- Contagion: Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism
This unusual book explores how the Jena Romantics and idealists tackled “the conundrum that might be put this way: Nature is the source of the life that is in us, the giver of all the gifts we can enjoy; yet among those gifts is the Gift of contagion, infection, illness, and eventual death” (p. 2). Concentrating on Novalis, Schelling, and Hegel, the author argues that their ideas on nature were always profoundly influenced and complicated by their realization that nature was also inevitably a dire force, “the frightful mill of death”: “The Romantic concept of nature is anything but romantic” (p. 24). And just in case we scoff too quickly at their ideas, David Farrell Krell reminds us that unlike the average philosopher of today, the old Germans “knew a great deal about nature and the sciences of nature. . . . philosophers like Novalis, Schelling, and Hegel were themselves in intimate contact with, or were themselves, practicing chemists, biologists, physicists, and physicians” (p. 1). This is certainly true, although their incorporation of nature into their philosophical systems (or, for that matter, fragments) leads to results impressive not so much for their deep understanding of nature as, rather, for the apparently bizarre lengths to which philosophy can be driven in its task to decipher the cosmos.
Krell’s study begins with Friedrich von Herdenberg, known as Novalis, who saw illness not only as a part of nature and, therefore, of life, but also as a very useful part of life. Pathology opened new paths to the knowledge of the human condition: “Illness in the genuine sense,” he observed, “is a wondrous product of life” (p. 59). Elsewhere, he eulogized periods of illness as “the learning years of the art of life (Lehrjahre der Lebenskunst) and the formation of the heart” (p. 69). For Novalis, the medicine of the future would find ways of harnessing such pathological phenomena as old age and illness—of inoculating the organism “with death”—to enrich life. Ironic indeed that he was to die of tuberculosis in 1801 before reaching thirty.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling thought along similar lines, although he gave his own spin to the issue. He considered it “altogether nonsensical” to “call illness an antinatural state, since it is every bit as natural as life. If illness is an [End Page 509] antinatural state, then so too is life—and indeed to that extent life truly is antinatural. . . . In this sense one can say: life is a chronic illness, and death but convalescence from it” (p. 111). Finally, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel turned against nature itself and declared it as “not only unintelligible but also unvernünftig, recalcitrant to reason, and therefore well beyond the pale of philosophy” (p. 121).
There is much else in Krell’s study, including extended discussions of his chosen thinkers’ ideas on the relations of sexuality and death (Hegel thought that the male-female fusion was a “contamination” that produced consciousness by destroying life) that cannot be summarized in a review of this length. The interested and motivated reader will doubtless learn much from these pages, but at the end of it all, most medical historians (and even quite a few intellectual historians) may begin to feel that the German Romantics were so bizarre as to be uninteresting. That, in itself, could hardly be blamed on Krell, but his dithyrambic expository style and lack of interest in historical context do produce a disorienting effect of their own. When read slowly, patiently, repeatedly, Contagion may be a source of interesting insights and observations. For those who cannot offer it that level of attention, however, the book will probably have relatively little to offer.