To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (34) : from Novalis and Schlegel, two essays toward a language poetry


Matters concerning speech and writing are genuinely strange; proper conversation is a mere play of words. We can only marvel at the laughable error people make--believing that they speak about things. No one knows precisely what is peculiar to language, that it concerns itself merely with itself. For that reason, it is a wonderful and fertile mystery--that when someone speaks merely in order to speak, one precisely then expresses the most splendid and most original truths. Yet if one wishes to speak of something determinate, then temperamental language has them say the most laughable and perverse things. That is the reason too for the hatred that so many earnest people have toward language. They recognize their own willfulness, but do not observe that contemptible chatter is the infinitely earnest side of language. If only one could make people grasp that the case of language is similar to the case of mathematical formulae--they constitute a world for themselves-- they play with themselves alone, express nothing other than their wonderful nature, and precisely for that reason they are so expressive--precisely for that reason they mirror in themselves the curious play of relations in things. Only by way of freedom are they members of nature and only in their free movements does the world soul give utterance, making them a delicate standard of measure and blueprint for things. Thus it is with language too--whoever has a subtle sense of its application, its cadence, its musical spirit, whoever perceives in oneself the delicate effects of its inner nature, and moves one’s tongue and hand in accordance with it will be a prophet; in contrast, whoever knows it but does not have sufficient ear and sensibility for language, writes truths such as these, will be held hostage by language itself and will be mocked by human beings, as was Cassandra among the Trojans. If I believe I have hereby declared most precisely the essence and office of poesy, I know nonetheless that no human being can understand it, and that I have said something quite foolish, for the mere reason that I wanted to say it, so that no poesy comes to be. Yet what would happen if I had to talk? and if this linguistic drive to speak were the characteristic of inspiration of language, and of the efficacy of language in me? and if my will only willed precisely everything that I had to will--then in the end this could be without my knowledge or belief poesy and could make a mystery of language comprehensible? and thus I would be a writer by vocation, inasmuch as a writer is only an enthusiast of language?--

[Translation by Ferit Güven, from Novalis, The Philosophical and Theoretical Works]

FRIEDRICH SCHLEGEL, “ON INCOMPREHENSIBILITY” [Über die Unverständlichkeit] (1800)

[…] Of all things that have to do with communicating ideas, what ould be more fascinating than the question of whether such communication is actually possible? […]

Common sense […] probably did not have a difficult time in arriving at the conclusion that the basis of the incomprehensible is to be found in incomprehension. Now, it is a peculiarity of mine that I absolutely detest incomprehension, not only the incomprehension of the uncomprehending but even more the incomprehension of the comprehending. For this reason, I made a resolution quite some time ago to have a talk about this matter with my reader […]. I wanted for once to be really thorough and go through the whole series of my essays, admit their frequent lack of success with complete frankness, and so gradually lead the reader to being similarly frank and straightforward with himself. I wanted to show that all incomprehension is relative […]. I wanted to demonstrate that words often understand themselves better than do those who use them […]. I wanted to show that the purest and most genuine incomprehension emanates precisely from science and the arts—which by their very nature aim at comprehension and at making comprehensible—and from philosophy and philology; and so that the whole business shouldn’t turn around in too palpable a circle I had made a firm resolve really to be comprehensible, at least this time. […]

A great part of the incomprehensibility of the Athenaeum [Schlegel’s magazine, 1798-1800] is unquestionably due to the irony that to a greater or lesser extent is to be found everywhere in it. […] In order to facilitate a survey of the whole system of irony, we would like to mention here a few of the choicest kinds. The first and most distinguished of all is coarse irony. It is to be found in the real nature of things and is one of the most widespread of substances […]. Next there is fine or delicate irony; then extra-fine. Scaramouche employs the last type when he seems to be talking amicably and earnestly with someone when really he is only waiting for the chance to give him—while preserving the social amenities—a kick in the behind. This kind of irony is also to be found in poets, as well as straightforward irony, a type that flourishes most purely and originally in old gardens where wonderfully lovely grottoes lure the sensitive friend of nature into their cool wombs only to be-splash him plentifully from all sides with water and thereby wipe him clean of delicacy. Further, dramatic irony; that is, when an author has written three acts, then unexpectedly turns into another man and now has to write the last two acts. Double irony, when two lines of irony run parallel side-by-side without disturbing each other: one for the gallery, another for the boxes, though a few little sparks may also manage to get behind the scenes. Finally, there is the irony of irony. Generally speaking, the most fundamental irony of irony probably is that even it becomes tiresome if we are always being confronted with it. But what we want this irony to mean in the first place is something that happens in more ways than one. For example, if one speaks of irony without using it, as I have just done; if one speaks of irony ironically without in the process being aware of having fallen into a far more noticeable irony; if one can’t disentangle oneself from irony anymore, as seems to be happening in this essay on incomprehensibility; if irony turns into a mannerism and becomes, as it were, ironical about the author; […] and if irony runs wild and can’t be controlled any longer.

What gods will rescue us from all these ironies? The only solution is to find an irony that might be able to swallow up all these big and little ironies and leave no trace of them at all. I must confess that at precisely this moment I feel that mine has a real urge to do just that. But even this would only be a short-term solution. I fear that if I understand correctly what destiny seems to be hinting at, then soon there will arise a new generation of little ironies: for truly the stars augur the fantastic. And even if it should happen that everything were to be peaceful for a long period of time, one still would not be able to put any faith in this seeming calm. Irony is something one simply cannot play games with. It can have incredibly long-lasting effects. I have a suspicion that some of the most conscious artists of earlier times are still carrying on ironically, hundreds of years after their deaths, with their most faithful followers and admirers. […]
I’ve already been forced to admit indirectly that the Athenaeum is incomprehensible, and because it happened in the heat of irony, I can hardly take it back without in the process doing violence to that irony.

But is incomprehensibility really something so unmitigatedly contemptible and evil? Methinks the salvation of families and nations rests upon it. […] Yes, even man’s most precious possession, his own inner happiness, depends in the last analysis, as anybody can easily verify, on some such point of strength that must be left in the dark, but that nonetheless shores up and supports the whole burden and would crumble the moment one subjected it to rational analysis. Verily, it would fare badly with you if, as you demand, the whole world were ever to become wholly comprehensible in earnest. And isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos? […]

[Translation by Peter Firchow, from Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, University of Minnesota Press, 1971]


Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. Its aim isn't merely to reunite all the separate species of poetry and put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. It tries to and should mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature; and make poetry lively and sociable, and life and society poetical; poeticize wit and fill and saturate the forms of art with every kind of good, solid matter for instruction, and animate them with the pulsations of humor. It embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest systems of art, containing within themselves still further systems, to the sigh, the kiss that the poetizing child breathes forth in artless song. It can so lose itself in what it describes that one might believe it exists only to characterize poetical individuals of all sorts; and yet there still is no form so fit for expressing the entire spirit of an author: so that many artists who started out to write only a novel ended up by providing us with a portrait of themselves. It alone can become, like the epic, a mirror of the whole circumambient world, an image of the age. And it can also – more than any other form – hover at the midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on tbe wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors. It is capable of the highest and most variegated refinement, not only from within outwards, but also from without inwards; capable in that it organizes – for everything that seeks a wholeness in its effects – the parts along similar lines, so that it opens up a perspective upon an infinitely increasing classicism. Romantic poetry is in the arts what wit is in philosophy, and what society and sociability, friendship and love are in life. Other kinds of poetry are finished and are now capable of being fully analyzed. The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected. It can be exhausted by no theory and only a divinatory criticism would dare try to characterize its ideal. It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; and it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself. The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that it is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic.

[Translation by Peter Firchow, from Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, University of Minnesota Press, 1971]

1 comment:

Bryan Sentes said...

"informative" indeed. Although "the language poetry" here is hardly L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, especially in its (post)Marxist inflection. Among a minority of scholars, it has been well-known that the linguistic turn begins, at least, with Hamann's review of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; that post-modernity is born with modernity (cf. Beiser's The Fate of Reason); that Schleiermacher's universal hermeneutic is a protosemiotics; and that "Romantic" poetry is always already self-deconstructing. The "essays" posted here should serve as a reminder of how belated much of the theorizing, at least, in the wake of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E / "language poetry" is. Poems for the Millenium III should be read with the philosophical studies of, at least, Manfred Frank and Andrew Bowie. Then, maybe, we'll have begun to become, as we must be, absolutely modern.