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
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
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
Take these rags and wrap them
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
There, he's at the stream
Back like lightning he is
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!
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
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
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
Hall and steps immersed are
What a flood that naught can
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
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,
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.