Thomas Carlyle: On Novalis 4/5

Excerpt: “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: Novalis” by Thomas Carlyle, 1829.
‘The Pupil,’ it is added, ‘listens with alarm to these conflicting voices.’ If such was the case in half-supernatural Sais, it may well be much more so in mere sublunary London. Here again, however, in regard to these vaporous lucubrations, we can only imitate Jean Paul’s Quintus Fixlein, who, it is said, in his elaborate Catalogue of German Errors of the Press, ‘states that important inferences are to be drawn from it, and advises the reader to draw them.’
Perhaps these wonderful paragraphs, which look, at this distance, so like chasms filled with mere sluggish mist, might prove valleys, with a clear stream and soft pastures, were we near at hand. For one thing, either Novalis, with Tieck and Schlegel at his back, are men in a state of derangement; or there is more in Heaven and Earth than has been dreamt of in our Philosophy. We may add that, in our view, this last Speaker, the ‘earnest Man,’ seems evidently to be Fichte; the first two Classses look like some sceptical or atheistic brood, unacquainted with Bacon’s Novum Organum, or having, the First class at least, almost no faith in it. That theory of the human species ending by a universal simultaneous act of Suicide, will, to the more simple sort of readers, be new.
As farther and more directly illustrating Novalis’ scientific views, we may here subjoin two short sketches, taken from another department of this Volume. To all who prosecute Philosophy, and take interest in its history and present aspects, they will not be without interest. The obscure parts of them are not perhaps unintelligible, but only obscure; which unluckily cannot, at all times, be helped in such cases: ‘Common Logic is the Grammar of the higher Speech, that is, of Thought; it examines merely the relations of ideas to one another, the Mechanics of Thought, the pure Physiology of ideas. Now logical ideas stand related to one another, like words without thoughts.
Logic occupies itself with the mere dead Body of the Science of Thinking. –Metaphysics, again, is the Dynamics of Thought; treats of the primary Powers of Thought; occupies itself with the mere Soul of the Science of Thinking. Metaphysical ideas stand related to one another, like thoughts without words. Men often wondered at the stubborn Incompletibility of these two Sciences; each followed its own business by itself; there was a want everywhere, nothing would suit rightly with either.
From the very first, attempts were made to unite them, as everything about them indicated relationship; but every attempt failed; the one or the other Science still suffered in these attempts, and lost its essential character. We had to abide by metaphysical Logic, and logical Metaphysic, but neither of them was as it should be. With Physiology and Psychology, with Mechanics and Chemistry, it fared no better. In the latter half of this Century there arose, with us Germans, a more violent commotion than ever; the hostile masses towered themselves up against each other more fiercely than heretofore; the fermentation was extreme; there followed powerful explosions.
And now some assert that a real Compenetration has somewhere or other taken place; that the germ of a union has arisen, which will grow by degrees, and assimilate all to one indivisible form: that this principle of Peace is pressing out irresistibly on all sides, and that erelong there will be but one Science and one Spirit, as one Prophet and one God.’–
‘The rude, discursive Thinker is the Scholastic (Schoolman Logician). The true Scholastic is a mystical Subtlist; out of logical Atoms he builds his Universe; he annihilates all living Nature, to put an Artifice of Thoughts (Gedankenkunststuck, literally Conjuror’s-trick of Thoughts) in its room. His aim is an infinite Automaton. Opposite to him is the rude, intuitive Poet: this is a mystical Macrologist: he hates rules and fixed form; a wild, violent life reigns instead of it in Nature; all is animate, no law; wilfulness and wonder everywhere. He is merely dynamical.
Thus does the Philosophic Spirit arise at first, in altogether separate masses. In the second stage of culture these masses begin to come in contact, multifariously enough; and, as in the union of infinite Extremes, the Finite, the Limited arises, so here also arise “Eclectic Philosophers” without number; the time of misunderstanding begins. The most limited is, in this stage, the most important, the purest Philosopher of the second stage. This class occupies itself wholly with the actual, present world, in the strictest sense.
The Philosophers of the first class look down with contempt on those of the second; say, they are a little of everything, and so nothing; hold their views as the results of weakness, as Inconsequentism. On the contrary, the second class, in their turn, pity the first; lay the blame on their visionary enthusiasm, which they say is absurd, even to insanity.
‘If on the one hand the Scholastics and Alchemists seem to be utterly at variance, and the Eclectics on the other hand quite at one, yet, strictly examined, it is altogether the reverse. The former, in essentials, are indirectly of one opinion; namely, as regards the non-dependence, and infinite character of Meditation, they both set out from the Absolute: whilst the Eclectic and limited sort are essentially at variance; and agree only in what is deduced. The former are infinite but uniform, the latter bounded but multiform; the former have genius, the latter talent; those have Ideas, these have knacks (Handgriffe); those are heads without hands, these are hands without heads.
The third stage is for the Artist, who can be at once implement and genius. He finds that that primitive Separation in the absolute Philosophical Activities’ (between the Scholastic, and the “rude, intuitive Poet”) ‘is a deeper-lying Separation in his own Nature; which Separation indicates, by its existence as such, the possibility of being adjusted, of being joined: he finds that, heterogeneous as these Activities are, there is yet a faculty in him of passing from the one to the other, of changing his polarity at will.
He discovers in them, therefore, necessary members of his spirit; he observes that both must be united in some common Principle. He infers that Eclecticism is nothing but the imperfect defective employment of this principle. It becomes —‘
–But we need not struggle farther, wringing a significance out of these mysterious words: in delineating the genuine Transcendentalist, or ‘Philosopher of the third state,’ properly speaking the Philosopher, Novalis ascends into regions whither few readers would follow him. It may be observed here that British Philosophy, tracing it from Duns Scotus to Dugald Stewart, has now gone through the first and second of these ‘stages,’ the Scholastic and the Eclectic, and in considerable honour. With our amiable Professor Stewart, than whom no man, not Cicero himself, was ever more entirely Eclectic, that second or Eclectic class may be considered as having terminated; and now Philosophy is at a stand among us, or rather there is now no Philosophy visible in these Islands.
It remains to be seen, whether we also are to have our ‘third stage’; and how that new and highest ‘class’ will demean itself here. The French Philosophers seem busy studying Kant, and writing of him: but we rather imagine Novalis would pronounce them still only in the Eclectic stage. He says afterwards, that ‘all Eclectics are essentially and at bottom sceptics; the more comprehensive, the more sceptical.’
These two passages have been extracted from a large series of Fragments, which, under the three divisions of Philosophical, Critical, Moral, occupy the greatest part of Volume Second. They are fractions, as we hinted above, of that grand ‘encyclopedical work’ which Novalis had planned. Friedrich Schlegel is said to be the selector of those published here. They come before us without note or comment; worded for the most part in very unusual phraseology; and without repeated and most patient investigation, seldom yield any significance, or rather we should say, often yield a false one.
A few of the clearest we have selected for insertion: whether the reader will think them ‘Pollen of Flowers,’ or a baser kind of dust, we shall not predict. We give them in a miscellaneous shape; overlooking those classifications which, even in the text, are not and could not be very rigidly adhered to.
‘Philosophy can bake no bread; but she can procure for us God, Freedom, Immortality. Which, then, is more practical, Philosophy or Economy?–
‘Philosophy is properly Home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.–
‘We are near awakening when we dream that we dream.–
‘The true philosophical Act is annihilation of self (Selbsttodtung); this is the real beginning of all Philosophy; all requisites for being a Disciple of Philosophy point hither. This Act alone corresponds to all the conditions and characteristics of transcendental conduct.–
‘To become properly acquainted with a truth, we must first have disbelieved it, and disputed against it.–
‘Man is the higher Sense of our Planet; the star which connects it with the upper world; the eye which it turns towards Heaven.–
‘Life is a disease of the spirit; a working incited by Passion. Rest is peculiar to the spirit.–
‘Our life is no Dream, but it may and will perhaps become one.–
‘What is Nature? An encyclopedical, systematic Index or Plan of our Spirit. Why will we content us with the mere catalogue of our Treasures? Let us contemplate them ourselves, and in all ways elaborate and use them.–
‘If our Bodily Life is a burning, our Spiritual Life is a being burnt, a Combustion (or, is precisely the inverse the case?); Death, therefore, perhaps a Change of Capacity.–
‘Sleep is for the inhabitants of Planets only. In another time, Man will sleep and wake continually at once. The greater part of our Body, of our Humanity itself, yet sleeps a deep sleep.–
‘There is but one Temple in the World; and that is the Body of Man. Nothing is holier than this high form. Bending before men is a reverence done to this Revelation in the Flesh. We touch Heaven, when we lay our hand on a human body.–
‘Man is a Sun; his Senses are the Planets.–
‘Man has ever expressed some symbolical Philosophy of his Being in his Works and Conduct; he announces himself and his Gospel of Nature; he is the Messiah of Nature.–
‘Plants are Children of the Earth; we are Children of the AEther. Our Lungs are properly our Root; we live, when we breathe; we begin our life with breathing.–
‘Nature is an AEolian Harp, a musical instrument; whose tones again are keys to higher strings in us.–
‘Every beloved object is the centre of a Paradise.–
‘The first Man is the first Spirit-seer; all appears to him as Spirit. What are children, but first men? The fresh gaze of the Child is richer in significance than the forecasting of the most indubitable Seer.–
‘It depends only on the weakness of our organs and of our self-excitement (Selbstberuhrung), that we do not see ourselves in a Fairy-world. All Fabulous Tales (Mahrchen) are merely dreams of that home world, which is everywhere and nowhere. The higher powers in us, which one day as Genies, shall fulfil our will, are, for the present, Muses, which refresh us on our toilsome course with sweet remembrances.–‘
(*1*) Novalis’s ideas, on what has been called the ‘perfectibility of man,’ ground themselves on his peculiar views of the constitution of material and spiritual Nature, and are of the most original and extraordinary character.
With our utmost effort, we should despair of communicating other than a quite false notion of them. He asks, for instance, with scientific gravity: Whether any one, that recollects the first kind glance of her he loved, can doubt the possibility of Magic?
‘Man consists in Truth. If he exposes Truth, he exposes himself. If he betrays Truth, he betrays himself. We speak not here of lies, but of acting against Conviction.–
‘A character is a completely fashioned will (vollkommen gebildeter Wille).–
‘There is, properly speaking, no Misfortune in the world. Happiness and Misfortune stand in continual balance. Every Misfortune is, as it were, the obstruction of a stream, which, after overcoming this obstruction, but bursts through with the greater force.–
‘The ideal of Morality has no more dangerous rival than the ideal of highest Strength, of most powerful life; which also has been named (very falsely as it was there meant) the ideal of poetic greatness. It is the maximum of the savage; and has, in these times, gained, precisely among the greatest weaklings, very many proselytes. By this ideal, man becomes a Beast-Spirit, a Mixture; whose brutal wit has, for weaklings, a brutal power of attraction.–
‘The spirit of Poesy is the morning light, which makes the Statue of Memnon sound.–
‘The division of Philosopher and Poet is only apparent, and to the disadvantage of both. It is a sign of disease, and of a sickly constitution.–
‘The true Poet is all-knowing; he is an actual world in miniature.–
‘Klopstock’s works appear, for the most part, free Translations of an unknown Poet, by a very talented but unpoetical Philologist.–
‘Goethe is an altogether practical Poet. He is in his works what the English are in their wares: highly simple, neat, convenient and durable. He has done in German Literature what Wedgwood did in English Manufacture. He has, like the English, a natural turn for Economy, and a noble Taste acquired by Understanding. Both these are very compatible, and have a near affinity in the chemical sense. * * —Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship may be called throughout prosaic and modern. The Romantic sinks to ruin, the Poesy of Nature, the Wonderful. The Book treats merely of common worldly things: Nature and Mysticism are altogether forgotten.
It is a poetised civic and household History; the Marvellous is expressly treated therein as imagination and enthusiasm. Artistic Atheism is the spirit of the Book. * * * It is properly a Candide, directed against Poetry: the Book is highly unpoetical in respect of spirit, poetical as the dress and body of it are. * * * The introduction of Shakspeare has almost a tragic effect. The hero retards the triumph of the Gospel of Economy; and economical Nature is finally the true and only remaining one.–
‘When we speak of the aim and Art observable in Shakspeare’s works, we must not forget that Art belongs to Nature; that it is, so to speak, self-viewing, self-imitating, self-fashioning Nature. The Art of a well-developed genius is far different from the Artfulness of the Understanding, of the merely reasoning mind. Shakspeare was no calculator, no learned thinker; he was a mighty, many-gifted soul, whose feelings and works, like products of Nature, bear the stamp of the same spirit; and in which the last and deepest of observers will still find new harmonies with the infinite structure of the Universe; concurrences with later ideas, affinities with the higher powers and senses of man.
They are emblematic, have many meanings, are simple and inexhaustible, like products of Nature; and nothing more unsuitable could be said of them than that they are works of Art, in that narrow mechanical acceptation of the word.’
The reader understands that we offe these specimens not as the best to be found in Novalis’s Fragments, but simply as the most intelligible. Far stranger and deeper things there are, could we hope to make them in the smallest degree understood. But in examining and reexamining many of his Fragments, we find ourselves carried into more complex, more subtle regions of thought than any we are elsewhere acquainted with: here we cannot always find our own latitude and longitude, sometimes not even approximate to finding them; much less teach others such a secret.
What has been already quoted may afford some knowledge of Novalis, in the characters of Philosopher and Critic: there is one other aspect under which it would be still more curious to view and exhibit him, but still more difficult, –we mean that of his Religion. Novalis nowhere specially records his creed, in these Writings: he many times expresses, or implies, a zealous, heartfelt belief in the Christian system; yet with such adjuncts and coexisting persuasions, as to us might seem rather surprising. One or two more of these his Aphorisms, relative to this subject, we shall cite, as likely to be better than any description of ours.
The whole Essay at the end of Volume First, entitled Die Christenheit oder Europa
(Christianity or Europe) is also well worthy of study, in this as in many other points of view.
‘Religion contains infinite sadness. If we are to love God, he must be in distress (hulfsbedurftig, help-needing). In how far is this condition answered in Christianity?–
‘Spinoza is a God-intoxicated man (Gott-trunkener Mensch).–
‘Is the Devil, as the Father of Lies, himself but a necessary illusion?–
‘The Catholic Religion is to a certain extent applied Christianity. Fichte’s Philosophy too is perhaps applied Christianity.–
‘Can Miracles work Conviction? Or is not real Conviction, this highest function of our soul and personality, the only true God-announcing Miracle?
‘The Christian Religion is especially remarkable, moreover, as it so decidedly lays claim to mere good-will in Man, to his essential Temper, and values this independently of all Culture and Manifestation. It stands in opposition to Science and to Art, and properly to Enjoyment.
‘Its origin is with the common people. It inspires the great majority of the limited in this Earth.
‘It is the Light that begins to shine in the Darkness.
‘It is the root of all Democracy, the highest Fact in the Rights of Man (die hochste Thatsache der Popularitat).
‘Its unpoetic exterior, its resemblance to a modern family-picture, seems only to be lent it.
‘Martyrs are spiritual heroes. Christ was the greatest martyr of our species; through him has martyrdom become infinitely significant and holy.–
‘The Bible begins nobly, with Paradise, the symbol of youth; and concludes with the Eternal Kingdom, the Holy City. Its two main divisions, also, are genuine grand-historical divisions (acht gross his torisch). For in every grand-historical compartment (Glied), the grand history must lie, as it were, symbolically re-created (verjungt, made young again). The beginning of the New Testament is the second higher Fall (the Atonement of the Fall), and the commencement of the new Period. The history of every individual man should be a Bible. Christ is a new Adam. A Bible is the highest problem of Authorship.–
‘As yet there is no Religion. You must first make a Seminary (Bildungs-schule) of genuine Religion. Think ye that there is Religion? Religion has to be made and produced (gemacht und hervorgebracht) by the union of a number of persons.’
Hitherto our readers have seen nothing of Novalis in his character of Poet, properly so called; the Pupils at Sais being fully more of a scientific than poetic nature. As hinted above, we do not account his gifts in this latter province as of the first, or even of a high order; unless, indeed, it be true, as he himself maintains, that ‘the distinction of Poet and Philosopher is apparent only, and to the injury of both.’
In his professedly poetical compositions there is an indubitable prolixity, a degree of languor, not weakness but sluggishness; the meaning is too much diluted; and diluted, we might say, not in a rich, lively, varying music, as we find in Tieck, for example; but rather in a low-voiced, not unmelodious monotony, the deep hum of which is broken only at rare intervals, though sometimes by tones of purest and almost spiritual softness.
We here allude chiefly to his unmetrical pieces, his prose fictions: indeed the metrical are few in number; for the most part, on religious subjects; and in spite of a decided truthfulness both in feeling and word, seem to bespeak no great skill or practice in that form of composition. In his prose style he may be accounted happier; he aims in general at simplicity, and a certain familiar expressiveness; here and there, in his more elaborate passages, especially in his Hymns to the Night, he has reminded us of Herder.
These Hymns to the Night, it will be remembered, were written shortly after the death of his mistress: in that period of deep sorrow, or rather of holy deliverance from sorrow. Novalis himself regarded them as his most finished productions. They are of a strange, veiled, almost enigmatical character; nevertheless, more deeply examined, they appear nowise without true poetic worth; there is a vastness, an immensity of idea; a still solemnity reigns in them, a solitude almost as of extinct worlds.
Here and there too some light-beam visits us in the void deep; and we cast a glance, clear and wondrous, into the secrets of that mysterious soul. A full commentary on the Hymns to the Night would be an exposition of Novalis’s whole theological and moral creed: for it lies recorded there, though symbolically, and in lyric, not in didactic language. We have translated the Third, as the shortest and simplest; imitating its light, half-measured style, above all deciphering its vague deep-laid sense, as accurately as we could.
By the word ‘Night,’ it will be seen, Novalis means much more than the common opposite of Day. ‘Light’ seems, in these poems, to shadow forth our terrestrial life; Night the primeval and celestial life:
‘Once when I was shedding bitter tears, when dissolved in pain my Hope had melted away, and I stood solitary by the grave that in its dark narrow space concealed the Form of my life; solitary as no other had been; chased by unutterable anguish; powerless; one thought and that of misery; –here now as I looked round for help; forward could not go, nor backward, but clung to a transient extinguished Life with unutterable longing; –lo, from the azure distance, down from the heights of my old Blessedness, came a chill breath of Dusk, and suddenly the band of Birth, the fetter of Life was snapped asunder.
Vanishes the Glory of Earth, and with it my Lamenting; rushes together the infinite Sadness into a new unfathomable World: thou Night’s-inspiration, Slumber of Heaven, camest over me; the scene rose gently aloft; over the scene hovered my enfranchised new-born spirit; to a cloud of dust that grave changed itself; through the cloud I beheld the transfigured feature of my Beloved.
In her eyes lay Eternity; I clasped her hand, and my tears became a glittering indissoluble chain. Centuries of Ages moved away into the distance, like thunder-clouds. On her neck I wept, for this new life, enrapturing tears. –It was my first, only Dream; and ever since then do I feel this changeless everlasting faith in the Heaven of Night, and its Sun my Beloved.’
To be continued…