No. 5: Early German Romanticism: A Very Brief Introduction I
January 13, 2014
(Part 1 of 3)
Something happened to the world in the 1780s and 90s, and it happened in Germany. And this thing that happened, whatever it was, is actually one of the most important developments in human consciousness and thought, well, ever. But, I’m anticipating our story, let’s first go back a ways, to 1758, March 31st, 1758 to be precise.
“The Earth opened the mouth of Cain to receive the blood of Abel,” are the words with which our tale begins, and the reader of these words? A man named Georg Hamann. Hamann was a German before there was a Germany, A Prussian, a member of a nationality so defunct the spellchecker in my internet browser doesn’t even recognize it any longer. From the time of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII the Feudal model was quickly going extinct, having been replaced by the absolutist national state the Bishop of Luçon pioneered. In 1707, England followed suit, consolidating itself after a half-century of political infighting and civil war as Britain, joining itself with Scotland in law and which, along with Dryden’s Virgil, the lapse of the licensing act in 1699, which had restricted the number of master printers in London to no more than 20, and the hugely influential paper “The Spectator” written by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele ushered in the Augustan era and initiated Britain’s meteoric economic rise to dominant world superpower.
Germany though, what Germany? There was no Germany and no German people. There was only the Holy Roman Empire, the precariously constituted, fragmenting legal framework which had kept the ramshackle assemblage of minor political bodies in check for centuries. Major states, like Prussia and Austria, learning the lessons of France all too well, engaged in a historical race against time, as well as with one another, to become Germany, while meanwhile hundreds of minor duchies, city states, and even one thousand semi-autonomous feudal knights were to serve as prize for the eventual victor.
Hamann, as I said, was a Prussian, and furthermore, an Aufklärunger. An Enlightenment man, with Enlightenment friends, and Enlightenment ideas, and an Enlightenment taste for homosexual sex, but when he was sent on an Enlightenment business trip to London, he ended up doing something very, there’s no other way to say it, unenlightened…
One can only imagine London in those days, the 1750s, when it had, through the economic and political freedom it bestowed upon its people, suddenly found itself the largest metropolis in all of Europe. Over 3,000 coffee houses filled every quarter of the town, and for a schilling subscription fee, one could come in and sit down and read “The Spectator” or any of the other papers popular in those days, or the latest novels or whatever else your heart could desire. They were not only the first libraries, but the first stock exchanges too, and in some coffee shops you could walk in on black market auctions of fine art, or buy shares of the copyright to Shakespeare’s works.
At Drury Lane, one of only two officially licensed theatres in London, Dr. Johnson’s friend David Garrick was said to be the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare there had ever been, and went so far as to represent England’s pride in defending the nation’s poet against Voltaire himself. Considering that even Jones and Partridge in Fielding’s “Tom Jones” made time to see Garrick, it’s perhaps natural to imagine Hamann immersed in the debauchery of Drury Lane as well, where actresses were kidnapped off stage mid-performance and shows were often ended with a good old fashioned riot instigated by the audience.
Whatever, let’s say, liberties, Hamann indulged in during his London stay, it’s probably best not to dwell on, except to say, regardless of what they were, they ended him washed up and penniless in a boarding house. And it was there, shutting himself up and fasting before an open bible through the winter, that he had his “mystical conversion”, upon reading those aforementioned words from the Book of Deuteronomy.
When he returned to Prussia, his Aufklärunging companions found him a changed man, he had become “The Magus of the North”, the fearsome knight of the Rosy Cross, and the Enlightenment would not survive his crusade against it…
On the throne of German metaphysics, Leibniz sat and clutched the orb, while Christian Wolff beside him extended outward his sceptre and pronounced the judgements of Rationalism. The Rationalists, or as Fichte would call them, The Dogmatic Idealists, believed the mind could know its concepts, dialectically, via Reason. But no matter what Reason seemed to say, it never seemed able to finally attain scientific, mathematical certainty of its conclusions. And if Metaphysics, the study of God (THE ABSOLUTE) and the Soul (The Mind) was to be a science proper, certainty was something it ought to have don’t you agree?
Hamann’s return corresponded with the rise of Sentimentalism, the collapse of the promises of Rationalism into the unbounded subjectivism of groundless consciousness. How could two minds, entirely and forever separated interact? How could there be a world external to myself? What was the objective ground of consciousness?
Hamann kindled a fire, the fire of religious pietism, seizing upon the skepticism of David Hume to question all of metaphysics. He wrote in an obscure proto-Nietzshian style laden with hermetic invocations, and said, essentially, the universe was a riddle given to Man by God. When Man spoke, it was not Man speaking, but God, who spoke through him. When Man knew, it was not Man who had knowledge, but God who knew through him. Hamann collapsed the problem of subjectivity into a theological question, and furthermore, as all the universe was a revelation, and what man said and wrote was a part of that universe, Hamann elevated the study and philosophy of language in the process to one of fundamental importance.
Needless to say, the Aufklärungers were none to pleased with what had happened to their friend, and they brought in someone to take care of him, to show him reason. A hired gun who could get the job done. Immanuel Kant.