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No. 17: Post-Modernism and the Crisis of European Sentimentality II

  • Kantbot

  • February 10, 2014

“Novels tend to end as the Paternoster begins: with the kingdom of God on Earth.”

-Friedrich Schlegel, “Lyceum” Aphorism #22

It may be tempting to read them otherwise, but by naive and sentimental Schiller does not mean with those words what they mean to us today, and for that matter, as if almost to deliberately confuse the modern reader, in “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” he doesn’t even mean “Poetry” in the sense you’ve probably long since grown accustomed to. No, “Poetry” at this point in the 18th century was used to mean more what “Literature” does today, and “Literature”, confusingly enough, was in turn used in those days to mean what we usually do when we talk about “Writing” generally. Poetry was not only poetry therefore, but included prose genres like the novel as well, and as it’s the novel I intend to talk about here, I thought it was worth it to take a moment to make that clear.

No, “Naive” and “Sentimental” are, for Schiller, the two fundamental, and eternally antagonistic transcendental impulses at work in the development of all poetry of every kind in every era.

“The final aim to which all the laws tend is called the end of any style of poetry. The means by which it attains this are its form. The end and form are, therefore, closely related. The form is determined by the end, and when the form is well observed the end is generally attained. Each kind of poetry having a special end must have a distinguishing form. What it exclusively produces it does in virtue of this special nature it possesses.”

-Friedrich Schiller, “On The Art Of Tragedy”, 1792

“The End” of any genre of poetry is an idea, and artistic beauty is the logically necessary point where the negative, formalizing abstractions we use to conceptualize things become “real” to us, where the world of objective things and limited entities intersects the intellectual realm of abstractions. The history of a genre of poetry is the story of how we develop our ideas and slowly purify them, before there is a genre, neither the idea, nor what that idea is used to think about “exist”…

An analogy I find helpful here is that of the four fundamental forces in nature. Before the universe began, when things were infinitely hot and infinitely dense, there was no distinction between them, and as the universe evolved, and became cooler, they gradually “thawed out”. At high enough energies though they reunite into a single force and all act as one in the same thing.

“Naive” is transcendentally the idea of a point that predates the object and the idea “thawing out” from one another, it’s a regulative condition, a theoretical moment that must exist. All he’s done is work backwards in the same way you might work backwards according to Hubble’s law to project a theoretical moment before the universe existed where it was infinitely contracted into an infinitely compact space.

“Sentimental” on the other hand refers to a forward projection to a moment of pure subjectivity, where the appearance is completely and utterly abstracted and purified from the reality it conceptualizes.

This two ideas become transcendental “forces”, they’re what Nietzsche means by Apollonian and Dionysian, a manifestation of the mind’s two fundamental transcendental impulses, the sensuous impulse, which apprehends parts, and the formalizing impulse, which comprehends the synthetic whole. The whole needs parts to constitute itself from, the parts require some whole, or context, or perhaps “space” in which differentiate themselves and become many.

The Naive impulse predominates early on in the history of any poetic genre, the Sentimental impulse begins to develop and assert itself secondly, and they ultimately strive for a point at which they’re fully reconciled to one another. Needless to say this is only a transcendental, theoretical point that must exist, and there is not guarantee that things will unfold inexorably in any sort of linear, and progressive fashion. The Sentimental may sometimes simply never find any reason to poke its head out, and if it does it may “overdevelop” and, instead of attaining a harmonious medium, become tyrannical and world-hungry.

Basically though, in Naive and Sentimental Poetry Schiller breaks down the general pattern which the development of a poetic genre will follow:

The infancy of a poetic genre represents those first moments after the big bang, when all of a sudden this difference between object and subject begins, when we first begin to feel that temporal existence fails in some way to live up to an idea of that existence. These works are largely satirical.

“Elegy” is the beginning of the Sentimental, and represents an awareness of the infinite distance between real and ideal, woe at the impossibility of ever bridging the gap under any circumstances whatsoever.

Finally, there is the “Idyl”, which I may as well let Schiller describe because I think he does a pretty good job it if you ask me:

“The concept of this idyl is the concept of a fully resolved struggle, both in the individual man as well as in society, of a free union of inclinations with the law, of a nature purified up to its highest moral dignity, in short, it is none other than the ideal of beauty, applied to real life. Its character consists therefore therein, that all contradiction of reality with the ideal, which would have furnished the matter for satirical and elegiac poetry, would be completely annulled and all strife of the feelings with the same would also cease. Repose were therefore the dominant impression of this kind of poetry, but the repose of perfection, not of laziness; a repose, which flows from the equilibrium, not from the standstill of powers, which flows from fullness, not from emptiness and is accompanied by the feeling of an infinite capacity.”

-Friederich Schiller, “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”

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