Novalis and the Romantic View of the World
From the Romantics to modern science
Here’s an excerpt from Novalis, a German Romantic philosopher and writer of the late 18th century (translation © 2008 by Douglas Robertson, found here):
This is a long and demanding read. But it is easy to see how its view of the world of the German Romantic movement 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?
There seem to be crucial differences.
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 German 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 German 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.
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 basic premise of this Romantic view of the world has influenced German literature up until the mid-20th century, for example in the works of Hermann Hesse. His Glass Bead Game (discussed here) is a direct descendant of Novalis' collection of shells and clouds. And perhaps there’s a direct line from here to some of the early Romantic attitudes towards quantum physics, for example in Albert Einstein’s view that “God does not play dice,” or the romanticised view of quantum physics depicted in Aldous Huxley’s “The Genius and the Goddess.” We will look at these works in a later post.
Perhaps in today’s world, where again nature is retreating and being destroyed by the reckless advance of capitalist technology, something analogous to the German Romantic movement might provide, at least, solace; at best, a way out of the problems we face today. Respect for the phenomena and the magic of the natural world is perhaps just what we need right now in order to survive as a species.
Novelis has never been more timely.
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