The “Hidden Law” of Structuralism
On 5 January 1960, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss delivered his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. It was this event that established structuralism in the French academia as a force to be reckoned with. Lévi-Strauss used it to address a charge levelled against the structuralist method: the charge that it was static and ahistorical. He asserts repeatedly that ‘structures’ need not be rigid but should, rather, be seen as continuously evolving. Lévi-Strauss argues that the link between ‘structure’ and ‘transformation’ had already been recognised by Goethe, whom he quotes:
All forms are similar and none are the same, So that their chorus points the way to a hidden law. [Alle Gestalten sind ähnlich, und keine gleichet der andern; Und so deutet das Chor auf ein geheimes Gesetz.]*
The two lines are taken from Goethe’s elegy “The Metamorphosis of Plants” (1798), a poetic attempt at communicating to a wider audience a hypothesis proposed in 1790, in the same author’s Attempt to Explain the Metamorphosis of Plants: that the growth of all plants could be described as a process in which a single organ – called ‘Blatt’ (leaf) – is brought forth and developed.*
It is remarkable that Lévi-Strauss should endorse “The Metamorphosis of Plants” in his inaugural lecture; it is, moreover, the text’s only explicit reference to a work of literature. The analogy established through the quotation, between a recognition of the metamorphosis of plants, on the one hand, and the structure of a system, on the other, is intuitive: the voice of Goethe’s poem alerts its beloved to „The rich profusion […] / Of flowers, spread athwart the garden“ [„die tausendfältige Mischung / Dieses Blumengewühls über dem Garten umher“], in order, then, to bring to her attention the metamorphosis of plants and thus to make her understand the one “hidden law” at work in many different plants; in the same way, Lévi-Strauss argues, a structure’s “internal cohesiveness” could only be recognised through “the study of transformations” to which the structure is subject.
What is worth noting is that Lévi-Strauss refers to Goethe and the concept of plant metamorphosis in several of his other works as well. In the fourth volume of Mythologiques, published in 1971 under the title The Naked Man, he cites the same two verses in the “finale” of his monumental work when he summarises the results of his exploration of American myths: “no myth or version of a myth is identical with the others […]: no myth is like any other. However, taken as a whole, they all come to the same thing and, as Goethe says about plants: ‘their chorus points to a hidden law.’” Lévi-Strauss repeatedly points out, too, that Goethe (as well as Albrecht Dürer and D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson) should be counted among structuralism’s ancestors. In a 1971 interview with Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, he declares that structuralism’s roots were in Germany (that “der Strukturalismus ja aus Deutschland stamme“). It all started with Albrecht Dürer and then manifests itself again “in Goethe’s morphology of plants” (“bei Goethe in seiner Morphologie der Pflanzen”): “The idea that leaf and blossom should be results of mutual transformation is a structuralist one.”*
This notion of a ‘morphogenesis’ of structuralism is well-known. Lévi-Strauss puts it forward on numerous occasions, especially from the 1970s onwards, and both Tzvetan Todorov and Jean Petitot have discussed it. What is less clear is which of Goethe’s writings Lévi-Strauss actually knew, and how well. Careful readers will notice that no source is given for the lines cited from “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” in neither the second volume of Structural Anthropology (1973), which includes the published version of the inaugural lecture, nor The Naked Man. The bibliographies of both volumes do mention Essai sur la métamorphose des plantes, Frédéric de Gingins-Lassaraz’ translation, published in Geneva in 1829, of the original edition of Goethe’s Attempt to Explain the Metamorphosis of Plants, but this French book only features a version of the 1790 essay and not the elegy of 1798, the source of the two lines of poetry.
In spite of this somewhat mystifying gap, it seems certain that the great French anthropologist had become well-acquainted with Goethe through the work of mediators. A very likely candidate was D’Arcy Thompson, whose On Growth and Form, first published in 1917, dealt extensively with the morphological thought of Germany’s classical poet and scientist. Lévi-Strauss devoted himself to its study. Muriel van Vliet has recently suggested that another mediator may have been Ernst Cassirer. In Cassirer’s Structuralism in Modern Linguistics, a lecture delivered at the Linguistic Circle of New York in 1945 and published shortly thereafter in Word, the group’s journal, Goethe features prominently and the same two lines of poetry are cited:
„Alle Gestalten sind ähnlich, und keine gleichet der andern;
Und so deutet das Chor auf ein geheimes Gesetz,“
said Goethe in his poem „Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen.“
A definitive answer to the question how well Lévi-Strauss knew Goethe’s works is beyond the reach of this essay. But it is important to note quite how often he insisted on invoking Goethe as one of structuralism’s precursors. Parallels can clearly be drawn between Goethe’s morphology (especially the concept of plant metamorphosis) and structural anthropology (especially the analysis of myths): both paradigms subscribe to the idea that science should be ‘seeing’ (‘anschauend’) and ‘concrete’ (‘konkret’), that sensation is far from irrational, and that abstract forms and ideas can be detected in the material world. Both conceive of forms or myths as living beings that are subject to transformations, and both attempt to describe these transformations through references to ‘hidden laws’ and ‘structures’ and through ‘canonical formulae’ (such as the one proposed by Lévi-Strauss in his ground-breaking 1955 article “The Structural Study of Myth”). And they both, finally, also agree that new or hitherto undetected forms and myths can be invented with the help of these laws, structures and formulae. But as obvious as these parallels between morphology and structuralism are – the morphological legacy of structuralism is yet far from being sufficiently explored.