discovery and knowledge

And so Goethe leaves behind Weimar, where he has official responsibilities, and goes to Italy as his father had, as Winklemann had, as Herder had – the great trip. But he goes under an incognito – an unknown man in unknown territory. The function of being “unknown” is, of course, relative to a knower. To take on an incognito is the same as coming down with amnesia; but, in a curious way, it mimics amnesia. It projects a certain forgetting of oneself on others. It is, above all, a dramatic conceit. The Lord of Dark Corners, the King in Measure for Measure, for instance, pretends to go on a trip in order to return to his city, under an assumed name, and see that thing we all dream of seeing: what things are like when we aren’t there. But of course the dramatic conceit requires a secret third, an audience, for it to work dramatically. The comparative task is entrusted to the audience in this experiment in bi-location. Goethe takes the chance that he really will disappear – and there are murders on this trip, for sure. Winkelmann, after all, was murdered.

The incognito shapes this voyage of discovery. As I’ve pointed out, the divide between the North and the South takes on resonances of the within and the without, the European and the savage. You can’t have discovery without the savage, he must be somewhere. It is an odd that few people, that I know of, have remarked on one of the great flaws in Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses – the absence of any consideration of discovery. This was a crucial term in the episteme of the 17th and 18th century. Perhaps because it traverses the disciplines, it remains invisible to Foucault – there is no science of discovery – in contrast to the project of creating a science of knowing, the task to which a considerable part of philosophy, at that time and since, has devoted itself. Like “adventure”, “discovery” is diagonal to the grid of sciences, the order of words and things.

There is another reason, I suspect: Foucault’s stubborn refusal to open up the system of knowledge, centered in Europe, to the system of the world. As with the Annales school, with Braudel as our chief representative, here, one senses an active forgetting of the New World in Foucault.

But we amateurs of black magic find discovery everywhere. And its semiotic resonances. Goethe uses the term Entdeckungreise (Journey of discovery) to speak of a “friend” who went on one, presumably to Italy, and ended up eloping with the daughter of one of the natives “because he thought it was all part of the trip”. And, as we know from Pocahantas, he was right. The package deal includes taking the savage, or some piece of him or her, home. Goethe spends a lot of time thinking about collecting antiquities, making molds to send home to museums.

Collecting is in a field that is bounded by the savage, the ancient, and the rare. But it is also connected, by multiple connotations, to nemesis, to curses on the takers.

Leave that for another post. As an unknown – an incognito – Goethe effects a transformation on the things around him by removing the clutter of his own personality. Oddly, though he knows that he is Goethe, his incognito makes the things ‘forget’ he is Goethe. It clears a space between himself and them. Not only can he “see and read the things as they are” (212), but he has escaped the bonds of the character. He is not, here, the author of Werther. When Bertrand Russell considers the question of the author of Waverly from a logical point of view, he instinctively reaches for a royal example – the example of George IV identifying, or not, the author of Waverly with Walter Scott. Why a king? There’s no explanation given. I’d say, however, that the immediate reference to a king is a reference to the politics of the name, which is after all state business – the subject must be registered. Goethe is not just any incognito – he is the most famous author of his time. When he visited a place, he was celebrated. And if he had revealed who he was, he knew what the result would be. The reality was that if Goethe came to Rome as Goethe, he would have to visit certain dignitaries. It was part of his position in Weimar, and it would be a scandal if he didn’t follow through on this protocol. Goethe would insult them. By dispensing with his name, Goethe was suddenly put into a curious liminal position, and a slightly scandalous one.

He remarks: “My wonderful and perhaps whimsical half-incognito brings me advantages which I could not have imagined. Since everyone is used to ignoring who I am, and thus nobody has to talk to me about myself, nothing else remains than for people to talk about themselves or of objects that interest them, and through this I learn thoroughly what each is preoccupied with, or what curious things have happened and go on.”

Yet of course this is a half-incognito – some suspect the truth, and Goethe, behind the name, knows the truth. This desire to slip his social connections, to escape his subjectivity, can only half succeed – in the moment he writes, the escape disappears. He even calls this, at one point, my disappearance.

“Since I didn’t want my dear little incognito to be something like an ostrich [Strauss], who hides his head and thinks he is hidden, so I surrendered it at some points, observing my old thesis. I gladly greeted the Count von Liechtenstein, the brother of my dear friend, Baroness Harrach, and sometimes dined with him, and soon observed that my compliance here would lead me to other things, and so it proved.”