2015 Essay Prizes

This year we were in the fortunate position to be able to award two prizes for the Goethe Society Prize for the best essay on Goethe or the Goethezeit published in 2015. (Find previous award winners here.)

Our first of two prizes goes to Stephanie Hilger for her original and fascinating article “Orientation and Supplementation: Locating the ‘Hermaphrodite’ in the Encyclopédie,” published in Volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook (2015). In her essay, she looks closely at entries on the hermaphrodite in various editions of the Encyclopèdie, ou Dictionnaire rasionné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72). Hilger deftly situates her analysis of attempts to represent the hermaphrodite within the contemporary discussion of queer phenomenology, that is, positionality and orientation. In an elegant, bold and convincing manner, Hilger highlights the tortured project of defining and representing the hermaphrodite, a figure that, according to Enlightenment thought, should not really exist. Hilger masterfully lays out the placement and optics of various entries on the hermaphrodite, revealing the seemingly competing tendencies of referencing mythical representations of hermaphrodites and representing ambiguously gendered anatomies in accord with the 18th-century scientific turn. In light of her nuanced readings of Enlightenment attempts to fix and understand the intersex body, Hilger concludes that the “Encyclopedic Age – what Foucault calls the Classical Age – is classical also in the sense that it reveals its anchoring in those Western foundational myths that it purports to transcend” (183). For those of us interested in encylopedism and the organization of knowledge as well, we will find here intriguing observations concerning the hybrid/ hermaphroditic form of the encyclopedia itself. Hilger’s essay provides a compelling intervention into scholarly discussions of the hermaphrodite that usually focus on this figure in the 19th– and 20th centuries, offering a window onto this figure’s pivotal place within shifting paradigms for understanding the human body, sex and gender.

The second winner of this year’s GSNA prize for best essay will not come as a surprise to most of us who have been reading new work in Goethe studies these past years, indeed decades. The prize goes to Heather Sullivan for her essay, “Nature and the ‘Dark Pastoral’ in Goethe’s Werther,” also published in the Goethe Yearbook 22. Heather has been at the forefront of employing ideas from “ecocriticism” and demonstrating the mutual benefits of reading Goethe through its lens. Far from a rote “application” of a method, however, she simultaneously thinks with Goethe’s own conceptions of nature. Most important in this essay, as in many of her others, she looks not just at Goethe’s theoretical pronouncements on science but on his literary production. She takes Timothy Morton’s statement seriously that in writing and thinking about ecology, the form matters as much as the content. In this essay in particular, she concentrates on what she terms “dark pastoral” in Goethe’s Werther—a term she coins after Morton’s “dark ecology.” This focus allows her to bring out the deep ambivalences in Goethe’s conception of nature (echoed in the varieties of natural descriptions). Furthermore, her reading challenges the typical subjectivist approach to the novel and to nature in the novel (as a mere reflection of poor Werther’s states of mind). Precisely her fusion of theory, science, and literature makes her essay stand out.

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Heather I. Sullivan and Catriona MacLeod

We also decided to award an honorable mention to an exceptional paper by Jacob Denz, “Rigorous Mediacy: Addressing Mother in Hölderlin’s ‘Am Quell der Donau,’ ‘Die Wanderung,’ and ‘An die Madonna,’” which appeared in MLN.

Denz convincingly interprets the womb, via analyses of this figure in Kant and Hegel, as a synecdoche for the maternal, ultimately a synecdoche itself for a notion of organic totality that presents a crisis for Hölderlin. Denz’s sophisticated and highly original close readings of the Hölderlin poems are each a tour-de-force, offering a model for the kind of sustained close work with literature that yields profound insights into the creative and reading processes alike. Denz situates nuanced close analysis within a discussion of some of the pressing philosophical questions of the time in a manner that provides a riveting and utterly enlightening reading experience.

We are extremely fortunate to have a new prize this year, the Richard Sussman Prize for scholarship on Goethe or the Goethezeit more generally and science.

Howard M. Pollack-Milgate’s highly innovative essay “Gott ist bald 1 ∙ ∞ – bald 1/∞ – bald 0”: The Mathematical Infinite and the Absolute in Novalis” appeared in the journal Seminar in February 2015. In lucid prose, Pollack-Milgate offers an elegant exegesis of Novalis’ understanding of the infinite. Novalis’s concept of Potenzierung is daunting.  This essay is a tour de force of sorts, for it makes a clear and compelling case to scholars of Romanticism and lay readers alike for a reconceptualization of Romantic notions of the infinite in terms of an emerging science of calculus. Pollack-Milgate shows us that Novalis studied early texts on calculus and that he then borrowed the language and thought presented by mathematicians to conceive of the infinite in a dual manner, as the meeting, so to speak, of the curve and the line, of the differential and the integral. Pollack-Milgate deftly connects mathematical and philosophical conceptions of the infinite to poetic ones, showing us that “the infinite allows for contradictions to be resolved (as in the meeting point of parallel lines or asymptotes)” (68). As complex as this topic sounds, Pollack-Milgate’s masterful presentation of it manages easily to convince that calculus serves as an illuminating allegory for Romantic notions of the infinite.

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Howard Pollack-Milgate and Catriona MacLeod

Thanks to the special section of the Goethe Yearbook 22 on “Goethe and Environmentalism” there were numerous excellent essays on Goethe and science and so we are happy to offer, in addition to the inaugural Sussmann Prize, an honorable mention to Fred Amrine for his essay, “The Music of the Organism: Uexküll, Merleau-Ponty, Zuckerkandl, and Deleuze as Goethean Ecologists in Search of a New Paradigm.” Amrine brings together a wonderful range of 20th-century thinkers—the subtitle of his talk is quite a mouthful!—in order to demonstrate the way they have been exploring and “normalizing” a “paradigm shift” (à la Thomas Kuhn) that Goethe helped to initiate. All of them offer a different, non-mechanistic, non-binaristic approach to nature. In this essay, as in so much of his other work that likewise deserves honorable mention, Fred has made a powerful case for the Aktualität of Goethe. We could say that Goethe planted the seeds that have blossomed in so many later thinkers, or that Goethe played the theme that has undergone many wonderful variations. Indeed, that latter metaphor is particularly apt in this case because the specific way Fred ties these thinkers together is through their use of music as a way of talking about natural phenomena.

Catriona MacLeod
University of Pennsylvania

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