Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Romantic Novelist? (David W. Wood)

(A few months ago I promised that Self and World would host some Guest Bloggers. Well, we have our first installment from guest blogger David W. Wood. David recently published with SUNY a translation of Novalis writings, Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon. He is currently writing an article on Fichte, Novalis and the arts for Fichte-Studien.)

It is no secret that the philosophy of J.G. Fichte made an enormous impact on the young romantics. According to Novalis’s own admission, he heavily fell under Fichte’s spell: “Fichte is the most dangerous thinker I know. He powerfully enchants one into his circle.” Novalis was not alone: The early Schelling ended up becoming the “town crier of the Fichtean I”, Hölderlin hitch-hiked to the university in 1794 to sit at the feet of the man who was “the soul of Jena”
, while Friedrich Schlegel famously placed the Wissenschaftslehre alongside the French Revolution and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister “as one of the three greatest tendencies of the age,” wildly praising Fichte himself “as a philosopher for whom Hamlet would have sighed in vain!” Schlegel and Novalis then carried out a sym-philosophical analysis of the Wissenschaftslehre – a joint study for which they coined the neologism “Fichticizing”.

However, could Fichte himself – the mentor of the Romantic School – ever be classified as a romantic? If explosive documents in the Gesamtausgabe (GA) of Fichte’s works are to be believed, the tentative answer is ‘yes’, and a romantic novelist at that. Frequently derided as the philosophical equivalent of a street-fighter, it now seems there was a much more feminine and ‘romantic’ side to Fichte. For like Hölderlin with Hyperion and Hardenberg (Novalis) with Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Fichte too tried his hand at writing a poetic-philosophic novel. Was Fichte then inspired by the literary efforts of these young romantics? The short answer is ‘no’, since Fichte the budding screenwriter came years before Fichte the philosopher of the Ich.

In 1788 in Zurich, while the three Friedrichs – Schlegel, Hölderlin and Hardenberg – were still fawning over the local Fräuleins and spurning the charms of Diotima, Johann Gottlieb was all pensive and Werther-like, busily composing for posterity a long meditation on love. It was only published 60 years later in 1846, by his son Immanuel Hermann; that is to say, more than 30 years after Fichte’s death, so chronologically we have to rule out any direct novelistic influence of the young romantics on Fichte.

But why has his literary gem been forgotten? – For in all fairness to the great philosopher from Rammenau, he easily holds his own with Goethe and almost out-romantics the romantics. Is not even the title of his piece: Das Thal der Liebenden – “The Valley of the Lovers” – a model of romantic irony? And the question now giving sleepless nights to the leading Fichte scholars: – is it possible to detect in Fichte’s unfinished novella from 1788 a prefiguring of the “A = A” of the Jena Wissenschaftslehre of 1794/95? Or perhaps, of the nova methodo of the Wissenschaftslehre of 1798/99; or dare we say it, of the Königsberg Wissenschaftslehre of 1807, surely conceived under the Schwärmerei of the recently departed Kant?

Finally, the novella once and for all puts paid to the horrible rumour of Fichte’s inelegant writing style (apparently started by a jealous Schiller), and to the stereotype of a Fichte wanting to create the world from out of his own I (apparently started by the dastardly Hegel) – he obviously wanted to create it through the might of his own pen. In any event, we leave it for sober readers to judge for themselves. Rescuing the tale from undeserved oblivion, we are delighted to provide a first English translation of the beginning of Fichte’s The Valley of the Lovers:
In the most charming region of Veltelin, a stone’s throw from the frontier to Italy, lies a tiny valley – called ‘the valley of the lovers’. Its groves are crammed with berries, oranges and lemons, all of which flourish without being tended, infusing summer and winter with the most exquisite smells. A tiny myrtle forest is nestled in its centre, and within this tiny myrtle forest lies a large grave-mound, encircled by roses permanently in bloom. Over-arched by towering wooded mountains and fenced in by crags, a mortal eye seldom catches sight of it, and the erring foot of a hiker rarely wanders here. All but a handful have penetrated this far. They experienced something like a spiritual breath – the kisses of an angel, wafting against their cheeks; a tender longing filled their souls; and unbeknown, tears streamed from their eyes – it was altogether delicious for them! Images of departed friends or loved ones passed before their souls, and they were overcome with inklings of reunion, with premonitions of eternal life, as they glimpsed the five small flames on the grave-mound in the tiny myrtle forest, symbols of reunited faithfulness after death. ….

Shepherds relate how centuries earlier a young knight had strayed into these parts. Lost at night in the dense thickets, exhausted and famished, he spied afar a fire through the scrub. It belonged to some shepherds guarding their flock. The shepherds willingly shared their meagre meal with him as he warmed himself by the fire. “It’s howling again in those bushes”, said one, as he suddenly approached the group. “The ghost of the poor hermit is whimpering and wailing again! God knows, how my skin crawls whenever I pass by there.” And another replied, “Me too, I’d much prefer to make the one-hour detour. And yet, he was such a good and pious man, the hermit… (GA II/1: 267ff.)
With its cognitive rigor and unmistakable political subtext, we are mystified as to why German scholars have drawn parallels with Lucinde – Friedrich Schlegel’s outrage aux bonnes moeurs. In conclusion, we also recall Novalis’s nocturnal wanderings to Sophie’s grave – and his cry of anguish on failing to find “the idea of infinite love” in Fichte. Star-crossed conjunctions indeed for the Romantic School and the whole course of German literature – if only Fichte had mustered enough philosophical courage to finish and publish The Valley of the Lovers!

(In a subsequent instalment of Fichte and the Romantics we will consider Fichte’s own romantic poetry. Yes, Fichte’s poetry).

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