Montag, April 28, 2008

Novalis and Philo-Sophie

April 16, 2008

Works now being published in English reveal the key role Novalis played in German culture

The success of the French Encyclopédie and its place in the Enlightenment has tended to obscure the role of encyclopaedism in German culture. Yet the ideal of universal knowledge has been a potent force in Germany, shaping the way the nation defined itself ever since the seventeenth century. Novalis played a key part in this debate, not least in seeking to redefine what he called “total science” – his name for encyclopaedism – as a means to achieve cultural renewal. Yet he was sentimentalized after his early death as the dreamy poet of the Blue Flower, and while this ensured his posthumous appeal, it resulted in the comparative neglect of his philosophy. His contribution to German idealism was only fully revealed, a century and a half after his death, by the editors of the critical edition of his works, a literary monument forty years in the making (reviewed in the TLS, October 13, 2000). The edition showed the full extent of the unpublished journals and notebooks, including hundreds of jottings and aphorisms, often circling round a plan for a Romantic encyclopaedia. The new image of Novalis, not unlike that of Coleridge brought about by the editing of his Notebooks, led to a wider revaluation, in which the Romantic dreamer has given way to the incisive philosopher. Now, two centuries after his death, the new material is at long last becoming available in English in versions beginning with Margaret Mahony Stoljar’s Philosophical Writings (1997) and Jane Kneller’s Fichte Studies (2003), and continuing with the volumes under review.

The new Novalis more than confirms Thomas Carlyle’s view of him as “the German Pascal”. Both men had practical talents, yet they both evinced a radical purity that drove them to treat the infinite as the only measure, and hence to redefine the thinking of the age; moreover, they both pursued a trajectory from mathematics to theology and did so with such intensity that their precocious beginnings could perhaps only be fulfilled in an equally premature death; while the search for a higher, absolute truth ended in fragmentary utterance. Yet if Pascal’s Pensées were the anguished conscience of the neoclassical age, Novalis’s Fragmente were rather the electrifying consciousness of modernity.

With Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis regarded Germany’s task in modern Europe as a dialectical reversal of the French Revolution: the reflective German Geist should respond to and transcend the materialistic excesses of the Terror. Novalis’s speech “Christendom or Europe” (1799), though on Goethe’s advice excluded from the founding journal of German Romanticism, the Athenaeum, constitutes the most potent political manifesto of the first Romantic school. At its core lies an encyclopaedic vision of European diversity that goes back to the Middle Ages, when the opposing states were spiritually united under Catholic hegemony, a period Novalis treats as a golden age. The German tradition from Kant and Lessing to Goethe and Schiller regarded enlightenment as the means for humanity to prevail over strife, and Novalis explicitly invites the enlightened “encyclopaedists” to participate in the movement towards not just a German revival, but a new, spiritually self-aware Europe.

The ultimate reliance of the political visionary on the mystical poet of the Blue Flower is evident in later poems such as the Hymns to the Night and in “Wenn nicht mehr Zahlen und Figuren . . .”. The latter, as Ludwig Tieck recognized, distils Novalis’s belief into its most limpid form:

When no longer numbers and figures
Are the keys to all God’s creatures,
When those who sing or kiss
Know more than the greatest wits,
When the world is given back to life
And frees itself from earthly strife,
When light and shade in unity
Create a higher clarity,
And people see world-history
In fairy tales and poetry,
Then all confusion will fly away
At a single secret word.

This is the doctrine of a world history founded on inwardness that the late Penelope Fitzgerald so admired. In an essay on Yeats, she rehearses the credo almost verbatim: “the world will not be right till poetry is pronounced to be life itself, our own lives but shadows and poor imitations”. The Birth of Novalis, edited by Bruce Donehower, the title of which recalls the outworn image, actually dismantles the Novalis legend. This invaluable biographical collection concentrates on the engagement to Sophie von Kühn, from the poet’s meeting with the twelve-year-old to her excruciating death at just fifteen. It includes letters by Novalis, his brother Erasmus and Schlegel, and Sophie’s pathetic journal with its jottings such as “today was like yesterday nothing at all happened” – four days before her engagement to Novalis, which didn’t even rate an entry. The texts culminate in Novalis’s Journal of 1797, and conclude with the most important sources: the life by his brother Karl (1802), that by his mentor, August Cölestin Just (1805) and, still the best essay, that by Ludwig Tieck (1815). As Donehower aptly comments: “contrary to the stereotypical image of the otherworldly, solitary romantic”, Novalis is rarely alone. The diaries are filled with references to social events, to conversations, meals, walks, and so on. There are also some fairly frank notes on his sexual activity, what Novalis calls “the satisfaction of my fantastical desires”. Apart from occasional solecisms (“the father” for “father”, for example) the translation reads well.

Donehower follows recent scholarship in teasing out the poet’s changing identities, from the philosophy student, aspiring lawyer and gallant (“Fritz the flirt”), to Sophie’s admirer, her grief-stricken fiancé, the committed student at the Freiberg Mining Academy and the conscientious mining engineer. Sophie’s forbearance in her suffering became a cult – even Goethe visited her sickbed. She suffered three operations, but her liver tumour was incurable. Yet it was less the by all accounts remarkable living Sophie than the experience at her grave, the stimulus for the Hymns to the Night, which proved the defining factor in the poet’s life. The journal – as translated by Donehower – narrates:

"In the evening I went to Sophie. There I was indescribably joyful – lightning-like moments of enthusiasm – I blew the grave away from me like dust – centuries were as moments – her presence was palpable – I believed she would appear at any moment – "

Novalis anatomizes his unio mystica with Sophie in quasi-scientific detail, dissecting his actions and emotions to disclose the physical basis for the transcendental:

"As the mortal pain subsides, the spiritual sorrow grows stronger, along with a certain calm despair. The world becomes ever stranger – I feel increasing indifference towards the things around me and inside me. The brighter it gets around me and inside me – "

The narrative recalls the spiritual exercises practised by the Pietists to encourage the “inner light” to emerge. In following this goal, Novalis unites the mental with the affective sides of his personality to establish what he calls his “Philo-Sophie”. In his elevation of her into his ideal, Sophie becomes a mythical cult-figure, sharing aspects of the Virgin Mary and Christ, and personifying knowledge and wisdom. Human identity in general becomes a complex phenomenon for Novalis:

"A truly synthetic person is one who resembles many persons at once – a genius. Each person is the germinal point of an infinite genius. He is able to be divided into many persons, yet still remain one. The true analysis of person as such brings forth many persons – the person can only be individualized as persons, dissolution and dispersion. A person is a harmony – no admixture no movement – no substance such as “soul”. Spirit and person are one. (Energy is origin)"

It remained for Proust to realize Novalis’s starry dream, and to complete a novel as memory (“Er-Innerung”), a fiction that recreates the plural self by manifesting society as an inner cosmos.

Collectivism, on this Romantic view, was the social correlative of the plural self, and with Schlegel Novalis pursued what they called “symphilosophical” collaboration, a central axis of Jena Romanticism. The chief impetus for Novalis’s intellectual development, however, came from his encounter with Fichte at the University of Jena, and his breakthrough as a thinker is documented in the notebooks now known as the Fichte Studies. These form the philosophical counterpoint to his relations with Sophie. Jane Kneller’s translation of these is now followed by David W. Wood’s excellent version of the fragments from the next major phase in Novalis’s thought, generally known as The Universal Brouillon, to which Wood gives the more plausible and attractive title, Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia. It is to be hoped that this dextrous change will help establish the notebooks as a central text of early German Romanticism. Like other recent translators, Wood follows the historico-critical edition, and thereby confirms that the apparently intuitive thinker presented in the Athenaeum aphorisms (1798) was in fact a systematic seeker after truth. Wood’s volume also includes a short selection from the Freiberg Studies in Natural Science (1798–9). With its lucid introduction and notes, this essential volume enables the English-speaking reader to approach the Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia (1798–9) for the first time as a coherent text, part of a wider search in Germany for a new scientific method, a plan only later realized in modern physics. It should now take its rightful place alongside the “Oldest System-Programme of German Idealism” (1796) by Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, the first Romantic work to herald a poetically orientated physics; and Goethe’s exemplary fusion of science and poetry, On Morphology – which partly prompted, partly responded to the younger men’s theses. From anti-Newtonian musings such as these, the German scientific revolution associated with Planck, Einstein and Heisenberg was to draw a significant cultural inspiration.

Novalis called the philosophy of his Encyclopaedia “magical idealism”. Perhaps the nearest he came to explaining it was in a jotting of July 1798:

"To be an empiricist means to see thinking as conditioned by the influence of the outer world and things – empiricists are passive thinkers. Voltaire is a pure empiricist and so are many of the French philosophes . . . . the transcendental empiricists . . . make the transition to the dogmatists – from there to the visionaries – or transcendental dogmatists – then to Kant – from there to Fichte – and finally to magical idealism."

The magical idealist “wonderfully refracts the higher light”, and poetically transforms nature by “the magical, powerful faculty of thought”. This involves reinstating the Renaissance concept of the magus and applying it systematically to modern science.

On one occasion, Novalis also compares his project to a voyage of discovery:

"I have been on my journey of discovery, or on my pursuit, since I saw you last, and have chanced upon extremely promising coastlines – which perhaps circumscribe a new scientific continent. – This ocean is teeming with fledgeling islands.

The Athenaeum aphorisms, Blüthenstaub, only intimated the greater project:

"We are connected to every part of the universe, as with future and prehistory. It only depends on the direction and length of our concentration which relation we particularly wish to develop, which will become the most important for us, which will take effect. A true method of this procedure is probably nothing less than the long-sought art of invention; in fact it is probably more . . . ."

The newly translated notes go much further in exploring the new science Novalis calls “encylopaedistics”. The name for this “science of the sciences” may echo Diderot’s Encyclopédie, but Novalis seeks to outdo the French model by introducing dynamism to the idea of an Encyclopaedia, to study the “relationships – similarities – equalities – effects of the sciences on each other” to create “a scientific Bible”. His procedure instances the root meaning of the word “encyclo-paedia”, that is, a “circle of learning”. The approach entails turning scientific method on its head, as when Novalis claims to transform Bacon’s inductivism into a deductive method for “generating truths and ideas writ large – of generating inspired thoughts – of producing a living scientific organon”. As the Freiberg notebook records: “The combinatorial analysis of physics might be the indirect art of invention that was sought by Francis Bacon”.

The “circles” Novalis envisages in his “combinatorial analysis” are inspired by the medieval ars combinatoria, whose ideas retained an attraction for German thinkers down to Leibniz and Kant. The concentric wheels that Ramon Lull devised as a tool for inventing new ideas also serve Novalis as a model, and provide him with a motor for recombining existing ideas to create new ones. This method is, incidentally, related to the ones which the late Mary Douglas traces with such passion in Thinking in Circles (2007). As Novalis writes:

"There exists a sphere in which every proof is a circle – or an error – where nothing can be demonstrated – that is the sphere of the developed Golden Age. This and the polar sphere also harmonize. I realize the Golden Age – by developing the polar sphere. I am unconsciously in [the Golden Age], insofar as I am unconsciously in the polar sphere – and consciously, insofar as I am consciously in both."

The encyclopaedic Bible inducts the reader into the Golden Age: man returns to the prelapsarian state by rearranging the totality of all knowledge, thereby achieving a higher, paradisal consciousness. Man’s intellectual versatility reflects the universality of his creator. Yet the construct, like the self, remains unstable:

"Philosophy disengages everything – relativizes the universe – And like the Copernican system, eliminates the fixed points – creating a revolving system out of one at rest."

Novalis musters a dazzling array of disciplines to constitute his Romantic Encyclopaedia including mathematics, mineralogy, medicine, law, economics and music. Everything he touches he illuminates. Yet the totalizing aesthetic has its risks, both in precipitate insights, and in aspects of his theory of the State, understood as a “spiritual being” comparable to God. To combat absolutism, however, the Romantic Encyclopaedia looks for Kantian limitations: “Resolution of the main political problem . . . . Are combinations of opposed political elements possible a priori?”.

The philosophy of magical idealism led inevitably to the practice of literature. When Novalis abandoned the Romantic Encyclopaedia, it was to write the poetry it preaches, the “art of transforming everything into Sophie – or vice versa”. The Hymns to the Night brilliantly exemplify the turn: the poem’s success stems in no small part from the way it illumines the poet’s grief and mystically resolves his problems by an exegesis of world history. It is the first modern panoptic lyric, unmatched in visionary compass before Eliot’s Waste Land and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. In The Novices at Sais, his fragmentary Bildungsroman, Novalis develops the conceit of encyclopaedic circles to educate its main character, thereby also showing how world history advances by the combinatorial progress of humanity. The novel stems from an infatuation and later disappointment with Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Goethe may not have approved, but he listened. In Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, he likewise favours the scientific path for his central character, and adapts Novalis’s method to represent the circles (“Kreise”) that compose society. In so doing, he replaces the abstract ars combinatoria used by Novalis with a sociological principle, more in tune with his own novel’s social theory, which offers a peaceful alternative to the route later proposed by Marx: a revaluation of labour, to remove the alienation that might lead to revolution, and a new respect for collectivism as a value.

For a fragile moment around 1800, then, there was a balance between individualism and collectivity in German culture, recalling the “Symphilosophie” envisaged by Schlegel: “Perhaps a whole new era will begin in the arts and sciences if Symphilosophie and Sympoesie become so general . . . that . . . complementary natures produce collective works”. Goethe paid homage to this ideal, when he called his Faust an “être collectif”. Novalis’s Romantic Encyclopaedia translates this joint activity to the political sphere, as in an entry on “Theory of a Nation. Pedagogy of a Nation”, concerning the interdependence of individual and collective. The protean method of his Romantic Encyclopaedia underpins much of his writing, where the disarming negations, reversals and pirouettes dissolve the rigidities of linear thought into a supple, lyrical dialectic. Thus Novalis the advocate of the State can also conclude: “In many places States should not be established at all . . .”. Such provocations retain a startling topicality.

Bruce Donehower, editor
Friedrich von Hardenberg’s Journal of 1797, with selected letters and documents
159pp. State University of New York Press. $25.
978 0 7914 6969 9

Das Allgemeine Brouillon
Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by David W. Wood
290pp. State University of New York Press. $35.
978 0 7914 6973 6

Jeremy Adler's translation of Hoelderlin's philosophical essays will be published next year.

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