What Happened to Colour Theory And What To Do About It

Today, a note about what happened to the promise of a science based on unity rather than dissection. The first part of this discussion is here, if you missed it. Here’s another image of unity of the kind that inspired the poet-scientist Goethe to invent a science of things as they are.


All summer, a farmyard tree’s leaves collect light and cast shadows on the ground. In the fall, when the sky is shadowed by cloud, they cast leaves, full of light, right where the earlier shadows fell.

This image shows a symmetry that Newtonian science left for the poets to admire. Goethe  insisted that this was also a point of departure for scientific investigation, using humans, rather than prisms, as measuring devices. Well, time went on. Throughout the 19th century, European society married the ideas nicely in a conception of art as an ennobling impulse for the citizenry. The ideas show up here, for instance, at Kyffhäuser Mountain, southwest of Berlin.


Emperor Wilhelm I

aka Greybeard

The monument was erected to commemorate the formation of the German state. It was erected at the old Kyffhäuser Castle in Thuringia because legend had it that Emperor  Friederich 1 was living under the castle with the dwarves, and would show himself again when the lawless non-Christians who were mismanaging the country had been set to rights. Truth is, Friederich had led thousands of Germans on a disastrous crusade to Jerusalem, that saw the army picked apart by Turkish bandits until the emperor, in a fury at his troops’ complacency, drowned while attempting to show them how to cross a river in Northern Lebanon.

Friederich I

Sleeping Under the Mountain With His Dwarves. Note the 800-year-old beard. Every century he wakes up, calls for beer, then falls back asleep.


Pretty much only the official biographer made it back from the ensuing mayhem. Seemingly, Friederich, who was well known in legend as Barbarossa, or Red Beard, had come again, with a grey beard, sure, but, you know, on a green horse, so that was good.

Wilhelm 1’s Trusty Steed

The old, sleeping emperor is just below. It was a job of great political delicacy for German nationalists to preserve this monument during the time of the German People’s Republic, but they managed.

At the opening of the monument in 1896, the trains were packed with bureaucrats, army men and their wives, with parasols. They strolled together up the avenue to the old castle at the top of the mountain, and passed, along the way, a dedication plaque which quoted the Emperor’s approval of the project and his wish that it would help instruct the people to die for their new state. And die they did.

A German Mother Prepares Her 16-Year-Old Hero for Battle

1914. Whole high school classes enlisted and were thrown untrained into the Battle of the Marne. They were mowed down by British machine guns — to the last boy.

By the end of the Great War, the idea of heroism, indeed the idea that art could ennoble a civilization, was completely rooted out of the European consciousness. Unfortunately, the split between art and poetry had so long been maintained by the hair-brained idea of nationalism that art went out the window with it, even though Goethe had tried to point out that there was, actually, no split, that the division was artificial, and that romanticization of it ( in other words, aestheticization of spirit) would lead to dehumanization and unforeseen horror. Like this:

German Troops at Verdun, 1916

Poetry and art seemed to be completely bankrupt as ideas. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin’s secretary, was as devastated as anyone, and finally found solace in the Valais in Switzerland.

The Alpine Vineyards of Switzerland

Here Rilke found a path back to the earth. All the energy of Europe seemed to him to be flowing up the Valais to the peaks and from there to the stars.

Rilke’s rediscovery of the physical world and a spiritual and ethical way to work with it was misunderstood, was taken up by the far more literal-minded and nationalistic mind of Adolf Hitler and soon led to a gruesome garden in a forest in Thuringia.

The SS Zoo in Buchenwald Concentration Camp

SS guards were trained in cruelty here by being forced to watch starved bears fight to the death, in an obvious metaphor for the myth that communists (the Russians, symbolized by the bear) couldn’t organize themselves and broke up into splinter groups that destroyed their societies from within. They were then set loose on the prisoners — mostly Russians, social democrats, and communists.

After the Second World War, Primo Levi, in his very genuine and very appropriate grief at the horrors of the extermination camps, which he had experienced first hand, had this to say:


Once again, the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. In fact, Goethe’s method had started from a point that did not allow for a dissection between creative and experimental activity, between engineering and ethics, and so forth. What was, in fact, being rejected was the very distinction that Goethe had worked to prevent: the creation of art, as a category of activity distinct from technical creation. To Goethe, this …

… was the result of artificially dividing art and physics, without thinking harder and developing human capacity rather than technical capacity. It was the end of the earth. To a society dependent upon the distinction between art and technical prowess, however, the following was how to develop human capacity…

German Boy Soldier, 1914

Off to become a man by facing down mechanized guns. Verrrrry romantic.

… and this is the art that was designed to comfort him and his mother …

May an Angel Always Walk at Your Side in Time of War

German Propaganda Postcard, 1914. Note how the cemetery angel has come to life and how the watering trough is designed to look like an oak log (age-old German nationalist symbol).

If I am right, and it was all a mistake, then the horrors of the Twentieth Century did not negate the spiritual connection between art, practical work, science and technology. All they did was negate the distinction between them, which was artificial in the first place. Accordingly, the way to move forward is to work with unity once again, which means to work with writing, for example, as a force in the world, rather than something created around a creative writing workshop discussion table, in which the mechanics of characters are worked out, along with the skills of how to create the easiest and most effective fictions. If we’re going to get it right, after missing the signposts for so long, then this is going to be the writing centre of the future, where writers will come to hone their craft:

Late Summer on Turtle Mountain

Snow Buckwheat in Full Bloom

… and here …

Rediscovering Heritage Tomatoes

Waiting among the books in my library.

… and here…

Hindenburg at the Kyffhäuser … the Third Emperor

Erected 1939, to commemorate the Nazi’s new Empire (which soon led to a disastrous and murderous campaign in Russia, called, prophetically, Barbarossa), buried by the communists, unearthed in the new reunified Germany, and then left to lie in state in his grave, because it’s just too political to mount it again in what has become a shrine for Neo-Nazis. They charter busses to take in the sights.

No more classrooms, no more workshops, no more art, please. We have to move on, past the distinctions, into writing while walking together on this earth, as biological and spiritual humans. The alternative is this. The poor thing can’t even get up and down a flight of stairs.










2 replies »

  1. Which is why writing and writers today, inn the face of global warming and the ongoing environmental crisis, are facing a deep moral crisis, although it goes mostly unnoticed and unacknowledged.


    • Ah, Luanne, that’s one thing I found while editing that anthology of British Columbia poetry, “Rocksalt”: everyone feels the same sense of disassociation, no matter what their positions of power or powerlessness. Pretty amazing.. We need to come together where we are strong, and that is not in the normal places. Your farm is, for instance, a place of such strength. To put it another way, we need to come together in the place where we are making life, not images of the energy that keeps us from it. Do you have sumac on your farm? best Harold


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