The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Thursday 24 August 2023

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - A Technological Reading

Two hundred years ago Europe was in thrall to the fascinating discoveries of science and the possibilities of new technologies. For many at the time, this seemed to be an era in which nature had finally been conquered and humanity could enjoy the riches and comforts of progress.

Yet then, as now, there were those who questioned this thinking. As ever, it was the story-tellers, novelists, and poets who first attempted to warn of potential disastrous consequences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example, was published in the early 1800s.

In this blog I wish to consider a 1797 poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,1 the great German poet, novelist, scientist, and philosopher. Many readers may not know of the poem, but likely will be familiar with one of the segments of the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia based on Goethe’s poem - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In that segment the cartoon character Mickey Mouse is cast in the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Allegorically, the poem can be read as a warning that we mess around with the mysteries of the world at our peril. Furthermore, when we create time-saving, comfort-inducing technologies, things can rapidly get out of control.2

Let us proceed through excerpts from Goethe’s poem (in italics) with an interpretation of this possible allegorical meaning. Not all of the poem is quoted here, only selected excerpts. The full poem comprises 98 lines, made up of 7 stanzas of 8 lines each, interspersed by 7 indented stanzas of 6 lines each.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

That old sorcerer has vanished

And for once has gone away!

Spirits called by him, now banished,

My commands shall soon obey.

These first four lines of the poem tell us that the wisdom of the ages (that old sorcerer) is no longer with us, and along with that, the mysteries are now banished. In wisdom’s place we humans will command nature to obey.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,

Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Long my orders you have heeded,

By my wishes now I've bound you.

The third stanza tells us that we will take our technologies (old broomstick), expand them and bind them to our whim.

See him, toward the shore he's racing

There, he's at the stream already,

Back like lightning he is chasing,

Pouring water fast and steady.

And look, in stanza 5, it is working. Look how wealthy and mighty we are becoming. Our GDP (pouring water) is rising, we are growing fast on the back of our genius.

    Stop now, hear me!

    Ample measure

    Of your treasure

    We have gotten!

    Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.

    Master's word I have forgotten!

But wait! What is this? The sixth indented stanza warns: climate catastrophe, pandemics, and social decay. We have had ample measure and have overshot our carrying capacity. Sadly, we have forgotten wisdom (Master’s word) and do not know how to stop this.

Ever new the torrents

That by him are fed,

Ah, a hundred currents

Pour upon my head!

It’s all happening so quick. Collapse is getting quicker and quicker, more and more (a hundred currents).

Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!

Shall the entire house go under?

Over threshold over portal

Streams of water rush and thunder.

By the ninth stanza we are in danger of total collapse (shall the entire house go under?)

    Can I never, Broom, appease you?

    I will seize you,

    Hold and whack you,

    And your ancient wood

    I'll sever,

    With a whetted axe I'll crack you.

Hang on! We’ll get out of this. We’ll create new technologies (a whetted axe) with which to save us.

What a good blow, truly!

There, he's split, I see.

Hope now rises newly,

And my breathing's free.

Hooray! Hope is rising in the eleventh stanza. We’ll get out of this and breathe free.

    Woe betide me!

    Both halves scurry

    In a hurry,

    Rise like towers

    There beside me.

    Help me, help, eternal powers!

Oh no! It has all gotten worse. Technology now taunts us. Hope has soured and become hopium.

Off they run, till wet and wetter

Hall and steps immersed are lying.

What a flood that naught can fetter!

Lord and master, hear me crying!

We’ve reached, and surpassed, tipping points and planetary boundaries. No matter what we do, things will collapse (what a flood that naught can fetter!). Perhaps too late, we cry for wisdom (Lord and master).

In Goethe’s poem the master sorcerer does return and with an appropriate spell relieves the apprentice of the calamity. The Sorcerer commands the broom:

    "To the lonely

    Corner, broom!

    Hear your doom.

    As a spirit

    When he wills, your master only

    Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

When Goethe wrote this poem I am sure he was not thinking of climate catastrophe or impending collapse of environmental and social systems. However, he was clearly cautioning humankind to not tamper with things we do not have the Master Sorcerer’s wisdom to understand. For when we do so, we unleash consequences that are beyond our ability to reign in. Furthermore, our attempts to do so, by utilising the thinking used in creating the situation, tend only to worsen and exacerbate our predicament.

Fortunately for the Apprentice the Sorcerer returned before it was too late. Can we too expect a return of wisdom? The signs are not good.


1. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in sourced 23 August 2023

2. I first became aware of this possible interpretation/reading in: Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.

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