Balancing Acts: Modes of Equilibrium in Romanticism and Nature Philosophy around 1800

This paper explores the concept of equilibrium around 1800, to understand its use, and to trace the different ways in which Schelling’s positioning of equilibrium at the beginning of reflection transforms a commonplace scientific concept into a philosophically powerful one. Focusing on the early nature philosophy of Schelling and Eschenmayer and the aphorisms of Novalis around 1800—before turning to Eschenmayer’s later work on psychology from 1814—these readings concentrate on two related tendencies in the discussion on equilibrium: the first relating to its ability to move between the immaterial and the material, the second relating to questions of visibility that such movement entails.


“What’s new with German Romanticism?”—the question gestures to the important contribution of German-language writing to our understanding of the period but also to the trenchant and suggestive interrogation of the category of “newness” by German Romantic writers. Anxiety about whether anything “new” can ever be said or written about anything is, one could argue, constitutive of both Romanticism and our relationship to it.

For † Friedrich Schlegel †

When, in his commentary on G.E. Lessing’s writings, Friedrich Schlegel describes his aim “to characterize the spirit of Lessing as a whole," he evokes the traditional distinction between spirit and letter that had come to form the point of departure for the hermeneutic enterprise, in and beyond biblical exegesis. Yet the meaning that this distinction assumes in Schlegel’s writings, from his earliest studies of Greek and Roman poetry, to his Conversation on Poetry, is not one that would promise interpretive closure of any kind. Instead, the distinction itself and the infinite demands for interpretation that arise from it can be traced to a dynamic particular to writing, which Schlegel outlines in his philological approaches to biblical scripture, Lessing, and poetry. In my contribution, I seek to draw out the implications of Schlegel's scriptural philology, looking back to its biblical precedents and forward to the kind of reading his intervention solicits.

The Romantic Sentence

This essay explores post-Kantian challenges to the Aristotelian proposition and the rationalist model of proof. The first part focuses on Friedrich Schlegel’s efforts to develop a discourse that could reconcile the demand to speak freely with the demand to speak the truth. The second part shows how Edgar Allan Poe and Stéphane Mallarmé continue Schlegel’s project as they grapple with Romantic ideas about wit and the autonomy of poetic language.

James Hogg and the Medium of Romantic Prose

A recent media turn in Romantic studies has foregrounded the ballad—and poetry more generally—as a privileged site for understanding how questions about medium and mediality feature in the writing of the period. But do such questions feature in the era’s prose genres, as well? And is it possible to talk about a medium of Romantic prose as Celeste Langan and Maureen N. McLane talk about a medium of Romantic poetry? In this essay, I suggest that the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” and to show this I turn to the prose tales of James Hogg, a Romantic-period writer who not only recognized bonds of affinity between metrical and prose composition, but also understood ballads and tales to be versions—interchangeable, in a sense—of each other. Like the ballad, I argue, the tale, too, can be understood as a “hybrid oral and textual practice” (in Paula McDowell’s words), a prose form that exhibits a subtle self-consciousness about its own medial status.

Introduction: Occasion and Expression

The sense of an occasion is inseparable from the productivity that characterizes Romantic prose. Carl Schmitt's account of the "subjective occasionalism" of Romanticism offers us an analytical point of departure. But I argue that Romantic prose tries to deepen, extend, or formalize this sense of occasion. It tries to express, and sometimes embeds within itself, the social conditions of acts of utterance.

Trusting Experiments: Sociability and Transcendence in the Familiar Essay

This essay briefly explores two developments that produced a remarkable turn in the relationship between philosophy and literature between the publication of Hume’s Treatise in 1740 and the heyday of the Romantic familiar essay in the 1820s: the socialisation of experience by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and the impact of belletristic periodical culture upon philosophical discourse. These changes were interconnected, jointly exhibiting a swerve away from systematic epistemology and towards a form of essayism. As the literary genre of trusting intersubjectivity par excellence, the familiar essay had functioned as a vehicle for philosophical experiments in communication since the days of The Spectator. And yet, Hume’s idea of an ‘easy,’ conversational philosophy grounded in social correspondence increased the epistemological burden upon essayist beyond anything envisaged by Addison or Steele. The Romantic familiar essay inherits this burden while changing the stakes: thus, while the rewards of essaying for Hume lay in the consolidation of consensus through philosophically indifferent conversation, for Lamb and Hazlitt, they consisted in the promotion of a more limited social solidarity through the production of modes of reading receptive to the authenticity effects of singularity and transcendence.

Incapable of Being Disentangled: On De Quincey’s Impassioned Prose

This article makes the case that perlocution, a notoriously tricky species of speech act, opens up news ways of thinking about De Quincey’s autobiographical writings, particularly Suspiria de Profundis. Because its effects are indirect, uncertain and unpredictable, perlocution helps us understand language’s ability to entangle: readers, writers, memories, experience, events, other texts. That uncanny ability to entangle things—and our inability to ever fully disentangle them—is one of De Quincey’s abiding preoccupations. Its readiest models are the famous involute and the palimpsest, but examples of it exist throughout his oeuvre. De Quincey’s thinking on these and related matters anticipates later theoretical concepts such as Freud’s “tangle of dream thoughts," Benjamin’s verschränkte Zeit (entangled time), and Derrida’s double bind, “which can only be endured in passion.”

Sydney Owenson’s Strange Phenomenality

This essay examines Sydney Owenson’s strange syntax—at once ornate and truncated, full of floating modifiers and attributions that remain forever unresolved—as a medium for her explorations of sensation and perception. Tracing the form of her novels in conjunction with her meditations on empiricism, it argues that Owenson’s syntax resists the ontic and formalizing claims of a Common Sense philosophy of perception. Instead her early novels enact, syntactically and therefore figurally, a conception of “life” as ceaseless, formless motion and an ethics of interdependency embodied in what Thomas Reid called “mere sensation.”

Concerning the Spiritual in Hogg’s Art

Is there a place for the spiritual in literature? James Hogg's long poem The Queen’s Wake and his sprawling prose narrative The Three Perils of Man appear to literalize an affirmative response by giving play to spirits and other supernatural phenomena. And yet, Hogg’s answer may actually be no, if only because “literature” as imagined by his friend and rival, Walter Scott, downgrades spiritual intensities to the status of cultural differences from everyday life. Hogg did not divide up the world in quite that way, a point with implications not only for the idea of the spiritual, but also, and especially, for literature.