“Romanticism is still alive”. An Interview with Rüdiger Safranski
Mr Safranski, you distinguish between romanticism as an epoch and romanticism as a state of mind. In what does romanticism consist?
Romanticism is in essence pleasure in the creative power of the imagination. And a transcendence of reality in the direction of the fantastic.
In your book Romantik. Eine deutsche Affäre (i.e., Romanticism. A German Affair) you show how romanticism continued to have an effect on the student movement of 1968. Where do you see the influences of romanticism today?
Romanticism doesn’t exercise its influence as literary scholars might want it to. It’s not the circumscribed era of romantic literature that is somehow imitated, but rather that the active ingredient of romanticism is still alive – most notably in popular literature and the trivial tales of movies and television. They thoroughly exploit old romantic themes. Take for example the movie Avatar: What is that other than a romantic fantasy?
Content oneself with platitudes?
Is it really “romanticising“ that lies behind this, that is, as Novalis said, the desire to give to “the common a higher meaning”? Or is it rather an escapism into fantastic illusory worlds?
Mass culture too is ultimately about an imaginative participation in something more than is available in everyday life. I wouldn’t denounce that as escapism. It’s a question of taste how many platitudes one is willing to content oneself with.
But we also find romanticism in challenging literature: I would say that, when literature has an element of real poetry in it, then it’s more than mere realism or naturalism and has a share in romanticism.
Too vain and sensuous for Wikipedia
Friedrich Schlegel called for “symphilosophising” and “sympoetry”, for “collaborative works” by “complementary natures”. Would Schlegel today have written for the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia?
Probably not, because he was too vain. But it’s quite true that Wikipedia has aspects of “symphilosophising” and “sympoetry” because networked community was a part of the idea.
But Schlegel in his day enjoyed personal relationships that had shades almost of homoeroticism. It was the desire to bring something into the world with others whom you could see and touch. That’s not really possible in the anonymity of the Net.
“Subjectivity was richer then“
Part of the optimism of the early Romantics was a veritable self-euphoria, the belief in the omnipotence of the ego. How ego-intoxicated are we today?
Our sort of individualism is a legacy of the romantic discovery of subjectivity – whether we like it or not. Still, I look back on the romanticism of around 1800 with an almost elegiac feeling. Subjectivity then was simply richer than it seems to be today, including my own. We have a high level of individualisation, but the individual has become boring.
A sobering conclusion!
Yes, perhaps there’s not much in it.
So still ego-intoxicated, but not so high an alcohol content as back then?
I’d say plonk rather than the good stuff.
Should politics be poetic?
You say it is ominous when romanticism enters politics. Why?
When romantic irony drops out, when the awareness of the imaginative character of romanticism disappears and people attempt to translate romanticism one-to-one into political reality, then it becomes really lethal.
To put it simply, the political world depends on the reality principle. Romanticism, on the other hand, relies on the principle of imagination. If one isn’t aware of the poetic character of one’s visions, there can be collisions. In the worst case, it can add up to an ideological rape of reality.
This ranges from the dream of communism to the fantasies of the Nazis. The danger of political romanticism is the transition into the ideological in general.
Literature as a love affair
The suggestive subtitle of your book is “A German Affair”. Is literary romanticism for the Germans a wild love affair or rather a scandalous incident?
That can be answered only by each of us for himself. For me, it’s rather a wild love affair. I’m also of the opinion that one shouldn’t repudiate the creative power of romanticism because of romantic affairs in the bad, that is, in the political, sense.
What is specifically German about this affair?
It’s a matter of fact that German culture as a whole has had a special relationship, an affair, with romanticism. This isn’t to say that romanticism wasn’t important for the rest of Europe, but in Germany it exercised an especially strong influence.
I always notice that abroad romanticism is seen as a special feature of German culture. And in a very broad sense of the word: it comprises not only Nietzsche and Wagner, but also Goethe.
“Romanticism at its best”
What is your favourite work of romanticism?
Hard to say, because I love a great many. But off the cuff I’d say E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla or The Golden Pot. That’s romanticism at its best. Because, by the way, these are works that have romantic irony. Romanticism is most beautiful when it sticks its head into the clouds but keeps its feet on the ground!
Rüdiger Safranski: E.T.A. Hoffmann. Das Leben eines skeptischen Phantasten, Hanser-Verlag, München, 1984, 544 pages. 24,90 euros. ISBN 978-3-446-13822-3
conducted the interview. The author is a freelance journalist who works for, among others, West German Broadcasting (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, WDR) in Cologne.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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