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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: February 2013

Seeing the Light: Goethe's Märchen as Science—Newton's Science as Fairy Tale

from Special section on childhood edited by Anthony Krupp


Introduction: A Fairy Tale of Science Written in the “Symbols” of Nature

Light permeates Goethe's enigmatic 1795 Märchen, appearing in such manifold forms and reflections that it may come as a surprise that it refers rather straightforwardly to, well, light. Most interpretations of this tale begin with disclaimers about how its opulence renders it luminous with meaning and yet ultimately and intentionally opaque; I begin instead with the assertion of clarity. The play of light in this text mirrors many aspects of Goethe's critique of Newtonian optics. While the lights of the fairy tale may also reflect scores of ideas including the shine of poetry or aesthetics, the Schein of Schiller's Ästhetische Briefe, the enlightenment, theater lights, and the French Revolution described in its framing tale, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, their primary role is to highlight, as it were, the role of light in the perception and interpretation of phenomena. Light in Das Märchen is the concrete, scientific topic with which Goethe was obsessed for much of his career, through which he felt he had accomplished far more than in any of his literary works, and on which he was actively working during the writing of his fairy tale. Goethe sees light as a complex problem whose very nature, as well as our mode of perceiving it, must be completely reassessed. Rather similarly to discussions in phenomenology and contemporary physics, he believed that perception and nature are not two separate subjects but rather always connected.