This is an extensive excerpt from the antiquarian book Misinterpretation of Man (1947) by the philosopher Paul Roubiczek (1898-1972). (There is also a Swedish version of this text here.) The book criticizes the thinking of our time, still under the spell of the 19th century brother-pair of philosophy: Materialism and Romanticism. You will also find that Roubiczek’s criticism applies to the phenomenologism which has surfaced among Jungian theorists since the seventies and which has tragically distorted Jungian psychology. The premises of Archetypal Psychology (here) are surprisingly close to those of the Romantic movement of the 19th century. The whole of this important book concerns this treacherous way of thought. This very chapter is perhaps not the best chapter, but it highlights the crucial points of the criticism. Roubiczek, being a Christian Jew, had to flee from the Nazis, and he lost his notes to the book in the process. That’s why the citations lack direct references.
The Romantic Movement in Germany, the source of Romanticism throughout the world, rests upon the achievements of Kant and Goethe. It starts the new century fully conscious of itself. “Aurora has put on seven league boots,” Friedrich Schlegel writes, “soon the whole sky will burn in a single flame, and then all your tiny lightning-conductors will no longer be of use. Then the 19th century will indeed begin.” (See Bibliography below).
The Romantics are correct in their recognition that the most important achievement of their great predecessors is their liberation of personality, but this very emphasis upon personality is immediately exaggerated and distorted. Kant had shown that the human mind is not only a passive recipient of the world surrounding us, but also its creator and law-giver. To know the whole of reality, therefore, we must also explore the laws of thinking. Now, however, this new and surprising task of the mind is overestimated so that mind is considered not only as having the same importance as reality itself, but as its sole creator, and man is seen as absolute master of the world. Fichte’s argument is: as it is I who think and recognize the world, and as of the thing per se nothing is certain but the fact that I recognize it, this “Ego” is the only thing which is certain. In this Ego object and subject become one; it is known not only as an external object, but also as an inner experience; I can have direct, absolute knowledge of it, and thus it represents the whole of reality. The Ego becomes the creator of the world, and objective reality is for Fichte only the “Non-Ego” which is artificially created by the Ego in order to serve certain ends. The whole world, man as well as the external reality, is determined by this Ego alone, and all idea that “the substance of our perceptions might be given from outside” is utterly rejected.
Fichte himself is frightened by the boundlessness of the prospects opened by this idea, and he soon erects new boundaries. But to the Romantics these thoughts are the most welcome, and while Fichte still speaks about an abstract “World-Ego” which could replace God, the Romantics believe only in the individual Ego of every single person, and thus in unlimited individualism. All that matters for them is the real and intoxicating power of achievement of the individual. “I am able to do what I want to do. For man nothing is impossible.” This glory of man is presupposed without any misgivings, and his inner life, therefore, becomes all-important. “Within ourselves and nowhere else lies eternity with all its worlds, the past and the future.” The human mind becomes the sole absolute power, and as all laws are established by the agency of the laws of thinking, it is mind which makes the laws without itself being determined by laws; mind creates the world arbitrarily, according to its own wishes. “Mind needs nothing but itself . . . for what I recognize as the world is its most beautiful work, its reflected image, created by the mind itself.” Other creatures and objects “exist because we have thought them . . . we are the fate which keeps them in existence.”
This sovereign arbitrariness of the mind is for Romanticism the ultimate good, and in order to maintain it the Romantics try, time and again, to refute all binding laws and everything which might tie them down to earth. The flight from necessity is the common characteristic of all the different and contradictory trends within the Romantic Movement. It is for this reason that irony takes the first place in their programme, for with the help of irony the absolute freedom of the mind can be proved. In real life, man cannot avoid taking single experiences and objects seriously and considering them as real, but with the help of irony the mind can lift itself above them and express the consciousness of its omnipotence. Irony secures also the magnitude and infinity of the spirit which is excluded by necessity. The realm of the spirit is so immeasurable that no finite human being could ever exhaust it. If man wishes even to hint at the existence of this infinity, he must endeavour to realize the most extreme contrasts and contradictions, and in this he is helped by irony because it removes from everything all weight and seriousness. An entirely free play of the mental forces becomes possible, and thus the mind is enabled to jump from one of these extremes to its opposite.
At first, this new liberation of the mind from all restrictions is extraordinarily fruitful. A new world, inaccessible through the old concepts, is waiting to be awakened, and only a mind which is utterly unfettered can go on incessantly absorbing new objects and thus rediscovering the fullness and abundance of life. The stimuli which result from Romanticism are unusually numerous and important. The conscious ordering of the world is confronted with its unconscious background; the simplifying of the world brought about by the Enlightenment is replaced by the mysterious wealth of the senses and the instincts, of the heart and the soul. In this way, old symbols and myths regain their meaning, half-forgotten tales and legends, surviving only among simple folk, are revived, and the spiritual life of primitive peoples is explored. By the recognition of the unconscious man becomes able to grasp the essence and importance of religion, so that Christianity and some of the Eastern religions, awakening a new emotional response, acquire new meaning and new life.
As the Romantics acknowledge neither compulsion nor a binding spiritual law, they are indeed able to awaken to a fuller life. Without distorting them by their own laws, they can accept and follow all modes of art and penetrate into their real structure, and they can understand and appreciate epochs foreign to them. The valuation by absolute standards which we find in Goethe and Schiller, which led them to falsify many periods, is replaced by a just appreciation. With the help of religion, the Middle Ages, previously despised and neglected, are recognized for the first time in their true significance as one of the great epochs of European history. But it is not only the significance of the Gothic style which is recognized, but that of the Renaissance too, and antiquity is freed from the wrong conception of Classicism by the recognition of the passion that was always present in it. Germany owes to the Romantics the translation and assimilation of the other literatures of the world, for the translations of Shakespeare, of Dante, and of the Spanish novels and dramas preserve to an amazing degree the peculiarities of the original, and at the same time the modern history of the arts and modern philology are coming into being.
By their longing to prove the breadth and variety of the mind, the Romantics are continually forced to look for new subjects. They turn to the Orient, to the Balkans, to Indians and savages. They discover the beauty of landscapes previously shunned, of high mountains, dark forests, the sea. They look for night and horror as well as for loveliness and a new understanding of the mysterious, the twilight and the uncertain begins. Imagination is set free and fairy-tales, ghost-stories and the most fantastic inventions flourish. At the same time, mind in its playing with reality penetrates deeper, so that the investigation of national characteristics and a growing emphasis on them help towards the development of the nations, and social Romanticism and social Utopias lead towards socialism. All the discoveries of the natural sciences are taken up and developed by the imagination, and this has as stimulating an effect as the experimental invention of new philosophical possibilities. In this way most of the doctrines of the century, the belief in progress, the theory of evolution, and every form of the philosophy of history are, at least in a fragmentary form, anticipated.
The flight from necessity is, in this respect, a great help to the Romantics. These new subjects are for the most part unknown, and thus their real and necessary structure cannot be disclosed at once, so that it is impossible to assimilate them into an art bound by strict forms. It is only because the Romantics shun all laws and accept every subject just as it appears to them, even though this may be in its most superficial aspect, that they are able to embrace such a variety and wealth of new subjects. But this very quality of Romanticism justifies us in not dwelling on its positive effects. For all these stimuli gain importance only so far as they are taken up by those outside the Romantic Movement, only so far as the successors of the Romantics try, seriously and without irony, to discover their real structure and the laws which govern them. Only when they are developed according to the laws to which, of necessity, they must conform, do these subjects produce lasting effects, and only then are these sudden flashes of insight transformed into something stable and, powerful. Those of its results which have any significance, therefore, lead very quickly beyond Romanticism. We, however, in this study want to know what is meant by “Romanticism,” and what has been preserved of it in spite of these further developments. On which elements of Romanticism is based that attitude which we call “romantic” today? We must, therefore, investigate its sources in order to gain more understanding,of our own spiritual life, so as to be able, the more correctly, to measure its value.
Those consequences of the flight from necessity which become visible at once are the disastrous ones. Fichte’s advance into the sphere of the unbounded introduces a falsification of Kant’s system which is characteristic of the thinkers throughout the century, and which exercises a pernicious effect on their works.
Kant, in his first discoveries, was considerably in advance of his time. Neither he nor his successors can stop at those boundaries of knowledge which he had discovered; they cannot be content to leave the “thing per se” unknown. But whereas Kant reintroduces only indirectly and with the help of morality the metaphysics which he has dethroned, all his followers try to avoid this roundabout way. They acknowledge Kant’s discoveries, but they all try to discover a single exception by which, in spite of the laws established by Kant, they may gain a direct knowledge of the thing per se. Only in one single case do each of them claim to refute these laws, but this one exception is sufficient for them to smuggle into the theory of knowledge a complete metaphysical system. Fichte considers the Ego and its omnipotence as such an exception, Hegel an abstract concept of the spirit and of history, Schopenhauer the will, and Nietzsche the psychological knowledge of the Ego. All these conclusions are wrong, for it remains impossible to bring forward a complete proof of the exception, and thus they only introduce a new age of errors.
Fichte makes use of the knowledge of the power of the intellect to avoid taking reality as his starting point, for he asserts that reality must be such as we think it and that, therefore, every logical conclusion must be real, and thus he takes his start from thinking alone. Kant is always concerned with life and with the real world. Even when, in his old age, he loses himself once more in metaphysical speculation, he still struggles with concepts which, though overlaid by conventions, nevertheless refer to reality. Fichte, however, is the founder of a new scholasticism; starting from purely logical propositions, he follows them as far as possible, without feeling the necessity to examine whether they still correspond to reality. Thus he succeeds in constructing a purely speculative metaphysical system which explains the world in all its details, so that he claims to know the structure, the meaning and the purpose of the universe, without noticing that he has lost all contact with the real world. It is hard to understand how such a pretension is possible after Kant, but it is welcomed by the Romantics. Friedrich Schlegel blames Kant for what are in fact his merits: “Kant concludes with the opinion that, in the realm of speculation, we cannot know the one thing which is certain, the true nature of godhead,” and he asserts: “Posterity will probably judge the spiritual greatness of this excellent man particularly by his physical writings . . . while his philosophical writings are inevitably doomed to fall into oblivion.” But in Fichte he sees the beginning of the new era. Novalis says: “Fichte is the higher . . . Kant the lower organ.”
Yet this boundless individualism revenges itself upon them, and grotesque metaphysical systems and uncontrolled and empty thoughts regain the power they had just lost. Schelling gives as a fundamental rule: “The existence of God is an empirical truth and the basis of all practical experience,” and he meets all contradictions in a purely speculative way and by a forced logic. “As there can be nothing outside God, this contradiction (namely that there are things) can be solved only by the assumption that things have their source in that which, within God, is not God himself.” In this way one can explain everything, without explaining anything. Schlegel and Novalis find that men belong more to the mineral kingdom and women to the vegetable, and true love to them is not a single flower, but a producer of vegetable nature. In this manner they can go on philosophizing indefinitely, and they finally believe that they know everything about God and ghosts, about the stars and the worlds, and about the mystical being of man. But in fact they do not attain to the slightest knowledge, and yet, from their lofty world, they look down upon reality with arrogance and pity.
The disastrous consequences of this way of thinking first become visible when, in the political writings of the Romantics, it clashes with reality — and this leads straight to the heart of our present situation. The Romantics are bound in these writings to make use of concepts taken from reality, but they give them an ideal meaning without concerning themselves with their real content. They defend, for instance, the institution of kingship and glorify it in mystical terms, without noticing that the real institution has become decadent and debased and not at all worthy of support. By this they achieve the opposite of what they desired, because the revolutionary aims, for the sake of which they support kingship, are too abstract to become effective, and so their defence simply helps to preserve the debased institution which they actually want to abolish. The Romantics believe that they understand the absolute order of the world, and therefore ask for absolute power to organize the world accordingly; they put forward reactionary and dictatorial demands so that they may more quickly achieve their revolutionary aims. But these abstract aims are bound to remain ineffective, and thus it is their reactionary demands alone which have real consequences.
Fichte, in his Speeches to the German Nation, proposes a very revolutionary system of education, but when in consequence of this he is asked to draw up a plan for the new Berlin University, his project is altogether impractical and has to be rejected. Thus it is only the demand for a stricter use of power which is really effective in his speeches — a demand most welcome to the reactionary powers — and the slogans which help to transform a healthy national awakening into a disastrous nationalistic mania. It is very easy to behold the kingdom of God and in thought to transform all earthly life according to it, and it is just, as easy to glorify the long bygone Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and to show off its paltry remnants in an artificial light. But the most beautiful programmes, however logical and consistent, are of no use if their components which have to be taken from reality have acquired a quite different character. Real life has a very strong vitality of its own and cannot be altered by the weaving of fantasies about it; rather will these fantasies, though based on misconceptions, be used to support it. It is no accident that the wars of liberation against Napoleon, which are enthusiastically supported by the romantic revolutionaries but condemned by Goethe, lead to the reactionary Holy Alliance. It is both foolish and disastrous to take part in politics on the assumption that kingship is holy, that the Church is perfect, or that law is just, for their imperfect representatives will make a frivolous or criminal use of such political romanticism. Only the struggle to influence and transform the world can be justified in politics.
An especially dangerous aspect of this policy is the glorification of national character. Fichte starts by attributing “everything original which is not yet deadened by arbitrary regulations” to the Germans, and by denouncing everything else as foreign. He declares: “To have a character and to be German mean beyond doubt the same.” As he is an abstract thinker, it is very easy for him to prove that the German language is the only “genuine language,” and that the Germans alone are “truly a people.” It does not matter to him that in support of this theory such typical German characteristics as the preoccupation with death and the passive acceptance of whatever seems their political destiny have to be stigmatized as of foreign origin. Similarly, Schleiermacher asserts that “those proud islanders . . . know nothing but profit and pleasure,” and as “an admirer of religion” he can hardly bear the sight of Frenchmen because “with almost every word they tread the most holy laws under foot.” Only “here in the Fatherland do you find in profusion everything that adorns mankind.”
The Romantics find beautiful everything which they can manage to call German, and as a result of this indiscriminate admiration everything which is really German is gradually covered with a thick layer of rubbish. Novalis does not even try to discover what the French Revolution might have meant to Germany, but contents himself with declaring: “The best thing the French have won by their revolution is a portion of the German character.” The consequences which follow from the overestimation of the mind are paradoxical; first, by this overestimation the abstract ideal of “the German” is established, and then the mind is undiscriminatingly subordinated to everything which seems German, however inimical to the mind and however senseless it may be. While the claims of the mind become abstract and useless, the world which must progress grows more foreign to it than ever before, and finally the mind bows down to this distorted reality, overlaying it with sentimentality instead of transforming it. At the same time, this uncritical glorification of the nation must, sooner or later, bring its development to a standstill and lead to its decline, for if all its weaknesses are praised, it has no way of developing and improving, but is rather kept within its existing limits. Confirmed in its faults and overwhelmed by this false glory, it must lag behind other nations.
This, however, is but one of the dangerous manifestations of Romanticism. The Romantics are so intoxicated by their discovery of the omnipotence of the mind that, in other respects too, they will have nothing to do with reality. It is not only that in their philosophical writings they ignore the existing world, but that they always build up in their imaginations a world as it should be, without considering in the least whether this world of the imagination can be translated into reality. “Imagination is the highest and most original faculty of man, and everything else only reflection upon it.” In all the writings of the Romantics the images of a Golden Age of the past and of the future continually recur, and they settle down in a cloud-cuckoo-land from which they can look down upon the real world with contempt. “I know how the world should be; it is not worth while, therefore, to know how it is.” This flight not only from necessity, but also from reality, is considered as the highest duty of man: “A really free and educated man must be able, at will, to tune himself to philosophy or philology, criticism or poetry, history or rhetoric, the old and the new, quite arbitrarily, just as an instrument is tuned, at any time and to any pitch.”
This attitude gradually destroys even the original and important merits of Romanticism. The Romantic Movement is not only a spiritual but also a very consciously philosophical one. There is hardly any other movement in literature and art where such comprehensive theories precede the real works, so that it seems that all these works are created in order to prove the theories. Schlegel denounces the “folk-and-nature poets” who despise all study and look for their salvation to the formless. Philosophy is for all the Romantics the highest and the. essential faculty of man. “Without philosophy, the roost important powers of man remain in discord. . . . He who knows what philosophy means knows also what life means.” This consciousness, however, and this philosophy are directed towards the unconscious, the primitive mind, the feelings, the mysterious and the mystical, towards an emotional religion and towards the dream that is, towards everything which can be in a good sense of the word called romantic, but which contradicts consciousness. And the Romantics do not try to raise the unconscious and the mysterious into consciousness, which would be a fit task for the mind; on the contrary, the mind has to “tune” itself romantically, and the omnipotent mind is used to conjure up the unconscious and the twilight which cannot bear the clear light of thought. Thus a task is put before it which it cannot solve and the mind, compelled to produce naíveté artificially, loses the ability to distinguish the genuine from the false, and feelings or mystical or religious experiences, created in this way, are bound to remain vague and unreal. The Romantics are forced to create phantoms which are not natural and primitive, but simply lies. Worshipping indiscriminately everything which seems spontaneous and full of feeling, they themselves rob the romantic subjects of their value, and supply all the enemies of the Supernatural with their most effective weapons. The impression is created that everything irrational is only a deception and that it can be brought into being only by fraud. The knowledge of the irrational and mysterious parts of man, which ought to liberate him from all gods of clay, is discredited, for these false irrational creations are only fit to be attacked.
Romanticism forces the mind to commit suicide, and this effect, too, is one which persists. The cry of “Back to nature!” had already been dangerous, for it is not possible to deny the spirit once it has been awakened, nor to turn the tide backwards. Yet this demand had still been honest, for it transformed the primitive man into an ideal and only denied the intellect. The Romantics, however, do not want to deny the intellect; they make use of it to add to simple things an impression of the primitive and a mysterious power of enchantment. The Romantics consciously look for the attraction which primitive things acquire when seen through the intellect. But this conservation of the spirit for the sake of the primitive is quite impossible; one cannot, at the same time, both preserve the spirit and deny consciousness and thinking.
The mind can discover simple and primitive things, but it is forced by its nature to understand and so to transcend the primitive state by steadily increasing the sphere of consciousness. The artificial preservation of the unconscious can lead only to the suppression of the mind. If the realm of the unconscious may not be penetrated by the mind, it can only be recognized by its being foreign to the intellect, a totally different sphere, and the more foreign, and even the more stupid and false it is, the more probable will its primitiveness seem to be. The mind, therefore, of necessity degenerates, grows confused and dulled. The overestimation of the intellect by the Romantics, therefore, leads once more to consequences which are paradoxical, for this tendency leads to the intellectual finding himself in the grotesque situation of struggling against the mind and bending the knee before a false simplicity and even before complete foolishness, throwing away his best weapons and trying in vain to subordinate himself where he ought to lead. The situation arises in which the cultivated mind, to which the naturally developed simple man aspires, serves to glorify the lack of intellect. In this way, the intellectual becomes disposed to accept any humiliation, to worship strength and stupidity and to betray himself in order to preserve what seems to be “the primitive.”
Romanticism gives to all the adversaries of the intellect an apparent justification, for if the only task of the mind lies in the falsification of original primitivity, and if the intelligentsia themselves consider this doubtful charm as their highest achievement, then the turning away from any intellectual endeavour is indeed the only possible delivery. Thus the most dangerous trend of our time begins. We are in danger, not because we are too spiritual or intellectual, but because the intellect is cultivated in a perverted and one-sided manner. Yet this wrong tendency cannot be corrected by innocence which is always threatened anew by every scrap of knowledge which it has to acquire, but only by a comprehensive development and education of the reason, and this correction becomes impossible if the mind is only used to justify what is foreign to it. The way to reason is blocked.
The most conspicuous example of this wrong tendency is the romantic attitude towards religion. Friedrich Schlegel writes to Novalis: “My biblical project is not a literary, but a biblical one, entirely religious.” But this does not prevent him from adding: “I feel courage and strength enough not only to preach and be zealous like Luther, but also, like Mohammed, to go about the world conquering the realm of the spirit with the fiery sword of the word, and to sacrifice my life like Christ.” This is his “deadliest earnest,” but be asks nevertheless: “Or perhaps you have more talent for a new Christ?” This frivolity is approved of by all the Romantics, even by the theologian Schleiermacher. For him, too, the most important thing is an artificial attitude of mind; religion for him means a “taste for the universe,” and he admires the “virtuosi of religion” and the “virtuosi of holiness.”
This senseless playing with religion is only one of the attitudes to it which the Romantics find possible, but the other is as dangerous. Where the religious feeling is genuine, as it is in Novalis, its manifestations are so hostile to the proper use of the mind that, not content with fleeing from intelligence, they heap abuse upon it. Novalis, for example, finds it justifiable that “the wise head of the Church is opposed to the insolent development of human gifts . . . and untimely and dangerous discoveries in the sphere of knowledge” when this head prohibits “courageous thinkers from declaring publicly . . . that the earth is an insignificant planet.” Religion is not served by such distortions and fears, and the passionate wrestlings with religion of a Dostoevsky will show how much more fruitfully in this sphere can an honest and self-conscious mind be used. The return of most of the Romantics into the bosom of the one redeeming Church represents nothing but a betrayal of the spirit, a cowardly renunciation of all their previous convictions and a despicable self-annihilation. It has nothing to do with genuine religion, for the spirit surrenders to those dead traditions which can only binder the true revival of religion. The most dangerous features of the Church are strengthened and given a justification. The overestimation of the individual avenges itself man, for, as the “Ego” does not really create the world and as this world is more than a mere “Non-Ego,” man cannot bear his freedom when it is increased to licence so that he surrenders unconditionally when delivered by the Church from this false freedom. He who does not acknowledge an inner law has eventually to ask for external compulsion.
Naturally, these weakening and distorting effects of Romanticism are greatest in its proper sphere of literature and art, which for the Romantics are man’s highest achievements. They elevate the artist to a level upon which he is “among men what men are among the creatures of earth.” The arts have to be entirely independent of any reality: “The essence of the poetical feeling, perhaps, lies in the fact that man stimulates himself by reacting upon himself . . . and that he can exercise his imagination without external stimulus.” And “the arbitrariness of the poet” must not acknowledge “any law above itself.” But this very overrating of the arts robs them of their value, and it is due to the Romantic Movement that they begin to lose their influence upon life and degenerate into mere ornament.
Even in the arts, the Romantics do not give up their claim to grasp the absolute directly. But the absolute itself cannot be embodied in any form. They are, therefore, immediately driven into a blind alley. They have to shift the emphasis from the content of the artistic form to its meaning and to strive for an allegorical form, an endeavour which must needs lead into the void. If a single event is represented realistically and explored to its very depths, a living symbol is created, for in these depths every single thing takes part in the essence of the whole, and so far as it discloses these depths it embodies the whole and can symbolize it. The Romantics, however, believe that they know the meaning of the whole and, starting from this knowledge, they create allegories to represent it. They do not transform a character, an event, or an experience into a symbol; rather does the fairy-tale become the highest form of art, and imaginary kings, sorcerers, plants and elements perform a fantastic ballet, in which they are supposed to present the world order. In this way, the point of every artistic creation is blunted. It can no longer, without any preconceptions, advance towards a fuller and deeper representation of the world, but is reduced to filling prescribed outlines with superficial ornaments. The work of art loses its autonomy and receives life only from a meaning grafted on it from outside. If this meaning is not accepted nothing remains, for its intrinsic value is destroyed.
Still more dangerous is the attempt of the Romantics to represent infinity as an essential quality of the absolute. Infinity, too, cannot be grasped directly, and so they introduce into the arts a never-ending agitation of the spirit with which they hope to replace it. When their ideal artist looks down into the abyss of his mind so that he may draw up from it something to fashion into artistic form, it is “as if he looked down into an unfathomable whirlpool where wave after wave beats and foams, and where yet one cannot distinguish any single wave . . . where all the currents, again and again, whirl into one, without pause, without rest . . . a rushing and roaring enigma, an infinite, infinite raging of the angry and turbulent element.”
This struggle must not be mistaken for Goethe’s infinite striving, for the Romantics take over from him only what they can misinterpret in their. own way. Goethe is perpetually impelled by the abundance of the world, by the many-sidedness of the human spirit, and by his need to fulfil the highest potentialities of our life on earth. He progresses from one fact, from one experience, to the next, and it is only because he cannot exhaust reality that he can find no rest. The Romantics, on the contrary, make use of reality, or rather of a distorted shadow of it, to represent a theoretical infinity. Infinity for them is an atmosphere to be introduced into the work of art, and the creation of this atmosphere of the infinite is their highest aim. But this aim also is directly hostile to the creation of genuine works of art. It is true that a complete work of art has a certain tone, but if the creation of this tone is one of the aims from the beginning, the process of creation is no longer free, the form has to be twisted and deformed, and the work of art is once more subordinated to ends foreign to it. For the sake of giving this impression of infinity, the Romantics must frustrate a natural development so as to prolong a particular mood, or they must break up the form of their works so as to give the impression of incompleteness, thus excluding a consistent conclusion to their productions. Or they must retire into the realm of reflection, but a reflection which must not lead to any results which might bring the process to a conclusion. The Romantics look on reflective poetry as the highest kind; romantic poetry has to “hover on the wings of poetic reflection, increasing this reflection again and again, as if multiplying,it in an endless row of mirrors.” The endeavour of the artist is completely divorced from any obligation or inner necessity and becomes a mere attitude unsupported by any vital sanctions.
Allegory, the atmosphere of the infinite, poetry of romantic reflection, all of these lead straight to the perversion of art into an ornamentation which smothers life. As it is not possible to satisfy all these demands, Romanticism needs more and more trappings which, at least, give an appearance of success. First, they strive for an impression of indistinctness. “Who would not wish to walk in twilight, when the night is interpenetrated by light, and the light by night, into more intense shadows and colours?” This twilight, beautiful in itself, becomes unbearably permanent. Then hunting-horns drown the rustling of the woods, every step is accompanied by lute and zither, waterfalls do not make their appearance without lightning and thunder, the moon shines upon ruins and decayed walls, and moss-grown monuments recall past ages. Novalis goes so far as to consider the lute as an original human element; the hero of his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen “felt that he lacked a lute, without knowing how it was built and what effects it produced.” These are the ideal subjects for romantic paintings as they are described by Tieck: “Solitary, ghastly landscapes. A rotten and broken bridge over an abyss between two precipitous rocks; between them a foaming and roaring brook. Wanderers who have lost their way, with garments fluttering in the wet wind; the terrible figures of robbers coming out of a defile; attacked and plundered carriages, a struggle with the travellers. . . . Brook and waterfall, with the fisherman, the angle, and the mill turning in the moonlight.” Poetry, and human life too, are drowned in vague moods. Once more, an important sphere of human endeavour has been transformed into one of meaningless amusement.
Thus by endangering every genuine feeling, romantic art eventually becomes dangerous to life itself. Man is forced by strong and genuine feelings to seek clarity and consciousness, passionate decisions and definite results, but the Romantics, on the contrary, stress the state of feeling itself. They do not want to follow it up, but to revel in emotions; they want perpetually to indulge in their feelings. Therefore they must make feeling weaker than it is, so that it does not lead anywhere and comes to no conclusion, so that it can become a permanent mood which is passively enjoyed. Longings make man thirst for fulfilment, but to the Romantics longing itself is the most welcome realization of a feeling for the infinite, and because it becomes their aim and must be preserved, it must not be satisfied. At the same time, the Romantics are aware that their intellect is stronger than their feelings, and they are always afraid that it may overcome their emotions. The conscious goal towards which man is driven by feeling appears to them as its annihilation, and they therefore sever the connection between the feeling and the mind. Feeling is weakened at any cost so that it cannot give rise to any activity of the mind, which might lead to a real decision.
The most serious and binding force in human life is thus degraded, for feeling alone can connect man with the absolute for which the Romantics strive. In this sphere alone, if a man is honest with himself, no definite shirking or lying is possible, for here every error makes itself felt, in the end. But the Romantics thin it down until it altogether loses this power, until it is only another ornament gilding over reality. Human existence, whether happy or unhappy, is weakened until it becomes a mere indulgence. “Religious feelings should accompany every activity of man like holy music” — everything becomes merely a sweet accompaniment to speculation or sensation which can stimulate without exercising any compulsion. The revelling in feeling becomes heavy or sentimental, sunk in sadness and Weltschmerz; irony disappears in its expression. But in a deeper sense it is now that irony celebrates its full triumph, for human life itself has become formless and insincere, an empty allegory, an ironical fragment. It has no longer any connection with what is truly infinite, and the voice of the absolute is drowned in false sentimentality.
When the first exaltation has died down and reality, this powerful and ever-present reality which cannot be discussed out of existence, comes again to the fore, the Romantics are no longer equal to it, for they have destroyed vitality itself. Their arrogant contempt for reality is transformed into impotent hatred, into Weltschmerz and querulousness. Eventually, Romanticism manifests itself only as an inability to cope with life, and a complete decline is thinly concealed under an artificial pessimism. Following Novalis’ example, the Romantics desire to flee this “pale existence” without having the strength to deny it completely. They can only complain: “What are we to do with our love and loyalty in this world?” The ecstatic praise of the new century is abandoned for a weak turning towards the past: “The old things are in contempt, but what do the new matter to us?” For the first time, youth itself fights against the things of the future and despises them: “Lonely and deeply saddened is be who fervently and piously loves the days of yore.”
The results of the betrayal of the spirit are most clearly and strikingly seen. The Romantics, because of their weakness, are no longer able to wrest concepts of value and purity from life, and so the spirit is entirely without influence. A strange aristocracy comes into being; the most lofty poets are transformed into brutal egotists; unable to live, despising the masses, and worhipping a secret ideal, they think that they are entitled to follow the worst customs of the masses. To do evil is the only way of proving their strength, and satanism comes into fashion. Other Romantics, following a different path, subordinate themselves to those who despise the spirit; adoration of “the German” and poetry combine in the mass production of all that doggerel which almost succeeded in smothering real art. True art, the spirit of man and life itself have been debased; they can be saved only by a struggle against Romanticism.
Certainly, it is true that this does not apply to the whole of the historical Romantic Movement. Only in its beginning is it so surprisingly poor in true works of art, but later many of its weaknesses are overcome by the Romantics themselves. To divide those whom we call Romantic so sharply from those whom we do not is to make an artificial distinction, for the Romantics frequently take over foreign elements and advance towards realism. Sometimes they base their fantastic products upon reality, and so can make them believable and enchanting. But those very characteristics of early Romanticism which are so disastrous have remained effective, and again and again, Romanticism has been renewed at these sources. The most dangerous form of Romanticism is more powerful today than ever before. The overestimation of the power of the intellect and the flight from reality into extreme individualism lead to an equally extreme materialistic reaction, and in face of this reaction extreme Romanticism appears, in its turn, as the only possible attitude for the spirit of man. The mistakes of the Romantics are responsible for both materialism and the retreat of the spirit into romantic sentiment.
First, however, the materialist reaction takes place; Romanticism clears the way for the overestimation of the purely material personality. Reality, neglected by the spirit, gains too strong a life of its own, and the deification of the hero begins.
The following are those works of the Romantics which
show most clearly the ideas whose development is traced here:
J. G. Fichte, Die Bestimmung des Menschen.
---, Reden an die deutsche Nation.
F. Schlegel, Lucinde.
F. Schleiermacher, Reden über die Religon an die Gebildeten
unter ihren Verichtern.
F. W. J. Schelling, Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilo-
Bruno oder Ueber das natürliche und göttliche Prinzip
L. Tieck, Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen.
H. Wackenroder und L. Tieck: Herzensergiessungen eines
Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
The correspondence between various of these authors and
the letters of A. W. Schlegel are also of the greatest interest.