“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.


Zachary Sng
Brown University

1.        So what’s new with German Romanticism?

2.        One could say that any scholar of Romanticism might be curious about the question. After all, our understanding of the literary, philosophical, and cultural developments of the Romantic age is so richly informed by engagements with writers such as Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hegel, and Schelling. This is particularly true in North America, where the foundational discussions of comparative literature in the mid-twentienth century accorded a prominent position to the German literature and philosophy of the Romantic period.

3.        Over the last few decades, the discipline of comparative literature has developed in ways that could not have been predicted by, say, René Wellek or Henry Remak. Scholarship on German Romanticism has, however, continued to serve as a rich transatlantic tributary of new ideas, questions, and methodologies for a comparative study of Romanticism. The influence of German idealist philosophy from around 1800, for example, remains a topic of great interest among those studying British Romanticism, and recent work on the politics of European Romanticism has acknowledged the importance of Fichte, Novalis, and Kleist in shaping our inherited ideas about national and state power.

4.        For those who work primarily on German Romanticism, such as the contributors represented in this volume, there is another dimension to the question: “what’s new?” To study the texts of the German Romantic period is to be confronted with the multiple ways in which they insistently pose the question of the new about themselves and to themselves. Romanticism emerges in late eighteenth-century Jena out of the tensions between the classical and the modern, between tradition and experiment, restoration and revolution. If we trace its development and dissemination into the early nineteenth century, we find it continually looking over its own shoulder, interrogating its scenes of origination and asking what it could mean for anything, including itself, to be “original.” What might or might not be new with German Romanticism is, in other words, an emphatically Romantic question, and it pertains not just to the place of a certain set of writings in the chronology of the German canon, but also to the collective efforts of these writings to re-imagine and re-shape literary, political, and intellectual history.

5.        The writers of the Romantic period in Germany promise the new in a multitude of modalities and forms, whether this newness is measured against the orthodoxies of aesthetic form, the tyranny of reason over political and philosophical life, or the limitations of a worldview centered on a fully self-conscious and self-possessed subject. We therefore tend to credit the Romantic period with inaugurating a certain form of modernity, particularly when it comes to the concept of literature itself. One of the numerous complications that such a historical narrative elides, however, is that the aesthetic, political, and philosophical formations against which Romanticism pitted itself were already “new” in the eighteenth century. Romanticism’s critical force is constantly split between a forward momentum and a backward pull (towards antiquity, the Middle Ages, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and so on), between revolutionary promise and conservative return. Like Schlegel’s irony, Romanticism hovers above an abyss, spanned on one side by the pathos of new beginnings and on the other, the exhaustion of eternal repetition.

6.        Many of the clearest markers of the “new” that we find in German Romanticism are troubled by these contradictory pressures. Take, for example, the Romantic genre that bears the name of newness itself, the Novelle. Goethe’s well-known dictum that the novella must be an “unheard-of” or unprecedented event that has actually taken place [eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit] suggests that novelty is its constitutive attribute (“Gespräch” 203). But even a cursory reading of his “Elective Affinities”—the prime example that he offers—would suffice to complicate this assertion. Each of the most significant “events” in the novella’s plot is presented as determined but also contingent, as necessary as it is unexpected, equal measure human caprice and divine predestination. What could the “new” possibly mean under such conditions?

7.        Goethe’s position on the novella is ultimately not so far removed from that of August Wilhelm Schlegel, who refers to the novella as an “idiosyncratic [eigenthümliche] historical genre”: because it tells of something that has no place in “history proper” [in der eigentlichen Historie], the novella is something like a “history/story outside of history” [eine Geschichte außer der Geschichte] (“Nachricht” 242, 248). Friedrich Schlegel also hedges his bets when it comes to the novella’s new-ness: for him, the novella’s appeal cannot be based on any reference “to the relationship between nations or epochs, or to the progress of mankind and its education [Bildung].” The novella is therefore a story [Geschichte] that “does not belong to history [nicht zur Geschichte gehört]” and that, from the moment of its conception, is accompanied by “a disposition to irony” [die Anlage zur Ironie] (394).

8.        These definitions begin with a seemingly straightforward relationship between the novella and the category of “new-ness,” but they end up exploring something more complex: the possibility that the novella undoes the historical conditions that enable us to consider one thing “new” or “old” in relation to something else. One might say the same about Romanticism. It might indeed allow a break from the old, from tradition and history, without simply setting us up for a repetition of and regression to the same, but the reach of its critique does not end there: instead, Romanticism challenges the very idea of history as an organizing horizon of experience and understanding. Can such a critique yield a vision of radical newness, or is it destined to always expose the new as a recurring mirage, a compulsive naïveté? Friedrich Schlegel’s reference to irony as a lifelong companion to the novella suggests that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

9.        Like the novella, Romanticism inscribes itself outside history while remaining acutely conscious of its own historicity. Small wonder, then, that those writing about Romanticism seem prone to fret about their own relationship to Romantic writing, particularly when it comes to historical positionings and the question of new-ness. The characteristic gesture of German Romanticism is that of reflection: it strives continually towards a form of self-conscious writing that is simultaneously poetry and the poetry of poetry, as Friedrich Schlegel puts it (“Athenäeum Fragmente” 204). Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy have described this as an operation of “literature producing itself as it produces its own theory” (12). Does this not mean that any commentary on Romanticism is destined to be somewhat redundant or belated? Has it ever really been possible to say or write anything “new” about Romanticism, something that has not already been anticipated in the long series of commentaries that it has produced, including its own commentaries on itself? Perhaps everything that could be said about Romanticism has already been said, and further critical commentary on Romanticism, if it is to do any justice at all to its object, can do little more than repeat Romanticism. And what it would be repeating, in fact, would be the gesture of repetition that is the defining gesture of Romanticism itself. To produce Romantic criticism would simply be to double down, for better or worse, on what is already Romanticism, participating in what Winfried Menninghaus has called its machinery of “infinite doubling” [unendliche Verdoppelung].

10.        If Romanticism affords us any insight into the possibility or impossibility of the new, this insight is delivered in and as a kind of anxious hindsight, always and already an echo of the always-already. And if Romanticism constitutes itself in its redoubled echoes, in and as criticism of Romanticism, then can our readings of Romantic literature ever be conducted as resistance rather than acquiescence? Can we ever read Romanticism against its grain, or do we always end up producing re-readings that reproduce the ideology of Romanticism? This intractable problem has generated an ambivalence that cannot be easily dispelled, but it has not prevented critical work on Romanticism from taking a prominent and extraordinarily productive position at the vanguard of literary studies in general. In fact, the willingness on the part of scholars of Romanticism to embrace the double-bind and to search for modes of resistance to mere repetition without difference has generated influential and innovative practices of reading literature in general, even when they diverge radically and mutually exclude each other, such as perhaps in the work of Paul de Man and Jerome McGann. Whether the techniques of critical analysis are rhetorical or historicist, whether levers find their purchase in the aporias of literary language or the paradoxes of political power—it is this continual dynamic between the desire to approach and to distance oneself from Romanticism that has enlivened the history of Romantic scholarship and established its position at the heart of contemporary literary studies.

11.        It is under the rubric of dialectical productivity that this collection offers a selection of some recent work on German Romanticism. These readings represent some of the most important current trends in scholarship, but each also grapples in some way or another with the challenges that the literary, philosophical, scientific, and legal writings of Romanticism pose to received narratives about history, meaning, and power, including narratives about originality and newness, revolutionary breaks and fresh beginnings.

12.        Two of our contributors, Kristina Mendicino and Jan Mieszkowski, draw on a renewed interest in something with ancient roots: namely, the broad field of philology. Within German Studies, the recent attention to the history of philology has brought the work of Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel back to the forefront of critical attention, even among scholars who work primarily on periods other than the Romantic one.

13.        Mendicino takes on the crucial but fraught opposition between spirit [Geist] and letter [Buchstabe] by reading Friedrich Schlegel’s writings on philology alongside his essay on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and his Conversation on Poetry [Gespräch über die Poesie]. Rather than simply try to work out the putative “content” that Schlegel might be aiming to convey about philology or any attempt to define what philology is, Mendicino follows Schlegel in considering what a philological reading might or might not do. Her subtle work with these texts challenges us to think about the traces, marks, and sediments that are uncovered by a philological reading and that would otherwise go unnoticed, perhaps even be suppressed, if our engagements with texts were limited to semantic content and rhetorical structure.

14.        Exploring how we might consider the grammar of the sentence not just as a pre-given linguistic structure but as a critical tool, Mieszkowski points us to the unexpected complexities in some of Friedrich Schlegel’s pronouncements about language and knowledge. His parallel readings of Schlegel’s grammatical and rhetorical devices demonstrate that the two work in ways oddly askew to each other: neither completely in tandem nor simply in opposition. Instead of attempting to resolve this tension into a single pattern or structure of persuasion (which is to say, rhetorically), Mieszkowski suggests that we understand it as a form of perpetually self-revising, paratactic, and possibly anacoluthic mode of writing that puts into practice Schlegelian Willkür [arbitrariness]. In a dazzling move, he identifies the development of a syntax of arbitrariness in the form of perversity and absurdity in texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Stéphane Mallarmé, respectively.

15.        Jocelyn Holland’s study draws on the history of a scientific term, but it also deftly demonstrates how an idea such as “equilibrium” illuminates the complex inter-relation of scientific thinking, aesthetics, and literature in the Romantic period. Holland’s interest lies not in identifying a single, universally accepted understanding of equilibrium around 1800; instead, she examines the nuanced ways in which equilibrium is imagined, constructed, and contested in the writings of Schelling, Eschenmayer, Novalis, and others. As a crucial figure for understanding relation and tension, but also desire and conflict, equilibrium does not simply belong to one discourse or field. Indeed, it allows us access to the variegated models that these writers employed to make sense of the opposition between the mechanical and the spiritual, sensibility and intelligibility, subject and object.

16.        The contribution by Leif Weatherby urges us, as Holland’s does, to adopt a more capacious critical vantage-point to observe the intertwined operations of language, knowledge, and discourse in Romantic writing—akin to what Joseph Vogl, working in the tradition of Michel Foucault, has called “the poetics of knowledge” [Poetologie des Wissens]. In his study of the Romantic author and jurist E.T.A. Hoffmann, Weatherby brings together an impressively diverse body of material, including medical writings, legal opinions, theories of the novel, crime fiction, and tales of the fantastic. The juxtaposition of such heterogeneous texts enables Weatherby to uncover a host of important questions about representation, subjectivity, and understanding. Possibly the most surprising question that is unearthed by this fascinating discussion is the following: what is the nature of police power in the early eighteenth-century Prussian state? Through a series of careful analyses, Weatherby works out an intricate network of connections between literature, technology, and Polizeiwissenschaft [police science], in order to propose some revisions to our readings, not just of Hoffmann, but also of Romantic writing in general.

17.        I hope that our small selection of new work on German Romanticism leaves little doubt that this sub-field remains vibrant and energetic and that its interventions continue to push the larger field of German Studies into unexplored areas of inquiry. The critical methodologies and terms deployed here might be of recent provenance, but the questions posed are not; they are persistent puzzles whose continued afterlives in contemporary culture and thought speak to the “relevance” of Romanticism today. In returning to ancient questions, critics such as those represented here do not simply aim to find modern answers, but to underscore the danger of assuming that final resolutions and answers can be found. They re-pose the questions not to put something to rest, but to shake it out of its slumber. In this sense, one can only hope that we will never tire of asking what’s new with German Romanticism.

Works Cited

De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia UP, 1984.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. “Goethe im Gespräch mit Eckermann, Donnerstag Abend, den 29. Januar 1827.” Johann Peter Eckermann. Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, vol. 19. Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens, edited by Heinz Schlaffer, Hanser, 1986, pp. 200-05.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism. Translated by Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester, SUNY P, 1988.

McGann, Jerome. The Romantic Ideology. U of Chicago P, 1983.

Menninghaus, Winfried. Unendliche Verdopplung: Die frühromantische Grundlegung der Kunstheorie im Begriff absoluter Selbstreflexion. Suhrkamp, 1987.

Remak, Henry H.H. “Comparative Literature, Its Definition and Function.” Comparative Literature: Method and Perspective, edited by Newton P. Stallknecht and Horst Frenz, Southern Illinois UP, 1961, pp. 3-37.

Schlegel, August Wilhelm. Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur. Geschichte der romantischen Litteratur 1803-1804, vol. 3, edited by Jacob Minor, Heilbronn, Henninger, 1884.

Schlegel, Friedrich. “Athenäum Fragmente.” Charakteristiken und Kritiken I. Vol. 2. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, edited by Ernst Behler et al., Schöningh, 1958–, pp. 165-255. 35 vols.

Schlegel, Friedrich. “Nachricht von den poetischen Werken des Johannes Boccaccio.” Charakteristiken und Kritiken I. Vol. 2. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, edited by Ernst Behler et al., Schöningh, 1958–. 373–396. 35 vols.

Vogl, Joseph. Poetologien des Wissens um 1800. Fink, 1999.

Wellek, René. "The Concept of Comparative Literature." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, no. 2, 1953, pp. 1-5.