Safranski’s Romanticism: a German Affair, made available to the English-speaking public in an excellent translation by Robert E. Goodwin (it was originally published in German in 2007), is a sweeping and political account of intellectual life in modern German history from the second half of the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It offers a potent and rich exposition of a host of documents, details of lives, tales of friendships, bones of contention, and impacts of concrete historical events on specific theoretical positions, and an interpretive history of reception far beyond what is normally considered the Romantic period. Romanticism, while itself an independent project with specific arguments, recapitulates many of the names, works, events, anecdotes that have appeared in variations in several of Safranski’s other works on German intellectual history, from his first book on E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1984 to his intellectual biographies of Schopenhauer (1988), Heidegger (1994), Nietzsche (2000), and Schiller (2005).1 Safranski here reviews once more the main figures and ideas he has engaged with over the past decades. [End Page 685]
It is interesting to note that in Safranski’s book Romanticism as a historical movement ends around the 1820’s, with E.T.A. Hoffmann, the same figure who was the protagonist of Safranski’s first major intellectual-biographical work.2 Both in the present book and in that early work, he calls Hoffmann a “skeptical phantast”, a fantastic novelist who was not entirely devoured by Romantic reverie but remained grounded in a “liberal realism” (153). That is to say, for Safranski, Hoffmann was more than a Romantic. The tension in this combination of dreamer and skeptic exemplifies Safranski’s central evaluation of Romanticism. He tries to show why we need both realism and phantasy for a “reasonable politics.” In this sense, his story about Romantics is not without its morals.
The subtitle of the book is “a German Affair.” Affäre in German means both an adventurous romance, and a case or event, mainly in politics, that is associated with scandal. The term thus rhetorically links the political with the romantic. Both meanings of the term have a relationship to secrecy and to notions of the acceptable. A love affair involves concealment of a certain kind; and the political scandal emerges when something unacceptable has come to light. Safranski argues that many writers and thinkers after Romanticism remained covertly Romantic despite their public denunciation of Romanticism. The Romantic impulse returns in the projects of these figures just as an affair can find its way into a marriage. And the story that Safranski tells of the genesis, development, and danger of Romanticism both as a historical movement and as an idea is ridden with scandal.
Romanticism: A German Affair is divided into two books (eighteen chapters altogether). Book One takes up Romanticism as a specific intellectual as well as political movement in Germany from the 1790s through the 1820s, beginning with Herder. Book Two deals with the subsequent development of the Romantic idea from the revolutionary generations of the1830s to the student movements of 1968, offering an extended history of the idea of Romanticism and its reception.
In the first book Safranski gives an interpretive account of the philosophical, literary, historical, and biographical origins of Romanticism. In line with the Romantics’ self-construction, Safranski outlines the formation of the Romantic approach in various spheres: in literary theory, the notion of immanent [End Page 686] critique and of irony by Friedrich Schlegel (chapter 3); in philosophy, a theory of the constitution of the ‘I’ and its representations by Fichte and Schlegel, with its repercussions in the literary practice of Ludwig Tieck and its reception in Novalis’s mystical conception of nature, subject, and language (chapter 4, 5, 6) ; in religion, the theory of sensibility in its relation to the infinite by Schleiermacher (chapter 7), which was a crucial step in bringing out the profound religious overtone of the Romantic attitude; and in politics, the ambivalent positions of the Romantics vis-à-vis the...