Thomas Carlyle: On Jean Paul
Excerpt: “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: “Jean Paul Friedrich Richter” by Thomas Carlyle, 1827.
O then arose his inner Coliseum
Full of silent godlike forms of spiritual antiques,
And the torch-gleam of Fancy
Glanced round upon them like the
Play of a Magic Life
And there he saw among the gods
And a loved one … reposing.
John Paul’s “Titan”
Except by name, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter is little known outside of Germany. The only thing connected with him, we think, that has reached this country, is his saying, imported by Madame de Staël, and, thankfully pocketed by most newspaper critics: “Providence has given to the French the empire of the land, to the English that of the sea, to the Germans that of — the air.” Of this last element, indeed, his own genius might easily seem to have been a denizen; so fantastic, many-colored. far-grasping, every way perplexed and extraordinary to his mode of writing.
To translate him properly is next to impossible; nay, a dictionary of his works has actually been in part published for the use of German readers! These things have restricted his sphere of action, and may long restrict it, to his own country; but there, in return, he is a favorite of the first class; studied through all his intricacies with trustful admiration, and a love which tolerates much. During the last forty years, he has been continually before the public, in various capacities, and growing generally in esteem with all ranks of critics; till, at length his gainsayers have either been silenced or convinced; and Jean Paul, at first reckoned half-mad, has long ago vindicated his singularities to nearly universal satisfaction, and now combines popularity with depth of endowment, in perhaps a greater degree than any other writer; being second in the latter point to scarcely more than one of his contemporaries, and in the former second to none.
The biography of such a distinguished person could scarcely fail to be interesting, especially his autobiography; which, accordingly we wait for, and may in time submit to our readers, if it seems worthy. Meanwhile, the history of his life, so far as outward events characterize it, may be stated in a few words. He was born in Wunsiedel in Bayreuth in March 1763. His father was a subaltern teacher in the Gymnasium of the place, and was afterwards promoted to clergyman at Schwarzbach on the Saale. Richter’s early education was of the scantiest sort; but his fine faculties and unwearied diligence supplied every defect.
Unable to purchase books, he borrowed what he could come at, and transcribed from them, often a great part of their contents – a habit of excerpting which continued with him throughout life, and influenced, in more ways than one, his mode of writing and study. To the last, he was an insatiable and universal reader, so that his excerpts accumulated and “filled whole chests.” In 1780, he went to the University of Leipsic; with the highest character, in spite of the impediments which he had struggled with, for talents and acquirement. Like his father, he was destined for Theology; from which, however, his vagrant genius soon diverged into Poetry and Philosophy, to the neglect, and, ere long, to the final abandonment of his appointed profession.
Not well knowing what to do, he accepted a tutorship in some family of rank; then he had pupils in his own house — which, however, like his way of life, he often changed; for by this time he had become an author, and, in his wanderings over Germany, was putting forth, now here, now there, the strangest books, with the strangest titles. For instance, “Greenland Lawsuits” – “Biographical Recreations under the Cranium of a Giantess” – “Selections from the Papers of a Devil” – and the like! In these describable performances, the splendid faculties of the writer, luxuriating as they seem in utter riot, could not be disputed; nor, with all its extravagance, the fundamental strength, honesty and tenderness of his nature. Genius will reconcile men to much.
By degrees, Jean Paul began to be considered not a strange cracked-brained mixture of enthusiast and buffoon, but a man of infinite humor, sensibility, force and penetration. His writings procured him friends and fame; and at length a wife and a settled provision. With Caroline Mayer, his good spouse, and a pension in 1802 from the King of Bavaria, he settled in Bayreuth, the capitol of his native province; where he lived therefore, diligent and celebrated in many new departments of Literature; and died on the 14th of November, 1825, loved as well as admired by all his countrymen, and most of those who had known him most intimately.
A huge, irregular man, both in body and in person, full of fire, strength and impetuosity, Richter seems, at the same time, to have been, in the highest degree, mild, simple-hearted, humane. He was fond of conversation, and might well shine in it. He talked as he wrote, in a style of his own, full of wild strength and charms, to which his Bayreuth accent often gave additional effect. Yet he loved retirement, the country and all natural things; from his youth upwards, he himself tells us, he may almost be said to have lived in the open air; it was among groves and meadows that he studied — often that he wrote. Even in the streets of Bayreuth, he was seldom seen without a flower on his breast.
A man of quiet tastes, and warm compassionate affections! His friends he must have loved as few do. Of his poor and humble mother he often speaks by allusion, and never without reference and overflowing affection. Wrote Doring, “Richter’s studying or sitting apartment offered about this time (1793) a true and beautiful emblem of his simple and noble way of thought, which comprehended at once the high and low. Whilst his mother, who then lived with him, busily pursued her household work, occupying herself about stove and dresser, Jean Paul was sitting in the corner of the same room, at a simple writing desk, with few or no books about him, but merely one or two drawers containing excerpts and manuscripts.”
Richter came later to live in finer mansions, and had the great and learned for associates; but the gentle feelings of those days abode with him: Through life, he was the same substantial, determinate yet meek and tolerating man. It is seldom that so much rugged energy can be so blandly attempted; that so much vehemence and so much softness would go together.
The expected Edition of Richter’s Works is to be sixty volumes; and they are no less multifarious than extensive; embracing subjects of all sorts, from the highest problems of Transcendental Philosophy, and the most passionate poetical delineations, to Golden-Rules for the Weather Prophet, and instructions in the Art of Falling Asleep. His chief productions are Novels: the Unsichtbare Loge (Invisible Lodge); Flegeljahre (Wild-Oats); Life of Fixlein; the Jubelsenior (Parson in Jubilee); Schmelzle’s Journey to Flatz; Katzenberg’s Journey to the Bath; Life of Fibel; and many lighter pieces; and two works of a higher order: Hesperus and Titan, the largest and best of his Novels.
It was the former that first (in 1795) introduced him into decisive and universal estimation with his countrymen; the latter he himself, with the most judicious of his critics, regarded as his masterpiece. But the name Novelist, as we in England must understand it, would ill describe so vast and discursive a genius; for, with all his grotesque, tumultuous pleasantry, Richter is a man of a truly earnest, nay high and solemn character, and seldom writes without a meaning beyond the sphere of common romancers. Hesperus and Titan themselves, though in form nothing more than “novels of real life,” as the Minerva Press would say, have solid metal enough in them to furnish whole circulating libraries, were it beaten into the usual filigree; and much which, attenuate it as we might, no quarterly subscriber could well carry with him.
Amusement is often, in part almost always, a mean with Richter; rarely or never his highest end. His thoughts, his feelings, the creations of his spirit, walk before us embodied under wondrous shapes, in motley and ever-fluctuating groups. But his essential character, however he disguise it, is that of a Philosopher and a moral Poet, whose study has been human nature, whose delight and best endeavor are with all that are beautiful, and tender, and mysteriously sublime … in the fate or history of man.
This is the purport of his writings, whether their form be that of fiction or of truth; the spirit that pervades and ennobles his delineations of common life, his wild wayward dreams, allegories and shadowy imaginings, no less than his disquisitions of a nature directly scientific.