Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Leaving Riga

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Leaving Riga

Article excerpt

Leaving Riga

Romanticism: A German Affair BY RÜDIGER SAFRANSKI NORTHWESTERN, 376 PAGES, $35

During the early Romantic era, subjective sentiments and an often solipsistic quest for personal fulfillment began to challenge Enlightenment ideals of rational dialogue. John Keats's 1817 plea "for a life of sensations, rather than thoughts" flamboyantly embraces an anti-rational tendency that, a generation earlier, had swept up German poets and intellectuals alike. Felt intensity and subjective urgency came to legitimate experiences as intrinsically meaningful. At times, they were invested with transcendent significance. By contrast, propositional cogency, communal obligation, and inherited norms were increasingly marginalized or repudiated altogether as unacceptable constraints on subjective flourishing.

Some writers, Goethe, Hegel, and Coleridge among them, had their doubts about what they perceived to be a superficial, self-indulgent, and potentially dangerous drift of intellectual life. As early as 1809, Coleridge bemoaned his contemporaries' "skipping, short-winded asthmatic sentences, as easy to be understood as impossible to be remembered." In Germany, Heinrich Heine made a career by writing mellifluous and witty obituaries to the high-flying dreams of his Romantic precursors.

It is Romanticism's fascination with our irrational, compulsive, and often violent propensities that proved to be its most enduring and vexing feature, as Rüdiger Safranski shows in Romanticism: A German Affair. The book, competently translated by Robert Goodwin, is divided into two parts. The first explores major personalities and debates from Johann Gottfried Herder to Heine (17701840). The second part traverses, at times rather too breezily, the afterlife of Romanticism from Hegel via Wagner, Nietzsche, Rilke, Stefan George all the way to Heidegger and Thomas Mann. As the book's equivocal subtitle, "A German Affair," suggests, Romanticism does not just name an achievement but also an entanglement, a cultural development at once creative and obsessive, and a volatile turn in philosophy and the arts that, even as it opened new vistas, also wrought a troubled legacy.

With early Romanticism gradually fading away into the petit-bourgeois aesthetic cocoon known as Biedermeier (c. 1815-1848), German culture increasingly acquiesces to Romanticism's most worrisome features: its strident nationalist undertow; its messianic aspirations, which mutated into delusions of racial superiority; its Rousseauian attempt at recovering authentic, immediate Life (Leben); the variously violent and sexualized mythology in which its major representatives (Friedrich Schlegel, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Novalis) ground their longing for human-engineered salvation.

Such an appraisal of Romanticism seems fundamentally right, though Safranski appears unconcerned with how all of these tendencies fit into a broader historical narrative. Notably absent from his account is a clear summation of various strands of Enlightenment thought and culture to (or against) which the German Romantics took themselves to be reacting. We are left with the picture of a singularly fecund historical interlude, composed of variously gifted and creatively eccentric individuals seemingly arising out of nowhere and committed to a symbolic transformation of the world of their contemporaries.

Given that a similar mix of assertiveness, creativity, and an arguably inflated trust in individual self-fashioning can also be detected elsewhere in Europe (notably in England and France), it is not obvious why Romanticism should be conceived as a specifically "German affair." To be sure, some of the Romantics (Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Kleist, Joseph Görres, Jean Paul) come across as almost untranslatably German in their literary, social, and political concerns. Even so, there simply are too many instances of cross-fertilization linking German Romanticism to literary and philosophical culture elsewhere, France and England in particular, to justify Safranski's exclusive focus on German-language materials and the implication of a autochthonous German Romantic culture. …

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