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Intellectual History

A German Affair

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

(cc) Wikimedia Commons

By Hans-Dieter Gelfert

The favourable reception that Safranski’s book met with from critics as well as from the reading public seems to justify his title. Romanticism as he defines it was and is indeed a German affair. Germany’s most characteristic contributions to nineteenth-century world culture, music and speculative philosophy, are so thoroughly romantic that they alone would give the whole movement a German flavour. But in Germany romanticism did not stay within the boundaries of art and philosophy, it gave momentum to political nationalism, to an irrational Lebensphilosophie and to a fatal departure from the path of the Enlightenment. All this, as Safranski narrates in detail, added to the ideological powder-keg that eventually exploded in Hitler’s Germany. Safranski traces the fatal development, but does not condemn the movement as such. On the contrary, he defend its creative energy and arrives at the conclusion that a “romantic excess of unworldliness” is not only desirable, but necessary for counterbalancing the rationality of the modern world.

Scholars of German literature traditionally date the beginnings of Romantik either on the year 1798, when Friedrich Schlegel published his programmatic definition of the new concept, or two years earlier with the publication of Wackenroder’s Herzensergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar), the first instance of full-fledged romanticism in German literature. Safranski is more generous and traces the beginning back to the year 1769 when Herder embarked on a voyage at sea to France, during which according to Safranski the first truly romantic ideas germinated in his mind.

Like most German scholars, Safranski is blind to the fact that almost all these ideas had already been propounded by English writers in the first half of the eighteenth century. If there is any one person the origin of the movement can be traced back to it is the third earl of Shaftesbury, in whose essays the new view of divinized nature shows through an enlightened dressing. Shaftesbury’s influence on German writers and thinkers was so profound and long-lasting that half a century after the appearance of his famous ‘hymn to Nature’ Herder turned this piece of enthusiastic prose into verse. Safranski, strangely enough, doesn’t even mention this, nor does Shaftesbury’s name appear in his index. All the other English forerunners of romanticism – James Thomson, whose Seasons triggered the new nature poetry; Thomas Gray, whose Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard made the common people a worthy subject of poetry; Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts were hailed all over Europe as the expression of a new irrationality; and MacPherson, whose Ossian-fakes boosted the German craving for sublimity, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century – they all are conspicuously absent from Safranski’s book. He even ignores Bishop Percy, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) gave Herder the idea of collecting folk songs.

This blindness to the early history of the movement is typical of how Germans understand romanticism. They see in it a reaction against the Klassik of Goethe and Schiller. But if these two had died as young as Byron and Keats, there would have been no Klassik, and then, most likely, German scholars would realize that the age of Empfindsamkeit and the Sturm und Drang were equivalent to what in English literature is called ‘preromanticism’ and ‘early romanticism’. They would also realize that long before German philosophers and musicians enriched the world with their creations, England had already delivered a contribution to the movement certainly not less romantic, which in Germany goes by the name Englischer Garten. Of course, the difference between Capability Brown’s landscape gardens and Wagner’s operas is so great that one hesitates to see the two as expressions of one and the same set of ideas and ideals. But the hesitation is due to a shortsighted view of the whole movement. Romanticism was not, as Germans commonly believe, a reaction against the rationality of the Enlightenment, it was from the beginning of the eighteenth century a concurrent ideological alternative to the ideas prevalent at the time.

When, after the Glorious Revolution, the English middle classes began their social and political ascent, they needed an ideologeme that would legitimize their breaking away from the traditional order. The Enlightenment offered them a set of values based on reason. Reason operates on the same principles in every human mind. Thus, it justifies the claim for equality. But reason needs schooling, learning, and cultivation, which only the well-to-do could afford. Therefore, the set of neo-classicist key values such as reason, judgment, learning, taste and beauty would only appeal to the upper middle class. For those who had no access to academia – either for financial or religious reasons – a value system based on nature was far more appealing. Nature gives to each human being individuality, originality, feelings, intuition, imagination, and in exceptional cases, genius. These were the key concepts that began to seep into the intellectual discourse in Britain from 1700 onward, until at last they surfaced as full-fledged romanticism.

The social and economic dynamics that fed the romantic movement are hardly ever mentioned, let alone discussed in Safranski’s book. His is the traditional German approach that used to be called geistesgeschichtlich. Had he gone back to the first dawn of romantic ideas in England he would have been faced with the challenging question why German romanticism went ‘over the top’, as it were, whereas its English counterpart stayed on the ground. The two parted company already in the eighteenth century, when the English refused to opt for either the beautiful or the sublime and instead chose the picturesque for their aesthetic ideal. Picturesque is something that consists of individual elements that are neither fused into a sublime whole nor shaped into beautiful harmony, but are left to please by their disparity. German culture in the nineteenth century opted for awe-inspiring sublimity, which found its most conspicuous expression in speculative philosophy and in the music of Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner.

The social and political reasons for this are obvious. The English insisted on individual freedom because, as dwellers on a sheltered island “set in the silver sea” and armed with political power, they could afford to do so. The Germans, on the other hand, were yearning for political unity and for a powerful state to protect them. Not individual freedom, but collective security was their first priority. The key concept that haunted the minds not only of their romantic poets, but those of the whole nation, goes by the untranslatable word ‘Geborgenheit’. The word evokes the feeling of a pristine state of complete and utter security. The yearning for metaphysical totality, for political unity and for ethnic wholeness and haleness was the driving force of the development Safranski describes so well without ever discussing the reason why. His book, though fascinating in its own way, exhibits the kind of cultural parochialism that for generations has given German ‘Germanistik’ a peculiarly provincial flavour. On the other hand, it is the combination of provincialism and cosmopolitanism at the expense of an undeveloped urbanity which fascinates foreign observers in German culture and appears to them as an exotic otherness. In this respect, Safranski’s book is an excellent travel guide into Germany’s heart of darkness.

Rüdiger Safranski: Romantik. Eine deutsche Affäre
Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2007
ISBN-10 3446209441
ISBN-13 9783446209442
Hardcover, 416 pages, EUR 24.90

Hans-Dieter Gelfert was Professor of English Literature and Culture at the Free University of Berlin until 2000, and, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is ‘one of the most prolific and most widely read Anglicists in Germany’. His most recent book, on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, is published by C.H. Beck (Munich).


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