Novalis: Signs of Revolution

Novalis: Signs of Revolution

by William Arctander O'Brien

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Novalis traces the meteoric career of one of the most striking—and most strikingly misunderstood—figures of German Romanticism. Although Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known by his pseudonym, Novalis) published scarcely eighty pages of writings in his lifetime, his considerable fame and influence continued to spread long after his death in 1801. His posthumous reputation, however, was largely based on the myth manufactured by opportunistic editors, as Wm. Arctander O’Brien reveals in this book, the first to extract Hardenberg from the distortions of history.
A member of the generation of the 1770s that included Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling, Hardenberg was an avid follower of the French Revolution, a semiotician avant la lettre, and a prescient critic of religion. Yet in 1802, only a year after his death, the writer who had scandalized the Prussian court was marketed to a nation at war as a reactionary patriot, a sweet versifier of Idealism, and a morbid mystic. Identifying the break between Hardenberg’s own early Romanticism and the late Romanticism that falsified it, Novalis shows us a writer fully engaged in revolutionary politics and examines his semiotic readings of philosophy and of the political, scientific, and religious institutions of the day. Drawing on the full range of Novalis’s writings, including his poetry, notebooks, novels, and journals, O’Brien situates his semiotics between those of the eighteenth century and those of the twentieth and demonstrates the manner in which a concern for signs and language permeated all aspects of his thought.
The most extensive study of Hardenberg available in English, Novalis makes this revolutionary theoretician visible for the first time. Mining a crucial chapter in the history of semiotics and social theory, it suggests fruitful, sometimes problematic connections between semiotic, historical, "deconstructive," and philological practices as it presents a portrait of one of the most complex figures in literary history. Indispensable for scholars of German Romanticism, Novalis will also be of interest to students of comparative literature and European intellectual history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399841
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 731 KB

About the Author

Wm. Arctander O’Brien is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

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Signs of Revolution

By Arctander O'Brien

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9984-1


The Making of a Myth: Tieck and Schlegel's Editing of the Novalis Writings

In 1801, when Hardenberg died at the age of twenty-eight, he had published scarcely eighty pages of writings: one juvenile poem, two fragment collections (Faith and Love and Pollen), eight short poems (Flowers—mostly couplets), ten anonymous fragments (among Friedrich Schlegel's Athenaeum Fragments), and the Hymns to the Night. Yet more than an early death had kept Hardenberg from getting into print. He had tried to publish three other works unsuccessfully. The first, Political Aphorisms, was abruptly stopped in press when Faith and Love provoked the anger of the Prussian court. The second, Europa, was rejected by the Schlegels, who, heeding the advice of Goethe and Schleiermacher, dismissed the essay as too inflammatory for the Athenaeum. The last, several poems originally entitled the Song Book and later issued among the Spiritual Songs, was also shelved by the Schlegels, this time to make room for the Hymns to the Night. Censorship—official and unofficial, in the guise of prudence, good taste, and editorial savvy—cut short Hardenberg's literary career as effectively as did his terminal illness.

Controversial in his own lifetime, Hardenberg proved more tractable, as do most writers, once he was dead. Ironically, the editorial censorship that had kept Hardenberg out of print during his lifetime later helped him into it, when Tieck and Schlegel issued the posthumous Novalis Schriften (Novalis Writings) of 1802. Without Tieck and Schlegel, Hardenberg's writings would almost certainly have persisted as a mere footnote in the history of German Romanticism. By dying in his friends' arms, so to speak, Hardenberg managed to increase his literary output over fifteen times.

This celebrity did not come without a price. While the Tieck-Schlegel Writings lifted Hardenberg from obscurity to fame, the distorting effect its five editions produced on his writings far outlasted their circulation between 1802 and 1846. Aside from having been among Hardenberg's closest friends, Tieck and Schlegel were also among the most shrewd marketers of literature in their day—whether for the public or the university—and their smoothing hands produced a Novalis that was not only readable (in the sense that Hardenberg's manuscripts seemed hardly so), but also geared to public consumption.

The construction of the early editions of the Novalis Writings would be of merely historical interest today had their influence persisted only through the turn of the century, when they were superseded by the more complete and exact editions of Heilborn (1901) and Minor (1907). Yet while the Tieck-Schlegel edition of the Writings has been philologically overcome, the tone it set for Hardenberg's critical reception has dominated the Novalis industry up to the present day—in spite of the fact that the greater part of Hardenberg's writings are now available in the critical-historical edition begun in 1965 and still underway.

The myth of Novalis has demonstrated an uncanny ability to outlive its apparent justification. To read Hardenberg today, one must still read against the myths constructed by Tieck and Schlegel, myths that Hardenberg's writings both invite and contest, myths that reflect critical prejudices still very much with us, and that, in their larger contours, are by no means confined to Hardenberg or the Romantics. The assumptions that still today make up the Novalis myth—and the philological and biographical myths of most famous authors—were already at play in the decisions of his earliest editors, who subjected his writings to now questionable procedures of representation and established a "Romantically" contrived biography to support their editorial practice. It is for these reasons that an examination of the outdated edition of the Novalis Writings can prove instructive: not only to see how Hardenberg's life and writings were construed as myth, but to illustrate how Romantic scholarship—in which literary criticism still participates—operated in an epoch-making and paradigmatic instance. Novalis became the mythical, quintessential Romantic through Romantic editing.

Tieck and Schlegel's main objective was to package the relatively obscure Hardenberg for a larger reading public. Their decision to effect this through an edition of his collected writings entailed the immediate consequence of a necessary homogenization of published and unpublished writings. Furthermore, Tieck and Schlegel's lack of interest in the temporal development of Hardenberg's writings, and in the contexts that had produced them, took form silently in the ostensibly normal and logical format of the Writings. For practical purposes, Hardenberg's writings appeared as if all at once, cut of the same cloth.

The homogenization of form and domestication of context were reinforced by the mere effect of the printed page, whose illusion of order and finality tended to submerge the fragility and tentativeness of Hardenberg's handwritten manuscripts. This change of appearance—inescapable for any piece of writing subjected to typesetting, and, one might say, for this reason utterly banal—is worth remembering. Hardenberg's writings were rarely intended for publication and are in general intimately bound up with their private, unedited, handwritten form. In this sense, the printing of the Writings effected changes that, while common to most mass-manufactured books, remain especially misleading in Hardenberg's case. It was precisely the seeming accidents of context, discontinuity, and incompletion in Hardenberg's writing that Tieck and Schlegel sought to domesticate—and with good reason, given the literary expectations and political climate of the day. Yet the success of their undertaking—and Hardenberg's readers do owe Tieck and Schlegel an incalculable debt—prepared the ground for a reception that would, with few exceptions, continue to ignore the material state and development of Hardenberg's writing, its irreverence, and the context of its production. The neatly matched volumes of the Novalis Writings entombed his often flippant or subversive jottings in the mausoleum of institutional authority.

Aside from the technical exigencies under which Tieck and Schlegel had to work, it might appear that little or no obtrusive editing was needed for the greater part of the Writings: the Hymns to the Night, the Spiritual Songs, the unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and the prose piece The Novices of Saï's. Yet even these works—whose contents are more tendentious than has generally been taken for granted—called for certain editorial interventions on the way to the printer. Even here it is prudent to withhold an entirely unreserved trust in Hardenberg's editors. Today we possess little of this material in Hardenberg's own hand. Manuscripts exist only for an early version of the Hymns; for the brief, incomplete second part of Heinrich von Ofterdingen; and for ten of the fifteen poems that Tieck and Schlegel issued as the Spiritual Songs. These were all printed by Tieck and Schlegel in relatively accurate form. Both the Songs and part 2 of Heinrich von Ofterdingen follow the extant manuscripts, and the Hymns were reissued in the Athenaeum version of 1800, which resembles Hardenberg's own versified manuscript.

The manuscripts for Hardenberg's larger prose works—Saïs, and part 1 of Ofterdingen—have been lost. While it seems probable—due to the material itself, the editors' correspondence, and the haste with which they worked— that no lengthy revisions were attempted by them, we do have evidence indicating that certain important alterations were given to these works before they went public.

The textual reliability of The Novices of Saïs depends primarily on the editorial fidelity of Hardenberg's younger brother, Karl, who himself had literary pretensions. After his elder brother's death, no one was able to find the manuscript of Saïs, which Hardenberg had read aloud to his friends in 1798, and which they now sought to include in the Writings. After ten anxious months, Karl finally discovered that it had been left with his brother's fiancée, Julie von Charpentier. According to Karl, Julie would not part with the manuscript, and he could supply Tieck only with a copy. Of course, neither Tieck nor Schlegel raised any question about its accuracy: they were entirely dependent on Karl for access to his brother's papers. There is, however, cause for doubt. Although Karl claimed to have faithfully copied the manuscript along with its extensive marginalia, he was no philologue, and it remains unclear how and if these marginalia were actually incorporated into the version realized by Tieck for the press. With both the original manuscript and the copy now lost, we remain, as surely as were Tieck and Schlegel, at Karl's mercy.

This is a less than reassuring situation. Karl would later try to stop the publication of passages he found offensive in his brother's writings, and, while he seemed proud of the Saïs manuscript produced for Tieck, his accompanying letter already parades a sinister sentimentality, which not only became rampant among Hardenberg's readers, but which from the start provided his editors with a 'benevolent' ground for their censorship. (Censorship is, of course, always benevolent.) Writing of his brother, Karl effused: "Now I truly understand that he had to die; we are not yet ripe for the prodigious revelations that would have come to us through him." Karl here sets in motion the myth of Novalis as morbid prophet. Karl's apotheosis of his more talented brother and the inferior status assigned to himself (and to everyone else) serves to de-realize Novalis and attributes our safety to his silence. Like all prophets, Novalis fares poorly at home: it is, after all, in order to suppress their revelations that they are made into prophets. Karl's lack of philological skill and his later censorial proclivities must suspend our trust in the version of Saïs that has come down to us through him.

With the printing of Hardenberg's longest work, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the stamp of his editors begins to show more clearly on the textual material itself. In April 1800 Hardenberg had produced a clean draft of part 1, but had been forced by professional commitments and ailing health to abandon part 2 in its early stages. After his death, A. W. Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Tieck considered finishing the novel for him. The mere suggestion enraged Friedrich Schlegel, who opposed the idea on pragmatic grounds as "impracticable and quite improper," and, invoking the sacred nature of his friend's text—religion now at the service of marketability—condemned it as "sacrilegious, abominable, godless, and unholy." The others quickly retreated before this combination of cannon, crucifix, and cash register. Tieck, to whom the actual editing fell, satisfied his urge to finish the novel by appending his own version of its projected continuation—an appendix whose spuriousness was later established by the printing of Hardenberg's own notes. As far as the finished parts of the novel were concerned, Tieck claimed to have changed "very little" and only "unimportant details, partly out of respect and love for Hardenberg, and partly because"—here the sacred text reappears—"it would be sacrilegious."

Hardenberg's sacralized novel had, however, undergone two crucial changes—even if they seemed "unimportant" to Tieck. First, its title had been altered from that invariably employed by its author. Hardenberg had always and explicitly referred to his novel as Heinrich von Afterdingen, and never once, as it is now called, Heinrich von Ofterdingen. In the middle ages, as Hardenberg certainly knew, the word "Afterding" referred to the popular continuation of the Franconian judicial assembly (das Ding). His editors' microscopic alteration of A to O effectively silenced this juridical reference. Simply by replacing one letter with another, Tieck and Schlegel quietly inaugurated the apolitical reading that would henceforth dominate the reception of the novel.

The second departure from Hardenberg's intentions for his novel turned around its printed form. With a sudden burst of scruples in July 1801, A. W. Schlegel insisted that the novel be issued separately—under his editorship— in the exact format of Goethe's 1795 novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Schlegel related to Tieck that Hardenberg had "placed very great emphasis on this condition, that it was his first condition" for the novel's publication. Given Hardenberg's earlier decision to publish Faith and Love in the Yearbook of the Prussian Monarchy partly on account of its frontispiece engravings of the king and queen, Schlegel's contention for Hardenberg's concern with the printed format of his novel seems plausible. However, the separate printing—whose format would have impressed a graphic intertextual reference over the entire work—was declined by the printer Unger, who was probably hesitant ever again to print anything by Hardenberg after having taken the heat in the scandal over Faith and Love. Tieck, too, judged the Meister format "inessential," since, as he put it, "the book now has another intent." Indeed it did: it had gone from being what Hardenberg himself had called "my political novel," a pointed reply to Goethe's "Evangelium of economy," to what Tieck envisioned as a "lasting monument"—a gravestone.

If Hardenberg's editors intervened into his less topical works with relative restraint—though with fateful consequences—their treatment of his more controversial writings was less bridled. Fully aware of their potential for scandal, Tieck, Friedrich Schlegel, and Karl von Hardenberg unanimously decided to suppress, with the exception of the Hymns and the socalled Spiritual Songs, all the finished writings. As a result, four of the six texts actually completed for publication by Hardenberg were excluded from the Writings: neither Pollen, Faith and Love, the Political Aphorisms, nor Christianity or Europe were to appear as such. Instead, selections from all four, along with hundreds of excerpts from Hardenberg's voluminous notebooks, were cut and pasted into the long final section of the Writings called Fragments on Various Topics (Fragmente vermischten Inhalts). Here, Hardenberg's published and unpublished writings were trimmed down, mixed together, and rewritten. This editorial procedure, whose results have been said to border on "mutilation" and "falsification," stripped Hardenberg's fragments of their internal cohesion and obscured his notebooks' development. Shorter entries from different periods were silently combined, while longer ones were shortened, distorting Hardenberg's spontaneity and integrity. Although enough spice was judiciously retained for a liberal marketability, Hardenberg's most scandalous jottings were routinely suppressed. With certain additions—most notably the supplemental volume of fragments edited in 1846 by Eduard von Bülow, who often proceeded even more willfully than had Tieck or Schlegel—this arrangement provided the only access to Hardenberg's fragments until the twentieth century, and thus determined not only the reception of the fragments, but also, through the context they created, of Hardenberg's other writings.

The suppression of Hardenberg's prepared writings tended to magnify the importance of the Hymns to the Night. This valorization was no mere side effect of Tieck and Schlegel's editing, but its expressed purpose. While engaged in the initial selection of the fragments, Friedrich Schlegel explained his rationale for editing down Pollen, Faith and Love, and Europa, while maintaining the Hymns in their original form:

Since all three essays in their entirety and individual relations would only be misleading as to the character of their author, I consider essential the unaltered printing of the Hymns on the Night [sic], which, on the contrary, illuminate it most beautifully and easily.

Hardenberg here falls an early victim to Schlegel's theory of the Charakteristik, of that literary "essence" whose revelation he elsewhere announced to be "the highest task of criticism and the most profound marriage of history with philosophy." Karl's prophetic brother became Schlegel's characteristic Novalis, for whose revelation individual works had to be suppressed. Though Schlegel claimed to marry history to philosophy, it was precisely the historical form and context of Hardenberg's prepared writings that he sacrificed to reveal his friend's "character"—which he imagined to be in the Hymns.


Excerpted from Novalis by Arctander O'Brien. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Prologue: From the Cleared Land,
Between Revolution and Reaction,
On Style, Translations, and Notes,
Part I. Myths,
Chapter 1: The Making of a Myth: Tieck and Schlegel's Editing of the Novalis Writings,
Chapter 2: The Making of Sophie,
Part II. Theory,
Chapter 3: From Filosofie to Fiction: Language and Semiotics in the Fichte Studies,
Part III. Practice,
Chapter 4: The Richly Sown Field: Writings of 1798,
Chapter 5: Romantic Religion: 1799-1800,
Chapter 6: Heinrich von Afterdingen and the Legitimations of Poesy,
Postscript: The End of Words,

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