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The enchantment of the world

Rüdiger Safranski's book on Romanticism is a genuinely exciting account of German intellectual history. By Ulrich Greiner

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte, work
When Johann Gottlieb Fichte read the "Critique of Pure Reason" in 1791, he was so excited that he set out for Königsberg to visit the famous Immanuel Kant. But what he found there was an old, disinterested man who sent him back home. There, in exactly five weeks, Fichte wrote "An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation," sent it to Kant, who was suitably impressed and found a publisher for him. For fear of censorship, the book appeared anonymously. The critics at the "Allgemeinen Literatur" newspaper in Jena wrote that anyone who knows even a bit of Kant will recognise that this new work can only be from him. Kant explained in a letter to the editor that a certain Fichte, and not he, was the author. And so he became famous overnight.

E.T.A. HoffmannE.T.A. Hoffmann, work
Rüdiger Safranski's fabulous book on Romanticism doesn't only consist of such stories but it so smoothly combines philosophical analysis with anecdotal perspective, and so gracefully switches between profound reflection and biographical wit, that we are presented with a genuine rarity: exciting German intellectual history. "Romanticism. A German affair". That's the title. It refers to both the epoch which lasted an astonishingly brief 30 years as well as the ongoing influence of Romantic thought and its often dangerous mutation into the political realm. In 1798, Novalis wrote, "In giving the entirety a higher value, the usual an element of secrecy, the well-known the value of the unknown and the finite the appearance of infinity, I romanticise." This preamble to the Romantic constitution was to be fatally radicalised later by dark ideologies and their masters. Goebbels used the term "steely romantic." And Safranski sees in Ernst Jünger "the warmongering version of the Dionysian," which plays an instrumental role in Nietzsche (also a Romantic renegade).

Heinrich HeineHeinrich Heine, work
Did Romanticism cause the German catastrophe? Safranski finds two respected proponents of this theory: Isaiah Berlin and Eric Voegelin. "According to Berlin, in the subjectivity of its aesthetic imagination and the joy in ironic play, Romanticism allowed for an uninhibited profundity, and a subversion of the conventional moral order. Voegelin makes a similar argument, but identifies the subverted order as 'theomorph' and extends the criticism of subjectivity to accuse Romanticism of deifying its subject. It's an accusation that had already been levelled by Heinrich Heine when he called the Romantics 'godless selfgods'."

Friedrich Schleichermacher, Novalis

But if there was ever a sense of magic, an innocent start, then in Romanticism. They were all so young! Fichte was 29 when he drafted his "Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation"; Friedrich Schlegel 23 when he wrote his famous essay "On the Study of Greek Poetry"; Schleiermacher 31 when he wrote his speeches on religion; Novalis 26 when he composed his hymns to the night; and Ludwig Tieck 22 when he penned his three-volume novel "William Lovell".

Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schlegel

All this happened in the final years of the 18th century and Safranksi succeeds in vividly depicting this explosion of genius and the ongoing enthusiasm that it generated. He seems to be infected by the enthusiasm himself. But he does not neglect to mention the social and political circumstances. Between 1750 and 1800, he says, the literacy rate doubled. People were no longer reading one book several times, but several books once. Between 1790 and 1800, two and a half thousand novels appeared, as many as in the nine decades before. And then of course the French Revolution, the Napoleon cult and finally the anti- Napoleonism which lead to patriotism, the politicisation of Romanticism and the beginning of the loss of innocence.

Jean PaulJean Paul, work
So what was Romanticism? According to Safranski, it was, among other things, an "extension of religion by aesthetic means." One could also say, a surpassing of religion through the release of the powers of imagination, which re-invented the world in a playful way. A world which, from a political viewpoint, was singularly intellectual. So one could say that Romanticism was a substitute for action, which is why it could only take shape in Germany, in narrow, politically sterile conditions. Safranski: "If there is a lack of a world at large, you build one yourself from what there is to hand." The subject finds the things to hand within himself. But Safranski also shows that the Romantics were not so naive as to be unaware of the potential dangers and disasters. Some, like E.T.A. Hoffmann, even sought them out. Even Tieck's "William Lovell" (1795), "who observes and reflects constantly, realises in the end, how hollow and empty he really is." And Jean Paul will note later: "Oh, if every subject is his own father and creator, why can't he be his own angel of death?" In the self-destructive excesses of the 20th century, the angel of death did indeed complete its work.

EichendorffJoseph von Eichendorff, poems
But Romanticism was not only an extension of religion through aesthetic means; for some poets, it was the safeguarding of the aesthetic through religion. "The war inside and outside will never end," wrote Novalis, "if one does not seize the palm branch which alone can administer intellectual power." Here he meant the Catholic religion. Safranski says of Eichendorff, the greatest poet of the Romantic: "He remained faithful to the God of his childhood, the God of his native forests, not a God of speculation and philosophy. It's a God that doesn't need to be invented – he can always be re-discovered in one's childhood dreams. Protected by this God, one can be pious and bold... at the same time free and bound." Like his poetry. If Novalis composed theory of Romanticism, Eichendorff was the one to realise it. His poem "Magic Wand" has always been the ultimate expression of Romantic desire.

HölderlinFriedrich Hölderlin, work
The precision and devotion with which Safranski approaches the poets is delightful. Hölderlin and Heine come to life. With Kleist, he reaches the astute conclusion that his hatred is like love, "an ecstasy of devotion." Safranski explains what Romantic irony means, and how it was understood by Schlegel, Eichendorff and Heine. And when was anyone able to explain Fichte's philosophy of the self such that one could even come close to understanding it? Safranski is no daredevil discoverer, venturing onto new territory, but rather one who can synthesise, whose sagacity (as E.T.A. Hoffmann would have said), learning and command of language enable him to make intellectual history intelligible. And to ensure that we don't get too reverential, he indulges in the occasional sloppiness – calling Novalis the "Mozart of the Romantics" and Thomas Mann a "Dionysian with iron creases and starched collars."

KleistHeinrich von Kleist, work
Four hundred pages for a history of Romanticism is not that much. It's also the result of two significant decisions that Safranski made. One: no painting and music only in the form of Richard Wagner. Two: Safranski limits himself to the German scene. But the Romantics considered themselves citizens of the world, they translated Shakespeare, for example. And Ossian, the so-called Homer of the North (in fact, a confidence trickster by the name of James Macpherson) set in motion the German debate over the sublime. Here, it would have made sense to shift the focus to English Romanticism.

BrentanoClemens Brentano, work
So why isn't Romanticism a closed chapter? Safranski writes: "With their discomfort with normality, the Romantics anticipate the discomfort with the 'demystification of the world through reason' that Max Weber would raise critically a century later. "The victory march of technical-industrial thinking and its crass materialism was unstoppable. Germans did not follow Max Weber's wise advice: to learn to live with demystification. In part they didn't want to, in part they couldn't and that remains true to date. Because modernity, which relies on reason and at best ends in reason, kept picking up its pace. Which is why Romanticism keeps returning as an place of desire – unfortunately, often in its darkest form. All the more important to recall its light, brilliant beginning, those beautiful young men and their intelligent women. What they were and wrote constitutes the undeniable peak of German intellectual history.

Rüdiger Safranski: Romantik Eine deutsche Affaire; Hanser Verlag, München 2007; 415 S., 24,90 eur


This article originally appeared on September 6, 2007 in Die Zeit.

Ulrich Greiner is responsible for the literature section of Die Zeit.

translation: nb

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