Romanticism: A German Affair
by rüdiger safranski
northwestern, 376 pages, $35

During the early Romantic era, subjective sentiments and an often solipsistic quest for personal fulfillment began to challenge Enlightenment ­ideals of rational dialogue. John Keats’s 1817 plea “for a life of sensations, rather than thoughts” flamboyantly embraces an anti-rational tendency that, a generation earlier, had swept up German poets and intellectuals alike. Felt intensity and subjective urgency came to legitimate ­experiences as ­intrinsically meaningful. At times, they were invested with transcendent significance. By contrast, propositional cogency, communal obligation, and inherited norms were increasingly marginalized or re­pudiated ­altogether as unacceptable constraints on subjective flourishing.

Some writers, Goethe, Hegel, and Coleridge among them, had their doubts about what they perceived to be a superficial, self-indulgent, and potentially dangerous drift of intellectual life. As early as 1809, Coleridge bemoaned his contemporaries’ “skipping, short-winded asthmatic sentences, as easy to be understood as impossible to be remembered.” In Germany, Heinrich Heine made a career by writing mellifluous and witty obituaries to the high-flying dreams of his Romantic precursors.

It is Romanticism’s fascination with our irrational, compulsive, and often violent propensities that proved to be its most enduring and vexing feature, as Rüdiger Safranski shows in Romanticism: A German Affair. The book, competently translated by Robert Goodwin, is divided into two parts. The first explores major personalities and debates from Johann Gottfried Herder to Heine (1770–1840). The second part traverses, at times rather too breezily, the afterlife of Romanticism from Hegel via ­Wagner, Nietzsche, Rilke, Stefan George all the way to Heidegger and Thomas Mann. As the book’s equivocal subtitle, “A German Affair,” suggests, Romanticism does not just name an achievement but also an entanglement, a cultural development at once creative and obsessive, and a volatile turn in philosophy and the arts that, even as it opened new vistas, also wrought a troubled legacy.

With early Romanticism gradually fading away into the petit-bourgeois aesthetic cocoon known as Biedermeier (c. 1815–1848), German culture increasingly acquiesces to Romanticism’s most worrisome features: its strident nationalist undertow; its messianic aspirations, which mutated into delusions of racial superiority; its Rousseauian attempt at recovering authentic, immediate Life (Leben); the variously violent and sexualized mythology in which its major representatives (Friedrich Schlegel, Heinrich von Kleist, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Novalis) ground their longing for human-engineered salvation.

Such an appraisal of Romanticism seems fundamentally right, though Safranski appears ­unconcerned with how all of these tendencies fit into a broader historical narrative. Notably absent from his account is a clear summation of various strands of Enlightenment thought and culture to (or against) which the German Romantics took themselves to be reacting. We are left with the picture of a singularly fecund historical interlude, composed of variously gifted and creatively eccentric individuals seemingly arising out of nowhere and committed to a symbolic transformation of the world of their contemporaries.

Given that a similar mix of assertiveness, creativity, and an arguably inflated trust in individual self-fashioning can also be ­detected elsewhere in Europe (notably in England and France), it is not obvious why Romanticism should be conceived as a specifically “German affair.” To be sure, some of the Romantics (Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Kleist, Joseph Görres, Jean Paul) come across as almost untranslatably German in their literary, social, and political concerns. Even so, there simply are too many instances of cross-fertilization linking German Romanticism to literary and philosophical culture elsewhere, France and England in particular, to justify Safranski’s exclusive focus on German-language materials and the implication of a autochthonous German Romantic culture.

To take that view is but to reenact, rather than understand, the quintessentially Romantic myth of absolute self-origination. What of Shaftesbury’s influence on early Romantic aesthetics? Should one not at least acknowledge the influence of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts on Novalis’ Hymns to the Night, or that of Burke’s Reflections on Novalis’s political theory? Likewise, Novalis’s characterization of the world as a perfect watch was arguably prompted by physico-theology arguments then in vogue in England, especially in the widely read works of William Paley.

Safranski has very little to say about Rousseau, whose centrality to the works of Goethe, Kant, ­Schiller, and their many contemporaries could hardly be overstated. Herder’s reference to the “invisible hand” organizing social and economic life is quoted without so much as a mention of Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In these and many other instances, Safranski seems to have lost sight of the fact that, however critical of key Enlightenment axioms and objectives, German Romanticism—the world of Goethe, Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heine, among others—was a European and, in important respects, cosmopolitan phenomenon.

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omanticism interweaves a number of thematic strands, such as German Romanticism’s attraction to play, performance, and irony; its fascination with chaos, violence, and a nocturnal world of irrational longing and fantasy; and, consequently, its deep-seated hostility toward normative and institutionally guaranteed meanings. Safranski is hardly the first to remark on the striking affinities between Romanticism and twentieth-century existentialism, though he still finds ways to make the point very effectively, especially in his discussion of Heinrich von Kleist’s interest a world bereft of any rational order and, hence, liable to sudden eruptions of extreme and inexplicable violence.

By temperament more a raconteur than a critic, Safranski usually succeeds in conveying a vivid impression of authors’ personae and intellectual passions. Delightful sketches pass review, beginning with the young Herder’s departure from a stultifying and aimless life in Riga. It is a hastily planned sea voyage, a metaphoric exchange of solid ground for the unsteady, highly volatile seas of philosophical and aesthetic speculation and, as such, an apt metaphor for German Romanticism’s ­precarious explorations as a whole.

By “genial coincidence,” as Coleridge might have formulated it, the scene that metaphorically ­launches German Romanticism is repeated almost exactly some sixty years later by Herder’s more famous (or notorious) compatriot who is often regarded as having pushed Romantic aesthetics to its very limits. Thus, in 1839 Richard Wagner makes a hasty escape from political intrigue, personal bankruptcy, and the humdrum of provincial life in Riga, again by sea; and it is this nautical misadventure that was to inspire his Flying Dutchman and, ironically, lay the foundations for his eventual success as a composer.

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ere and elsewhere ­Safranski proves wonderfully alert to the Romantics’ penchant for turning personal failure and betrayal—of responsibility, of artistic vision, of political ideals—into an aesthetic achievement. Sacrificed to this biographically based presentation, however, is a sense of critical distance, to say nothing of a fully articulated argument concerning the overall meaning and significance of Romanticism for us today. While it is a mistake (common in academia) to promote critical distance as the ultimate end of inquiry, it is nevertheless indispensable. By contrast, Safranski’s largely uncritical survey of German Romanticism’s major figures and movements, extending from the 1770s to 1945, often obscures significant tensions and contradictions both amonghis protagonists and, more important, withinthe works of individual writers.

This tendency is particularly glaring where Safranski turns his attention to the Romantics’ understanding of religion. Among the early Romantics, Novalis (notably a shrewd reader of Burke’s Reflections)appeared troubled by the wholesale expurgation of religious institutions and liturgical practice in revolutionary France. As he puts it, “where there are no gods, specters will reign,” to which ­Safranski adds: “today we would call them ideologies.” Only a few pages later, however, Safranski seems in perfect accord with Schlegel’s breezy suggestion that what moves the reader of Dante’s Commedia is beauty, not its religious meaning. It is one thing to recall Schlegel’s spurious distinction between aesthetic and religious interest, yet quite another to pass it along without comment. Readers of Romanticism will find it hard to tell the difference between summations of arguments advanced by the Romantics and Safranski’s outlook on the intrinsic cogency and ultimate significance of these pronouncements.

A telling instance of Safranski’s rather uncritical approach involves Schleiermacher’s 1799 lectures On Religion, a work that epitomizes the period’s attempt to supplant theological tenets, liturgical practices, and normative commitments of confessional religion with emotional intensity and conjectural meanings of the individual subject. Safranski summarizes Schleiermacher’s “capacious” position with a rhetorical question (“Was not Romantic poetry with its sense of the uncanny and the wondrous already directly religious?”). Without so much as a blink of the eye, Safranski invokes ­Schleiermacher to transition from a vague “religious feeling” to a discussion of the purported “connection between ­mythology and the feeling of freedom.” Whether this link is as “simple” (ganz einfach) as Schlegel and, seemingly, Safranski himself make it out to be may be doubted.

To its audience on this side of the Atlantic, Romanticism offers a vivid and consistently entertaining narrative of that period’s intensely creative and often eccentric surge in artistic and intellectual productivity. Yet inasmuch as it seems bereft of any consistently reasoned and integrative perspective on its subject matter, Romanticism is unlikely to satisfy the demand for critical demystification of past cultural formations that has long been prevalent in the contemporary academy. Both in its shortcomings and its (still considerable) achievements, then, Romanticism highlights the need for a via media, a sympathetic yet critically argumentative mode of relating to the past, one that navigates between the flawed extremes of belletristic recapitulation and hermeneutic suspicion.

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hat is needed is a reflective awareness of our continuities with and (for better or worse) indebtedness to the past. To be fascinated with Romantic personalities such as Kleist or Hoffmann is all good and well; yet for these voices to reveal their relevance to our cultural moment here and now, we ought not just indulge in but ­genuinely reflect on our lasting ­fascination with these writers and what they have to tell us. Particularly in its German variants, Romanticism gave rise to an astonishing variety of creative and expressive modes, ­arguably as much so in music and painting (regrettably unexplored by Safranski) as in literature. Yet Romanticism’s sharp antithesis of the individual’s creative self-­fashioning on the one hand and political, social, and religious norms on the other also sowed the seeds for variously existentialist, hedonistic, and nihilist programs that bear much responsibility for the devastations wrought ­throughout the twentieth century and into our ­present.

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University.