Chapter 2: The Critical Age

by: Jeroen Mettes





Gib nach dem löblichen Verlangen,
Von vorn die Schöpfung anzufangen!
Goethe 3: 273

Der Idealismus ist der Mittelpunkt und die Grundlage der deutschen Literatur.
Friedrich Schlegel


In the previous chapter I attempted to show the relative inadequacy of current critical approaches to modern poetry. The latter was seen to reveal a tendency towards formlessness, whereas the former presupposes a form/content dichotomy that privileges form. I have also discussed how the poetry of the formless cannot be thought of as “pure content” or categorically dismissed as flawed verse. Therefore, a new theory is wanted in order to do justice to the particularly modern aspects of modern poetry. In this second chapter I will turn my attention to an alternative tradition, alternative to the formalist/structuralist legacy that proved ill-equipped to deal with freed verse. This alternative critical tradition, which is usually referred to as early romanticism, is not exactly equiprimordial with the poetry that I have been discussing so far—Klopstock wrote his major free verse hymns even before the Sturm und Drang period, and English free verse only took off in the early twentieth century, although William Blake can be said to have composed in “free forms”—but, as will have become clear by the end of this chapter, there is more than a close connection between the critical thought of a Schlegel or a Coleridge and the poetry of the formless. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that from theoretical romanticism, both English and German, we can recover something like a foundation—the romantics would say, a transcendental ground—of a poetic theory adequate to modern verse. In fact, I want to go even further and contend that early romanticism marks the beginning of our poetic modernity as such.

If I choose to designate not the first free verse or prose poem but rather early romanticism as the beginning of poetic modernity, it is precisely because there and then poetry became transcendental or, what is the same thing, critical. The origin of free verse can in principle be pushed back indefinitely (the choruses of Milton’s Samson Agonistes are free verse, for instance). This is the severe limitation of the empirical approach to literary history: there are always precedents. The strangest property of our modernity, however, and no doubt its essential one, is that it reflects on and ultimately posits its own conditions of possibility. That is to say, it does not stop before the empirical facts, but is a “critical age,” in the Kantian sense of critique, and its poetry can only be a “transcendental poetry.” These are Friedrich Schlegel’s phrases. In a famous Athenaeum fragment, Schlegel declares that, “Die Französische Revolution, Fichtes ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ und Goethes ‘Meister’ sind die gröίten Tendenzen des Zeitalters.” Fichte, as the inheritor of Kant’s critical project, is central here. As Fichte himself has written:

Mein System ist das erste System der Freiheit; wie jene Nation [i.e. France] von den äusseren Ketten den Menschen losreisst, reisst mein System ihn von den Fesseln der Dinge an sich, des äusseren Einflusses los, und stellt ihn in seinem ersten Grundsatz als selbständiges Wesen hin. Es ist in den Jahren, da sie mit äusserer Kraft die politische Freiheit erkämpfte, durch inneren Kampf mit mir selbst, mit allen eingewurzelten Vorurteilen entstanden; nicht ohne ihr Zutun; ihr valeur war, der mich noch höher stimmte und jene Energie in mir entwickelte, die dazu gehörte, um dies zu fassen. Indem ich über diese Revolution schrieb, kamen mir gleichsam zur Belohnung die ersten Winke und Ahndungen dieses Systems. (Fichte 1967: xvii)

In other words, the French Revolution is the inspiring yet external metaphor for the more profound Copernican Revolution in philosophy, initiated by Kant and radicalized by Fichte in his doctrine of the absolute “I” positing itself and its world. “German ideology” or not, the gesture is surely a significant moment in the history of thought, and through the writings of the Jena Frühromantiker and, somewhat later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England, it will have profound repercussions for literature and literary theory.

However, before I turn to poetry and poetics, and to the question why Schlegel lists Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre beside these two modern revolutions, it seems wise to ask what critique and hence a critical age really means, and how critique relates to questions of form and formlessness.

We have to begin at the beginning and with the beginning, with Plato’s Demiurge from the Timaeus. This philosophical God creates the sensible world out of shapeless matter; or rather, he impresses Forms on a receptacle or chora, which is invisible and without qualities and hence nothing like what we can conceive of. Timaeus distinguishes three instances in the genesis of the world:

[F]irst, that which is in process of generation; secondly, that in which the generation takes place; and thirdly, that of which the thing generated is a resemblance. And we may liken the receiving principle to a mother, and the source or spring to a father, and the intermediate nature to a child; and may remark further, that if the model is to take every variety of form, then the matter in which the model is fashioned will not be duly prepared, unless it is formless and free from the impress of any of these shapes which it is hereafter to receive from without.

The patriarchal simile clearly illustrates the hierarchic structure of Platonic representation: active Form (the model) determines passive and undetermined ‘matter’ and begets the world as we know it. We know only of the formed, and what we know is that which in the corporeal, formed substance resembles an intellectual model. Timaeus’ story is itself the model of representational thinking and a dazzling demonstration of the aesthetic prejudice that form, action and order are to be preferred over matter, passivity and chaos: “out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other.”

Ancient and modern variants of this model abound. Thus Francis Bacon, in his Wisdom of the Ancients, likens matter—“the most ancient of all things, next to God”—to Proteus “turn[ing] and transform[ing] itself into strange shapes, passing from one change to another.” This is what happens under experimental conditions, when the scientist has prepared matter much like Proteus had to be bound with chains if one wanted his help. The empirical method is obviously not very Platonic, but the object of knowledge remains the same for Plato and Bacon. What is studied is not matter but its various shapes and also, for Bacon at least, the order of succession of shapes: “if a man knew the conditions, affections, and processes of matter, he would certainly comprehend the sum and general issue . . . of all things past, present, and to come.” In the final instance, however, knowledge is guaranteed by an atemporal formative power: “For then it was that by virtue of the divine word producat matter came together at the command of the Creator, not by its own circuitous process, but all at once; and brought its work to perfection on the instant, and constituted the species.” In other words, transcendent Form is imprinted or imprints itself on formless matter.

Descartes’ famous piece of wax in the Second Meditation seems as Protean as Bacon’s matter: “I put the wax by the fire, and look: the residual taste is eliminated, the smell goes away, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases . . . yet the wax remains” (Descartes 1998: 20). But the sceptical method is not the same as the empirical method. Descartes’ point is that something remains the same during all the changes in taste, smell, colour, shape and size, and that this is not formless and unknowable matter, but wax, i.e. the determined idea of wax:

So what was it in the wax that I understood with such distinctness? Evidently none of the features which I arrived at by means of the senses; for whatever came under taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now altered – yet the wax remains. (Ibid.)

It is not that the sensual facts do not matter but rather that they do not in themselves constitute to true knowledge, or at least to distinct perception, unless one recognizes what the “I see,” “I smell,” “I taste” and so on have in common: the perceiving “I.” The wax that remains is the correlate of the unity of the subject, of the Cogito: “[W]hen I distinguish the wax from its outward forms—take the clothes off, as it were, and consider it naked—then although my judgement may still contain errors, at least my perception now requires a human mind” (22). Instead of a God impressing forms on some formless substrate, the Cartesian subject strips down ephemeral sensible forms in order to reveal intellectual Form, which is only formless in the sense that it is not of a sensuous nature and cannot be represented as such; it can certainly be comprehended. Plato’s “invisible and formless being which receives all things and in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible” does not seem to occur at all here. Yet the metaphysical structure is not too dissimilar: underneath the mutable lies the eternal, which can be recognized by the mind because the latter conforms to the object of knowledge through the harmony of its faculties. If the Cogito is not a Demiurge, then at least some divine hand is steering it in the direction of the essence.

It is of course Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that defines the critical turn in philosophy. What is critique in this book? It is an inquiry into the conditions of possibility of knowledge or experience. Critique is always transcendental: “I call all cognition transcendental that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our mode of cognition of objects insofar as this is to be possible a priori” (Critique of Pure Reason, B 25). As is well-known, transcendental should not be confused with transcendent. Plato’s Forms are transcendent insofar as they are of a fundamentally different nature than the knower and the sensible objects, even if the structure of knowledge is determined by the Forms in a relation of resemblance. But according to Kant, “we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them” (Ibid., B xviii); to put it in another famous phrase: knowledge does not conform to its object, but the object conforms to our knowledge, or at least to a set of a priori concepts—which Kant calls the faculty of understanding (Verstand)—and the a priori forms of space and time—which Kant calls the faculty of intuition (Anschauung). The intuition is said to be receptive, the understanding spontaneous, and they work together in the form of a synthetic judgement: an object is given to us in space and time and is then brought under the concept; it is cognized or determined. Kant’s innovation with regard to Descartes, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out, is his conception of the transcendental aesthetic—space as the form of external experience, time as the form of inner experience. Intuition is indeed receptive, that is, it does not determine, it does not think; but that does not mean it is not formative: sensible manifolds are given, but they are given as spatial and temporal, the latter not being properties of the things themselves but of the immanent structure of our experience. Whereas Descartes’ Cogito—the spontaneity of thinking—determined an undetermined existence directly and hence mysteriously, Kant “adds a third logical value: the determinable, or rather the form in which the undetermined is determinable (by determination)” (Deleuze 1994: 86).

It follows that the Kantian subject is split into a spontaneous “I” and a receptive self, and that “we appear to ourselves, not as we are in ourselves, since we intuit ourselves only as we are internally affected, which seems to be contradictory, since we would have to relate to ourselves passively” (Critique of Pure Reason, B 153). Moreover, things become even more complicated when Kant introduces another subject: the moral actor. This is the free subject of the second Critique—free, not because it obeys no law, but because it gives itself the Law. This literally autonomous subject is of a very different nature than the phenomena that are constituted by the faculties of the understanding and the intuition; it is actually noumenal, i.e. of the order of the Ding an sich, and therefore cannot be represented in space and time. The same holds true for God, which is after all a kind of absolute subject. If natural phenomena—the representations of theoretical knowledge—behave according to the law of cause and effect, it is tempting to look for a First Cause, which can only be a free causality. But, Kant insists, we cannot know if God exists, because we cannot represent the Idea of God—the Ideas of reason (Vernunft) being different in this respect from the concepts of the understanding—and knowledge is always knowledge of representations. Critique points out the limits of our knowledge. We cannot know how we are, neither as thinking nor as acting subjects. Nevertheless, with the free, noumenal “I” Kant has opened up the possibility of grounding theoretical knowledge itself in freedom. This is exactly what will happen with Fichte.

The transcendental project is thus to bring form out of heaven and into the subject. If our knowledge depended on anything outside of us, science could have only a dogmatic foundation. Objective knowledge and natural laws are possible only if the object falls under the legislation of the knowing subject. Critique is a grand enterprise of dogmatic deconstruction. It would go too far to call it a political enterprise, but it is likely that it was Kant’s sense of the word that Thomas Carlyle had in mind when he wrote about the French Revolution as a transcendental event:

Very frightful it is when a Nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations which were grown dead cerements for it, becomes transcendental; and must now seek its way through the New, Chaotic,—where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Forbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated (Carlyle 1905: 493; his italics)

A text like this clearly brings out the ambiguity of the transcendental decapitation of Form, an ambiguity that we find expressed in Kant’s writings only sparsely—as in the analytic of the sublime of the third Critique, to which we will have occasion to return at length—, but that seems obvious for a late romantic such as Carlyle, who can look back on the critical age, not just on the French Revolution but also its consequences, and not just on Kant but also on Fichte and Schelling. The ambiguity consists in the fact that on the one hand, critique is formative critique: it asks after the a priori form of experience; on the other hand, critique is also the critique of form, of transcendent, dogmatic, authoritarian Form but also—because transcendent or external Form has always been the model of form as such—the notion of form tout court. The interiorization of form risks the becoming inaccessible to knowledge of the very form of knowledge, as the transcendentalization of knowledge risks being grounded in an unknowable abyss. What exactly is the form of space if it cannot itself be imagined as something existing in space? If the empirical concept of form has always been subject to a spatial imagination—a clearly delineated shape, a spatial structure, that can be grasped by the mind immediately—, the transcendental concept of form—which makes the empirical form possible—can no longer be thought of as demarcation or even as organization. And the form of time—evacuated of all its content: how shall we imagine this? The purely formal is exactly unimaginable, unrepresentable, and it is no surprise that already in Kant’s lifetime, under the hands of Fichte, the knowing subject collapses into the moral subject, that is, into the noumenal sphere of Ideas, that Kant had kept so sharply separated from the phenomenal sphere outlined in the first Critique. For Fichte, theoretical reason must itself be grounded in a primordial act, in praxis. The absolute “I” is absolute content, “Gehalt slechthin” (Fichte 181); the form that it takes in positing itself—“I = I”—is nothing visible or sensible, it is not the experience I have of myself. In fact, it is not even logical, it is not the Cogito, the determining “I think” of the understanding that according to Kant accompanies every representation. The logical form “A = A” is actually an abstraction of the original “I = I,” an empty husk of the Grundsatz so to speak. In the “I = I” form and content are inseparable; it has an axiomatic character, but as a law that precedes all logic. This absolute ground of all true knowledge—but really of the possibility of knowledge at all—can only be unconditioned because it posits itself in freedom, and only a free subject can do so:

Ich bin Ich: oder wenn ich gesetzt bin, so bin ich gesetzt. Aber weil das Subjekt des Satzes das absolute Subjekt ist, so wird in diesem einzigen Falle, mit der Form des Satzes zugleich sein innerer Gehalt gesetzt: Ich bin gesetzt weil ich mich gesetzt habe. Ich bin, weil ich bin. (Ibid. 199; Fichte’s emphases)

As we have seen, the French people in revolt reminded Fichte of the autonomous subject, the rational and moral actor of the Critique of Practical Reason, of the “law of freedom” that he valued so highly he set out to make it the foundation of the entire system of science. Carlyle, however, describes a transcendental, chaotic “nature” which precedes good and evil, yet is nevertheless still a “Nation,” i.e. a subject that asserts its freedom in the violent destruction of all external form and “regulated modelled shapes” (Carlyle 1902: 675; his italics). “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction,” Hegel writes in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In the Phenomenology—published in 1807—the terror of absolute freedom would be theorized as a stage of a dialectic process, but for the twenty-year-old Schelling, in a 1795 letter to his friend Hegel, the disruption of all objective form is a program, the program of the new philosophy (and I will only point out the resemblance to Rimbaud’s Lettre du Voyant in passing):

Mir ist das höchste Princip aller Philosophie das reine, absolute Ich, inwiefern es bloßes Ich, noch gar nicht durch Objekte bedingt, sondern durch Freiheit gesetzt ist. … [F]ür Gott aber d.h. für das absolute Ich gibt es gar kein Objekt, denn dadurch hörte es auf, absolut zu sein.—Mithin giebt es keinen persönlichen Gott, und unser höchstes Bestreben ist die Zerstörung unsrer Persönlichkeit, Uebergang in die absolute Sphäre des Seins (Schelling, Werke 2: 23-4; Schelling’s emphases)

No doubt, transcendental philosophy takes a mystical turn here, a turn to the Absolute, which is also, in a certain sense, a return to Plato. “Heiliger Plato vergib! man hat schwer an dir gesündigt!” (Hölderlin, Hyperion) But this Plato turns out to have been unconsciously Kantian, even Fichtean. About Plato’s principle distinction between the true world of Forms and the mutable world of resemblances, Schelling, in his little Timaeus study of 1794, writes:

[A]uf diesen Satz wäre keine Philosophie gekommen, wenn er nicht seinen philosophischen Grund in uns selbst hätte. Insofern nämlich die ganze Natur, so wie sie uns erscheint, nicht nur ein Produkt unsrer empirischen Receptivität, sondern eigentlich ein Werk unsres Vorstellungsvermögens ist, insofern es reine, ursprüngliche in sich selbst gegründete Formen (der Natur) enthält, insofern gehört die Welt in der Vorstellung 1m. höheren Vermögen, als der bloßen Sinnlichkeit an, u. die Natur wird als Typus einer höhern Welt dargestellt, welcher die reine Geseze dieser Welt ausdrükt. (Schelling 1994: 31; his emphases)

Where does this leaves the chora, the formless receptacle of all forms? Schelling has a lot to say about Plato’s proto-matter in this text, but his reading is more interpretative than creative, and he apparently follows the ancient philosopher (and Descartes) in maintaining a basic dualism of form and matter. Yet the engagement with a philosophical concept of matter—of which Fichte, for instance, has little to say—is revealing.

Fichte distinguishes the absolute “I” from both nature and consciousness. The absolute “I” is the transcendental source of both object and subject, as its self-positing has the consequence of positing an objective not-I over against itself through a move of reflective abstraction: the form of the “I = I” becomes the content of the form of consciousness, which is the form of form, so to speak, the knowledge of knowledge: “Diese Handlungsart überhaupt, soll . . . durch eine reflektierende Abstraktion von allem, was nicht sie ist, abgesondert werden. Diese Abstraktion geschieht durch Freiheit” (Fichte 203; his emphasis). Fichte’s knowing subject remains as split as Kant’s—the proper formula for self-consciousness is “I = not-I,” the self qua object of representation—but has its origin in the Absolute. This is elementary dialectics, yet it obviously privileges the subjective. In other words, the absolute “I” is the common consciousness become transcendental. The fact of consciousness is explained by a more original consciousness or, rather, an unconscious act, which cannot be represented. Yet Fichte maintains: “In der Wissenschaftslehre wird das Ich vorgestellt” (Fichte 211), which refers to the process of reflection; the Wissenschaftlehre shows how the absolute “I” unfolds as an knowing subject over against a knowable world, it explains consciousness. But it obviously cannot represent the absolute “I”—as the ground of the subject/object structure of representation—as anything in space and time, which means that the “I = I” itself can only be “represented” by an intellectual intuition, i.e. the presentation of an Idea—here the positing of an absolute “I,” unrestricted by empirical conditions. But as Hölderlin has remarked: “How can I say: ‘I’! without self-consciousness?” (Hölderlin 1988: 38), that is to say, without having been always already determined and determining, a receptive and a spontaneous “I”? Fichte seems to presuppose what he set out to account for: the subject.

In Schelling’s mature philosophy, however, the Absolute is neither subjective nor objective or—what is the same thing—it is the point of the identity of both. In his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, Schelling had already pointed out that the objective absolute—the dissolution of the self in objective substance, which he associates with Spinoza—and the subjective absolute—the dissolution of the world in a Fichtean “I” that posits itself—are complementary rather than contradictory. Mind and nature come to be seen as “potentialities” (Potenzen), the finite forms of the same Absolute; nature is “visible spirit,” spirit is “invisible nature” (quoted by Sallis 1999: 81). The consequence is that “[i]m Absoluten als solchen, und demnach auch im Prinzip der Philosophie, ist eben deswegen, weil es alle potenzen begreift, keine Potenz” (Schelling 1982: 149; his emphases). The Schellingian Absolute, then, is the dissolution of form, whether we understand the latter as objective (“real”) form or subjective (“ideal”) form or, in Plato’s terminology: the Absolute is a monstrous mother that swallows up the father (the Form) and the child (the formed body). The Absolute is absolute Form—more formal than the Idea—but therefore also absolutely formless:

Das innere Wesen des Absoluten, worin alles als eins und eins als alles liegt, ist das ursprüngliche Chaos selbst; aber eben auch hier begegnen wir jener Identität der absoluten Form mit der Formlosigkeit; denn jenes Chaos im Absoluten ist nicht bloße Negation der Form, sondern Formlosigkeit in der höchsten und absoluten Form, sowie umgekehrt höchste und absolute Form in der Formlosigkeit: absolute Form, weil in jede Form alle und in alle jede gebildet ist, Formlosigkeit, weil eben in dieser Einheit aller Formen keine als besondere unterschieden wird. (Ibid. 256)

The critical age is best understood as the age of chaos—an idealist and an idealistic age no doubt, but also an age of a strange transcendental materialism. Whereas Kant’s critique was directed against dogmatically postulated absolutes—he proved that the form of knowlege is the ideal construction of the knower rather than an intrinsic property of the object, and that the subject cannot know beyond these self-imposed limits—, Schelling claims that knower and known are moments of the same unknowable Absolute, which is the ultimate transcendental ground. “Sich nach den Dingen oder die Dinge nach sich richten—ist eins” (Novalis, fragment 2201; his emphases). Insofar as the Absolute is neither objective nor transcendent, it is “inside of us,” but insofar as it is nothing subjective, it is also alien, and can only be thought of as an abyss or night. “Die Nacht ward der Offenbarung mächtiger Schoß—in ihn kehrten die Götter zurück,” Novalis writes in the prose version of Hymns to the Night. Kant had laboured to secure a legitimate territory of cognition, an island of truth,

surrounded by a broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion, where many a fog bank and rapidly melting iceberg pretend to be new lands and, ceaselessly deceiving with empty hopes the voyager looking around for new discoveries, entwine him in adventures from which he can never escape and yet also never bring to an end (Critique of Pure Reason, B 295)

In romantic thought, the voyager is emancipated. There is a sense of a return to dogmatism, to “Spinozism” as it was called in those days, but Schelling in the Letters reads Spinoza with Kant. What results is certainly not the reinstatement of dogmatic reason making transcendent claims, but rather a view of man fallen from an Absolute that he remains a part of, precisely because it is not transcendent. The romantic has a metonymical relation to the Absolute, as a river has to the ocean: “Did you know what you were looking for? I know it not yet, but I surmise it as from afar, the new kingdom of the new divinity, and I hasten toward it and seize upon others and take them with me, as the rivers to the ocean” (Hölderlin 1990: 42). The Absolute—because it cannot be known theoretically—must be approached practically, aesthetically, amorously . . .  Love, Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen tells Mathilde, is “ein geheimnisvolles Zusammenfließen unsers geheimsten und eigentümlichsten Daseins,” and as such it is also related to the Absolute:

Die Lieb’ ist frei gegeben,
Und keine Trennung mehr.
Es wogt das volle Leben
Wie ein unendlich Meer.
(Hymns to the Night)

This is the sense in which the whole world is in love: things with other things, thoughts with other thoughts, and things and thoughts with each other, although of course absolute communion—the ultimate homecoming to what we were separated from by birth and consciousness—would coincide with death qua “eine höhere Offenbarung des Lebens.” For Novalis the receptive and spontaneous faculties are modifications of the same Absolute. Consequently he can say, in Heinrich von Ofterdingen, that the mouth is “merely a moving and answering ear” and, in one of his many fragments, that the musician hears actively: “Er hört heraus.” Similarly, the objects of our thinking think back: “Alles, was man denken kann, denkt selbst—ist ein Denkproblem—Geheimnis—wirft dir Gedanken zurück” (frag. 2276; his emphases). Thinker and thought share in the Absolute, which is conceived as something like their zone of indistinguishability.

The celebration of night and chaos, of the undulating sea of the Absolute, and even of death, seems a singularly romantico-modern theme. It is not found with the same intensity in classicist works, not even in the texts of the Weimar classicism of Goethe and Schiller, so “romantic” compared to Enlightenment classicisms. Thus Schiller writes in his “Prolog” to Wallensteins Lager:

Zerfallen sehen wir in diesen Tagen
Die alte feste Form, die einst vor hundert
Und funfzig Jahren ein willkommner Friede
Europens Reichen gab
(Schiller 1984: 13)

What is meant by the “old steady form” is the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the signing of which marked the end of the Thirty Years War—during which the play is set—and the inception of the modern European nation state system. This Westphalian system, this form of peace is threatened by recent events: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. Form, however, is always a form of peace; its chief function is to pacify. Schiller’s “Lied von der Glocke” describes how a bell is made, a process which is not a little reminiscent of the creation myth of the Timaeus. Glowing, formless ore is poured into a mold, which should not be broken too early and certainly not from within. Only a demiurgic master craftsman can make the coat crack:

Der Meister kann die Form zerbrechen
Mit weiser Hand, zur rechten Zeit,
Doch wehe, wenn in Flammenbächen
Das glühende Erz sich selbst befreit!

The schema of transcendent Form impressed on formless matter is clear enough and—what is truly revealing—the cracked form uncovers not so much a content as a more perfect form, more perfect because it has pacified or integrated red-hot, rebel matter. The political allegory, of course, is also obvious:

Wo rohe Kräfte sinnlos walten,
Da kann sich kein Gebild gestalten,
Wenn sich die Völker selbst befrein,
Da kann die Wohlfahrt nicht gedeihn.

Bildung, therefore, or the education of mankind, is literally a matter of formation. We know that Schiller opposes a sensuous drive (Stofftrieb) to a formal drive (Formtrieb)—his version of the Kantian receptive and spontaneous subject respectively, with the latter sometimes coinciding with the moral subject—mediated by his infamous play drive (Spieltrieb)—analogous to the disinterested, reflective play of forms that Kant describes in the analytic of the beautiful in the Critique of Judgement:

Where both these aptitudes [the sensuous and formal drives] are conjoined, man will combine the greatest fullness of existence with the highest autonomy and freedom, and instead of losing himself to the world, will rather draw the latter into himself in all its infinitude of phenomena, and subject it to the unity of reason. (Schiller 1995: 122-3)

The world, in the final analysis, is subjected to reason, the real to the ideal, matter to form, and the play drive clearly does more than playing; it actually works in the service of form:

In a really beautiful work of art, the substance ought to be inoperative, the form should do everything; for by the form, the whole man is acted on; the substance acts on nothing but isolated forces. Thus, however vast and sublime it may be, the substance always exercises a restrictive action on the mind, and true aesthetic liberty can only be expected from the form. Consequently the true search of the master consists in destroying matter by the form . . . The mind of the spectator and of the hearer must remain perfectly free and intact; it must issue pure and entire from the magic circle of the artist, as from the hands of the Creator. (Schiller’s emphasis)

In Schiller’s sensual Kantianism, then, art and culture are certainly free to play, but only to play with forms, and in the name of a higher Form. Classicism is a didacticism, and this is true for Pope as much as for Schiller; indeed, even for Brecht. At the end of the “Prolog,” Schiller explains the use of rhyme in the ensuing play as a kind of Verfremdungseffect:

Und wenn die Muse heut,
Des Tanzes freie Göttin und Gesangs,
Ihr altes deutsches Recht, des Reimes Spiel,
Bescheiden wieder fordert—tadelts nicht!
Ja danket ihrs, daß sie das düstre Bild
Der Wahrheit in das heitre Reich der Kunst
Hinüberspielt, die Täuschung, die sie schafft
Aufrichtig selbst zerstört und ihren Schein
Der Wahrheit nicht betrüglich unterschriebt,
Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst.
(Schiller 1984: 15; my italics)

Aesthetic artificiality or “self-consciousness”—and rhyme is seen by many contemporaries as a typical trait of what Schiller would call modern sentimental poetry, as opposed to the naive, “unconscious” poetry of the pagan age—subverts its own illusion in order not to betray the image of truth, i.e. the seriousness of “Life.”

Schiller’s lament with regard to the loss of the “alte feste Form” is practically identical with a comment from Novalis’ fragments: “Wir sind aus der Zeit der allgemein geltenden Formen heraus” (frag. 2167). Yet Novalis’ evaluation of the situation is radically different. On the one hand, Novalis—perhaps more than anyone, even more than Schiller— is the archetypally idealist poet, exalting freedom as “der schaffende Grund alles Daseins.” This freedom, one of the protagonist’s teachers in Heinrich von Ofterdingen maintains, “ist Meisterschaft. Die Meister übt freie Gewalt nach Absicht und in bestimmter und überdachter Folge aus.” On the other hand, the poet—which is to say, man—does not “submit man to form,” as Schiller defines an important tasks of culture: “Wenn der Philosoph nur alles ordnet, alles stellt, so löst der Dichter alle Bande auf” (Neuen Fragmenten, Nr. 87). Markedly different from Schiller’s transcendently forced pacification, another of Heinrich’s teachers declares that, “[i]m Kriege . . . regt sich das Urgewässer. Neue Weltteile sollen entstehen, neue Geschlechter sollen aus der großen Auflösung anschießen.” Politically, this is not more or less “proto-totalitarian” than Schiller’s scenario; the difference is between formal and formless violence, between a transcendent violence and a transcendental violence that risks turning into the destructive movement of pure nihilism. Poetically, this does not mean that Novalis’ poet does not set any limits. Every individual—including every individual poem—is obviously not absolute and therefore limited: “So gibt es auch für die ganze Summe menschlicher Kräfte eine bestimmte Grenze der Darstellbarkeit, über welche hinaus die Darstellung die nötige Dichtigkeit und Gestaltung nicht behalten kann, und in ein leeres täuschendes Unding sich verliert.” Yet limits are respected so that the unlimited can be presented negatively: “das Chaos muß in ieder Dichtung durch den regelmäßigen Flor der Ordnung schimmern.” Chaos is a goal of construction, not its starting point. The materials the poet works with are not at all formless; they are rather established forms and formulas, the prosaic forms of everyday language, that are poeticized: “Die gemeine Sprache wächst unaufhörlich—aus ihr wird die Büchersprache gebildet” (frag. 1271; Novalis’ emphases). Bildung entails a passage through the Absolute, a communion with the night, with a chaos which is not at all the mere privation of form: “Die künftige Welt ist das vernünftige Chaos—das Chaos, das sich selbst durchdrang—in sich selbst und außer sich ist—Chaos² oder 4” (Novalis’ emphasis). Life, finally, is indeed a serious business for Novalis, but it is certainly not the life that Schiller has in mind when he opposes to it the lightness of art: it is neither the object of the sensuous drive, nor the “living form” of the play drive, nor even the moral life, the good life of the moral self. Novalis’ self is portrayed as a tyrannical creator, but artistic creation is not formation of formless matter; it is, rather, an attempt at reaching out to a more profound life defined positively as a leap beyond the dead strata of form: “Der Akt des sich selbst Überspringens ist überall der höchste—der Urpunkt—die Genesis des Lebens” (frag. 2282; Novalis’ emphasis). It is in pronouncements like these—and admittedly one can find many more classical or classicist ideas in the fragments—that Novalis is truly modern, as Schiller is most definitely not, and foreshadows the thinking of authors such as Nietzsche and Baudelaire.

Hugo Friedrich indeed acknowledges Novalis as a forerunner of what he sees as poetic modernity as such, yet he locates the onset of the latter in the Paris of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Verlaine. There is a lot to say for this decision, but in the final analysis it seems largely based on empirico-historical rather than poetical considerations. “Modernes Dichten ist entromantisierte Romantik,” Friedrich admits (Friedrich 1977: 30), and even that is only true to a certain thematic and ideological extent. Obviously, Baudelaire’s Paris is not Wordsworth’s London. But above all, the birthplace of poetic modernity is better situated around 1800 because at that point a critical distinction—critical in every sense of the word—is explicitly made for the first time: the distinction between poetry and poems. It may seem tautological to solve a critical problem concerning literary history by reference to an event in the history of literary criticism. The reader will have to bear with me; the move will turn out to be necessary, although it will not necessarily be a “solution.” First, however, I must expound on the distinction between poetry and poems, on poetic difference.

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