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Hegel and German Romanticism Judith Norman There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. —Plato, The Republic, book 10 Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. —Hegel, preface to Phenomenology of Spirit People always talk about how an analysis of the beauty of a work of art supposedly disturbs the pleasure of the art lover. Well, the real lover just won’t let himself be disturbed! —Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenaeum Fragment” 71 Germany in the 1790s was home to the brief but remarkable movement known as Jena Romanticism. Friedrich Schlegel is the figure most closely associated with the movement, but his brother August Wilhelm took part as well, as did their wives, Caroline and Dorothea; Novalis, Schleiermacher, Tieck, and Wackenroder were active in the movement, and Schelling was something of a satellite member. As a movement and as individuals, they were energetically engaged with the rapidly changing intellectual, literary , and political world around them; they were students of Fichte, admirers of Goethe, and champions of the French Revolution (Caroline was even jailed for her Jacobin sympathies). They aimed to effect a revolution in their own right, to recast the categories of literature and philosophy through vigorous critique. And they were all quite young: at the turn of the century when the group disbanded, none of them had reached the age of forty. All told, they were a lively group of intelligent and creative young people who were well read, open minded, and artistically gifted. And yet, according to Hegel, they represented the limit case of 310 moral, artistic, and intellectual depravity. The typically sober Hegel was decidedly immoderate in his opinions of the Jena group. He mentions them infrequently but almost always with venom, accusing them of having a “miserable” grasp of philosophy1 and saying that they made “moral depravity ” into “something sacred and of the highest excellence.”2 In the Phenomenology of Spirit (according to one commentator) he portrayed Friedrich Schlegel as the embodiment of avowed evil, a sort of Antichrist figure representing the blackest pitch of darkness before the speculative dawn.3 And in the same theological vein, Hegel penned a few nasty words on the occasion of Caroline Schlegel’s death (in 1809), concluding “the Devil had fetched her.”4 This raises a number of questions. Why did Hegel hate these people so violently? Is his reaction justified? In the first part of this essay I will pit Hegel and the Romantics (primarily Friedrich Schlegel) against each other, to judge the distance between them. In the second part I will invoke Kant as a sort of diplomatic mediator, to try to bring Hegel and the Romantics into proximity via critical philosophy. Finally, I will look at the state of the “quarrel” between Hegel and the Romantics in a more contemporary light. Destruction In this first section I will determine Hegel’s precise objections to Romanticism in three stages. First, I take a brief overview of the theoretical framework Hegel mobilizes to condemn Romanticism, and then I will look at precise examples from Friedrich Schlegel’s writings that seem to confirm Hegel in his bad opinion. The first text I will consider, Schlegel’s unfinished novel Lucinde, illustrates Hegel’s moral and aesthetic objections to Romanticism. The second text, Schlegel’s essay “On Incomprehensibility ,” illustrates the philosophical threat posed by Romanticism. What Is Romanticism? First of all: what is Romanticism? Friedrich Schlegel once wrote in a letter to his brother: “I can hardly send you my explication of the word Romantic because it would take—125 pages!”5 This is, in many ways, a typically Romantic response: joking and intellectually unsatisfying, a project or a riddle rather than a clear, comprehensive, or even comprehensible reply. This is the sort of thing that inspired Hegel’s complaints that the Schlegel brothers were “anything but philosophical,”6 and that the romantics liked 311 H E G E L A N D G E R M A N R O M A N T I C I S M throwing around their pet phrases with a great deal of familiarity, “but without telling us what they mean by them.”7 As a matter of fact, the Romantics were notoriously unwilling to nail down any sort of precise notion about the nature of their movement or the type of artistic ideal that they wished to champion; and the one characteristic that we can immediately attribute to the movement is a sort of constitutive vagueness. Perhaps...


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