Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Disorientation in Novalis or "The Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Disorientation in Novalis or "The Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Article excerpt

German Romantic literature rests on unstable ground. For example, Friedrich Schlegel's notion of Romantic irony as a "permanente Parekbase" (permanent parabasis)1 denies the authority of a single vantage point. As parabasis- the Greek term for the chorus stepping out of the action of the play and addressing an ode to the audience-irony is the constant possibility of assuming another subject position, of viewing and representing the world from a different and even contradictory angle. Whether in Brentano's Godwi (1800/1801), where the narrator dies before the end of the novel and the protagonist completes the narration, or in Tieck's Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots, 1797), where the audience becomes part of the play, Romantic authors challenge our notions of a stable, authoritative narrative or dramatic perspective.

Romanticism lacks stable ground not only in terms of an authoritative narrative vantage point, but also in a geological sense, as manifest in the prevalence of subterranean spaces throughout Romantic literature. The quotidian surface world of bourgeois experience rests upon and can easily sink into a honeycomb of mines, caves, and other underground spaces. In Ludwig Tieck's narrative, "Der Runenberg" (The Rune Mountain, 1804), young Christian's descent into subterranean depths represents a break with the rationality and materialism of the surface world; in E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Die Bergwerke zu Falun" (The Mines of Falun, 1819), Elis Fröbom is enticed by the seductive Bergkönigin to leave the surface world only to have his dead body, perfectly preserved by "Vitriolwasser" (a sulfate solution), recovered decades later; and in Joseph von Eichendorff's "Das Marmorbild" (The Marble Statue, 1819), young Florio must resist the enticements of a magical erotic castle (Venusberg) that emerges from subterranean realms on occasion to tempt and entrap young artists like himself.2

Perhaps best known among Romantic ventures into the subterranean world, however, are Novalis's frequent representations of such spaces. One thinks of the Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), where the poet longs to venture "Hinunter in der Erde Schoß, / Weg aus des Lichtes Reichen"3 (Down into the Earth's womb, / Away from Light's kingdom"),4 or on the numerous subterranean settings in the novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Henry von Ofterdingen), whether in the underground chambers that hide the princess in the Atlantis fairy tale, the visit to the caves with the old miner, or Fabel's journey to the underworld in Klingsohr's fairy tale. In Novalis, as in Tieck, Hoffmann, Eichendorff, and others, these subterranean spaces are associated with psychology and sexuality, history, and hidden knowledge. In this essay I argue that they serve an additional function for Novalis, one akin to Schegel's definition of Romantic irony. Like a parabasis, subterranean spaces disorient and disrupt conventional understandings of space and direction in order to offer a new perspective on the world. They are the basis for a transformed sense of orientation and direction.

Scholars have noted the many examples of subterranean spaces in Novalis and devoted a great deal of attention to them, particularly to mines. They have traced his interest in caves and mines to his biography, specifically his training as a mining engineer and his work as an inspector of salt mines (Salinenassessor). For Novalis, the mine is a metaphor for the human soul, for an encounter with history, religion or mysticism, and sexuality, as Theodore Ziolkowski asserts (Ziolkowski 33). Kenneth Calhoon builds on Ziolkowski's analysis and argues in a post-structuralist reading for the mine as a symbol of the psyche and its knowledge.5 Nicholas A. Rupke connects Novalis's interest in the subterranean world to concepts in natural science during this period,6 and Dennis F. Mahoney draws on subterranean spaces to connect human history to natural history.7 More recently, Matt Erlin traces the practice of mining to debates on luxury in the late eighteenth century,8 whereas Dalia Nassar reads the subterranean world in relation to Novalis's philosophy of nature, where nature evidences a unifying principle that contemporary philosophers and scientists overlooked. …

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