Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Jena anew: Novalis

The Blue Flower
My previous post was all over the place. As I wrote, the Jena circle and its influence is a complex story. The cast in the opening paragraph of the post includes people whose names are unfamiliar to most of us today, but whose works, as I wrote, had major influence on writers outside of Germany. Today, I want to draw attention to Novalis, whose real name, Friedrich von Hardenberg, shows his aristocratic background. Had he lived longer (he died at not even thirty years of age in 1801), he might have become a serious rival to Goethe in his influence. (Although he lived a longer life, the same might be said of Friedrich H├Âlderlin, who in 1806, at the age of thirty-six, succumbed to mental illness.) Among other things, Novalis is associated with the image of the "blue flower," and it is this image on which Penelope Fitzgerald drew in The Blue Flower, a novel about Novalis's life.

I won't go into the details here, but there is much about Novalis's work and life that would appeal to "young" people. The image below, for instance, apparently an album cover, is a perfect one for the inspiration felt by a German "romantic rock band" from Hamburg, who (according to Amazon) "specialized in taking romantic, atmospheric symphonic rock pieces and interspersing them with harder rocking material, dynamic keyboard flourishes, and harmonic guitar interplay."

But I have just come across a New York writer named Matthew Gasda who is inspired by another aspect of Novalis's legacy. I leave it to readers of this post to do their own research on Gadsa, but he seems to be well known among theater folks in New York. My interest here is his Substack, which goes by the title "Novalis." The contents of "Novalis" are what the Romantic writers called "fragments." The journal I mentioned in the earlier post, Atheneaum, published numerous fragments by Novalis who said, according to Andrea Wulf, that his "nature" consisted of "moments." It was (again per Wulf) Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel who elevated the fragment to a literary genre, and the Jena writers deployed them in order "to publish the greatest variety of ideas in a very few pages" -- and, moreover, in succinct and efficient form. Here is Novalis: "Friends, the soil is poor; we must scatter seed abundantly for even a modest harvest."

With that said, let me quote a few of Matthew Gasda's very pithy "fragments" from a recent entry on his Substack. In the second one, in particular, I hear echoes of Fichte:

Effectively, what people want out of supposedly transgressive downtown New York in 2024 is Disneyland for bored adults. Lights up early. Not much drinking or smoking, just stimulants. The vague possibility of sex and a lot of gossip and self-promotion.

The clout economy incentivizes laziness. You become an entrepreneur of the self rather than a committed artist, a craftsperson. The temptation is to produce one, maybe two things, get enough of a reputation (clout) and then produce memes and gossip and derivative products of the self associated with the original works.

Image credits: Das Goetheanum

Monday, May 13, 2024

Jena and the Invention of the Self

Jena 1779

The “story” — for it is a story that will be told — opens with a scene in the parlor of a house in the university town of Jena. The residents have gathered of an evening, after a day filled with poetic and other intellectual production, to discuss projects on which they have been working in seclusion in their rooms during the day. It is late in the year 1799, and on this evening tea, cheese, pickled herring, and potatoes are the fare, and Dante is on the agenda for discussion. Another evening might offer criticism of a long poem about Nature, or the progress on a translation of a play by Shakespeare. The participants include August Wilhelm Schlegel, his wife Caroline and his brother Friedrich, Friedrich’s lover Dorothea Veit (daughter of renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, and Friedrich Schelling. On other evenings Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother Alexander von Humboldt might make an appearance, not to forget Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Significantly missing is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who had been forced earlier in the year to resign his position at the university for a pamphlet he wrote that suggested he approved of atheism.

We are in Jena, as I said, a decade after the French Revolution, and the political events it unleashed had been prefaced by the works of philosophers, who celebrated the potential of individuals to conceptualize the world on their own. No more monarchs telling you what to think, nor husbands or fathers, no more marriage for that matter if you didn’t feel like it. Freedom of the individual and self-determination were now the plan going forward. In 1799, Napoleon was Consul, and all believed that the Revolution was over, and the ancient regime a thing of the past. “Time has been divided into a before and an after.” Those talking about Dante on that evening in Jena were living that new life.

The parlor scene described above opens a small book about which I wrote a short review back in 2022 for the TLS: Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits, by Peter Neumann. (It appeared in German as Jena 1800. Die Republik der freien Geister in 2018, and in English translation by Shelley Frisch in 2021.) It was hard to do the book complete justice in a short review, but the appearance in 2022 of another book that also focuses on the Jena set and its “free spirits” has led me to consider here both books in tandem. This is Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf. (Wulf is also the author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt's New World, concerning Humboldt's five-year journey to South America.). The publisher of Wulf's new bestseller (Penguin Random House) kindly sent me a copy to review on my Goethe blog.

Schiller and Goethe in Jena

After all, Goethe is also an important player in both books. He was living in Weimar at the time, with Christiane Vulpius, and he often mounted his horse and traveled to Jena, which was within the Saxe-Weimar principality. This was after getting to know Schiller better in 1794, when Goethe was at a low point in his literary production, and Schiller was also in a bit of slump. I am not sure whether Wulf was attempting to make the contrast, but the story of the friendship, lasting little more than a decade — Schiller died in 1804 — produced enduring works on the part of each and a profitable new direction in their lives. It was Schiller, whom Wulf calls “the unsung hero of the Jena set,” who brought the parlor residents together, first inviting August Wilhelm Schlegel to move to Jena and contribute to his literary journal Horen. Schlegel and Caroline took up lodging in Jena in 1796, and were soon followed by Friedrich, who, despite his vast literary knowledge and acumen, seems to have been unable to hold down a job.

While the authors of these two books cover the same period, from 1794 to 1806, their approaches are very different. Neumann is himself a poet and is “scenic” throughout: we learn, for instance, of bedbug infestations in the room that Fichte rents in Berlin after being forced to leave Jena. After such a chapter opening, Neumann then goes back and forth in time in the person's life before bringing us back to the present moment. Wulf proceeds chronologically, amassing an impressive amount of research. Both books end with the Battle of Jena in 1806 and the sight of a barefoot Hegel observing Napoleon’s march through the town: French troops have appropriated his shoes on their raids of Jena’s houses and cupboards. It is a very complicated story that Neumann and Wolf tell.

"Louche devotees of free love and free thinking"

Wulf says of the Jena set that it “changed our world.” Jena itself seems in some respects to have been a sleepy town: no public theater and opera performances there. And yet it was the “intellectual and cultural capital” of Germany in these years, because of the university: Schiller, August Schlegel, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel drew hundreds of students to their lectures, who, along with dueling and breaking the windows of the houses of professors they disapproved of, were reveling in the new age of freedom of thought. So, there are two stories here. One concerns a new philosophy, the beginnings of what has been called German Idealism, which had its roots in the university in Jena. (BTW, there were a couple of dozens universities at this time in Germany lands, and only two in England.) The other is about the luminaries in the Jena circle, the people who might be said to be living out, avant la lettre, the new philosophy. They were people who you might say knew God and the world. The caption on the above illustration of the luminaries comes from a New Yorker review of Wulf's book entitled “Ego Trip: The early Romantics and their troublesome legacy.”

“Flux” was the theme of my TLS review, a period in which all the old certainties were giving way. The immediate impulse for a radical change in thinking about those certainties was the French Revolution of 1789, but Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which appeared in 1781, had already prefaced the move away from traditional metaphysical explanations of God and the world. Two philosophers following in this “critical tradition” were Fichte and Schelling, both of whom are featured players in the two books. Fichte (“regarded as Immanuel Kant’s intellectual heir” per Neuman) came to the university in Jena in 1794. He was recommended for his academic position by none other than Goethe. Schelling didn’t arrive until 1798, but he was likewise Goethe’s beneficiary in receiving a position at the university.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Fichte is as impenetrable a thinker as is Kant, but what he formulated was an “idea” that would become a “reality.” According to Fichte, the “I” founds the external world. He thereby inaugurated the notion of self-consciousness, self-determination, and the self’s relationship to all the other selves in the surrounding world. Fichte was an “ideas” person, so he may not have been aware of what we now know, namely, that the growth of commerce and the rise of technology had begun already by the 19th century to free people from traditional paths of life. Men were the first not to have to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. Fichte himself, for instance, was the son of a village ribbon weaver, who through good fortune received an education that eventually led him to the university and his philosophical career. No longer bound by class identities, one's notion of one's “self” naturally changed. So it is that after two-plus centuries of material progress there are people today who envision liberation even from genetic restraints. We believe that we can be “self”-determined if we choose. It was the “starting point” from which the Jena set developed what became known as “Romanticism.”

Influenced by the new philosophy, the Schlegels and the Humboldts and others had a wide reach. August and Friedrich Schlegel published a journal, Athenaeum, which was outrightly provocative and disputatious, dedicated to freedom of thought and word. The political revolution in France may have failed, but now one had time to think about aesthetics and to practice self-determination. August Schlegel would go on to spend nearly a dozen years traveling with Madame de Stael, assisting her in the writing of her famous book Germany, which, in its English translation, disseminated the ideas of the Jena circle, in particular the concept of the “unity of humankind and nature, which was at the core of 'Romanticism.'” It would influence such writers as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. After Napoleon’s exile in 1814 and the continent began again to be peaceful, the English began their travels to Germany. Not mentioned in either book is George Eliot, who “lived openly” (another Jena refinement) as soulmate with George Lewis. They traveled to Germany together in 1854, and Lewis later produced his Life of Goethe (1875).

Napoleon before Jena, 1806, by Ernest Messonier

While reading Wulf’s account in particular, I could not help thinking of the kind of excitement of the Boomer generation (my own), which believed it had discovered the truth about the world and was wildly and excitedly transmitting it. Speech was heavily censored in the 18th and 19th centuries, because of which Fichte lost his position as professor in Jena, but free speech, the center of his philosophy, lives on. Wulf writes that Fichte did not intend for his ideas to be “a narcissistic celebration of the self.” Like the philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment and, later of “true socialism” (see my blog post on this subject), he believed that free individuals would be moral individuals and make the world better for everyone. But nothing stays the same. Strikingly, the Jena figures didn’t like free speech when it concerned criticism by others of their own work. But they welcomed the devastation of Jena in 1806, as Wulf writes, because it meant the “end of History.” Hegel asserted that Napoleon’s victories culminated in the end of “feudal system” and the emergence of democracy and universal right to freedom. So many Napoleon's since then, and we are still waiting for that great emancipation.

BTW, re the image of Goethe and Schiller walking across the Jena town square: Wulf writes that Goethe was no longer the slender youth of the writer of The Sorrows of Young Werther at the time of his visits to Jena. Indeed, he was quite corpulent, enjoying the home cooking of Christiane Vulpius. For Goethe at home in Weimar in 1799, see my review of Charles Lewinsky's hilarious novel Rauch und Schall, which appeared in a recent issue of TLS.

Image credits: History Today; History Wall Charts; Javi Aznarez;