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Free love, free thoughts and free art! Romanticism was an unbridled revolution that celebrated equality, eco-consciousness and the aestheticization of life. Is there something we can learn from it?

This essay by Ruben Donsbach is taken from our current Fräulein print issue #30

There is a chalk drawing of FRIEDRICH SCHLEGEL in which he looks out from such a distance and yet is strangely close. It is almost 230 years old, but something about it seems to bridge time. As if the image had just been taken. Perhaps it is the alert eyes of German Romanticism’s Spin Doctor, the ironically flashing intelligence in them, that gives an inkling to his unrulythinking. And the Romanticism that Schlegel explained in ever new manifestos was wild and erratic, rampant and confused, the mindset of a time in which the inhabitants of pro-vincial German small states became citizens of the world almost overnight.

Today, almost no word is as tired as romantic. Romantic is a candlelight dinner or a romantic comedy, the description of a naive, juve-nile emotion. But, it was so much more than this, more, too, than what Friedrich and his brother August Wilhelm, their wives Dorothea and Caroline, as well as authors like Novalis, Brentano, Chamisso, or Eichendorff have recorded as the romance of the world: a passion that causes everything to fall and tremble, an unbridled and unformed impulse towards freedom. Resistance to the everlasting and, above all, against the disenchantment of the world. This seems incredibly relevant in 2020. One might ask: Aren’t many feeling an internal rebellion against the coldness of technology, the demanding pace of time, or the economic exploitation of creativity? Such rebellion already has romantic traits. The negative, irrational side of these impulses can be seen, for example, in corona demonstrations, hand in hand with right-wing radicals, fleeing back to the past, lost in absurd conspiracy theories. The positive side, however, has nothing reactionary about it, quite the contrary. In it lies a hope, a potential for change. It is an attempt to leap far into the future, a striving to reconcile human-kind’s culture with a nature that has become alien to it.

The world was in turmoil when the original Romantic period began. The French Revolution in 1789 had proclaimed human rights, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century had vanquished the superstitions of the Middle Ages and placed reason above all. We live in similarly turbulent times today. Our old political systems are in dire need of an update, science and research are growing exponentially. Then as now, fundamental change and progress have been inspiring – but also frightening. In contrast, Romantics opposed radical sensuality, longing for the faraway, and the unknown. Equally resolutely, they opposed the glorification of authority and old truths, the stale ideas of beauty and art, the dictates of logic over every movement of the human mind. For what is art? The “ability to produce in a determined and free way,” according to Novalis. Beauty should be created by the genius and wit of the autonomous artist. That was new, democratic and cool. But this freedom was not only reserved for art, it was intended to make people themselves free through an unprecedented aesthetic agenda.

Very early in the Nouvelle Vague, around 1800, FRIEDRICH SCHLEGEL wrote in his Athenaeum fragments: Everything should be poetry, life, love, the everyday world – in other words, pretty much everything “down to the sigh, the kiss that a poeticizing child breathes out in an artless song.” It, this universal poetry, “alone is infinite, just as it alone is free.”

Friedrich’s brother AUGUST WILHELM added that the romantic is “a mixture of jest and emotion, of the everyday and the wonderful.” And Novalis added: “Insofar as I give a higher meaning to what is commonplace, and a mysterious appearance to what is ordinary, the dignity of the unknown to what is known, a semblance of infinity to what is finite, I romanticize it.” Henceforth, everything was in becoming, in coming, nothing was concluded, and the highest and outermost was the fragment. Today, one would probably say: the project. Thus, the Romantic was not only a way of describing the world, but also a practice of creating it anew. And this with the power of the human intellect and its creative force.

If you look at the Romantic generation, then you’ll learn something about trial and error. Their first meetings and shared apartments could be found in Jena, Germany around 1800. Writer PETER NEUMANN called this the Republic of Free Spiritsand others the Silicon Valley of German intellectual history. Originality of thought was more important than its clarity and completeness. What Romanticism anticipated or at least initiated is impressive: knowledge production in networks, a sense of the value of natural resources, an open society, free art, and even a kind of gender debate.

In relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s novel Lucinde, a love story in letters, conversations and diary entries, Neumann writes: “Gender relations are reversed, the irreconcilable polarity of man and woman dissolves. ”That sounds a bit like Judith Butler, because “overburdened femininity as well as exaggerated masculinity” for Schlegel, according to Neumann, are “equally one-sided, equally boring, both back-wards-looking.” The two genders should “mutually complement each other in order to form one gender: the human, there is no other.” This equality didn’t just exist on paper. Friedrich’s wife DOROTHEA SCHLEGEL published a novel, Florentin, in which she perhaps described most finely the changing times of the epoch by observing a change of seasons: “The clouds were driven away by the storm, the sun broke through, and a tepid, mild heat filled the air” it reads, and “the earth was freed from fetters.”

Even these beautiful verses by the late Romantic JOSEPH VON EICHENDORF combine an experience of nature and socio-political changearound 1826:

“Roars the earth as in dreams
Wonderful with all trees,
What the heart is hardly aware of,
Old times, mild mourning,
And there are quiet showers
Weather bright through the chest.”

Art and literature created with such fervor is here and now, blatant and direct. An art that is overwhelming because it has been “fertilized by an interesting life”(A. W. SCHLEGEL) and is a pure brainchild. Again, this is more than the work of a single individual, it sees itself as part of a movement, is a work in progress and is discussed, further developed, rewritten in long conversations, exchanges of letters, critiques, and critiques of critiques like in a social network. This collective and interactive element is also what makes up Romanticism, the interweaving of works with other works, a hypertext written with pen and ink. The intellectual no longer sits alone at his desk at home and thinks. He is part of a debate. Perhaps never before has it been so open, global and classless. We can learn from this, too, because an (educational) process began, such as the one in NOVALIS’S Heinrich von Ofterdingen, who, in contrast to the bourgeois apprenticeship years of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, was familiar with adolescent “transitional years.” Of an education that is not only individual, but stands in a “higher overall context” and dreams of a collective “golden age.” Addressing poetry, Heinrich reads:

“You have aroused in me the noble drive
To look deep into the soul of the wide world;
With your hand a trust has seized me,
That will surely carry me through all storms.”

It is not a goal-oriented striving that leads here. It is not a fearful groping into the future, no superficial scanning of its possibilities. No career plan, no return to the parents’ estate is enough. The drive is a “nobler” one, one wants to look “deeply” into the world, at the hand of the all-encompassing poetry one passes “through all storms.” Is that naive? Of course. But is this naivety not the spark of the new, the exciting?

Romanticism also knew that there were new continents to discover, not only in the outside world, but also in our psyche. Some of E.T.A. HOFFMANN’S stories read like the transcript of a Freudian dream interpretation. It is called Black Romanticism. Among them, for example, the tale Der Sandmann, part of the famous “Night Pieces,” in which – similar to the Caligari films of the early twentieth century – demonic beings and borderline experiences are recounted. In Sandmann, as in other of Hoffmann’s stories, people experience something that we would today call an anxiety disorder. Confusion caused by newly emerging machines is addressed, a robot-like puppet appears, a ghostlike artificial intelligence. The excessive demands of urban life and work, the fear of machines that make us question our humanity, technology that seems magical and ghostly, all this seems insanely modern. And it shows how art and literature, in making these fears and complexes visible, can help society become healthier and more open. If I can’t talk to those closest to me about what exists in my depths, I can seek out literature, just as one seeks a forum or chat group today.

Of course, not everything that was written and thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century was Romantic. While GOETHE and SCHILLER drifted in their very own orbits in nearby Weimar – as seen from Jena – and there was a relatively moderate cultural mainstream, the circle of Romantics resembled a somewhat elitist laboratory. The significance of an author like CLEMENS VON BRENTANO only became apparent long after his death. The late work published by FRIEDRICH SCHLEGEL and ADELBERT VON CHAMISSO was mainly cultural and scientific, but also groundbreaking. Their influence on people’s reading habits – that people read at all and now especially novels – was revolutionary. A whole new world was created in the minds of people and even of women who, free from the control of men, found new self-confidence in reading and – this is decisive – autodidactic education.

As the movement itself lost momentum and the ideas of the French Revolution tired, the Romantics receded. Towards the end of the 1810s, a new introspection was sought, a new Biedermeier era spread across Europe. Some are already saying that post-corona life will look like this: private, apolitical and quite bourgeois. A new Biedermeier era is emerging.

Something that would challenge this and be much more exciting is a new Romanticism that does not constrict our lives, rather expands them: That would be something like Romanticism 3.0, a disruptive state of mind that offers a way out of retro loops and the rationalization of all desire. The time seems ripe for such a movement. But it requires the courage to fall into raptures.

Reading Recommendations

Dorothea Schlegel: “Florentine”
E.T.A. Hoffmann: “Night Pieces”
Joseph von Eichendorff: “From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing”
Adelbert von Chamisso: “The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl”

Words by Ruben Donsbach

Taken from our F/W 2020/21 Issue on “Life”

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