein statistics; the elementary particle boson was subsequently named after Bose.

Tagore lived for eighty years, splitting in half between the 19th and 20th centuries, and engaged in music, literature, painting, education, occasional politics and social reform. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his own translation of his poetry from the original Bengali to English, in a compilation titled Gitanjali (Song Offerings). In a life of variegated activities, Tagore composed nearly three thousand songs, wrote several thousand poems, over hundreds of short stories, novellas and novels, plays and essays, and painted nearly four thousand pictures. All efforts at his formal education had been in vain, he deserted several seminaries in childhood and early youth; the last being London University, where he was sent to study law. Perhaps spurred by the anathema for structured learning, Tagore read voraciously on his own, covering wide swaths of subjects. In later life he also founded a school modeled on his ideas of academic and co-curricular instruction.
In the preface to Visvaparichay, Tagore describes the great stimulation his first encounters with elementary science brought him. Simple experiments demonstrating the properties of warm water as compared to cold, or the sessions of star gazing with his father during their travels in the Himalayas left lasting imprints on his young mind and shaped a life of inquiry. In the Fall of 1937, at the height of his acclaim, in the midst of an exceptionally creative phase, plagued by obstinate ill health, and four years away from demise, Tagore wrote Visvaparichay as a science primer for the students of his school at Shantiniketan. The chapters range from the study of atoms, planets and stars, and the earth. Not unexpectedly, the discussions lack rigor and the tone is more anecdotal than realistic. But the charming strength of his diction, coupled with good understanding of the material at the general subjective level and the poet’s power of metaphor imparts a certain timelessness to the book, even as many of scientific theories reflected upon are now long outdated. The book is essentially what the author described it with humor and grace in the preface, anadhikar prabesh (intrusion into another’s space, usually unbidden); but it is one of the finest examples of a stalwart’s excursion into a field very different from his own, with due apologies.

Goethe and Tagore, separated by time and contexts, but joined in their great felicity over the literary idiom, show similar quests in the understanding of the sciences.

It is alluring to jump to the conclusion of a phony and fashionable unity ; that science and arts are the same after all; and literature, music, mathematics, and the physical sciences are all manifestations of the common muse.

And it is gratuitous and inane to do so.

What the interests of these creative individuals suggest is an ever renewing longing for knowing and appreciating paradigms of expression other than their own. Goethe’s words bring to light the thirst and impatience of such search, “I am dependent on words, language and image in their proper meaning and completely incapable in any way of operating with symbols and numbers that a highly talented individual easily understands.” The talent Goethe so readily recognizes here is a talent of another kind than his own; perhaps it is the power of abstraction science nurtures in its pupils and practitioners.

This detached judgment of the limits of one’s Weltanschauung (world view) commensurate with the greatness of these individuals is found in Leonardo da Vinci’s Atlantic codex, “Seeing that I cannot contend with material of great use or pleasure…I shall do as some person who arrives finally at the fair…and must be content with all the things others have seen, and rejected.”

“Those who draw their sustenance from science are blessed. It is for me to only derive an occasional pleasure. This is nothing worthy of conceit, but I am indeed touched by the joys. This book is an ode to such joys, a digest of my collections from various sources.” This is Tagore again, in the preface to his Visvaparichay.


1.Musings of the Masters, An Anthology of Mathematical Reflections. The Mathematical Association of America, 2005, ISBN : 0-88385-549-6, page 240.

2. A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H.Hardy. Cambridge University Press, 1973, ISBN : 0-521-05207-6

3. Visvaparichay (The Story of the World) by Rabindranath Tagore, Chirantan Rabindra Rachanabali (Collected Works of Rabindranath Tagore on compact disc, Version 2.0), Celsius Technologies.

4. Festival of the Earth – Rabindranath Tagore’s Environmental Vision by Nandan Datta, California Literary Review, 2005

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