On Jena – Kwame Anthony Appiah in NYRB:
‘The cult of individuality was born amid a melding of minds. Meldings must be preceded by meetings, of course, and the meetings took place in Jena, a university town in the German duchy of Saxe-Weimar with a population of 4,500 or so. If Jena was small, the minds that gathered there in the last years of the eighteenth century were large, and included the most consequential poets, critics, and philosophers of the era. The sparks they threw out electrified the world.’
‘Although based in Weimar, Goethe frequented Jena because of the intellectual companions he found there. Dearest to him was the poet, playwright, essayist, and journal editor Friedrich Schiller, but he learned much from the scholarly Wilhelm von Humboldt, who called the wide-ranging conversations among them “social thinking.” Because Goethe fancied himself a man of science as much as a man of letters, he was especially excited by the occasional appearances of Wilhelm’s charismatic younger brother, Alexander, a prodigious naturalist, experimentalist, and, later, explorer.’
‘“Think of the wall,” Fichte urged his students, who soon flocked to him in large numbers. “Now, gentlemen, think of the one who thought of the wall.” What happens when the “I” makes itself the object of reflection? His detractors suspected that this approach amounted to solipsism, but his students heard a heady form of liberation: in Fichte’s account, the freedom of the self-determining “I” ultimately led to a vision of political freedom; the proper aim of government, he declared in a 1794 lecture, was to make itself unnecessary. Wulf is convinced that Fichte’s imperial “I” was an engine for Romanticism, because it made us free: “We don’t talk about Fichte’s self-determined Ich any more because we have internalised it. We are this Ich.”’
‘With Schlegel came Caroline Böhmer, his dazzling partner (and soon his wife). Böhmer—like Wulf, the child of an eminent professor—was a widow with a young daughter, and had spent time in prison for her revolutionary sentiments. Now she and Schlegel were raising a rather precocious girl and translating Shakespeare into German. Friends remarked on her intense blue eyes and, most of all, her penetrating intelligence.
Sexually, her relationship with Schlegel was an open one. Creatively, it was intimate and binding. Working on Romeo and Juliet, the two scribbled over each other’s copy, revising and revising, sometimes spending hours over a single line as they sought to reconcile meter, melody, and meaning. Translations of many more Shakespeare plays followed in the ensuing years. Although her contribution went uncredited in print—Wulf speculates at one point that the former political prisoner might have been “wary of too much attention”—their labors made Shakespeare a national poet for Germans. (Even today, Wulf notes, Shakespeare’s plays, often in the Schlegel renderings, are staged in Germany more often than in Britain.)’
‘Perhaps the Romantic achievement was to see how the natural world wasn’t merely a projection of the mind; that the mind was, in important respects, at play in the natural world, where it could be startled by things it neither expects nor fully grasps.’
‘Romantic pursuits of the carnal variety kept things on the boil. The coterie may have bested Bloomsbury in polyamory. Fritz was soon courting the writer Sophie Mereau (“Get lusty, and be lewd,” he urged), after which Dorothea had a fling with a young scientist friend of the set. August Wilhelm’s frequent affairs included one with a well-known actress and another with Tieck’s married and very pregnant sister, Sophie Bernhardi. (August Wilhelm: “I lie at your feet.” Sophie: “My burning desire is eating me alive.”) Caroline looked on his affairs with equanimity, especially since she was, starting in 1799, having a far more passionate one with Schelling.’
‘And what about Friedrich Schlegel, the most Romantic of the early Romantics? He was, after all, the one who first theorized the concept, who produced the fieriest of fragments, who sought, in his protofeminist novel, to integrate erotic and spiritual love, and who had the greatest reverence for revolution. You could say that he underwent a personal revolution: he became corpulent, Catholic, and conservative. August Wilhelm was aghast at Fritz’s new commitments and convictions; so was Goethe, who marveled that an intellect trained “in the brightest light of reason” should have become “misled into veiling itself, playing the bogeyman.” Around the same time that Fichte was given a university to run, Fritz and Dorothea (who joined him in his Catholicism) moved to Vienna, where he served as a propagandist for Prince Metternich. The republican had turned monarchist, bewigged and bemedaled. When Friedrich von Schlegel—he was ennobled in 1814—published an edition of his complete works, in 1823, he pointedly omitted Lucinde. Had he become his own antithesis? Or had he, as a younger cohort decided, merely revealed the movement’s dark heart?’
‘Romanticism by any other name now reigned supreme in the culture—even as its own name became a term of abuse, repudiated by its foremost patron, denounced by its young practitioners, and denigrated by both as a source not of progress and illumination but reaction and darkness. Jena’s soulful young rebels had made the unpardonable error of growing old. A couple of centuries later, they still confront us with a welter of stormy contradictions—a hot mess of amity and enmity, nestling and wrestling. Then again, what could be more romantic?’
Read the article here.
There’s a dark heart in everything, especially in romanticism. And the movement produced so many contradictions that it’s hard to be not romantic.
As I wrote in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant several weeks ago – an essay on a study by Arnold Heumakers about how our definition of art came into existence two centuries ago i.e. about romanticism in progress – romanticism is everywhere, from l’art pour l’art to fascism, from art as a political movement to polyamory. Enthusiasm is the common demeanor, but perhaps you can even be a romantic with modest enthusiasm. As you can be a believer with only modest enthusiasm for God.
Growing old remains an unpardonable error. Botox is not the solution, but you can remain curious and overcome the most burning anger of this thing called ‘ego’ or ‘I’.