During the 1760s and 1770s, Germany witnessed the rise of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement in which writers and critics such as Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), Goethe, and Schiller experimented with new subjective modes of expression and of the linguistic bases and cultural functions of art. This movement was followed by various expressions of classicism, after which Romantic writers renewed the impetus of experimentation and exploration. The major figures of Romanticism included Schiller and Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), who were both critics of conservatism and staunch advocates of freedom. The greatest poet of this period was Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), whose view of history was mythical. The poetry and prose of Friedrich Novalis (1772–1801) explored the preconscious depths of human nature and looked back to the Middle Ages as an ideal. Another towering figure, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was in some respects an advocate of classicism; yet some of his major works, such as Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, express human subjectivity, creativity, passion, and the thirst for boundless experience with a Romantic intensity. The drama of Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853) expressed a Romantic ironic vision. Many poets looked back to primitive and fantastic forms of literature such as folktale and romance.
It was in Germany that Romantic philosophy and literary criticism achieved their foundation, in the work of Kant and Friedrich von Schlegel. Kant had urged that aesthetic judgments belong to a category independent of moral judgments and judgments that express knowledge or information. This vision of aesthetic autonomy was enduringly influential through Romantic writers and beyond. What was even more profoundly influential was Kant’s metaphysics, where he had argued that the mind actively and necessarily contributes to the construction of the world. This emphasis on the vital role of subjectivity in constructing the world of objects profoundly influenced the subsequent history of nearly all Western thought, not merely that of the Romantics. Kant held that the world that we know, as formed by our subjective apparatus – our senses and the various categories of our faculty of understanding – is the world of phenomena, the world as it appears to us. What the world might be in itself we do not know. The Romantics, like Hegel and many commentators on Kant, took this unknowable world to be the world of noumena (against the grain of Kant’s own definition). Perhaps the first poet deeply influenced by Kant was Schiller, who develops Kant’s view of the mediating role of the aesthetic, as reconciling sensation and reason, and who in fact views the aesthetic per se as a mode of freedom. The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) saw Kant’s distinction of phenomena and noumena as harboring an irreconcilable chasm between appearance and reality, as well as between self and world; to overcome this, Fichte posited the ego or self as the primary reality, the thing in itself, and held that the external world was posited by this: in other words, the world is ultimately absorbed into the ego, of which it is an appearance or projection. This notion profoundly influenced the Romantics. The main philosopher of Romanticism, however, was Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), who argued in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) that consciousness essentially knows only itself, and its knowledge of the external world is a mediated form of self-consciousness. The systems of both Fichte and Schelling effectively merge the realms of subject and object, self and nature. Unlike Hegel, who was in the most profound sense a rationalist and saw human history as the progressive unfurling of the operations of reason in both the world and the human mind, Schelling held that the mind achieves its highest self-consciousness in art, in a process of intuition. Schelling’s influence extended to Coleridge and the other English Romantics. Hegel’s philosophy offered a historicized account of the construction of the world by human categories, as well as a historical account of the progress of art through various forms, symbolic, classical, and romantic. Hegel was engaged in the constant interaction between philosophers, writers, and critics; though he was influenced to some extent by Goethe, Schelling, and Solger, in general he responded negatively to the ideas of the Romantics. Nonetheless, his own philosophical system shares some fundamental affinities with Romanticism, such as the view that subjectivity and objectivity are mutually dependent processes. Hegel’s account of these processes took non-Romantic directions. But his impact extended to many literary figures, beginning with the literary history written by Georg Gottfried Gervinus. Hegel’s friend Hölderlin also emphasized the historical dimensions of aesthetic experience.
It is clear, then, that one lineage of Romantic thought went back to Kant, pursuing the nature of subjectivity, examining aesthetics and the notion of the imagination. Another, overlapping, strand, can be traced to Friedrich von Schlegel, who first articulated the concept of Romantic irony. Though Schlegel was originally classicist in orientation, his disposition to Romanticism was transformed through his exposure to the ideas of Schiller and Fichte. Schlegel saw irony as the distinctive disposition of poetry. Schlegel’s insights were collected into a series of “philosophical fragments.” In one of these, his most influential definition of irony occurs as a recasting of Socratic irony: “In this sort of irony, everything should be playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden. It originates in the union of savoir vivre and scientific spirit, in the conjunction of a perfectly instinctive and a perfectly conscious philosophy. It contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.”2 Hence, irony harbors a movement between shifting perspectives of the world, relative and absolute, instinctive and rational, held together not by some higher order of harmony but by an acknowledgment of contradiction and paradox. Elsewhere, Schlegel in fact states that “Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great” (Critical Fragment 48, in Schlegel, 6). In his essay of 1800 entitled On Incomprehensibility, after citing several kinds of irony Schlegel speaks of the “irony of irony,” which pervades discourse at such a profound level that “one can’t disentangle oneself from irony anymore.” Schlegel’s general point is that the communication of ideas can never occur unequivocally and completely, there being no sharp line between comprehension and incomprehension. Anticipating much modern literary and cultural theory, he points out that “all incomprehension is relative” and that “words often understand themselves better than do those who use them.” The greatest truths, he avers, are “completely trivial and hence nothing is more important than to express them forever in a new way and, where possible, forever more paradoxically, so that we won’t forget they still exist and that they can never be expressed in their entirety.” Far from regarding incomprehensibility as an “evil” in the manner of Enlightenment rationalist philosophers, Schlegel points out that the incomprehensible is an integral element of understanding, of acknowledging that the world cannot be entirely subjected to the rule of “blasphemous rationality,” and that our systems of knowledge are based on principles that we cannot fully fathom.1 In this sense, acknowledgment of incomprehensibility is itself integral to the notion of irony.
This notion of depth not entirely accessible to discursive reason forms the core of Schlegel’s definition of Romantic poetry:
Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry . . . It tries to mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism . . . Other kinds of poetry are finished and are now capable of being fully analyzed. The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence . . . It can be exhausted by no theory . . . It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; and it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself. The romantic kind of poetry is . . . poetry itself. (Athenaeum Fragment 116, in Schlegel, 31–32)
Here is the archetypal statement of many of the principles of Romanticism: a reaction against the classical distinction of genres, and of poetry and prose. More importantly, poetry is viewed as supra-rational, involving a creative power that will not bow to the restrictive faculty of reason. At the heart of this Romantic creativity is an assertion that poetry subserves no other discipline, that it is free and autonomous. Schlegel’s ideas were disseminated by his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), who helped found the Athenaeum journal. Schlegel influenced the notions of irony formulated by other writers and thinkers such as Karl Solger (1780–1819), Kierkegaard (1813–1855), and Ludwig Tieck.
Schlegel’s notion of irony as informing even philosophy and literary criticism is reenacted in the hermeneutic theory of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Like Schlegel, Schleiermacher sees the process of interpretation as an endless and infinite task that must always be partial, and always in need of increasing refinement. As Marshall Brown succinctly puts it, an important new strand of Romantic criticism “turns its attention to hermeneutics and interpretation: how do readers grasp what authors are saying?” (CHLC, V.V, 1).
1. Friedrich von Schlegel, “On Incomprehensibility,” in German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe, ed. Kathleen M. Wheeler (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 33–38.