09 January, 2007

Romanticism: connecting some dots

You know that feeling when you're sleeping away from home, and you wake up in the dark and grope around, but the walls are in the wrong place, and so you wind up completely disoriented? That's what reading the German Romantics is like to me. Naturally, I could hardly have paid them a greater compliment, either from their perspective, or from my own. A while ago I read the fragments of Novalis, and more recently the fragments of Schlegel. Why? Well, they're fun, for one thing—and even funny:
The critic is a reader who ruminates. Therefore he ought to have more than one stomach.

The function of criticism, people say, is to educate one's readers! Whoever wants to be educated, let him educate himself. This is rude; but it can't be helped.
Apothegms like these have that surreal and contemptuous wit found later in Nietzsche. But Schlegel is not just Nietzschean: he seems to contain the entire history of modern Western thought in his various snippets. I offer you, for instance, Duchamp (or Eliot): "In order to write well about something, one shouldn't be interested in it any longer. To express an idea with due circumspection, one must have relegated it wholly to one's past; one must be wholly preoccupied with it."

Empson: "If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as a destruction of pleasure were to think logially, then 'wow' would be the best criticism of the greatest work of art. To be sure, there are many critiques which say nothing more, but only take much longer to say it. / People always talk about how an analysis of the beauty of a work of art supposedly disturbs the pleasure of the art lover. Well, the real lover just won't let himself be disturbed!"

Bakhtin, Frye etc.: "Many of the very best novels are compendia, encyclopedias of the whole spiritual life of a brilliant individual."

Schopenhauer: "Every human being who is cultivated and who cultivates himself contains a novel within himself. Bt it isn't necessary for him to express it and write it out."

André Breton: "Many witty ideas are like the sudden meeting of two friendly thoughts after a long separation."

Even the Schlegelian idea of the complete man goes back to the Renaissance cult of elasticity—compare, in particular, Grafton's recent portrait of Alberti, which I read last week—"A really free and cultivated person ought to be able to attune himself at will to being philosophical or philological, critical or poetical, historical or rhetorical, ancient or modern: quite arbitrarily, just as one tunes an instrument at any time and to any degree."

And all this from a thinker accused of excessive mediaevalism!


Alberti's On Painting reconfigures the myth of Narcissus as an allegory about the origins of art, the beautiful soul attempting to capture the fleeting currents of the world on a watery canvas. Schlegel's writing, likewise, seems to capture one's own thoughts in a sudden flash—his words the reflection of anything already present. That flash is wit, which "gives an elasticity and electricity to a solid style". Novalis was into wit, too: "Every proposition must have independent character—must be a self-evident whole, the seedpod of a witty idea." It is for this reason that Schlegel introduces the notion of self-contradiction: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." (Pirsig said nothing more, but only took much longer to say it.) Wasn't it Emerson who said that self-contradiction is the mark of great genius, that only common minds are bound by consistency?

Because of this aesthetic, you can say almost anything about Schlegel. Frederick Beiser illuminates this point well—albeit unwittingly—in his book The Romantic Imperative. You can call Schlegel a progressive or a reactionary. You can see in Schlegel the historicising hermeneutics of Schleiermacher, or the text-based, kabbalistic formalism of Shklovsky. You can say that Schlegel found his romanticism in Schiller's cult of beauty and ancient/modern contrast, or you can say that Schiller only inculcated Schlegel's classicism. You can say that Schlegel is pro-system, or anti-system—that his philosophy is a reaction against the Enlightenment, or a resolution of its problems. You can say that he believes in absolute, transcendent knowledge—and that he denies the possibility of attaining it. You could compare that last contradiction to Kant—who posits the noumenon but denies direct perception of the same—or you could read Schlegel in a Kantless vacuum—Schlegel, after all, for whom Kant was already out of date, for whom Fichte was the real deal, at least until 1797 when even Fichte had become passé. This was the same Fichte who first achieved fame by being mistaken for Kant, back in 1791. It goes on and on.


Lovejoy vs. Spitzer.

This all-inclusive quality is one reason why Lovejoy wanted to abandon the word 'Romanticism' in favour of 'romanticisms'. He broke the concept down into smaller pieces, which he called unit-ideas. The unit-idea is the classic Lovejoy notion: you discover throughout intellectual history certain small, hard concepts that persist through time—and then you can write a history of these concepts, hence his masterpiece on the Great Chain of Being. The unit-ideas of German Romanticism, according to Lovejoy, are three—Ganzheit (holism), Streben (dynamism), and Eigentümlichkeit (diversification). Personally I would have left it at arcanism and irony, but then Lovejoy was a more brilliant man than me. In 1944 Lovejoy was taken to task by one Leo Spitzer—a sort of intellectual outsider sometimes lumped in with other literary philologists like Curtius and Auerbach—for what Spitzer perceived as an excessive analytism. By breaking Romanticism up into these parts, argued Spitzer, Lovejoy was destroying its organic totality, and thus failing to understand it as a complete entity. Understanding things as a complete entity is classically German: as a historical discipline it is called Geistesgeschichte.

(Gombrich, who moved the Warburg tradition away from its German roots towards the analytism of Karl Popper, criticised his predecessor Panofsky for practicing Geistesgeschichte—the mentality of the Renaissance, insisted Gombrich, could not be discovered in every brushstroke of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In this respect Gombrich had a deep kinship with Lovejoy, primarily interested in how discrete visual forms and techniques persist and change over time. In his Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor associates this formalist discipline with a conservative politics of stability and peaceful tradition.)

It is worth noting that the very notion of 'understanding something as a complete entity' is a central problem in Romanticism, particularly for Schleiermacher. For Schlegel, the unity behind the fragmented world can only be approached, never attained: this is why, like Empson, he mocks those who bewail the analysis of art. But Spitzer sees Lovejoy's position as tending towards nominalism: there are no universals of thought (like 'Romanticism'), only a series of particular unit-ideas. This, for Spitzer, is a misappropriation of the methods of natural science.

Lovejoy responded immediately. (Both attack and response can be found in the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 5, issue 2.) For Lovejoy, it was Spitzer's position that led to nominalism—for if organic wholes like Romanticism cannot be broken up into constituent parts, then there is no reason to believe that Lovejoy's idea of Romanticism bears any relation to Spitzer's. Instead of a history, or a series of histories, we would end up with a number of discrete wholes in the mind of each thinker. The Geist posited by Spitzer remains a solipsistic, unverifiable entity—a ghost.

For John Emerson, it all depends on how you look at it: one's conclusion is determined by one's prior perspective. But I think we can be bolder, and say that Lovejoy is right. Spitzer is still clouded by Plato, putting universals before particulars—as a result, Spitzerian Romanticism is delicate to the point of being completely uninteresting. In 1944, the Germans were on the point of defeat in more ways than one. The Hegelian fiction of the 19th century, that cultures are unified entities in which every part reflects organically the whole, was losing out to the ruthless analyses of Anglo-American philosophy. There were those who still talked in historicist terms, such as Spitzer and Cassirer, Whorf and Panofsky, but they were no longer, except for Panofsky, the mainstream. The weight of evidence just seemed, and still seems, too strongly against them.


Romanticism and the palato-alveolar sibilant.

Who were the great German philosophers before Kant? Leibniz, Thomasius, Wolff, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Hamann, Herder, Jacobi. Who were the great German philosophers after Kant? Fichte, Schiller, Schlegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. This sudden surfeit of sibilants is no coincidence. You know where you stand with a Kant—just listen to that name, solid and proper. But after Kant, everyone starts sitting around scratching their heads, trying to work out, What next? After Kant, everyone worth his salt is writing stuff like this, from Fichte:
The judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomenae [sic] exists in any rational or metaphysical—or at least epistemological—contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being, or 'to be', or 'to occur', in the thing itself or of the thing itself.
The sibilance of those names is the sound of certainty—of all that is solid—melting away, of architecture sinking in a bog. (It's a very German sound. Given its representation of the vague and mystical, we might spell it sibyllance.) Hegel evaded the problem by producing a sort of pimped-out version of Herderian historicism, but you can still hear in his name the still small voice of Schlegel! Speculative philosophy finally got back into the Kantian saddle with names like Heidegger and Gadamer, but it took more than a hundred years.


John Holbo, who turns up everywhere these days, is a fan of Romanticism. In fact, he thinks that postmodern literary philosophy—now generally referred to as Theory—can be 'helpfully regarded as a late repetition of German Romantic themes'. Back in December '05, John wrote:
Theory, I will argue, is a form of late romanticism. . . More specifically, Theory is the latest chapter in the history of the counter-Enlightenment. My tag to encapsulate this comes from Friedrich Schlegel: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." This contains the key to the puzzle of why so much eclecticism and, frankly, contradiction can cohabit under the roof of one term.
Despite this, it took him till last June to read Andrew Bowie's 1997 classic, From Romanticism to Critical Theory, which argues something similar:
The German philosophical traditions I shall be exploring [from Schlegel onwards] are the historical and theoretical 'condition of possibility' [that's a Kantian joke] of the new wave of theory which developed from the 1960s onwards in the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and others.
Now Holbo has two copies of Bowie's book, one for the bedside table, the other for loo-time. (He keeps the latter under a stack of Better Homes and Gardens, to be sure, but it's there.) He and Bowie like to bully up against poor old Beiser, who thinks that the postmodernists' claiming of the Romantics is 'one-sided and anachronistic'. In fact, Frühromantik, as Beiser labels Schlegel et al., was 'a unique historical phenomena'. Note that 'phenomena' has become feminine, just as it was for Fichte, quoted above, who pluralised it as 'phenomenae'. Lacan, no doubt, would have much to say about this feminization of the neuter. It all relates to the mirror stage, you see, and Narcissus, and the attempt to capture the self among the fleeting impressions of an infant's world.


In a recent post at the Valve, Holbo implies that the Romantic roots of the postmodern aesthetic can be seen in the use of the mixed style or genre, noting Schlegel's concept of Mischung. For Schlegel, modern literature was born out of the mixing of genres in the Middle Ages—a progressive, chaotic phenomenon unknown to the stable and cyclical symmetries of classical literature. The modern form is designated Romantisch. Schlegel seems to discern one classical anticipation of the modern state—"In Plato we find unmixed all the pure types of Greek prose in their classic individuality, and often incongruously juxtaposed"—but here the conflicting elements are only juxtaposed, not mixed. I am not sure what to make of this. The same general idea appears in Bakhtin's essay on dialogic discourse, which claims that the modern novel derives from the cross-pollinating currents of mediaeval romance:
The element of translation and remodelling appears in the case of the novel somewhat more rude and striking. One might say that European novelistic prose began and developed in a process of free (transformative) translation between one work and another.
Or again, "Every novel in its totality, from the point of view of language, and of the linguistic consciousness invested in it, is a hybrid." If modern or postmodern literature and thought is essentially mixed or mongrel, then there is a sense in which one work flows into the next, having no discrete boundaries. In this we see the genesis of the postmodern notion of intertextuality, of the Open Work. Hence the Romantic taste for Tristram Shandy.


Gawain recently wrote to me, as a critique of some of the material I've been peddling of late, "I don't care about theory this and theory that and how they relate, if I cannot somehow connect it to my life and I am not great at connecting dots; which just leaves me with the impression of dazzling technique and nothing to hold onto."

Damn. Go read some Schlegel, anyway. You'll have a good laugh.


John Cowan said...

I was just thinking this morning about the abomination of desolation, and how it dares to arrogate the word "Theory" to itself, as if it were Microsoft Corporation.

Anonymous said...

One can understand the Tarskian semantics to some degree (and Quine makes use of Tarskian concepts, does he not), but I doubt Tarski would mix in the intention, belief, agency etc. with the discussion of reference and denotation (as Davidson does--though I have only read what is available online), except as needed (ok linguists might make decisions, or offer definitions---ostension or something). Quine was all about the relationship of language to observation (empiricism, in a sense), and I believe Tarski was as well: the idea that language depends on a Cartesian mind or something seems a bit trivial--or one could grant (contra-strong behaviorist/determinist types) yes, there is a thinking mind, and occasionally intention enters the picture (say making stipulations of some sort for an unknown syntax), but all of that still depends on observation, inference, induction in other words (and Quine suggests that the field linguist might have to observe what sorts of effects a certain word (during the guessing game stage) had on a person---.

Anonymous said...

Oopsie Daisy.

That's not at all what I meant
to spam in!

There is one authentic philosophical dispute---realism vs. nominalism--and the epistemology chat, I think it is safe to claim, proceeds the metaphysics. Most other disputes (or pseudo-disputes) follow from that, including a priori vs. a posteriori views of knowledge (and self), spats about "what there is", and really ethics and politics in a sense. Kant himself does not offer any knockdown arguments (even to the level of say Descartes' cogito) for the existence of a priori truths. It's more like, empiricism (a posteriori, right) seems to be lacking; therefore, a priori truths must hold. A fallacy really.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh aye, aye.

Sir G said...

Hey, there ARE theories I can connect to my life; just not many. Btw, you are getting better at this.