From Religious to Poetic Revelation—Novalis, Schlegel, Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hamann

Fichte’s thought was taken up with enthusiasm and turned in a poetic direction by Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel. Fichte’s critique of religious revelation or “Offenbarung” leads Novalis to a theory of poetic revelation. The gap between truth and language, or reality and signs, is Novalis’s focus in his Fichte-Studien, composed around 1794-95 in conversation also with his friend, the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Novalis sets out from Fichte’s transcendental critique and its demonstration of the necessary namelessness of the Absolute in order to descry a higher knowing beyond concepts in which language returns to a state of song. This was presumably its original state, according to an ancient idea refurbished by Rousseau in his Essay on the Origin of Languages (Essai sur l’origine des langues, 1781). Novalis asks how our currently de-musicalized language

Fichte’s Absolutization and Overcoming of Reflection 167 can again become song and so reveal truth in its wholeness as an inseparable fusion of thought, communication, and creative production.[1]

Lyrical language envisages whole truth or the Absolute, thereby overcoming the modern forgetting of language, in which it is reduced to a functional sign. In “Monolog,” Novalis describes the perfectly self-reflective, self-referential status of language stripped to its originary core. “The peculiar thing about language—that it is concerned simply with itself—no one knows. That’s why it is such a wonderful and fruitful mystery” (“Gerade das Eigenthümliche der Sprache, daß sie sich blos um sich selbst bekümmert, weiß keiner. Darum ist sie ein so wunderbares und fruchtbares Geheimniß”).

A certain affinity of this vision with Dante and his poetic language as a canto general distilling universal wisdom into lyrical music was sensed by German Romantic thinkers. It is expressed by Friedrich Schlegel, who in his “Conversation on Poetry” (1800), hails “the great Dante, the holy founder and father of modern poetry” (“der große Dante, der heilige Stifter und Vater der modernen Poesie”). This cue was followed up by Schelling in his 1803 essay “On Dante in Relation to Philosophy” (“Über Dante in philosophischer Beziehung”).

For Schelling and a certain Romantic clan, Dante represented an ideal of wholeness before the modern split between politics, religion, and art. Such a culture was longed for, aspired to, and prophetically announced already in “The Oldest Outline of German idealism (“Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus,” 1796). Dante had fostered just such a culture still possessed of its sacred purpose and destiny: “In the holy of holies, where religion and poetry are married, stands Dante as high priest and consecrates all modern art to its calling” (“Im Allerheiligsten, wo Religion und Poesie verbündet, steht Dante als

Hohepriester und weiht die ganze moderne Kunst fur ihre Bestimmung ein”).[2]

We observe in these remarkable refashionings how the religious vision of the Middle Ages undergoes an aesthetic conversion so as to be able to be appropriated by modern individuals on the authority of their own sovereign “I.” In far-reaching ways, and ironically in spite of Dante’s emphasis on the necessary institutional authority of Church and State as Magisterium and Empire, this affirmation of the radical freedom of the individual turns out to belong essentially to his legacy to the modern world. A climactic moment in the Purgatorio, in which Virgil (alias reason) “crowns and mitres” Dante (“io te sovra te corono e rnitrio,” XXVII.142) as free to do his own will, is emblematic and incalculable in its reverberations all through modern history down to us.

However, a turn from idealism toward existentialism based on the specifically Lutheran “I” of radically individual faith (“hier stehe ich”) gives a further, literally “crucial” twist to this story. In the lineage of post-Kantian, Protestant, German thinkers, Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) has the strongest claim to be Dante’s heir in interpreting language as “sibylline leaves” bearing theological revelation. Hamann is Kierkegaard’s forerunner as a religious existentialist inspired by Socrates, using irony and paradox in a self-critical, self-crucifying dissolution of reason as knowing its own unknowing. In Hamann, as in Dante, the apophatic dimension of language, uncovered self-reflectively, becomes its most telling resource as revelation.

  • [1] Cf. Wolfgang Janke,’’Enttönter Gesang—Sprache und Wahrheit in den ‘Fichte-Studien’des Novalis,” in Erneuerung der Transzendentalphilosophie im Anschluß an Kant und Fichte, ed. Klaus Hatnmacher and Albert Mures (Stuttgart: Fromtnann-Holzboog, 1979), 168-203. 2 Novalis, “Monolog,” Das philosophisch-theoretische Werk, vol. 2 of Werke, ed. Hans-Joachim Mahl and Richard H. Samuel (Munich: Wissenschaftliche Buchgeselschaft, 1999), 438-439. 3 Friedrich Schlegel, “Gespräch über die Poesie,” Athenaeum (Berlin, 1800), in Charakteristiken und Kritiken, vol. 1 (1706-1801), 297. 4 Schelling’s essay appeared originally in the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, edited jointly by Hegel and Schelling. It is now available in an edition by Stefan Dietsche (Leipzig: Reclam, 1981), 412-17, and in English translation in Michael Caesar, ed., Dante: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1989), 409-19. 5 G. W. F. Hegel, Frühe Schriften in Werke, ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 234-36. This essay is preserved in the handwriting of the young Hegel but likely reflects the collaboration between him and Schelling and Hölderlin.
  • [2] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Sämmtliche Werke, Part I, vol. 5 (Stuttgart/ Augsburg: Cotta, 1859), 152. 2 Hamann, Sibyllinische Blätter des Magus in Norden, ed. Friedrich Cramer (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1819). John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (London: Wilely Blackwell, 2009) and W. M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966) effectively highlight this aspect of Hamann’s thought. 3 Walter Lowrie, Johann Georg Hamann: An Existentialist (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016 [1950]). Hamann’s fear in face of his own existentialist breakthroughs is documented by Wilhelm Koepp, “Hammans Absage an den Existentialismus (‘Fliegenden Brief’ erster Fassung), nebst Anbahnung einer Gesamtsicht,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Universität Rostock 5 (1955/56): 109-16.
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