Novalis and the romantic view of the world

Here’s an excerpt from Novalis (1772-1801), a German philosopher and writer of the 18th century (translation © 2008 by Douglas Robertson, found here):

“Mankind travels along manifold pathways. He who pursues and compares them will perceive the emergence of certain strange figures; figures that appear to be inscribed in that massive tome composed in cipher that one everywhere and in everything beholds: on wings, eggshells, in clouds, in the snow, in crystalline and stone formations, in freezing waters, on the skins and in the bowels of mountain-ranges, of plants, beasts, people, in the stars of the heavens, in contiguous and expansive panes of pitch and glass, in the clustering of iron filings around the magnet (…) In these one may glimpse an intimation of the key to this wondrous text, its very grammar-book (…) He [our teacher] would behold the stars and plot their courses and positions in the sand. He would gaze into the celestial sea, never tiring of contemplating its movements, its clouds, its lights. He would collect rocks, flowers, beetles of all species, and array them in manifold sequences and combinations. He would keep a keen eye on both men and beasts and sit on the seashore searching for shellfish. He would eavesdrop attentively on his own thoughts and emotions.”

This is a long and demanding read. But it is easy to see how its view of the world differs from what we, today, call science: wings, egg-shells, clouds, snow, stone formations, freezing waters, skin and bowels of plants, beasts and people: these are all just a code, a cipher, and if one knows how to see, he will be able to understand the ‘wondrous text,’ its ‘grammar-book’. He will be able to read nature, to understand her language, as easily as one reads a book.

One could perhaps argue that this precisely is what science does. Do physics and chemistry not give us a language, the language of atoms, the grammar of molecules, with which we can describe wings, egg-shells and clouds all at once? Does physics not give us the formulas that describe the forces that act on wings, on egg-shells and on clouds alike, and that make them move and behave as they do?

I don’t think so. First, notice that the things described never lose their individuality. Open a chemistry book, and you will not find any wings and egg-shells and rocks in it. After the phenomena have been reduced to their component substances, science is happy to let them vanish. Not so the Romantic. If he wants to understand an egg-shell as a part of the bigger plan of nature, he cannot allow its character as an egg-shell to be lost. An egg-shell, reduced to its calcium compounds, is not an egg-shell anymore, but a spoonful of calcium compounds. The Romantic’s point about the egg-shell is that the phenomenon cannot be reduced to some aspect of it. An egg-shell is easy to break, thin, light, a vessel for the life growing inside, and has an almost infinite multitude of other properties that distinguish it from other things that are composed of calcium. The same is true of everything else: a wing is not only a handful of feathers. A cloud is not only a collection of water droplets.

So the Romantic will see the thing as it appears, in all its complexity and richness. But normally, the complexity of the phenomena is what keeps them apart, what uniquely identifies and separates them from each other. What makes them what they are, and prevents them from being something else. And here is where the Romantic’s belief comes in, the alchemy of romantic transmutation: the belief that, deep inside, all phenomena are connected, that there is a unifying principle to all of creation, and that we, as humans, can perceive it and perhaps even understand its ‘grammar,’ its language, the way it speaks to us through the phenomena. This principle, as opposed to the language of chemistry or physics, does not reduce the phenomena. It does not negate their uniqueness. But it sees this uniqueness as just a unique form of expression of the same basic principle that governs all things.

Language is perhaps not a bad metaphor: We can express the same idea in different languages, and the results will sound superficially different. For someone who does not speak these languages, the utterances will seem distinct, and there will be no similarities between them. But he who does speak these languages will recognise the same content every time, and he will understand that what is said is the same. This is not to negate the difference between the languages. It is not the same as trying to create a new formalism (like, say, predicate logic might do, in order to express a natural language statement in a formal representation that transcends linguistic differences). Chemistry and physics and the other sciences, the Romantic would say, try to remove the particular language by creating just such a representation of propositional content of a sentence in a logical formalism. But the Romantic would see himself more like a poet who speaks all languages. Who understands the content of each sentence, in every language, hears its connotations and allusions, its wit and its intra-cultural references. Who is able to grasp the common meaning of all these sentences, without reducing their linguistic richness to a mere propositional representation. Who is even able to translate between them while preserving the wit and the implicated meanings that are present in the original sentences.

The romantic ideal is that of the poet as a scientist. Because the poet is the only one who speaks the true language of nature, who can show us the world and teach us to see.

Novalis again:

“This gift, moreover, does not confine itself to external beauty, or to strength, or insight, or any other form of human excellence. In all walks of life, within every age and nation, in all climes and epochs, there have been people singled out by nature as her favorites, and blessed by her spiritual conception. Oftentimes these people seemed to be more simple-minded and clumsy than others and throughout their lives were eclipsed by the overwhelming shadow of the multitude. It is in fact remarkably rare to find a genuine comprehension of nature united with great astuteness, eloquence, and courtly manners, for it generally either attends or begets simple words, a straightforward meaning, and a modest bearing. In the workshops of craftsmen and artists; and wherever men stand in a multifold intimacy with nature; as they do in agriculture, in navigation, in cattle-breeding, in bronze-mining, and in many other trades — there the development of this sense most effortlessly and most often seems to take place.”