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MLN 121.3 (2006) 617-630

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The Poet as Artisan:

Novalis' Werkzeug and the Making of Romanticism

University of California, Santa Barbara
MENSCHENLEHRE. Der Mensch soll ein vollkommnes und Totales Selbstwerckzeug seyn.
Das allgemeine Brouillon (III.297.321)1

The manuscripts of Romantic literature may have been drafted with pen and paper, but Friedrich von Hardenberg makes use of a wider arsenal of instruments with which to hammer and file everything from poetic inscriptions to battleships. A persistent interest in "das Werkzeug"—a polysemous German word which at the end of the eighteenth century could encompass everything from tool and instrument to organ and organon—runs throughout Hardenberg's fragment collections and his two novels. The young Heinrich von Ofterdingen, for example, learns the skills and pleasures of manual craftsmanship before those of poetry. Even Hardenberg's nom de plume, Novalis, which was ostensibly chosen from a repertoire of ancestral names, deserves to be included within the discourse on tools circulating throughout his oeuvre: Novale refers to newly plowed land (Neubruch) a terrain of unknown fertility over which poets and plowmen must sow their seeds, which is precisely what the epigraph to Novalis' best known fragment collection, Pollen, encourages us to do. [End Page 617]

It is tempting to interchange the Werkzeug freely with other semantically related words, such as Instrument, Organ and Organon, and this has indeed been the general tendency of the critical scholarship.2 Yet one runs the risk of overlooking a clear semantic hierarchy which prioritizes the Werkzeug. Its semantic elasticity allows for a free movement between the mechanical and the organic realms which the Organ is denied. In Novalis' day, bodily organs could be referred to as Werkzeuge, but it would not have been possible to refer to a chisel or hammer as an Organ—the Werkzeug rests at the top of a hierarchical tree which branches off into different metaphorical registers. Novalis' fragments and novels exploit the Werkzeug's potential for ambiguity and reveal affinities between its seemingly unconnected discourses.

The Werkzeug in Novalis' idiolect is an amalgam of tradition and philosophical innovation. It reflects the meanings in currency during the eighteenth century such as one might find in Zedler's Lexikon (1732 ff.),3 and receives an additional impulse from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement from 1790. The Werkzeug in its capacity as "organ" is a Naturzweck ("natural purpose"), and Kant characterizes it as follows: each part is there both through and for every other part and the whole; a Naturzweck is both organized and self-organizing: each part mutually produces every other part, each part is both Zweck and Mittel; finally, a Naturzweck appears to have a purpose, but this purpose cannot be discerned by human faculties.4 Novalis' reception of the Kantian Werkzeug amounts to a conceptual gain in complexity. The simple instrumentality of cause and effect relationships which characterizes the Werkzeug prior to Kant develops into a richer model of production built on reciprocal relationships. Novalis develops the new, organically influenced model of the Werkzeug to include other types of productivity—such as the relation between artist, instrument, and artwork—as well as autoproduction, in keeping with his mandate that man should be a Selbstwerkzeug. At the same time, Novalis takes advantage of the [End Page 618] Werkzeug's fundamental ambivalence to explore new territory through the creative use of analogies. As a result, the scope of the Werkzeug in Novalis' novels and aphoristic writing is vast. It ranges from the most mundane household tools and means of communication, such as the telegraph, to embrace literary forms (the fairy tale), and abstractions: these include analogy itself, the faculty of judgement, and mathematics as the epitome of the scientific organon. Clearly, Novalis' Werkzeug is not an idle tool, but just how the Werkzeug mediates between subject and object, man and world, remains to be addressed.

It is helpful to frame these questions within the broader context of Novalis' anthropology. In the 1996 essay titled "'Macroanthropos'—Friedrich von Hardenberg's Literary Anthropology," Bianca Theisen describes the...


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