No. 7: Early German Romanticism: A Very Brief Introduction III

Respected Sir:

The accompanying paper contains the wish of a circle whose regard for you is unbounded, to honor the periodical work to which it relates with contributions from your hand. On the rank and value of what you may contribute, there can be among us but one voice. Your determination to give your support to this undertaking, will be decisive of its successful issue; and with the most willing readiness we will agree to whatever conditions you may attach to your accession to our proposal.

Here in Jena, Messrs. Fichte, Woltmann, and Humboldt, have united for the publication of this journal. And as, according to a necessary arrangement, the offered manuscripts will have to be decided upon by a smaller number, we shall be infinitely beholden to you if you will allow occasionally a manuscript to be laid before you for examination. The more extensive and intimate the participation with you shall honor our undertaking, the more will its value rise in the eyes of that portion of the public whose approbation is most important to us.

With the highest respect, I remain your obedient servant and sincere admirer.

Friedrich Schiller, Jena, June 19, 1794

Needless to say, Goethe accepted this offer, and so, Die Horen was born. Coalescing around the provincial university at Jena [now Friedrich Schiller University] in 1794 was a staggering constellation of minds. Herder had been stationed there before Goethe had even first arrived, receiving an official position in the Weimar court following his “Origin of Human Language”. Schiller had arrived while Goethe was in Italy to teach history at the University. And in 1794, a major coup was scored by Goethe when he won metaphysician Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the founder of Post-Kantian philosophy, for the University.

Following soon enough were many others, such as the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and Karl August, the former a major critic and historian of literature and the founder of European Romanticism, the latter, an awe-impossing polyglot, professor of Sanskrit, and translator of 27 of Shakespeare’s plays into German, translations which were so good they elicited Novalis to remark: “With Schlegel’s translations I’m convinced the German Shakespeare has become better than the English one.”

Other new arrivals included students like the aforementioned Novalis, author of the first modern Fantasy novel, “Heinrich von Ofterdingen”, and three of the most important post-Kantians, Holderlin, Schelling and Hegel.

Between 1794 and 1806 Weimar-Saxe was a hotbed of literature writing and poeticizing. Boyle referred to it as “intellectually, the most exciting place in the world”. Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, and the Humboldts, and Schlegels attended the theatre nightly, where they excitedly carried on their discussions as they awaited curtain. During the day, in the old palace in Jena, there was a notched wooden post in which Goethe tallied every work he completed there, and while he and Schiller sat and worked, laughing and stamping their feet, he would sometimes lower sweets on a string out the window and dangle them tauntingly over the heads of his and Schiller’s sons as they played.

This was the Germany Germany deserved. And Goethe wrote its history in his second novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”.

The primary task of the Social Justice project, is to achieve Social Justice obviously, by means of “progressive” politics. This project is beholden to a political mythology of “progress”, not only of technology and objective knowledge of the empirical world, but “progress” of morals and culture as well. This same sort of progress defines Herder’s Ideas, the idea of progress where some mysterious energy coarses through history and leads humanity upwards and onwards to some special ideality finally achieved after arduous climb in actual.

This is called “teleology”, and it remains the fundamental flaw, the Achilles’ heel of Herderian and Marxian thought both, as Kant makes abundantly clear in the work he wrote to discredit Herder’s historicism, “The Critique of Teleological Judgement” in the Third Critique.

Social Justice wants to make a better world, as did Goethe and Schiller. They wanted their countrymen to be better than they were, they wanted to reconcile the aristocracy and bourgeois to one another, they wanted to achieve the Enlightenment project of a Enlightened society. And they did it, but only by foregoing Revolution and embracing Kant, which, as bizarre as it sounds, is what created, for that brief decade beginning in 1794, The Tower Society in actual, Europe’s Second Renaissance, “Early German Romanticism”.

They proceeded Aesthetically, through a process of individual aesthetic cultivation and artistic creation which became the basis for a very special genre of novel, the “bildungsroman”, the novel of development. The bildungsroman is not just a kind of novel, but the novel in its purest form. It is the novel of mental refinement, not circumstantial or material development of narrative plot.

In Goethe’s Meister the ideal society is represented within the novel by a mysterious organization called “The Society of the Tower”, which does not really exist, as a material entity, as a “society” in the same way that Marx considers his Capitalist and Communist societies historically limited things. For Goethe it is an idea, an idea to be achieved not through bettering some reified “Public”, but through bettering yourself by means of bettering and educating others. It exists only in the understanding of the individual, when that individual reaches a point of psychic development necessary to grasp the place of his own autonomy in the grand fabric of existence and the limits of his own subjective striving for teleological fulfilment.

Even someone like Slavoj Zizek has in recent years realized the importance of returning to the period of Kantianism in order to move forward philosophically and aesthetically. “Early German Romanticism” is opening up as one of the most significant fields of scholarship being worked in today. Isn’t it Hegel who somewhere says “to understand a thing completely, one need only understand its origins”? Well modernity originates between 1758 and 1806.