The Way of Novalis. an Exposition on the Process of His Achievement

By Radloff, Bernhard | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Way of Novalis. an Exposition on the Process of His Achievement


Radloff, Bernhard, Studies in Romanticism


John O'Meara. The Way of Novalis. An Exposition on the Process of His Achievement. Ottawa: Heart's Core Publications, 2014. Pp. x+194. $14.95 paper.

Since the 1980s, the literary achievement of Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) has drawn increased attention in the English-speaking world. This has unfolded to great extent 111 relation to the reception of German Romanticism understood as decisive influence on postmodern aesthetics and literary theory. Within this context, Novalis gives considerable food for thought. In materialist perspective, he is read as a revolutionary poet and forerunner of globalism as theorized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In the perspective of Christian universalism, he is seen as the prophet of a multicultural religion of humanity. These two perspectives are in fact covertly allied. Novalis's genius lies in seeking the root of the seemingly most obdurate oppositions--matter and spirit, life and death, sickness and health--and synthesizing them in a higher unity. His focus on the question of creative selfhood, which he took up from Fichte, becomes for Novalis the hearth-fire of his life's work.

The model of John O'Meara's book is that of a spiritual biography. Since this genre depends upon the insight of the author in evoking the unity of the life and thought of Novalis, O'Meara's success or lack of success in achieving this objective should be the primary criterion of the evaluation of The Way of Novalis. On these grounds the book is to be appreciated as a welcome contribution to Novalis studies. O'Meara makes his argument forcefully and elegantly. The key stages of Novalis's life and work are vividly presented and amply supported by primary sources. The book follows the chronology of Novalis's life, but this chronological presentation is pierced by insights into the originary temporality and creativity of Novalis's spiritual "development." The concept of development presupposes movement toward an inherent end, or purpose, and an autonomous origin of motion, as opposed to one imposed from without.

O'Meara follows this model consistently. The book is divided into three parts: Part One essentially introduces Sophie von Kuhn and her significance for Novalis's life, along with his studies in Fichte's philosophy. Perhaps the central idea to which O'Meara gives repeated reference is the concept of freedom. The death of Sophie constitutes a great philosophical and spiritual test for Novalis because in suffering this loss he comes to confront the finitude of freedom that is revealed by death. The point is not that death is the end of freedom because it is the end of life (which is not contended by anyone), but that in the anticipation of death, thus to integrate it into one's life, the uniqueness of one's death as one's own liberates one to be a self. In the context of Fichte's idealism this calls for the integration of death as absolute into the finite self, and this is what the death of Sophie demands of Novalis (38). In Part Two, O'Meara concentrates on Novalis's reunion and collaboration with Schlegel, especially in the development of the Fragment form. The significance of the Logological Fragments, O'Meara writes, is that they articulate philosophical insight into "the whole that unites self and world" (65). This Part also includes an important discussion of language, its symbolic and mystical power in opening-up (not just re-presenting) an original relation to the world (66-69). The last section of Part Two offers an introduction to Novalis's understanding of the universal, a concept that is perhaps the key, not just to German Idealism, but to philosophy since Plato. On the one hand, as the author notes, the concept of the universal is a matter of the knowledge of nature, and its literary form is the encyclopedia. This is the objective, scientific pole. On the other hand, the universal is a matter of introspective penetration of one's own self as uniquely one and whole with its world and as such the Self becomes the mirror of nature and all that is. …

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