Andrea Wulf’s partaking and usually profound new group biography, “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self,” returns repeatedly to such scenes of instruction. Set in Jena, a German college city that was for just a few temporary years on the flip of the nineteenth century the mental capital of Europe, the ebook reveals how “the First Romantics” or “the Jena Set,” as Wulf calls them, got here collectively — to write, argue, love and research. It presents an exciting image of college life, one much less and much less acquainted in our personal second of hypermediated schooling and persevering with devaluation of the humanities.
The ebook’s title adapts a phrase from a up to date of Fichte, the critic Friedrich Schlegel — “magnificent outlaws” or “exiles” extra actually — to describe this group of poets and philosophers who lived collectively within the aftermath of the French Revolution and who asked in their very own methods what it means to be free. Wulf paints a shifting collective portrait of those intellectuals as they struggled to embody their revolutionary beliefs. She argues that the Romantics — together with Goethe, Schiller and Hegel, in addition to some lesser-known figures, such because the philosophers Fichte and Schelling, the critics Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, and the poet Novalis — handed down to us the trendy notion of the self as basically free. Wulf additionally reveals how essential had been the ladies on this mental circle, who lived out their very own experiments in liberation. Thus, Caroline Schlegel, August Wilhelm’s spouse, who was a translator and critic in her personal proper, performs an important position within the story, its biographical and emotional pivot.
As a neighborhood historical past of Romanticism, the ebook contrasts strikingly with Wulf’s final, the well-known “The Invention of Nature.” There, Wulf adopted the Romantic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt from Berlin and Jena to Venezuela, Siberia and past. In “Magnificent Rebels,” the primary reminder of a world outdoors Jena comes within the type of intermittent information about Napoleon’s rise to energy and his marketing campaign of conquest — a marketing campaign that, within the remaining chapter, turns into a devastating intrusion into the insularity of mental life.
At its most formidable, “Magnificent Rebels” considerations the relationships between philosophy and politics, thought and motion. It explores the stress between the inwardness of Romantic philosophy and the moral or political aspirations of its practitioners, practically all of whom supported the French Revolution. For the Romantics, Wulf argues, this seeming contradiction might be understood solely in mild of a notion of the I, or the Ich: the autonomous self or free agent that we nonetheless usually take ourselves to be. Shaped by its revolutionary historic context, the concept of common human freedom had radical and far-reaching implications that exceeded the person thoughts. It posed a direct problem to the crushing hierarchies of previous regimes.
Famously, the Romantic imaginative and prescient of the self was targeted on the facility of creativeness. As Novalis had it, in “poeticizing,” the self demonstrates that it is free. For Wulf as for a lot of others, these claims increase a troublesome query: Was the Romantic philosophy of freedom a real revolutionary philosophy? Or was it somewhat a retreat from politics, an effort to transcend social battle by imaginative or poetic means? The latter has lengthy been the consensus, however Wulf, to her credit score, by no means fully accepts that these two prospects are opposed. She acknowledges that the Romantics actually did hope to reinvent the world and to do it, partially, with their concepts. As Friedrich Schlegel noticed in a second of “sublime impertinence,” “If you only write for philosophers, you can be incredibly daring before the police will notice anything.” Schlegel knew that the Romantics’ ideas about freedom, nature, artwork and extra might have actual results.
Despite the advanced arguments developed by its most important characters, the ebook vividly conveys the drama of concepts. It captures the distinctive pleasures of communal considering (“symphilosophy” in Schlegel’s phrase), in addition to the struggling and the sense of betrayal that mark a group’s dissolution. There is loads of erotic drama right here too, for the reason that riot Wulf describes was sexual as a lot as something. For the Romantics, as we see intimately, free considering and free love had been inseparable, and the private penalties had been usually excruciating.
When the ebook seeks to talk its topics’ concepts — a few of that are notoriously obscure — it can fall into oversimplification. It typically unnecessarily avoids the language utilized by the Romantics themselves; as an example, the absence of the time period “irony” is odd, contemplating its significance for Schlegel, who gave a philosophical which means to this acquainted poetic gadget. And essential precursors comparable to Rousseau and Kant are talked about solely briefly. Still, “Magnificent Rebels” reveals with nice lucidity how the Romantic need to liberate the self nonetheless shapes our sense of who we’re — or who we would attempt to be.
In the ebook’s epilogue, Wulf traces the affect of the Jena Romantics on American Transcendentalism and past. Her pursuits are principally literary, however there would be different methods to inform the story of Romanticism’s bequests. In 1836, a younger Karl Marx studied with August Schlegel in Berlin. It was the Romantic ideally suited of freedom that Marx had in thoughts when he argued, just a few years later, that German philosophy was compensation for the absence of a political revolution. “We are philosophical contemporaries of the present,” he wrote, “without being its historical contemporaries.” In Germany, in contrast to in France, the revolution had taken place solely in books. But, he added, there isn’t any manner to transcend philosophy “without making it a reality” — with out, that’s, making a brand new social world by which it would be potential to stay collectively freely because the Romantics had imagined, on a scale far better than that of a college city. For Marx, this was a world that was ready to be constructed. And it nonetheless is.
Greg Ellermann is a lecturer in English at Yale University and the creator of “Thought’s Wilderness: Romanticism and the Apprehension of Nature,
The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self
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