The Novels of the German Romantics
These are anguished, concerned, eloquently urgent voices—voices very different in timbre and range from each other, voices that resound in a variety of modes of expression. But everywhere we find the representation of divisiveness contrasted with envisioned unitariness, and confusion of spirit with clear-sightedness. In the novels of Jean Paul the two 'worlds' are juxtaposed, each with its own specific reality. In Hyperion the higher world is recalled elegiacally and envisioned proleptically in the final emergence of poetic sight in the protagonist. Tieck shares the vision, but it remains a vision, never actually realized, in Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen. The powers of the imagination, lauded by Novalis, are mistrusted by the Tieck of William Lovell (and also to a certain extent in Sternbald) and displayed as dangerously seductive by Eichendorff and even as destructive by Hoffmann. So the imagination itself, the sovereign source of poetry, one would think, is also seen as the source both of visions of the higher world and of the divisions and frustrations of the present world. Even poetry itself is viewed variously: positively as the ultimate redeeming force by Novalis and Holderlin, guardedly by Brentano and Tieck, skeptically by "Bonaventura" and Hoffmann, relatively by Eichendorff. Poetry for Eichendorff is the healing force only in a wide sense of the term: the practitioners, or would-be practitioners, of the art are relegated to a lesser status, but poetry in the sense of that higher state of mind which perceives connections between seemingly unconnected elements of experience, and relates finite to infinite, the presence of a 'golden ground'—that is the redeeming force, but it is not confined to poets. Friedrich Schlegel is saying much the same with his concept of 'universal poetry.' The aesthetic statement of romanticism is therefore also an ethical statement, and nothing could be more wrong than to consider German romanticism as mere aestheticism. It speaks a clear 'message' (to use an old-fashioned but not therefore ridiculous term), and a message whose relevance was not restricted to the era in which these writers lived.
But the aesthetic statement is there too, and it is important. Given this broader conception of 'poetry,' the novel is the vehicle best suited to express it in all its fullness. But not the novel in its traditional form. What was needed, sought after, and in part realized, was to present actual events and personages not as self-sufficiently 'real,' but always in relation to each other and to elements of experience that are not themselves events or personages, but that color and give perspective and deeper meaning to those actual events and personages. The particular is not merely shown as related to the general, the immanent to the transcendent, and the conditional to the unconditional, but as complementary aspects of one unitary whole which appears thus divided only in the phenomenal world. To convey this, a broad, elastic, comprehensive medium is required, combining genres, reacting to itself, relativizing the parts by irony, alternatives, multiple protagonists, and parallel actions which reflect upon each other, working toward an ultimate goal of totality but intentionally never reaching it. Images become events, and events turn into images. Characters develop counterparts or obverses, reality begets fantasies, and fantasies crystallize alarmingly into realities. Poetic boldness plays havoc with prose sobriety, confusion is heralded over the superficiality of superimposed order, and incompleteness over completion as more expressive of the true nature of our experience. For our few real moments of true understanding are fragmentary, lightning flashes of illumination, unaccountable for in normal terms of causality or chronology, sometimes visionary, sometimes coming upon us when our rational powers are dormant, sometimes as seeming diversions from our normal paths of thought. Hence the reinterpretation by these romantic novelists of certain traditional elements of novel-writing: the deeper meaning given to unexpected incursions (whether thoughts or events or personages) into the steady flow of life (and narration), the different function given to episodic narratives and to digressions (which are now made into integral parts, and important parts, of the total texture), and the changed attitude toward whether chronological narration was a valid representation of the experience of time. And the desire, as Dorothea Schlegel had said, not to aim at what was normally considered to be a 'satisfactory ending,' but to leave the reader with something to add, 'in thoughts or in dreams'—to speculate on those further thoughts of Hyperion, to continue wandering with Sternbald, reflect on what will happen to Kreisler, and to Walt and Vult—and, of course, on the circumstances that led to the untimely death of Kater Murr. And to ponder the immense possibilities opened up by the romantic view of the novel as poetry.