From Faust to the American Sublime


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The universe can’t fit into anyone’s head… at least, that’s what everyone thought until Humboldt expanded his own mind beyond his head, trying to jam the entire universe into it!

The vision we cherish today of the man who explored earthly strata and mountain peaks and who was the light and star of an entire scientific movement, inevitably recalls the great allegorical figure of his time: Goethe’s Faust. The similarities between the two are far too strong to be ignored. In Goethe’s tragic play, the hero seals a deal with Mephistopheles which Faust hopes will help him to learn everything that can be known in the universe. Once one knows of the friendship that existed between Goethe and Humboldt, the parallels are even more convincing.

Goethe, despite being ten years older, was a close friend and a great admirer of Humboldt. “In an hour of conversation with Humboldt, one learned more than in eight days of reading books,” he once said of him. The energy Humboldt injected into their friendship was also addictive. Humboldt, in fact, would help extricate Goethe from a difficult literary drought and, surely for this reason alone, Goethe never failed to keep track of his career. He read his works passionately. He deepened his own anatomical, chemical and botanical studies at the insistence of his friend. When Humboldt made the Naturgemälde depicting Mount Chimborazo, Goethe drew his own sketch of Mont Blanc in the Alps. And according to Humboldt’s biographer, Andrea Wulf, Goethe completed Faust during intensive periods of writing that coincided with Humboldt’s visits. “Like Humboldt,” writes Wulf, “Faust wanted to discover all the secret powers of Nature.”

The mutual admiration and influence of these great thinkers helped bridge two fields of human knowledge that had been difficult to reconcile in the past: art and science. Goethe, the poet, embraced science and Humboldt, the scientist, embraced art. “In order to discover nature in its greatest sublimity,” we read in Humboldt’s Kosmos, “we must not remain in external manifestations, but trace the image reflected in the mind, developing the noble seed of artistic creation.” Knowledge was born from what Humboldt called the “tension of harmony” between art and science.

The tragic hero Faust’s dilemma, after all, is his longing to possess the irreconcilable: both earthly and metaphysical knowledge… both to experience intellectual sublimation and live life with intensity. Humboldt, lost in similar yearnings, was, more than a “romantic” (before the Romantic Movement had even come to be). Humboldt was the living embodiment of this search. He left the Enlightenment behind in Europe and set out to meet the sublime in the Americas. The Independence hero Simón Bolívar called Humboldt the “scientific discoverer of America”. But Humboldt, in his open-air laboratory in the wilds of the Orinoco, Amazon and Andes, revealed something even more unique: the science of sensibility. He became an inspiration for his generation and dozens more who followed, and never once needed to make a deal with the Devil.

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