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Sunday, June 06, 2004


A few notes on Schlegel

Chaoli’s article, as we said, takes off from a reply made by Friedrich Schlegel to an essay, On Perpeutal Peace, written by Kant. The translation of the essay is here:
It is interesting that the phrase of Kant’s that attracted Schlegel’s attention, Die bürgerliche Verfassung in jedem Staate soll republikanisch seyn, is translated as The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican." This disguises the force of bürgerliche, even though civil is a pretty good equivalent, since it derives from civus, OF the city. . However, there is a definite overtone of the concept of class – the class of the city’s worthies, to use the older English term - in the word that is rather lacking in its English equivalent. The citizen is not simply an inhabitant – which the American reader, product of the struggle for universal suffrage, might unthinkingly assume.

Schlegel is not well known to American readers. He isn’t, frankly, that well known to LI. But we’ve been reading up on him. He and his brother, August, formed part of the nucleus of German romantics. He was twice married, the second time, after a long cohabitation, to Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter. Schlegel was responsible for the turn towards India in German intellectual culture. He was an Orientalist. He was also the critic whose conception of Greek drama was attacked later, by Nietzsche, in the Birth of Tragedy.

Such is his outline. We looked up a famous putdown of Schlegel by Heine, in his book, The Romantic School. Here is what Heine has to say: “ .. I have to mention here [in the second volume of his book] that many French people have complained about how I have treated the Schlegels, (mainly August Wilhelm), with rather acrid words. But I think such complaints betray a lack of exacter acquaintance with German literary history. The French mainly know A.W. Schlegel from his place in the works of Madame de Staël, his noble defender. Most recognize only his name. The name sounds in the memory as something honorably famous, rather like the name Osiris, about whom we only know, that he was a wonderfully queer kind of God, honored in Egypt. What other curious similarities there might be between A.W. Schlegel and Osiris are little known to my French readers.

Since I once belonged to the academic scholars of the old school, one might consider that I should show some forbearance to them. However, did A.W. Schlegel show any mercy to old Bürger, his literary father? No. He dealt with him according to his own uses and traditions. Because in literature, just as in the woods inhabited by the North American savages, the fathers are murdered by the sons, as soon as they get old and weak.
I’ve already observed in a previous chapter that Friedrich Schlegel was more significant than August. In fact, the latter only fed on the ideas of his brother, and only understood the art of working through them. Fr. Schlegel was a deep thinking man. He knew all the glories of the past, and he felt all the pains of the present. But he had no conception of the holiness of these pains and their necessity for the future healing of the world. He saw the sun set and blinked tearfully at the place where it set and complained bitterly over the spreading darkness of night, but failed to spot the new dawn reddening on the opposite horizon. Fr. Schlegel once called the historian an “inverted prophet”. This phrase is the best description for he himself. He hated the present, was shocked by the future, and only exercized his revelatory vision on the past, which he loved. Poor Fr. Schlegel never saw that the pains of our time are the pains of rebirth; he mistook them for the agonies of death. Out of this fear of death he flew into the tottering ruins of the Catholic Church, which was, when all is said and done, the best place of refuge for a man of his sentiments. All things considered, he was full of the kind of animal spirits that should have made him bolder in life, but he finally decided these were sinful, and as sins, could only be repented. So this is the impulse that drove the writer of “Lucinde” inexorably towards Catholicism. Lucinde is a novel, and outside of his poems and one drama on the Spanish model, Alarkos, it is the single original work of art he left behind him. Recently, the honorable Schleiermacher has published a few enthusiastic letters about Lucinde. There are even critics who praise this novel as a masterpiece, and who prophecize, that someday it will be valued as one of the great books in the German canon. By order of the government one should take these people and treat them as they treat prophets in Russia, who prophecize some public catastrophe: they put them in prison until the time that their predictions come true. No, the gods will protect our literature from this particular piece of bad news. Just as Schlegel’s novel is currently neglected, it is fated to be condemned in the future, for the same reason: because of its trivial lasciviousness.

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