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The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism.
Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988.


O Genoa, willingly would I divide myself into thee And a wave, in thy port, roll with the waves, Ripen in the company of thy golden oranges, Become the marble and audacity of thy porticos; A hero, I would rally thy band of maidens, I would tear the veil from their fiery eyes, I would revel in cups of nectar, In all of them, tarrying at none. Done with vague longing and hazy dreams! Let me delight in and embrace the stone statue, The Cytherean, and not her reflection. I dreamt--when from the foam, upsurging Came the goddess in a fragrance of roses. A voice resounded: "I form and transfigure!" Zacharias Werner From Selected Writings, published by his friends( Grimma, 1840- 1841), vol 1, 174. The translation of this poem (here slightly modified) is by Lewis Gaylord Clark , and appeared in The Knickerbocker Magazine XXIV (1844).

Preface: The Literary Absolute


"There are classifications that are bad enough as classifications, but that have nonetheless dominated entire nations and epochs . . .": we will not be the first to note that this phrase, which opens Athenaeum fragment 55, appears to refer to that classification, more than to any other, which singles out the rubric of romanticism within the history and theory of literature. 1 The "mediocrity"-or the flimsiness-of this classification is certainly indisputable when it specifically applies to the initial and initiating moment of "romanticism," which the Germans, at least, unlike the French, take care to distinguish with the appellation "early romanticism" (Frühromantik).

It is to this early or "first" romanticism, which first constituted "romanticism," and determined not only the possibility of a "romanticism" in general, but also the course that literary history (and history as such) would follow from the romantic moment on-it is to this "early romanticism" that this book is devoted. In these few pages of introduction and in all that follows, we will find more than one occasion to suggest the degree to which the denomination "romanticism" is inadequate to this object. As it is usually understood-or not understood-this name is quite inaccurate, both in what it evokes as an aesthetic category (which often amounts to an evocation of evocation, so to speak, to an evocation of flowing sentimentality or foggy nostalgia for the faraway), and in what it pretends to offer as a historical category (in a double opposition to classicism and to realism or naturalism). It is even less appropriate in that the romantics of "early romanticism' never gave themselves this name (if we will refer to them this way, not without irony, it simply will be in keeping with customary practice). Finally, this name is false, in a very general manner, in that it attempts to set something apart-a period, a school, a style, or a conception-that would belong first and foremost to a certain past.

Each of these assertions will be justified in turn. For we do not pretend, far from it, that they go without saying, or even that the "romantics" were not in certain respects the first to equivocate about "romanticism." Undoubtedly, a rather long history was necessary before it would become possible, and even urgent, to manifest some distance from and some vigilance toward this question. But if the misinterpretation that surrounds the word "romanticism" is fairly general (with the exception of certain works, not all recent, on which we will rely), it is no doubt more profound and tenacious in France than elsewhere -primarily as a result of neglect. Although the names of the Schlegel brothers, and that of their journal-the Athenaeum-are not unknown, and although one encounters a certain number of citations from their texts (most often from their "fragments," in which case the detached citation reinforces the equivocity of this neglect), it is nonetheless true that the absence, in France, of translations of the most important texts of "early romanticism" is one of the most startling of the lacunae that almost traditionally make up the singular bequest of the nation's cultural and editorial institutions.2

What is at stake in "early romanticism"-in other words the romanticism of Jena, a toponymic appellation to which we will return-can also be referred to, in at least a first approximation, as theoretical romanticism, and more precisely as what we will have to examine as the inauguration of the theoretical project in literature. As the inauguration, in other words, of a project whose place we know only too well, almost two hundred years later, in modern theoretical work-and not only, far from it, in the register of literature. One need not look far for indications of this heritage, which in fact is much more than a "heritage"; it can be found on the cover of this book. What does it mean to give a collection (and a journal) the title poetics (poétique) 3 except to put back in play, by way of Valéry and several others, the term and part of the concept that summarized, in 1802, the program of August Wilhelm Schlegel Lectures on Art and Literature4 -lectures that did little but articulate a general poetics that had emerged several years earlier in the Jena circle. If, in this context, the French lacuna is all the more strange, it is not surprising that it seems necessary, here, to begin filling that lacuna in.

We will in fact only be beginning, as we go directly to the texts and themes that should be considered essential-but to them only. We will not exhaust the inquiry, but perhaps we will at least be able to discern what it involves. We will also have to deal with what the intentions of such an undertaking might be. First of all, we are not engaging in an archival enterprise: we are not concerned with the reconstitution of a past event whose only relation to us, to speak with Nietzsche, (who contributed, in this, to prolonging romanticism), would be that of a monumental or antiquarian history. Our approach does not involve a history of romanticism of any sort. For one thing-and we will return to this-it could be a history in romanticism. But neither do we intend to exhibit and commend any romantic model whatsoever-in the manner, generally speaking, of Surrealism (or, to a lesser extent, of Albert Béguin and others). 5 Romanticism does not lead us to anything that one might imitate or that one might be "inspired by," and this is because-as we will see-it "leads" us first of all to ourselves. Which is not to say that we would suggest a pure and simple identification with romanticism and in romanticism or that we mean to place ourselves abyssally in romanticism. We will learn only too well to what extent the romantics were the first to romanticize romanticism and how much in general they speculated-giving it all its modernity-on the figure and the operation of the literary abyss, which they encountered, among other places, in the eighteenth-century English novel.

Consequently, this lacuna should be "filled in" yet must not be saturated. Thus, it should be approached in a manner that allows the decipherment of the massive equivocity that underlies the term "romanticism," insofar as one can separate oneself from this equivocity.

What, then, is in question in theoretical romanticism-in what we will have to characterize as the theoretical institutionalization of the literary genre (or, if you like, of literature itself, of literature as absolute)? To pose this question is to ask: What is in question in the well-known Athenaeum fragment 116, which contains the whole "concept" of "romantic poetry," or in the Dialogue on Poetry, which contains the definition of the novel as "romantic book"? Let us turn, then, to the texts.

But one should not turn to them without having begun to dissipate, already from without, the equivocity or illusion that these texts, as they are, perpetuate-sometimes deliberately, as we shall see. In other words, one should not begin to read them under the impression that one already knows what is covered by the word "romantic," or at least by its position in these texts. One can imagine that one knows what this word means in two very different ways, by regarding it as the beneficiary of a transmitted heritage, ripened throughout the eighteenth century or, on the contrary, as an absolutely original innovation. But the "truth" is not between the two: it is elsewhere. The word and the concept "romantic" are indeed transmitted to the "romantics," and their originality does not consist in inventing "romanticism," but rather, on the one hand, in using this term to cover up their own powerlessness to name and conceive what they invent, and, on the other (in any case, one can suspect this of Friedrich Schlegel 6 ), in dissimulating a "project" that exceeds, from all points of view, what this term transmits to them.

Let us recall then quite briefly a number of givens concerning the history of that to which the fate of the word romantic has been linked. We know that the romance languages were the vulgar languages, thought of as derived from the vulgar romance tongue as opposed to the Latin of the clergy; that the romance literatures were the literatures of these languages; and that different forms and genres were soon called romant, romanze, romancero. When the romantic first appeared in England and in Germany (romantick, romantisch) and for the most part in the seventeenth century, it most often implied depreciation, or even moral condemnation, of what was being discarded, along with this type of literature, into the shadows of the prehistory of Modern Times: marvelous prodigies, unrealistic chivalry, exalted sentiments. To say again what many others have said, the novel Don Quixote lays out the nascent condition of the "romantic." With the birth of a philosophy of enthusiasm ( Shaftesbury) on the one hand, and of an initial form of literary criticism (particularly the Swiss: Bodmer, Breitinger) on the other, the term will begin to take on a descriptive or frankly positive sense. Throughout the theoretical history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the history of this word is thus inseparable from what is represented, respectively, by philosophy in its debate with or assumption of modern "reason," and by the problematic of a critique of taste-or, more largely, of an aesthetic. In the course of the eighteenth century, the word takes on both an aesthetic and historical value. It brings together, in a simple way, the initial givens we evoked a moment ago (the Dialogue on Poetry and the "Letter on the Novel" refer to these same origins) and links them, in Germany, to the concept of the gothic as the historical and geographical opposite of the ancient-thereby constituting the historical concept of the "romantic poem" (romantisches Gedicht), which began to describe a genre of poetry, for example, in 1784, when Wieland (an author distant from the romantics in every respect) composes Idris and Zenaide, A Romantic Poem. The romantic as genre sets out to adopt two related models: the heroic "gothic" gesture, and through it the epic (where one again finds Wieland and his Oberon , for example), as well as the "courtliness" of the troubadours. It adopts these models both in opposition to the models of the "classics" and simply as other models, chosen according to circumstance. But Shakespearean drama-with all its difference from classical or neoclassical tragedy-also becomes a model for this genre or spirit. With the genre, an entire climate takes form, as it were. Romantic -especially in its English provenance-is the landscape before which one feels the sentiment of nature, or the epic grandeur of the past, or a mixture of both: ruins in a wilderness. But romantic, as well, is the sensibility capable of responding to this spectacle, and of imagining, or better, recreating-phantasicren-what it evokes. At the end of the eighteenth century, and particularly in Germany, this literary sensibility, at times, "romanesque," at others "poetic," carries with it what can be considered one of the first effects of fashion, in its properly modern and "spectacular" sense. "Romantic" is the word one has to write, the genre one has to give one's book-in short, romantic literature around 1795 is what today, a few "medias" later, might be called "pop literature." Nothing remains to be said about it, then, and early romanticism is not constituted in its aftermath; rather, as one sees in the "Letter on the Novel," it proposes the ironic reading of those works that might be called, employing a quasitautology, "romanesque romanticism." Early romanticism represents the sudden appearance of a crisis that romanesque romanticism, which displayed some of its symptoms, would only have hidden. In the sudden vogue of "romanticization" and in the soberly categorical use of "romantic" as a form or a particular literary subject (one finds both characteristics in the movement of the 1770s and 1780s that came to be called Sturm und Drang, "storm and stress," and consequently in Herder, the early Goethe, and the early Schiller), everything might seem to have taken place like the ultimately simple and natural discovery of a new literature-in other words, as a simple progression or maturation, even if in reaction against the Aufklärung, whose innovations did not deeply question the general awareness of progress-economic, social, political, and moral. In many respects, then, early romanticism corresponds to the profound economic, social, political, and moral crisis of the latter years of the eighteenth century. 7 This is not the place to study it, but it is nonetheless indispensable to recall that the Germany of this period, suffering from economic crisis and profound social problems accompanied by continual revolts, found itself, to schematize the situation from our own point of view, plunged into a triple crisis: the social and moral crisis of a bourgeoisie, with new-found access to culture (consuming romanesque romanticism, like those cultured managers [gebildete Ökonom] who read Jean Paul, according to Friedrich Schlegel) 8 but who are no longer able to find positions for those sons traditionally destined for the robe or the rostrum (unless the sons no longer wanted these jobs, notably that of pastor 9 ); the political crisis of the French Revolution, a model that disturbed some and fascinated others, and whose ambiguity becomes ever more apparent with the French occupation; and the Kantian critique, finally, which is unintelligible for some, liberating but destructive for others, and which seems urgently in need of its own critical recasting. The characters we will see assembling at Jena participated in this triple crisis in the most immediate manner. Thus their project will not be a literary project and will open up not a crisis in literature, but a general crisis and critique (social, moral, religious, political: all of these aspects are found in the Fragments) for which literature or literary theory will be the privileged locus of expression. The reasons for such a privilege-which opens the entire history, up to the present, of the relations literature is supposed to have with society and politics-will appear in all that follows, and above all in the reading of the texts themselves. But we would be reading these texts badly were we to forget, at the start, that the theoretical romanticism of Jena characterized itself as the critical question of literature with all the historical and conceptual overdetermination we have just evoked-or perhaps even as the most properly critical (with all the values and limits of the term) formulation of the crisis of modern history. For just this reason, the "romantics" will not give themselves this name, will not advocate the return to or invention of yet another genre, and will not erect a doctrine out of yet another aesthetic preference. Regardless of the form it takes, their literary ambition is always the result of their ambition for an entirely new social function for the writer-that writer who was, for them, a character still to come, and in the concrete form of a profession, as we read in Athenaeum fragment 20-and consequently for a different society. The "romantic poetry" that will concern us throughout this book was always meant to signify what it signifies-somewhat ironically and ambiguously-in this statement of Dorothea Schlegel: "Since it is altogether contrary to bourgeois order and absolutely forbidden to introduce romantic poetry into life, then let life be brought into romantic poetry; no police force and no educational institution can prevent this." 10 The Jena romantics did not call themselves romantics. At the most, Novalis will use the word der Romantiker, which a posthumous fragment defines as follows: "Life is something like color, sound, and force. The romantic [Romantiker] studies life like the painter, musician, and mechanic study color, sound, and force." 11 In several other posthumous fragments, Romantik is the rubric for a "science" analogous to Poetik, Physik, or Mystik. But we will note frequently that this is precisely one of the characteristics that separates Novalis from Jena romanticism. It is first of all their adversaries (pamphlets against them were published from 1798 on) and then their earliest historians ( Jean Paul as early as 1804) and critics who will give them their name and describe them as a "romantic school"; all of these, however, will continue to distinguish carefully between the later stages of the "school," after 1805, and the initial moment, which we are referring to as that of the crisis. The actors in this crisis will use romanticism-or more precisely, because they never speak of an -ism, the romantic-in two ways. Its first and most frequent use is the classic usage of the period (we will see that this is far from paradoxical), that of Wieland, Goethe, or Schiller. It is one literary category among others, and not even the supreme category, as is indicated for example in Critical Fragment 119, where the lyric is more highly esteemed than the romantic. Their "own" usage of the term constitutes the properly indefinite program of the texts we will be reading, all of which should be coupled with the irony of Friedrich's letter to his brother August: "I can hardly send you my explication of the word Romantic because it would take- 125 pages."


Such an ironic definition-or the irony of such an absence of definition - seems worth holding up as a symbol. The entire romantic "project" is in it: the romantic "project," or in other words that brief, intense, and brilliant moment of writing (not quite two years and hundreds of pages) that by itself opens an entire era, but exhausts itself in its inability to grasp its own essence and aim-and that will ultimately find no other definition than a place ( Jena) and a journal (the Athenaeum).

Let us, then, call this romanticism the Athenaeum.

Its initiators, as everyone knows, are the two Schlegel brothers: August Wilhelm and Friedrich. They are philologists and have already made names for themselves in classical research. The texts they published (the Letters on Poetry, Meter, and Language by the one, On the Study of Greek Poetry by the other), as well as the journals to which they contributed ( Goethe and Schiller Die Hören and Reichardt Lyceum der schönen Künste) indicate their success. In short, they are both very young and, from 1795-1796 on, appear to have very promising academic careers ahead of them.

In many ways, however, they are neither simply "future academics" nor pure philologists. First of all, both August and Friedrich (the latter no doubt more than the former) have explicit ambitions as writers. It is not by chance that they frequent Weimar. They are also paying very close attention to the movement which, in the "aftermath of Kant," is beginning to overtake German philosophy and will soon give birth to speculative Idealism. They attend Fichte's courses, read Ritter, discuss Jacobi, and try to establish contact with Scheling. Friedrich, in Berlin, becomes friendly with Schleiermacher. Finally, they are perceived as politically "advanced" (which during this period means "revolutionary," "republican," or "Jacobin"): the mistress of the elder brother and Egeria of the younger, Caroline Michäelis, marries Böhmer and is jailed in Mayence for subversive activities or, at least, for sympathy toward the occupying (French) army. But above all, they are involved in the "literary" and social circles of Berlin (the "Jewish" salons of Rahel Levin and of Dorothea Mendelssohn-Veit, Friedrich's future wife), which makes them, according to the French model of the period, perfect "intellectuals"-if indeed this type was born in the second half of the eighteenth century and was spreading across Europe from the Paris of the Encyclopedists.

It is within this milieu that the Athenaeum begins to take shape. 12 What initially takes shape is the group-a close-knit and relatively closed circle, which was founded, at least in the beginning, on intellectual fraternity and friendship, and on the desire for collective activity, for a certain "community" life as well. It is by no means the "committee" of a journal (we will soon see, moreover, that the journal itself is directed almost exclusively by the two brothers). Nor is it simply a circle of friends (there are women, amorous or erotic relationships, a heightened sense of moral "experimentation" that will encourage dreams, for example, of a "four-way marriage" 13 ) or a "coterie" of intellectuals. It is, rather, a sort of "cell," marginal (if not altogether clandestine), like the core of an organization destined to develop into a "network" and serve as the model for a new style of life. Friedrich, who is the most taken with this form of community and who will be the real force behind it, will ultimately tend to describe it as a secret society. He will at least entertain the utopic idea that an "alliance" or "league" of artists could develop from the Athenaeum and be organized like the more or less "Masonic" sects whose importance, in Germany, to the spread of ideas and political struggle during the Revolution is well known. In many respects, the Athenaeum undoubtedly remains imprisoned by models inherited from the Aufklärung. Nonetheless, it clearly anticipates the collective structures that artists and intellectuals from the nineteenth century to the present will adopt. In fact, and without any exaggeration, it is the first "avant-garde" group in history. At no point, in any case, does one discern the least departure from this nearly twohundred-year-old form on the part of what calls itself "avant-garde" today (and is distinct, as was the Athenaeum, from the older concept of a "school"). The Athenaeum is our birthplace. But in order to be precise, we must make distinctions within the group itself. In the restricted sense, the group consists of ten persons at most: the initial trio (August, Friedrich, Caroline) transformed into a quartet with the arrival of Dorothea, along with Schleiermacher, Novalis (whom they met in 1792), Tieck, and Schelling. 14 Hölsen is on the fringes of the group. One should note that Schelling's participation begins relatively late, that he will never publish in the journal, and that one of his principle motivations, after all, will be Caroline (whom he will marry in 1803, shortly after the group's dissolution). But from a wider perspective, and considering what it was-a kind of center of attention in both Berlin and Jena-the group was somewhat larger. People will gravitate around the group, pass in and out of it, frequent the same places, visit one or the other of the two brothers. Tieck's sister Sophie will introduce her husband, the linguist Bernhardi; Wackenroder will be there during the last months of his life; the poetess Sophie Mereau will become closely involved with Friedrich before marrying Brentano, who himself will share the life of the group just before its dissolution; his sister Bettina (future wife of von Arnim) will be there as well; Steffens becomes part of the group in Dresden and Jean Paul will visit from Berlin; and then there will be the letters, many letters, between the members of the group, between Berlin, Weimar, and Jena, exchanged with Fichte, as well as with Baader and Ritter. An enormous correspondence, to which at least some of them, Caroline, for example, consign the best of romanticism.

But the journal is still the essential thing. Barely six issues and two years of existence (it is true that many others have appeared since), a "level" that is not always even, a certain tone of arrogance (which later, of course, becomes de rigueur), the petty insolence of the "avant-gardes." 15 But also a "mode of operation" that deliberately breaks with everything that could be compared with it or opposed to it and that determines, for the future, all of its power as a model. The journal is based on "fraternization": the introductory "Notice" speaks of "the fraternization of knowledge and talents." And in the last analysis, fraternization means collective writing: "We are not simply the directors, but also the authors of this review... We accept outside contributions only when we esteem that we can adopt them as our own . . . ." As Ayrault observes, after citing these lines, "this affirmation carries considerable weight at the head of an issue containing, under the name Novalis, the series of aphorisms entitled 'Grains of Polien'."16 Clearly, a certain amount of "monolithicism" is involved, as well as a kind of dictatorial practice, notably on the part of Friedrich (who dreams that he and his brother may become the "critical dictators" of Germany). Already one can see the well-known "papal" phenomenon developing, and before long, the soon-to-be "classic" (so to speak) scenario will be in place, with its annexations, its sensational ruptures, its exclusions and excommunications, its quarrels and spectacular reconciliations, etc.; everything, in sum, that on a small scale constitutes the politics (for it is clearly a politics and a very precise one) of this sort of organism. Including, moreover, its intrinsic weakness: recantations and an undeniably "arriviste" mentality. It will take only six years to convert to Catholicism; a little more than ten to dine with Metternich. But in point of fact, things are not this simple (even with regard to the romantics' politics, widely criticized in France as reactionary, probably because it was opposed to Napoleon, but which is still instructive today). Things are not this simple because it is precisely this mode of operation that leads to the entire of romantic writing (the use of all genres, the appeal to the "fragment," the questioning of literary property and of "authority" by the challenge of anonymity), and that founds group "theoretical practice" (continual discussions, regimented work sessions, collective readings, "cultural" outings, and so forth), a practice that accounts for the prodigious amount of work accomplished during these two brief years, for the constant inventiveness, the rapid development, the radicality of the entirely unprecedented, in fact, "theoretical breakthrough.

Of course it does not last. The Athenaeum cannot withstand such an "expenditure" (nothing and no one could). It does not become exhausted so much as dislocated from itself. Internal dissent, jealousies, and theoretical disagreements (which can be traced even in the texts) have a lot to do with it, undeniably. But what is important is that everything was said and done very quickly, in the fever of things, "furiously" as one says today. It was almost as if each (even Schelling, who was already an academic) had realized that there was no future in it or that the world (not simply Letters) was slipping into another period or turning on itself, no doubt opening up a limitless perspective, but still offering nothing immediately adequate to the presaged and unreservedly welcomed event (even if it was still unnameable and faceless, a pure "thing" in the midst of being born and coming to the light of day).

This is why the Athenaeum, although it displayed all the characteristics of a modern "clique," cannot be considered a genuine "movement." The Athenaeum does not claim to represent a rupture. It makes no pretense of starting out with a tabula rasa or of ringing in the new. It sees itself, much to the contrary, as a commitment to the critical "recasting" of what is (hence its relation to Goethe, for example). It is not by chance that it originated in philology and criticism.

In the beginning, its great concern-around which, in 1794, everything will pivot and suddenly "gel"-is Antiquity, the poetry of Antiquity. The Schlegels' early work (and thus everything that will form the axis of the Athenaeum) gropes vaguely toward a new vision of Antiquity. We will see to what degree Winckelmann becomes their constant point of reference-not simply in an effort to continue in his path or to exploit it, but because serious theoretical work on the Greeks can be undertaken only on the basis of what he managed to establish. What comes to light is well known: a previously imperceptible hiatus in Greek "classicism," the traces of a savage prehistory and terrifying religion, the hidden, nocturnal, mysterious, and mystical face of Greek "serenity," an equivocal art barely detached from madness and "orgiastic" (one of the Schlegels' pet words) fury. In sum, tragic Greece. Like Hölderlin during the same period-but differently, although Schelling ensures the transition, and in a "dialecticizing" mode that will follow a well-known course from Hegel to the young Nietzsche-the Schlegels invent what becomes known (under various names) as the opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. And what they also establish, because they have arrived (however unwittingly) at the "matrix" that produces it, is indeed-as Heidegger emphasizes-the philosophy of history. For the Schlegels, it is true, this philosophy will be less rigorous (less dialectical) than it is in Idealism properly speaking. Although simpler in many ways and closer to the "Rousseauistic" model (loss of the origin, necessary mediation by rationality, future reconciliation of a divided humanity), it is nonetheless complicated by a certain attention to (and taste for) the phenomena of decadence (Alexandrianism) and by a great precision in the analysis of movements of dissolution and transition-mechanical, chemical, or organic-from one period to another. Rome, for example, will be an important model. And the aim of all this, a distinctive trait of what we will thus call romanticism, is nothing other than the classical-the chances for and possibility of the classical in modernity.

This critical recasting is coupled with a constructive theme: the constant horizon of the project is to make (or remake, in the modern mode) the great classical work that the period lacks, despite Goethe. More particularly, and because the philosophy of history will emerge precisely from a critical problematic of imitation (throughout the last years of the century), it involves doing better or more than Antiquity: at once surpassing and fulfilling the unfinished or incomplete aspects of Antiquity, wherever it failed to effectuate the classical ideal it envisaged. This amounts, in the end, to performing the "synthesis" of the Ancient and the Modern-or, if you like, to anticipate the Hegelian word (although not the concept), to sublate, aufheben, the opposition of the Ancient and the Modern. 17 But that such a logic impels the romantic project in no way suggests that the romantics limit themselves to the "application" of a scheme derived from post-Kantian philosophy. It is rather in conjunction with the first stages of Idealism (both within and outside Idealism) and in its own realm (philology, criticism, art history) that romanticism assumes an analogous task, the task of a completion, in the strongest sense of the word. The goal is to have done with partition and division, with the separation constitutive of history: the goal is to construct, to produce, to effectuate what even at the origin of history was already thought of as a lost and forever inaccessible "Golden Age." And so, if dialectics is invented in romanticism's philosophy of art just as much as in speculative physics, it is perhaps because the attempts to reconcile Kant and Plato turns out to be difficult to distinguish from the enterprise that would conjugate Homer and Goethe.

This is the reason romanticism implies something entirely new, the production of something entirely new. The romantics never really succeed in naming this something: they speak of poetry, of the work, of the novel, or . . . of romanticism. In the end, they decide to call it-all things considered-literature. This term, which was not their own invention, will be adopted by posterity (including their own, most immediate posterity) to designate a concept-a concept that may still be undefinable today, but which the romantics took great pains to delimit. They, in any case, will approach it explicitly as a new genre, beyond the divisions of classical (or modern) poetics and capable of resolving the inherent ("generic") divisions of the written thing. Beyond divisions and all de-finition, this genre is thus programmed in romanticism as the genre of literature: the genericity, so to speak, and the generativity of literature, grasping and producing themselves in an entirely new, infinitely new Work. The absolute, therefore, of literature. But also its ab-solute, its isolation in its perfect closure upon itself (upon its own organicity), as in the well-known image of the hedgehog in Athenaeum fragment 206.

At the same time, however, the stakes turn out to be even larger. The absolute of literature is not so much poetry (whose modern concept is also invented in Athenaeum fragment 116) as it is poiesy, according to an etymologi-cal appeal that the romantics do not fail to make. Poiesy or, in other words, production. The thought of the "literary genre" is thus less concerned with the production of the literary thing than with production, absolutely speaking. Romantic poetry sets out to penetrate the essence of polesy, in which the literary thing produces the truth of production in itself, and thus, as will be evident in all that follows, the truth of the production of itself, of autopoiesy. And if it is true (as Hegel will soon demonstrate, entirely against romanticism) that auto-production constitutes the ultimate instance and closure of the speculative absolute, then romantic thought involves not only the absolute of literature, but literature as the absolute. Romanticism is the inauguration of the literary absolute.

This is is not, once again, the romanticism one ordinarily hears about. Madame de Staël foresaw it, in her own manner. Despite her somewhat curt (and very "French") resistance to theory, she had at least understood that what was new, in the Germany of 1800, was not "literature" but criticism or, as she also puts it, "literary theory." 18 A "romantic literature" existed, of course-she was the last to ignore it-just as a "romantic sensibility" existed, which had already spread across virtually all of Europe. There were even writers and poets around the Athenaeum (or in the Athenaeum itself), and the Schlegels, for example, clearly recognized Tieck's or Jean Paul's novels, Wackenroder's tales, and Sophie Mereau's poetry as modern (or romantic) works that they could discuss on the same level as Diderot or the English novel. But they also knew that this was not yet "it." This was the fantastic or the sentimental, but not fantasy or reflection. These were works capable of "playing with themselves," but not works that comprised their own theory. Goethe was not far from incarnating the great ideal (as Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes-the "trinity" of the Athenaeum-did historically), but his lack of philosophy was a little too much. He was not yet, not altogether, equal to the period. In short, there were only indications of what they were awaiting as romanticism or what they were attempting to forge as romanticism. 19 Hence, their critical position toward both Weimar and Berlin, toward both the classicist ideal and fantastic literature. Jena wanted to be their sublation [relève].

What this amounts to saying-and this is what Madame de Staël falls to understand (condemning the French university and everything it affects, practically until today, to ignorance on this subject)-is that romanticism is neither mere "literature" (they invent the concept) nor simply a "theory of literature (ancient and modern). Rather, it is theory itself as literature or, in other words, literature producing itself as it produces its own theory. The literary absolute is also, and perhaps above all, this absolute literary operation.

In the end, Jena will be remembered as the place where it was claimed that the theory of the novel must itself be a novel. This demand, with which our "modernity" is still grappling, is expressed, a year before the journal is founded, in Critical Fragment115, and it furnishes the entire program of the Athenaeum: "The whole history of modern poetry is a running commentary on the following brief philosophical text: all art should become science, and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one." If only for this reason, it seemed to us necessary (in other words still urgent) to undertake a properly philosophical study of romanticism. This undertaking results neither from a vaguely fashionable taste for theoretical technicality, nor from any sort of predetermined "professional angle" on the question. As should be evident by now, it results from a necessity inherent in the thing itself. Which is to say, inherent in literature itself. For it was not just yesterday, nor even in Jena-although it was indeed Jena that taught us to think it-that literature's destiny was tied to that "brief philosophical text" in which, since Plato and Aristotle at least, the union of poetry and philosophy is postulated and called for. Madame de Staël, to refer to her one last time (although in this respect she is admittedly a paragon of critical unintelligence), raised the question, having become perplexed by the Schlegels' work, whether Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare "needed this metaphysics in order to be great writers." She resorted to this feeble question (for Homer is one thing, remaining as much a mystery for the Schlegels as for every one else, but the other two . . .) in order to justify her tempered enthusiasm with regard to "philosophical systems applied to literature." 20 In many ways, and in spite of everything, the same feeble question still confronts us. As proof of this, one might ask: how many people, even among the best intentioned, are repeating Jena today-because they have not been able to read it? But the decision to take a philosophical approach to these texts (a more precise justification will be given in the "Overture") in no way indicates that we have become concerned with the "philosophy of the romantics." It exists, quite clearly, and is in fact, broadly speaking, better known in France than "literary theory." It has been necessary, obviously, for us to suppose that it lies behind each of our attempts at analysis. But the object of our study is exclusively the question of literature, and, as a reading of the entirety of the fragments will reveal, this focus has obliged us to abandon or eliminate a variety of other motifs (concerning science and politics especially, but also aesthetics-music in particular). This accounts for our choice of texts and for our plan. As for the texts-with the exception of the "Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism," which seemed to impose itself as an introductory text that would circumscribe the "anticipatory force" ["avant-coup"] of the question of literature-our decision to concentrate on the central theoretical texts of the Athenaeum years imposed itself. This is why the limit-dates of the Athenaeum 1797- 1798 to 1800) are hardly exceeded, except by what most closely pertains to them. Actually, we have based our choice on Friedrich's own itinerary, which we follow from his first attempts at the fragment (the Critical Fragments of the Lyceum) to his clarification of the very concept of "criticism" ( "On the Essence of Criticism"), or in other words, from 1797 to 1804. Our study will therefore be concerned with twelve texts, one of which is admittedly quite short ( Friedrich sonnet, "Athenaeum," which appeared, with two or three others, in the last issue of the journal). Five of these texts are drawn from the Athenaeum itself: the Athenaeum Fragments, of course, but also Ideas, On Philosophy (better known as the "Letter to Dorothea"), the famous Dialogue on Poetry and, finally, the sonnet just mentioned. With the exception of the latter, these are in fact the most important texts to appear in the journal, 21 and it is no accident that all of them, partially or not, are by Friedrich Schlegel. Partially or not because the Athenaeum Fragments-this extreme limit of romantic writing, which Friedrich valued particularly-are a collective and anonymous ensemble, jointly authored by the two Schlegel brothers, their wives, Novalis, and Schleiermacher. Although they undeniably bear Friedrich's mark, they are to such an extent the work of the entire group that, for historical criticism, one hundred or so of the fragments remain inextricably bound up in problems of attribution. In addition to the five texts drawn from the Athenaeum-and aside from the 1795 "Systemprogram," which is also of complex, anonymous authorship-we will rely on the two other above-mentioned texts by Friedrich Schlegel (the Critical Fragments and "On the Essence of Criticism"), one text by August (his 1801 lecture), two (or three) texts by Schelling ( Heinz Widerporst's Epicurean Confession of Faith, a satiric and speculative poem; the introduction to his 1802 lectures; and, if one attributes it to him, the "Systemprogram"), and, finally, one text by Novalis (the first two of five Dialogues that he wrote for the Athenaeum but that the journal never published). Our plan, on the other hand, is quite simple. As far as possible, we have attempted to reconstitute the internal evolution of romanticism and to retrace romanticism's "years of apprenticeship" (which by no means makes our study a "novel"). This is why a certain rational progression [progression raisonée] is intended to coincide, with the exception of a few minimal discrepancies, with the chronology of the Athenaeum. Thus, having set out from the question of the fragment as a genre (or as "genre"), or in other words, from the moment the question of literature is first raised ( "The Fragment: The Fragmentary Exigency"), we took the speculative "step" necessarily raised by the question itself ( "The Idea: Religion within the Limits of Art"), before approaching this question for itself and in itself ( "The Poem: A Nameless Art""), thereby attaining the properly romantic moment of reflection or of "literature raised to the second power" ( "Criticism: The Formation of Character").


One is nonetheless quite correct in suspecting that our reasons for undertaking and presenting this work are not "archaeological" in nature-or even historical, as we have said-but are precisely related to our situation and interests today. Not that our goal is to establish the "contemporary relevance of romanticism." The usual results of this sort of program are well known: a suppression pure and simple of history, the dubious immortalization of what is supposedly given "contemporary relevance," the (far from innocent) occultation of the specific characteristics of the present. Very much to the contrary, what interests us in romanticism is that we still belong to the era it opened up. The present period continues to deny precisely this belonging, which defines us (despite the inevitable divergence introduced by repetition). A veritable romantic unconscious is discernable today, in most of the central motifs of our "modernity." Not the least result of romanticism's indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing-or in order not to recognize-that it has done little more than rehash romanticism's discoveries. To suspect a trap in the imprecision of the Schlegels, and to comprehend that the trap had worked perfectly, required all the lucidity of a Benjamin. This trap still works, in fact, whenever our period decides to verify the "contemporary relevance of romanticism." Thus (according to the latest fashion), one finds the motif of "romanticism" in fundamental revolt against Reason and the State, against the totalitarianism of Cogito and System. A romanticism of libertarian and literary rebellion, literary because libertarian, whose art would incarnate insurrection. This motif is not simply false, of course. But it would not be far from it, were one to overlook its reverse (or obverse . . .) side. For the literary Absolute aggravates and radicalizes the thinking of totality and the Subject. It infinitizes this thinking, and therein, precisely, rests its ambiguity. Not that romanticism itself did not begin to perturb this Absolute, or proceed, despite itself, to undermine its Work [Oeuvre]. But it is important to carefully distinguish the signs of this small and complex fissuring and consequently to know how to read these signs in the first place-as signs of a romantic, not romanesque, reading of romanticism. Today, in fact, romanticism is known only through-or deliberately limited to-what was indirectly transmitted by either the English tradition (from Coleridge, who read them closely, to Joyce, who knew everything and always more than one suspects), by Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (who did not discuss what they derived from it), or-but here the path is even more indirect and for good reason-by Hegel and Mallarmé (or even by what, in France, takes on the specifically romantic name of "Symbolism"). But in almost every case, when the essential is not deliberately obscured or distorted, it still goes unperceived. If it nonetheless appears, it is repeated without comprehension and with no awareness of what is at stake. This essential, however, is of great concern to us. It is precisely what determines the age we live in as the critical age par excellence or, in other words, as the "age" (almost two hundred years old, after all) in which literature-or whatever one wishes to call it-devotes itself exclusively to the search for its own identity, taking with it all or part of philosophy and several sciences (curiously referred to as the humanities) and charting the space of what we now refer to, using a word of which the romantics were particularly fond, as "theory. Thus it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural productions in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of the auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work's conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject. It goes without saying that this observation is not made for the pleasure of recognizing ourselves in romanticism, but on the contrary in order to gauge what in fact functions as a genuine denegation and also to guard against a fascination and a temptation. For insofar as we are, we are all preoccupied with fragmentation, the absolute novel, anonymity, collective practice, the journal, and the manifesto; as a necessary corollary, we are all threatened by indisputable authorities, petty dictatorships, and the simplistic and brutal discussions that are capable of interrupting questioning for decades; we are all, still and always, aware of the Crisis, convinced that "interventions" are necessary and that the least of texts is immediately "effective" ["opératoire"]; we all think, as if it went without saying, that politics passes through the literary (or the theoretical). Romanticism is our naiveté. This does not mean that romanticism is our error. But rather that we have to become aware of the necessity of this repetitive compulsion. That is why this book involves an exigency, but one we do not wish to speak of as "criticism," for good reason. At the most we might call it "vigilance." We know very well that one cannot simply dismiss romanticism (one cannot dismiss a naiveté). All the same, for this is not a superhuman task, one can exhibit a minimum of lucidity. These days, this would already be a great deal.