In his autobiographical writing Ecce Homo of 1888, Nietzsche makes a statement about his success as an author that has baffled many of his readers ever since. After chiding the Germans for not understanding his notion of Ubermensch, for aligning him with Darwinism, and for absolutely misinterpreting his Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche continues:
This was said for the benefit of the Germans; for everywhere else I have readers - nothing but first-rate intellects and proven characters, trained in high positions and duties; I even have real geniuses among my readers. In Vienna, in St. Petersburg, in Stockholm, in Copenhagen, in Paris, in New York - everywhere I have been discovered; but not in the shallows of Europe, Germany.' (EH, 262)
Nietzsche's claim to such exquisite readers is usually dismissed as the tortured self-appraisal of an author painfully aware of the low success rate of his writings or even as a sign of megalomania foreshadowing his impending mental breakdown in January of 1889.
Only recently has one attempted to take this statement literally and come to amazing discoveries. If we simply look at the title page of one of Nietzsche's published texts, The Gay Science, for instance, we see the cities to which Nietzsche refers listed for branches of his publishing house Ernst Schmeitzner, namely, H. Schmitzdorff in St. Petersburg (5 Newsky Prospekt), C. Klincksieck in Paris (11 Rue de Lille), Loescher & Co. in Rome (307 Via del Corso), E. Steige in New York (22-24 Frankfort Street), and Williams & Norgate in London (14 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden). Yet Nietzsche's statement was meant not only to indicate that these firms affiliated with Schmeitzner were able to distribute his published writings in these cities, but to point to actual readers known to him either through direct contact or reference by others.
Originally, the Jena group was not at all aware of the new approaches to art pursued by Wackenroder and Tieck, especially to painting and music. Through A. W. Schlegel's reviews in the ALZ and Friedrich Schlegel's move to Berlin in the summer of 1797, the Jena Romantics became the first intellectuals in Germany, however, to take cognizance of these new trends and connect them with their own endeavours. With Friedrich Schlegel's departure from Jena, the centre of gravity of early Romanticism occasionally shifted to Berlin. It was here that the Athenaeum, the journal that soon became the target of widespread polemics in Germany, was published, and that A. W. Schlegel delivered his grand lecture courses on Romantic critical theory. Another publication closely linked with Berlin and also subject to violent attacks was Friedrich Schlegel's novel Lucinde of 1799. In the wake of these events, one can no longer speak of a Jena Romanticism in the same tone as during the time prior to Friedrich Schlegel's move, although as far as Romanticism is concerned, the great days for Jena were still to come. They occurred in the autumn of 1799, when Friedrich Schlegel moved back to Jena, followed by Dorothea, and when Ludwig and Amalie Tieck also settled there. For a short time, a union of the early Romantic school took place in A. W. Schlegel's and Caroline's house on the Löbdergraben. Novalis, living close by in Weißenfels, was a frequent participant in this circle, as was Schelling, a philosophy professor at the university.
Since its appearance in critical writings of the late eighteenth century, especially through the periodical Athenaeum (1798–1800), the early Romantic literary theory of Germany has enjoyed the reputation of having introduced a new manner of thinking about poetry and our approach to literary works in the West. This reputation has manifested itself not only in the appreciation and adoption of a new critical attitude, but also in sharp polemics against its alleged aesthetic absolutism. Such intense scrutiny has resulted in a widespread influence of early German Romantic thought on the critical scene during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as evidenced by its reception by Coleridge, Poe, and Baudelaire, by Scandinavian and Slavic critics, and in the literary thinking of the main Mediterranean countries of Europe. This reception has generally understood the early Romantic literary theory of Germany as a rupture with the system of mimesis and representation that had dominated European aesthetic thought during the previous centuries.
A certain disproportion can be detected between the casual origin of the theory and its actual importance and influence on successive centuries of critical thought. The formation of what we call early Romantic theory actually lasted scarcely more than six years, from about 1795 to 1801, and was the communal product of a group of about six young authors of different backgrounds and orientations who, out of mutual interests and communal literary pursuits, assembled for a few years and were ironically labelled the ‘new school’ or the ‘Romantic school’ by their contemporaries. After the turn of the century the members of the group dispersed, each taking his own path.
Through Wackenroder and Tieck, early Romantic theory came to embrace painting and music, two forms of art that had never been strongly emphasized by the Jena group. Painting and music were almost completely absent from the early writings of the Schlegels, and although Novalis did give some consideration to these art forms in his fragments, he saw them for the most part in analogy to poetry and never really considered them in their own autonomy. In the critical writings of Wackenroder and Tieck, however, the entire concept of art is no longer envisioned according to a poetic paradigm, but follows the model or, as the two friends preferred to say, language, of painting and music. This new direction in the exploration of art is in itself almost exclusively Wackenroder's achievement. Tieck followed Wackenroder to some extent in this new orientation but was most original and successful when he dealt with these subjects through the medium of his fiction and poetry rather than theoretically. Wackenroder's influence grew incessantly and soon manifested itself in Tieck's Franz Stembald's Wanderings, in August Wilhelm and Caroline Schlegel's dialogue ‘The Paintings’ (AWS SW 9, 3–101), Friedrich Schlegel's descriptions of paintings in his periodical Europa of 1803–5 (KFSA 4), and especially in the predominance of painting and music in the theories of art of later periods of Romanticism.
Initially, these impulses came almost exclusively from a small and unpretentious book with the peculiar title Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar. By the time it appeared in 1797, Wackenroder, the author, had already died. Out of respect for Wackenroder's father, who would have disapproved of his son's career as a writer, Tieck published the text anonymously.
With his move to Jena in August 1796, Friedrich Schlegel's interests came to focus more and more on modern and contemporary literature, as well as on the philosophy of his time. He was still working on his History of the Poetry of the Greeks and the Romans and spent part of the winter with F. A. Wolf in Halle to bring the initial sections of this work into their final shape. Yet, after the first volume appeared in 1798, he actually abandoned this project, which had served as the starting-point for his search into the nature of poetry. Instead he composed the grand essays of these years (1796–8), intense studies of Jacobi, Forster, Lessing, and Goethe (KFSA 2, 57–146). Their common theme can be described as a particular type of writing that has left behind the habitual distinctions between poetry and prose, science and art, literature and philosophy. The writers discussed, all great literary authors themselves, were equally prominent in philosophy and the theoretical discussion of issues of the modern world. Although strongly bound in their mode of expression to drama, lyric poetry, the novel, or the philosophical treatise, they represent in large sections of their literary production what Schlegel at that time considered the modern bourgeois prose writer. Since their mode of viewing the world was no longer the absolute understanding of the traditional philosopher nor the holistic manner of the older poets, nothing appeared to be more appropriate than to expound their ideas and their art of writing in the form of the essay, and thereby initiating a genre projected in Friedrich Schlegel's notebooks as the new ‘German essay’ (KFSA 18, 219).
During the last decade of the eighteenth century, Jena was a lovely residential area in Thuringia mostly known for its excellent and progressive university. The city, situated in close proximity to the Wartburg, had been a traditional stronghold of Protestantism. This spirit animated the university, which since its founding in 1558 had maintained its reputation as an intellectually independent, self-governed institution. Its founder was the Saxon Elector, Johann Friedrich, called the ‘magnanimous’. Among the German universities of the time, Göttingen and Leipzig certainly predominated, but Jena, although relatively small, was attractive to students and scholars because of the spirit of innovation and open-mindedness which contrasted favourably with the stale atmosphere of the Enlightenment still dominant at these other institutions.
All of the representatives of early Romanticism were university students, and most of them had followed curricula in the humanities, primarily in literature (both ancient and modern) and philosophy. August Wilhelm Schlegel had pursued all his studies in classical and modern literature at Göttingen University, where he obtained a degree granting him the title of ‘counsel’, perhaps comparable to the present MA degree. Friedrich Schlegel studied law at Göttingen and Leipzig without obtaining a degree, but later, in 1800, became a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Jena. Tieck and Wackenroder studied at the universities of Erlangen and Göttingen. Wackenroder obtained a law degree from Göttingen, but was also drawn into literary courses by Tieck, who made the study of literature his main object. Schleiermacher's field of study was theology, first pursued at private pietist institutions. But he completed his education at Halle University, where he also studied Kantian philosophy and classical philology with the great Hellenist Friedrich August Wolf.
The emergence of the early Romantic theory of literature in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century constitutes a decisive turning-point in the history of criticism. Incited by Lessing, Herder, and Schiller, and stimulated by Goethe's poetic creations, a new view of the literary work and the artistic process developed that differed sharply from the dominant classicist understanding of aesthetics and poetics. The European classicist tradition had stressed unchangeable norms for art, codified a hierarchical system of immutable genres, bound artistic production to an imitation of nature and an adherence to verisimilitude, and defined poetic unity according to strict rules. The early Romantic critics made decisive inroads into this classicist view of poetry by recognizing the infinite changeability of genres, their constant mixing and mingling, as well as the frequent emergence of new literary forms. They saw the poetic unity of a literary work as an inner conformity with itself, connecting a multiplicity of phenomena to a unity of its own. This task of redefinition, however, could not be accomplished by applying external rules, but was instead to be carried out by the shaping power of the imagination.
Given these features, early Romantic literary theory seems to be closely related to transcendental idealism, the prevailing philosophy of the time. In his Critique of Judgment of 1790 Kant laid the foundations for the autonomy of art, and for the uniqueness and distinctiveness of aesthetic, as opposed to scientific and moral judgments, thus decisively changing the ground rules in the debate about art and the beautiful that had prevailed in European criticism for centuries. Other decisive impulses came from Fichte and Schelling.
Early German Romantic literary theory, as it developed during the last five or six years of the eighteenth century, certainly relates to the formation of the Romantic movement in Germany and Europe during the first decades of the nineteenth century and thereby participates in the great epochal change from the Enlightenment and the classicist doctrine to Romanticism. Yet, we can easily recognize features of this theory that make it an event of far greater significance than merely incepting Romanticism and relate it directly to the origin of our own modernity. Obviously the term ‘early Romanticism’ is a subsequent and retrospective designation unknown at the time when this theory arose. The original name for the phenomenon was ‘Romantic school’, but this label proved to be misleading because of its close association with the later Romantic movement in Germany. ‘Early Romanticism’, however, did not originate as a period designation until the beginning of our century and became an established category only during the latter half of it. The idea underlying this term is obviously to ascertain at the very beginning of the Romantic period a distinct body of thought and literature that is hard to bring into line with any other intellectual trend of the time. For want of a better name, but also because of the favoured use of the term ‘Romantic’ among its representatives, this brief phenomenon of decisive change gained the title ‘early Romanticism’.
Novalis certainly cannot be considered a mystic in the usual sense of the word, that is, as someone who, beyond the exercise of reason, is preoccupied with direct experience of the extraterrestrial, supranatural, or divine in a highly personal manner. Yet this is precisely the meaning of the term ‘mysticism’ as it was half-ironically used by Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel when they indulged their own inclinations towards ‘mysticism’ and ridiculed the common-sense or rational outlook on life as lacking any trait of their ‘mysticism’. In a certain respect, this mysticism can be seen as the transcending, transparent quality of the Romantic style in its attraction to the infinite. But for the two friends, genuine mysticism leaves behind the predominantly literary character of the Romantic style and in its broader scope, it can better be described in philosophical terms or even as ‘religion’. In this sense, Novalis told Friedrich Schlegel in the summer of 1798 that he had discovered the ‘religion of the visible universe’, and he assured his friend: ‘You will not believe how far that reaches. I think here I will leave Schelling far behind’ (KFSA 24, 152). Schlegel was deeply impressed by this project of an ‘unhabitual view of habitual life’, and he readily admitted to Novalis that the latter had the greater capacity for attaining this attitude (KFSA 24, 155). Earlier, in March of the same year, he had established a certain order of rank in religious or mystical ability among the early Romantics by according his brother the smallest and Novalis the largest share of it, whereas he himself took a middle position.
The Schlegel brothers did not originally conceive of poetry in the larger context of a comprehensive aesthetics or an encyclopaedia of the sciences and the arts, but as a topic that directly formed the centre of their interest and spontaneously occupied their investigations. We could also say that their entire thinking about art had a character determined by poetry and that their later aesthetic works and encyclopaedic projects took their starting-point from there. Poetry was the primary subject of reflection for these critics, at least during the early Romantic period. Indeed, the Schlegels were unique in making the investigation of the nature of poetry the vocation of their lives and in seeing the clarification of this question as the particular contribution they wanted to make.
The intention can be seen in Friedrich Schlegel's decision, datable almost in terms of a particular day, to choose the investigation of the ‘art of poetry’ or the ‘poetic work of art’ as the ‘destiny’ of his life (KFSA 23, 96), while A. W. Schlegel had already made this decision during his studies at Göttingen University (1786–91). This highly conscious and persistently pursued objective is easily overlooked in the intellectual panorama of that time because one usually associates the Schlegels with more general trends such as the new stimulus in poetry or the lively development of philosophy and aesthetics. Indeed, they took part in these endeavours by contributing, as A. W. Schlegel did, to Schiller's Horae and the Almanac of the Muses, or in Friedrich Schlegel's case, by immersion in the philosophical life of Jena.
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