Magical Realism and the Legacy of German Idealism

By Warnes, Christopher | The Modern Language Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Magical Realism and the Legacy of German Idealism


Warnes, Christopher, The Modern Language Review


Magical Realism and the Legacy of German Idealism by Christopher Warnes

This article explores the relations between Novalis's idealism and modern literary magical realism. It demonstrates how the Latin American writers Miguel Angel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alejo Carpentier selectively adapted and transformed idealist modes of thought in the service of their literary and cultural projects. Borges, it is argued, uses idealist tenets for epistemological purposes, and remains faithful to an absolute idealism. Asturias and Carpentier are concerned with cultural ontology, and, like Novalis, they temper the subjectivist tendencies of idealism by finding a place within it for realist conceptions of the world.

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In 1798 Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, the German Romantic poet and philosopher better known by his pen-name of Novalis, envisaged in his notebooks two kinds of prophet who might live outside the boundaries of enlightened discourse without losing touch with the real. He suggested that such prophets should be called a 'magischer Idealist' and a 'magischer Realist'. (1) He never developed the idea of magical realism, preferring the related concept, magical idealism. In the 1920s magical realism reappeared in Germany in the art-historical criticism of Franz Roh and in the political philosophy of Ernst Junger, and also in Italy in the work of the critic and writer Massimo Bontempelli. From the 1940s it came to designate a mode of narrative fiction, originally Latin American but now global, in which magical and realistic elements coexist with equal status. While these second and third phases are frequently identified as key elements of magical realism's conceptual history, their relations to Novalis's formulation of the term have never been explored in any detail. Is the recurrence of the term merely coincidental, or does it suggest a conceptual continuity of any meaningful kind between German idealism and modern magical realism of the kind developed in Latin America by Asturias, Carpentier, and Garcia Marquez, or in the anglophone postcolonial world by writers such as Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri?

Novalis was part of the Jena group mentored by Fichte, whose other members included Tieck, Schelling, and the Schlegels. In reaction to Kant's careful separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal, Fichte in his 1794 Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre developed a philosophical idealism based on what John Neubauer calls 'the simultaneous positing of subject and object'. (2) This position holds that 'the world is the (unconditional) product of an absolute self; the task of the empirical self is to overcome the seeming objectivity of the "not-self" and recapture it by means of reflection as a form of self' (p. 380). This idealism of the absolute subject constitutes a useful starting-point for understanding the conceptual motivation behind Novalis's magical idealism.

Fredric Beiser has, however, recently criticized the 'seductively simple' perception of German idealism as 'the doctrine that the subject has an immediate knowledge only of its own ideas, so that it has no knowledge beyond its circle of consciousness'. (3) Beiser sees in the development of German idealism 'more the story about the growing reaction against subjectivism, about the increasingly intense effort to break out of that circle' (p. 2). He goes on to trace in convincing detail a growing realism and naturalism in the development of idealism from Kant and Fichte through Holderlin, Novalis, Schlegel, and Schelling. At a certain point in this trajectory, the task of the young Romantics becomes not to capture the world as a form of self, but rather 'deriving the transcendental subject from its place in nature' (p. 4). The absolute could not, therefore, be seen as a form of ego, as it was by Fichte, for this would involve anthropomorphizing; nor could it be defined as either objective or subjective, for such terms would 'limit what is meant to be unlimited' (p. …

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