Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Q or, Heine's Romanticism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Q or, Heine's Romanticism

Article excerpt

The epithets "Grotesque" and "Arabesque" will be found to indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published.... I may ... have desired to preserve, as far as a certain point, a certain unity of design.... I speak of these things here, because I am led to think it is this prevalence of the "Arabesque" in my serious tales, which has induced one or two critics to tax me, in all friendliness, with what they have been pleased to term "Germanism" and gloom.... Let us admit, for the moment, that the "phantasy pieces" now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is "the vein" for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else. (1)

IN THIS PASSAGE FROM THE PREFACE TO HIS Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Edgar Allan Poe makes a number of contradictory claims. While striving for a unity of style, he yet refuses to take on a stable character and will not really identify with the tide of "German." Even if he did, he writes, this would be only a momentary name, and not a truly unifying designation or the proper name of an identity. Interestingly, the qualities that provoke this name, "grotesque" and "arabesque," are French, not German. The French word "grotesque" comes from the Italian word coined in the era of Raphael to name the decorative wall paintings found in Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome. Since the palace had been completely buried, painters descended into what seemed like caves (Italian, grotto) to view and copy the wall paintings there, then called "grotesques." "Arabesque," as is well known, refers to repeating decorative floral patterns found in older mosques, and to the kind of curve characteristic of Arab archways. The words "grotesque" and "arabesque" install a kind of extravagance in Poe's title, the double "q" being not very English, invoking a vague Orientalism as well as the French and Italian traditions. Poe's words are indebted not to German, but more to a Romance tradition, or a vocabulary of the Romance languages. The accusation of "Germanism" can perhaps be translated as a charge of Romanticism. (2)

The charge of Romanticism as Germanism brings out a certain redundancy in German Romanticism, a doubleness that doesn't really say anything yet cannot be reduced to a single term. The letter "q" was introduced into both English and German when the Latin alphabet was adopted for writing. The OED traces its appearance to the Norman invasion. (3) Quoting an older source, Grimm reminds us soundly: "q ist kein teutscher buchstabe," ["q is not a German letter"]. (4) "q," like the term "Romanticism," indicates the presence of something "foreign," the persistence of a dualism springing from the irreducibility of the Germanic and the Romance language groups, in what is called "Romantic" (romantique). This linguistic duality is characteristic of the multiplicity of meanings associated with "Romanticism"; it suggests that it is impossible to reduce Romanticism to a single thing. The critique of identity that the German Fruhromantik leveled at German Idealism is undoubtedly its most serious legacy, left to us in Friedrich Schlegel's many famous fragments, as for example: "It is equally fatal for the spirit to have a system, or not to have one" ["Es ist gleich todlich fur den Geist, ein System zu haben, und keins zu haben"], (5) As Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue in The Literary Absolute, this Romanticism opened the field of literature as the place of philosophy, stressing the resilience of writing and its resistence to dialectical sublation. For the Jena Romantic, spirit is actualized in its many-sided linguistic articulations, and not in its return to self in the model of self-consciousness. (6)

Discussions about Romanticism have tended to focus on the question of its relationship to the present. While some see the present as a direct legacy of Romanticism, others are invested in positing a difference and a distance between "now" and "then. …

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