Just after the revolutionary work he recounted in Awakenings, Oliver Sacks wrote in a note to the music therapist at Beth Abraham Hospital: “Every disease is a music problem; every cure is a musical solution.” He was quoting Novalis — the young German poet and philosopher who, while working in a salt mine and studying mathematics, geology, physics, and biology, was composing tortured and transcendent poems inspired by the death of his teenage beloved.

Novalis is one of the characters who animate Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (public library) — the story of a circle friends and lovers in late-eighteenth-century Germany who refined their ideas in ricochet — ideas that shaped our present understanding of art and nature, mind and reality, the world and ourselves as function and functionary of it.

After the formidable Germaine de Staël popularized their ideas outside Germany, the tendrils of their influence went on to touch Coleridge and Emerson, Whitman and Joyce, sinking into the very soul of the modern world and its self-regard.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having previously written about Alexander von Humboldt and the “invention” of nature — in the sense of the birth of its modern conception — Wulf now chronicles the “invention” of the modern self, the Ich, in the intellectual kiln of the same time and place, revealing the two to be inseparably related, reminding us that we can’t understand nature if we don’t understand ourselves or care for one without caring for the other.

She calls them the Jena set, after the town in Duchy of Saxe-Weimar where they constellated their portable universe of radicalism, and writes:

They were rebellious and felt invincible. Their lives became the playground of this new philosophy. And the story of their tiptoeing between the power of free will and the danger of becoming self-absorbed is significant on a universal level. The Ich, for better or worse, has remained centre stage ever since. The French revolutionaries changed the political landscape of Europe, but the Jena Set incited a revolution of the mind. The liberation of the Ich from the straitjacket of a divinely organised universe is the foundation of our thinking today. It gave us the most exciting of all powers: free will.

Against the grain of their time, they exercised their free will in open marriages and long-term monogamies without marriage. With names that sounded alike and intellectual passions that fired alike, they became a kind of hive mind fixated on celebrating the self and set out to “symphilosophize” — a term they invented for the intellectual symbiosis and symphonic creative collaboration at the heart of their life. Wulf writes:

Taken together, the knowledge available in the minds of those who lived in Jena was like a great living encyclopaedia covering a vast range of subjects from antiquity to comparative anatomy, from electricity to Spanish literature, from philosophy to poetry, from history to botany.

Among them, of course, were Goethe and Schiller, whose intergenerational friendship was the intellectual and creative anchor of both of their lives. Humboldt flits in and out of the scene, with his experiments in galvanism and his passionate devotion to the web of life. But there are also central characters now nearly forgotten — the influential brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel, who believed that they were “all part of the same family of magnificent outlaws” and stood against Rousseau in their conviction that both boys and girls deserved a rigorous education; the young Friedrich Schelling, who at age eleven had informed his teachers that they had nothing else to teach him and had become the youngest professor appointed at the University of Jena at twenty-three, who “radiated infinity,” and who believed that “mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind” and told his students:

As long as I myself am identical with nature, I understand what living nature is as well as I understand myself.

Goethe’s color wheel from his theory of color and emotion. (Available as a print.)

There was Novalis, who “regarded the ordinary with wonder” and “slept little and worked hard” — at his poetry and in the salt mines — and believed that we and the world are an integrated system, each indispensable to the other, so that our task is to “catch sight of ourselves as an element in the system.” Wulf writes:

His notebooks are filled with more than a thousand sections which analyse, synthesise and connect everything from music to physics, poetry to chemistry and philosophy to mathematics. And he did so with a fluidity and lightness that reveals a mind wide open to everything. Novalis began to assemble his ideas and material under conventional headings, such as archaeology, religion, nature, politics, medicine, and so on, but also under more unusual groupings, such as “theory of the future,” “musical physics,” “poetical physiology” and “theory of excitation.”

It was Novalis who offered the closest thing they had to a founding credo of Romanticism:

By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.

But by far the most colorful character is Caroline Schlegel, who was to the German Romantics what Margaret Fuller was to the American Transcendentalists. Vivacious, opinionated, educated far beyond the gendered limits of her time, Caroline spent time in prison for her revolutionary leanings, had a baby by a young Napoleonic soldier after a fiery one-night stand, and was animated by what she called “a firm, almost instinctive need for independence.” She besotted both Schlegel brothers, married one in what was at base an amicable friendship, and took the young Schelling as a lover, becoming the great love and muse of his life. The slight squint of her blue eyes cast the spell binding everyone into the “magic circle” of the group. “We have to build a poetic world out of ourselves,” Novalis told her as he declared her the beating heart of that world.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting the New York public library system.)

They all believed in the power of language. “You have not just to carry out revolutions,” Friedrich Schlegel wrote, “you have to speak them too.” No one spoke them more revolutionarily than the young Schelling, whose lectures enchanted a generation of thinkers with a whole new way of seeing the world — his students called it his “poetry of the universe.” Wulf writes:

For millennia, thinkers had turned to their gods to understand their place and purpose in the unknowable divine plan. Then, in the late seventeenth century, a scientific revolution began to illuminate the world. Scientists had peered through microscopes into the minutiae of life or lifted new telescopes to the skies to discover Earth’s place in the universe. They had dissected human hearts to learn how the body functioned and classified plants, animals and minerals in neat categories to impose order on the world in which they lived. They had calculated the distance between the Sun and Earth, described how blood circulated through the body, and sailed to Australia, a “new” continent some ten thousand miles away on the other side of the world. They had discovered oxygen and used mathematics to define the laws of planetary motion and gravity.

The Enlightenment had truly enlightened. But this new rational approach had also created a certain distancing from nature and excluded the roles of feeling and beauty. Nature had become something that was investigated from a so-called objective perspective. Light, for example, was no longer appreciated for its kaleidoscopic play of iridescent colours, Novalis said, but for its refraction and “mathematical obedience”: hence its elevation to the term “Enlightenment” itself. This was why Schelling’s students fell for their young professor. He reunited what the scientific revolution had separated: nature and humankind. No matter how much scientists observed, calculated and experimented, there was something emotional, something visceral and perhaps inexplicable about humanity’s connection to nature. However we feel it, nature can soothe, heal or simply fill us with joy. Schelling gave us the philosophical explanation.

And by doing so, his philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism.

Art by Charlie Mackesy from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

In consonance with William Blake’s lifelong devotion to turning art into a lens on the universe, the Jena set understood that because we are part of nature, the products of our creative imagination are how nature examines itself, comprehends itself, and coheres. Wulf considers how Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism “became the philosophical underpinning of Romanticism”:

An artwork — a painting, a sculpture, a poem — was therefore the expression of the union between the self and nature. Whatever an artist produced was created by nature through him or her. Nature — the unconscious product of the self — and the conscious self came together in the artistic creation. Art was therefore essential in order to make sense of the world, Schelling declared. Neither rational thought nor the most accurate scientific instruments held the key to understanding the world. Art was the finite or concrete representation of the infinite. Art opened “the holiest of holies,” Schelling wrote. It was the revelation of the universe through the creative production of an artist.

These were ideas the entire Jena set shared. Friedrich Schlegel proclaimed that “all art should become science and all science art.” Novalis insisted that “science in its perfected form must be poetic” and that “laboratories will be temples.” Caroline Schlegel prophesied that “when the world goes up in flames like a scrap of paper, works of art will be the last living sparks.”

Works of art only ever spring from the particular vantage point of a particular authentic self — an Ich — and this is the enduring legacy of the first Romantics.

But all great ideas, if followed not critically but cultishly, run the risk of metastasizing into dogmas. Today, we are living with one such metastasis of Romanticism in our staggering epidemic of selfing — rather than connecting us to each other and the living world as kindred elements in a system, the inflamed Ich has folded us unto ourselves: living proteins of ego. It is by returning to the original philosophy, before its mutation, that we stand a chance of reclaiming the self as a crucible of creativity and a portal of connection to nature.

Art by Paloma Valdiva for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

Wulf reclaims the legacy of the Romantics:

Life is a negotiation between our rights as an individual and our role as a member of a community, including our responsibilities towards future generations who will inhabit this planet. How can we live a meaningful life in which we determine the direction of our path while also being a morally good person? How do we reconcile personal liberty with the demands of society? Are we selfish? Are we pursuing our dreams? Are we treading on someone else’s liberty? Are we looking only after ourselves? Or others? Or both? We have entered a social contract with each other and with our governments, agreeing to abide by laws and conventions — yet this only works if we are free and trust one another at the same time.

The Jena Set believed that we have to be conscious of our selves — to be “selfish” in the sense of being aware of and in control of our own being and free will.

[…]

The “Art of being Selfish,” in the context of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, also means understanding one’s place in this great interconnected living organism that is nature. “Since we find nature in the self,” one of Schelling’s students concluded, “we must also find the self in nature.” Being selfish in that sense means comprehending and recognising the concept of unity with the universe. Not harming the planet therefore means not harming yourself.

With an eye to Novalis’s insistence that “without perfect self-understanding we will never learn truly to understand others,” she adds:

Only if we are fully aware of ourselves — of our needs, our wishes, and of our thoughts — can we truly embrace the other. This emphasis on the Ich means being “self aware” as the prerequisite for “being aware and concerned for the other.” Only through self-awareness can we feel empathy with others. Only through self-reflection can we question our behaviour towards others. Self-examination in that sense is for the greater good — for us, for our wider community, for society in general and for our planet.

Complement Magnificent Rebels with poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan — a modern-day Romantic, writing in her nineties — on the self and the universe, then revisit the Schelling-influenced Emerson on how to trust yourself and Whitman’s Humboldt-inspired poem “Kosmos.”



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