The Troublesome Legacy of the Early Romantics


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I remember the first time I encountered a pierced eyebrow. I was sixteen, travelling with the debate team from my high school in the quiet suburbs of Bangalore to the busy city center for a regional meet. I had managed to get the team together only by promising the other boys that there would be girls there. But the girls we were ranged against, who went to a “progressive” school for which we had an unreflective contempt, were creatures from another world. They all wore a kind of shapeless tie-dyed garment that couldn’t be part of any uniform, spoke in a slack, almost American drawl, and, with their air of casual privilege, were amused by our prissy diction—our try-hard idea of what proper English was supposed to sound like—and our evident lack of ease around them.

Being well practiced, we won the debate. But, chatting with the girls afterward, we found that they disdained our pleasure in victory, along with our hand-me-down polyester ties and blazers, our identical short-back-and-sides haircuts. I awkwardly asked the one with the pierced eyebrow whether her piercing had a “meaning.” She smirked a little. “Self-expression,” she said. “But what does it express?” I asked, entirely in earnest. She repeated herself very slowly, as if to a total doofus, “Self. Expression.”

I thought that I’d eventually understand what she meant, but even now I’m not sure I do. The episode came to mind as I read Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self” (Knopf). Wulf’s book concerns a period, from the mid-seventeen-nineties to the early eighteen-hundreds, when Jena, a small German town on the river Saale, became home to a formidable coterie. Here, she writes, was “a group of novelists, poets, literary critics, philosophers, essayists, editors, translators and playwrights who, intoxicated by the French Revolution, placed the self at the centre stage of their thinking.”

There we have that peculiar thing, “the self.” Wulf sometimes allows us the German original: “The Ich, for better or worse, has remained centre stage ever since. The French revolutionaries changed the political landscape of Europe, but the Jena Set incited a revolution of the mind.” If Wulf is right, the girl with the pierced eyebrow was part of an unfolding world-historical drama that began on the banks of the Saale.

In the manner of such works—and consistent with the Ich philosophy that she chronicles—Wulf tells us a fair amount about her own self. I discovered that she was, like me, born “in the riotous colours of India”; studied, as I did, philosophy in college, a subject that pulled her “into an intoxicating world of thinking”; and now lives, as I do, in London, “a big dirty metropolis full of people.”

Wulf had, as I did not, parents who taught her “to follow my dreams,” having done so themselves when they left Germany to do public-spirited work in India. She had a daughter when she was twenty-two and moved, when that daughter was six, from Germany to England: “It was a snap decision. I quit my studies, sold my few possessions and moved to London.” Wulf was “a single mother with a half-finished education, a trunk full of books, no income, and a seemingly never-ending supply of confidence,” she writes. “Maybe some of the choices were reckless, but they were mine.”

She acknowledges, of course, that all this spontaneity rested on “the privilege of knowing that if it all went wrong, I would always have been able to knock on my parents’ (middle-class) door.” A great deal of freedom, it’s clear, came from her “clever, liberal, loving and academic parents” and from her E.U. passport. Perhaps the reason I am reluctant to join her ardent advocacy for the Jena Set has something to do with the ways in which my own path to philosophy differs from hers: no E.U. passport and only a grim told-you-so awaiting me on the other side of a knock on the parental door.

The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte is supposed to have declared in his first lecture at Jena that “a person should be self-determined, never letting himself be defined by anything external.” Let’s put aside the fact that the world, with its passport controls and its subtler hierarchies, makes not being “defined by anything external” a harder task for some people than for others. Does the broader Romantic fixation on the autonomous self make sense where it matters?

“Magnificent Rebels” is a buoyant work of intellectual history written as what was once termed the “higher gossip.” Wulf’s story, as the movie ads used to say, has everything. There’s the handsome young poet in love with a sickly pubescent girl; the brilliant woman whose literary work was credited to the men in her life; the passionate friendships shattered into fierce feuds. There are writers who struggle to write and others who struggle to stop. A steady and ominous undertone to all the cogitation and copulation is the rise of Napoleon, a Romantic figure in his own way, from the ashes of the 1789 revolution in France.

Such drama, such freedom—in so small a town, and in so unfree an age. How was it possible? Wulf believes that the atmosphere of intellectual and (to a point) political freedom was sustained by the sheer difficulty of censorship in a “splintered and inward-looking” Germany, still a “patchwork of more than fifteen hundred states,” in the dying days of the Holy Roman Empire. Thinkers and writers of a progressive stripe were drawn to Jena by what an older member of Wulf’s ensemble, Friedrich Schiller, described as the unusual prospect of “complete freedom to think, to teach and to write.” And, of course, to read the books, newspapers, and pamphlets pumped out by a thriving publishing trade.

The background to the new Ich philosophy was the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant. He was now entering his eighth decade, but his writings were still being discussed by readers in Jena, Wulf tells us, “with the same passion as others did popular novels.” “What is Enlightenment?” Kant had asked, answering—in a phrase that still retains something of its original spine-tingling power—that it was nothing more or less than “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” More pithily, he challenged his contemporaries, “Dare to know.”

Kant had primed people to focus on how their knowledge of the world was conditioned by their minds; in Wulf’s précis, “We’ll always see it through the prism of our thinking.” Even time and space were not “actual entities” but, rather, belonged to “the subjective constitution of the mind.” They were, as Wulf puts it, the “lens through which we see nature.” We were to distinguish, then, between a thing as we perceive it and the “thing-in-itself.”

Ever since Fichte read Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason” in 1790, annotating frenetically as he went, he had, he declared, “been living in a new world.” He was moved, it seems, by a grand picture of the self as “a lawgiver of nature,” a conception that encourages what Wulf vaguely terms “a shift towards the importance of the self.” Fichte wanted to expand the role of the Ich still further, removing its blindfold and abolishing the idea of an inaccessible thing-in-itself; the self after Kant became “creative and free.”

The rhetoric of freedom and self-determination must have appealed to the young Fichte, the son of a ribbon-weaver in Saxony. He had gained a spot at an élite boarding school after a beneficent visiting baron heard him recite, from memory, a sermon that he had listened to when he was looking after livestock by a church. Fichte remade himself in the time-honored way, unlearning his rube’s accent and marrying a civil servant’s educated daughter. Yet amid his dense metaphysical publications was a pamphlet, circulated in 1793 (and prudently unsigned), extolling the revolution in France. “Just as that nation has torn away the external chains of man,” he wrote later, “my system tears away the chains of the thing-in-itself, or external causes, that still shackle him more or less in other systems, even the Kantian. My first principle establishes man as an independent being.”

Arriving at the University of Jena in 1794, Fichte began to cultivate a messianic persona. “Gentlemen, go into yourselves,” he shouted from his lecturer’s pulpit. (To judge by Wulf’s verbs—“thundered,” “roared,” “bellowed”—Fichte had no indoor voice.) “Act! Act!” he exhorted. “That’s what we are here for.” He left the auditorium followed by a gaggle of reverent students, “like a triumphant Roman emperor.”

For long-suffering readers of his treatises, the adulation that Fichte inspired is hard to understand. Perhaps one needed to be there, to feel the force of his presence, his prophet’s manner. Little else could explain how people kept a straight face at such pronouncements as “My will alone . . . shall float audaciously and boldly over the wreckage of the universe.”

What’s easier to grasp is the human appeal of the other figures who populate the pages of this book. They were, of course, the original Romantics, at a time when the German word for the sensibility (romantisch) hadn’t yet acquired its modern significance. One might call Wulf’s telling novelistic, although only a nineteenth-century Russian novelist would have a cast of protagonists with such inconveniently similar names: Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel. There is another Friedrich—von Hardenberg—who wrote under the name Novalis. There are two Johanns and two Carolines. Wulf and her publishers have gone several extra miles to help the reader keep them all straight: informative chapter titles, a careful index, and a dramatis personae with minibiographies.

Looming over the young blood of Jena was that national icon Goethe, who, early in Wulf’s book, rides picturesquely from his home in Weimar to his friends in Jena on a hot summer’s day across wheat fields at harvest time. His youthful novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) had captivated a generation a couple of decades earlier; in imitation of the title character, readers dressed in yellow waistcoats and breeches. Imitation didn’t stop there: so many young men were said to have taken Werther’s lovelorn example to heart and killed themselves that, Lord Byron jested, Goethe had claimed more lives than Napoleon. By the seventeen-nineties, Goethe was a senior statesman, less a member of the Jena Set than its “benevolent godfather.” But it was his friend Friedrich Schiller, the celebrated playwright, who persuaded him to take thinkers like Fichte seriously. Goethe had considered himself a realist, dedicated to the observation of nature; Schiller was inclined toward idealism, and the inward-turned interrogations of the soul.

By the mid-seventeen-nineties, the brothers Schlegel—August Wilhelm and Friedrich—were also in Jena. So were the brothers Humboldt—Wilhelm and, on regular sojourns, Alexander (the subject of Wulf’s previous book). Schelling had survived his early years as a child prodigy and, later, enrollment at a forbiddingly austere Protestant seminary to publish work in which he argued that the Ich was identical with nature. The dashing Novalis visited when he could, sharing his hopeless love for a dying girl with his friends, along with the poetic-philosophical fragments that made him famous. His may be the most resonant formulation of the Romantic essence: “By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.”

“Dad, you’re fired. And, obviously, I’ll understand if you have to stop paying my phone bill till you get back on your feet.”

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

So much for the men. The women are equally remarkable, none more so than Caroline Böhmer Schlegel Schelling. (She was married to August Wilhelm Schlegel for seven years and then to Friedrich Schelling for six.) She was essential to, although never properly credited for, what have become canonical German translations of Shakespeare. “She ticked syllables, tapping her fingers on the table as she transformed August Wilhelm’s text into melody and poetry,” Wulf writes. Her marriage to Schlegel, in 1796, was her second, and came after many years of her rejecting him. “Schlegel and me! No, nothing is going to happen between us,” she said, like a rom-com heroine resisting the inevitable. She eventually decided that he might be just the thing after all, but not before several rumored affairs, a pregnancy that resulted from a one-night stand after a ball, and a stint in prison for suspected revolutionary sympathies.

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