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, January 17, 2010

Reconfiguring Romanticism (36): Jacques Darras, We Are all German Romantics


A Republic of aristocrats: romanticism. A Republic of aristocrats linked together by a kind of busy idleness. For whom the only conceivable activity was working at freeing themselves from work. Who created what we now call “literature .” Who feverishly produced reflexive, critical, poetic texts as well as translations. The way they invented for themselves a whole genealogy -- a Gotha -- of literary ancestors. The way they established a canon of major literary texts in which they gathered together Shakespeare and Dante, as nobody had thought to do before them. The way they grouped themselves into societies for endless discussions, all that was the invention of their Jena group. We cannot and could never dissociate ourselves from their adventure without breaking decisively the link that makes us legitimate as well.

Witness Samuel Taylor Coleridge rushing to Hamburg in the Fall of 1798, so eager was that 26 year old London-based poet to join the conversations he felt were going on there, leaving him stuck in his English backwater. In Göttingen, from which Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel had graduated a few years earlier, he learnt crash-course German in order to read the language more than to speak it. He abandoned his traveling companions William and Dorothy Wordsworth, far too cumbersome for him, far too ponderously mired in their Cumbrian daffodils. He let them go back to their Cumberland Lakes long before he did. He was through with their shared dreams of poetic militancy, their desire to implant poetry among the peasants. For Coleridge, who in the meantime had turned in his reading to Kant and Schelling, that meant a decisive and durable end of versified poetry. Which is precisely why English tradition would long consider him a poet who had lost his way in the labyrinth of German critical philosophy, until his reemergence in 1817 with the two volumes of his intellectual autobiography, Biographia literaria.

The Kantian, French and industrial revolutions convinced Coleridge that no synthesis was any longer possible. Mainly as far as poetry was concerned. Autobiography, at best, was the only way of apprehending the new reality. Finding coherence in one’s journey should from now on be one’s only ambition. Thus Coleridge’s own poetic adventure was to break brutally in two. As he fled to Germany in order to master the thoughts of Fichte, Schelling and Schlegel before they had even completed them, he exposed his own vulnerability as learning subject. But at the same time that he took that risk, he powerfully asserted his poet’s desire for philosophy. That was the exemplary drama inaugurated by Coleridge in modern times, the drama of poetry and its desire for philosophy.

Now the poem indeed could only accept two forms of time. Either it would methodically have to follow its flowing rhythm, practising an ascetic sort of “deferment” until the final opening which it knew beforehand it would never master. (Work in that case would necessarily be left unfinished until it came to the posthumous notice of readers.) Or it would have to settle for a fragmentary form the better to maintain and hopefully perfect the control of one’s thought over life. At possible risk of contradicting itself but also out of a contemptuous assertion of the superiority of art over the predictable decline of existence.

The young Jena romantics were in a hurry. So they chose the fragment. Since they wanted to combine speed in both mobility and idleness, they had to adopt the right technique for it. So frequent was their travelling between Dresden, Jena, Weimar and Berlin that it is incredibly difficult to follow their daily movements in space, Their visits to one another reached a particular intensity at the turn of the century. Bewteen 1798 and 1801 Friedrich Schlegel’s unifying power sought to submit them to his literary ambition. He had Schleiermacher and Tieck come from Berlin, Novalis from Leipzig, as well as falling in love himself with Dorothea Mendelssohn who held a “salon” in Berlin. If events were to accelerate in terms of months, each day expanded to the rhythm of conversations on literature and art. Speed and idleness, accordingly!

Yet one should not forget that death was to prove much faster than them. Wackenroder died at 25 in Berlin before reaching Jena. Novalis disappeared at 30 in 1801. Fragmentary their lives were to be, in advance of their work. They had to hurry to speak for themselves. A hidden distant link united the young French generals of the Revolution and the generals of Romanticism fighting in the same war against Time. As if the speeding up of lives were part of the strategy of Fate itself. In England too poets died an early death. Keats, Shelley and Byron did not tarry long on earth. They declared their preference for the elements of air and water. Earth felt like an injury for Keats. In Florence, Shelley prayed to the West Wind to carry him off to Heaven. Poetry for them was more aspiration than inspiration. A desire to ascend into air, a desire for purity and sublimity.

Intercessing angels had left Protestantism. So the French Revolution made up for that deficit, inaugurating the myth of youth sacrificing itself for the good of mankind. That was the time of the angel-like poet, whose image would soon reach its culmination with Arthur Rimbaud. The Ardenne-born poet, alongside Gerard de Nerval, was surely the most romantic, the most Germanic of all French poets. Where the frontier between France and Germany actually was, he knew intuitively, long before those stupid French engineers who would build their incompetent Maginot Line. He alone was familiar with the fir-trees and bogland of that border region called Fagnes, between the Eifel mountains and Luxemburg. The Illuminations are visionary fragments developed from Novalis’s negatives, whose form perfectly answers Schlegel’s definition: "A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog." (Fragment 206)


This image is relevant. Journeying almost exclusively by night, the hedgehog unfolds its rolled-up body when the time comes for it to go hunting. For all its scurrying along and around on its short legs it eventually accomplishes long distances. A fantastic animal reminiscent of monsters, it betrays its proximity through noisy blowing sounds through its snout. How vulnerable though beneath the apparent protection of its quills! Breaking from classical --- hence French --- “bon goût” (good taste), the Romantics inventend a shaggy type of beauty, itself beyond beauty. As if they had intuitively grasped Kant’s approach, the most obsessively domestic of all philosophers, they had a romantic night landscape hidden at the core of forests and hedges unfold before their eyes, which put them in direct connexion with the infinite divine. The infinitely distant sublime disclosed itself to them within the small and near. In the form of so many close at hand rather than grandiose thresholds. The low holzweg mountain landscape – we would rather translate “holzweg” by “sommière” i.e “wood lane” than the famous Heideggerian “lane leading nowhere” – is for the most part covered with an ideally black forest. That’s exactly how it is in Thuringia between Weimar, Erfurt and Eisenach, where the fir-woods are so thick that night prevails there in broad daylight, and even its clearings and its hilly openings seem haunted by that nocturnal proximity.

Baltic painter Caspar David Friedrich has painted those Romantic landscapes that seemingly waver between night and day, producing an indefinable interplay of domestic instability on whoever looks at them. Which side of the world are we on? Are we not figures seen from behind, owing to the fact that we cannot grasp that against which our eyesight is backed? Both the Greifswald painter and the Königsberg philosopher seem to have drawn the frontier separating us forever from knowing things. We cannot see, we cannot reach the other side of what we see. Which constrains us to posit objects in front of us (gegenstand), whose reality we assert and assume to be such as the Sciences describe it, though we cannot take for granted that it isn’t the arbitrary product of our constitution. Just as the Earth revolves forever and ever around the Sun, we too revolve around objects, unable to assign a fixed center to our ever-revolving ex-centricity.

“Fragment” indeed is the proper image applying to that fracture. “Fragments” are “sums of vision” containing whole potentialities and analogies, beyond (and beside) the scientific definitions assigning them to a certain category. Every fragment is a hidden entrance that leads one directly into poetry. Every fragmentive object is as it were separated by a great divide between object for study and object of imagination. “Fracture” means the greatest possibility of alliance as well as the most abysmal depth separating our analytic faculties from our imaginative power. Imagination is a blind woman at worst, short-sighted at best, only able to look ahead for want of apprehending the infinitely close at hand. Their groping methods eventually draw poets and scientists towards one another. It is through their passionate love for mineralogy, geology or chemistry that Novalis, Goethe or Wordsworth tried to preserve the link between pure and imaginative reason, whose complexity Kant’s analysis had probed and kept apart.

No one can live for long suspended in pure reflexivity. That formal analysis soon was to leave its vacuum. Though still using “fragments” to compose his Philosophy of Nature, Schelling, himself a friend of the Jena group, gave new legitimacy to the link between within and beyond, subject and object, reconciling them with each other and rerooting them in a common ground. By reverting to the old pairing first posited by mediaeval philosophers and reactivated by Spinoza, linking Creative Nature, i.e “Natura naturans,” to Created Nature, i.e “Natura naturata,” Schelling resolved that disturbing “fracture.” Explaining how Substance could give itself to itself through the singular, through the “fragmentation” of individual experience, became his main quest. One had to conceive that each singular experience, each singular “this” could give access to the “Weltseele” (the Soul of the world). For the Soul “is a true and living presence of the Infinite in the Finite” (Fragment 93)

For Schelling as well as his poet friends, Nature was the place where Instant and Space ought to be joined together again. According to him poets desired to revert to “repos” (quietness) because “quietness and its mirroring in Space, which is quietness itself” is the very essence of Substance. (Fragment 88) One conceives that such deep nostalgia for Home should have chosen to express itself through one’s love for one’s singular birth-place. Hence that particular link to one’s Nation, in the sense of Place where one is born, that seemed to characterize German romanticism. On the other hand one should not forget either that the French Revolution was first to coin the new French sovereignty in the name of “La Nation en armes “ (Nation in arms) and to impose it on the rest of Europe. More deeply intimate, more subtly philosophical would be the pact sealed by the German romantic poet with his Little Home (petite patrie), his countryside, his local nook. And yet such link, such pact would never be questioned, let alone broken, by anyone any longer in centuries to come. Made familiar through our visual relationship to a singularly privileged landscape such a link, such a pact would become what we would always be ready to fight in defense of, to the utmost degree of our fierceness and most hypocritical lies.

Just as a matter of example, can we pause and quietly reflect, meaning “in the quietness of Space,” over Romanticism itself, standing as we do in the midst of Goethe’s city of Weimar with our eyes looking to the North towards the woody hills of Buchenwald? What barbarous act has deliberately soiled and spoiled that delicate visual link established by the Romantic poets with their immaculately initial Homeland? Could there have been a lethal hidden side to their philosophy? (…)

[From Nous sommes tous des Romantiques allemands: De Dante à Whitman en passant par Iena (Calmann-Lévy, 2002, Paris). Translaion into English by the author.]


Born in Picardy, district of Ponthieu by the sea, Jacques Darras has been composing a long poem in several Cantos since 1988, whose name “La Maye” derives from a little river in Northern France. Canto VII has just been published under the title of La Maye réfléchit (The Maye reflects) by Le Cri in Brussels (2009). In 1978 he founded the literary magazine in’hui, (To-day in the Picard language) in Amiens, now reborn in a European form as Inuits dans la Jungle (Inuits in the Jungle). An emeritus professor of English and American poetry at the University of Picardy in Amiens, he has translated Walt Whitman, Malcolm Lowry, Ezra Pound, S. T. Coleridge, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Ted Hughes. He was the first Frenchman and European ever called to deliver the Reith Lectures (1989) in celebration of the bicentenary of the French Revolution. He was awarded the Prix Apollinaire in 2004 and the Grand Prix de Poésie of the French Academy in 2006.


Phanero Noemikon said...

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Thank you.

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