Bernhard Kuhn, Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism

Bernhard Kuhn, Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009). 171 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6166-5.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Bernhard Kuhn’s engaging study draws life writing into current academic debates concerning the historical relationship between the arts and sciences. Contesting C.P Snow’s model of ‘two cultures’ separated by a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’, Kuhn takes a synoptic view of his subjects’ autobiographical and scientific writing, mapping their intersecting, mutually-constitutive methodologies. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1766-70), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Poetry and Truth (1811-33) and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) are placed in the context of their authors’ diverse scientific interests, including botany, plant morphology, colour theory and organicism. Kuhn explores how autobiography is transformed by this ‘encounter’ with natural science (and vice versa), tracing a complex ‘web of affinities’ (2) between what we now consider to be separate epistemological systems. Rousseau, Goethe and Thoreau refuse to make this distinction, resisting the ‘growing estrangement of the arts and sciences’ (1) emerging throughout the Romantic period.

Rousseau himself drew a somewhat surprising comparison between botany and autobiography. In one of the Confessions many self-reflective passages, he imagines the autobiographer’s role to be that of an ‘observer’, like ‘the botanist who describes the plant’ (37). In Chapters Two and Three of his study, Kuhn reveals how this comparison functioned as more than mere metaphor. In both his botanical and autobiographical writings, Rousseau sought to present his subject in context, to focus on instances of interrelation: between plant parts; within ecological systems; between self and other; and in the self’s changing relation to society (24). To demonstrate this view of the “Confessions as natural history”, Kuhn explores Rousseau’s treatment of his various love affairs. For Kuhn, the Confessions encourage their reader to view these relationships in context—‘in relation to his other loves’—and, simultaneously, as isolable experiences, as ‘unique and unrepeatable affair[s] of the heart’ (37). Rousseau’s botanical practice is used to elucidate this apparent contradiction: his minute descriptions of individual plant parts are combined with more general observations on the living organism. For Rousseau, therefore, the autobiographical subject, just like a plant, should be understood as an ‘interrelated and evolving whole’ (33). Kuhn extends this argument beyond the Confessions to demonstrate how, for Rousseau, the act of self-representation becomes an increasingly scientific practice. In Reveries of a Solitary Walker, left unfinished at his death in 1778, Rousseau abandons the narrative drive of the Confessions. Kuhn compares the resulting ‘collection of moments’ (60) to Rousseau’s construction and description of various herbaria—a herbarium being a collection of plant specimens, dried and preserved between sheets of paper. Rousseau himself compared herbaria to life writing; his private collections function as ‘a diary of plant excursions’ (48). Similarly, the Reveries are intended to preserve; they eschew artificial, though meaningful, narrative order. For Kuhn, reading the “Reveries as herbarium” offers a new model for self-representation: Rousseau is shown to observe and present the self as a natural specimen, one that reveals itself to be ‘an entity developing in time and history’ (61). Locating the Confessions and Reveries in the context of their author’s scientific principles, Kuhn’s study makes a significant new contribution to the wealth of extant criticism on Rousseau’s autobiographical practice.

In Chapters Four and Five, Kuhn turns his attention to the figure of Goethe, exploring Poetry and Truth in relation to two fundamental principles emerging from his scientific writing. The first is concerned with the embodied perspective of the scientist. Goethe rejects the new call for a distanced, “objective” science, seeking instead ‘to establish a mode of scientific inquiry and writing attuned to the dynamic relation between objective and subjective experience’ (62). For Kuhn, as Goethe becomes increasingly concerned with ‘the role of the subject in any act of perception’ (64), so his scientific writing becomes increasingly autobiographical—Poetry and Truth is seen as the culmination of this process. The second principle underlying Kuhn’s reading is derived from Goethe’s theory of metamorphosis. Goethe believed that all natural forms—animal, vegetable and mineral—were part of a dynamic process in which variety and flux (e.g. the movement ‘from seed to flower to fruit to seed again’ (74)) were the result of two universal laws: polarity (‘expansion and contraction’) and intensification (‘refinement and nullification’) (75). In Poetry and Truth, Goethe locates the autobiographical subject within this process, narrating his developing self ‘as a ceaseless transformation of a series of living forms’ (100). What results is a relational, historical subject reminiscent of Rousseau, and a narrative that seeks to trace the ‘dynamic encounter between self and society’ (113).

Thoreau becomes the ‘culminating figure’ (140) in Kuhn’s study. His extension of Goethean metamorphosis beyond the closed systems of specific natural forms results in ‘a fully organic vision of the world’ (115). Within this ‘interrelated, interactive, and evolving system’ (124), all things are bound together. Chapters Six and Seven trace the development of this worldview and its impact on Walden, Thoreau’s imaginative account of a two-year period spent at Walden Pond, Massachusetts. The result is a synthesis of seeming opposites: ‘reason and imagination, empiricism and idealism, the literal and the figurative; in short, between the poetic and scientific’ (140). Kuhn explores Thoreau’s ‘unique hybrid prose’ (128), his combination of multiple perspectives and discourses, going beyond Rousseau and Goethe to establish the exploration of self and nature as identical, not contiguous pursuits.

Kuhn’s prose is clear and accessible, even when dealing with complex philosophical and scientific theories. The organisation of the book into smaller subsections, each with a signpost pointing to the broader thesis, ensures readability. Moving seamlessly between literary criticism and historical analysis, Kuhn offers a valuable new perspective on the “cultural work” of Romantic life writing as it responds to the shaping influence of socio-cultural and scientific discourse.

Amber K. Regis, Keele University