The Oriental renaissance played a vital role in the origins of the Romantic Movement. It seemed to German scholars of the time that the Aryan/Indian/Persian tradition linked with the original barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire from the East and, together with the myths of the Scandanavians, provided an alternative (more northerly) tradition to the Greek and Latin Mediterranean classicism that had dominated European life and thought for the previous 2,500 years. Ancestral mythology could be “the childhood dreams of our species.” Original Indian scriptures were written in poetry. Poetry was “the mother tongue.” Man is the animal that sings.
Heinrich Heine wrote, “Our lyrics are aimed at singing the Orient.” The source of all religion can be found “in the unconscious or in the Orient, from whence all religions came.”
Now, Kant’s great contribution was to grasp that it is the mind that shapes knowledge, that there is such a process as intuition, which is instinctive, and that the phenomenon in the world that we can be most certain of is the difference between “I” and “not I.” Reason is inadequate.
To find out what I must do in a given situation, I must listen to “an inner voice.” The inner voice does not conform to science. Its commands are not necessarily facts at all, and, moreover, are not necessarily true or false. The purpose of the inner voice is to set someone a value, and this has nothing to do with science, but is created by the individual. It was a basic shift in the very meaning of individuality and totally new.
The rival ways of looking at the world – the cool, detached light of disinterested scientific reason, and the red-blooded, passionate creations of the artist – constitute the modern incoherence. France [the bully of Europe], ruled by Napolean, conquered peoples of Austria, Prussia, and several smaller German states. In response, many German-speaking people turned inward to intellectual ideas as a way to unite and inspire their people. “Romanticism” is rooted in torment and unhappiness and, at the end of the 18th century, the German-speaking countries were the most tormented in Europe.
For Schelling (1775-1854) the world consisted of phenomena which varied in their degree of self-consciousness, from total unconsciousness, gradually coming to full consciousness of themselves. At its most fundamental, there are the brute rocks that form the earth, which represent the “will” in a condition of total unconsciousness. Gradually, life infuses them, producing the first biological species. Plants and animals follow, self-consciousness growing, leading to the realization of some kind of purpose.
Nature represents progressive stages of the will and its striving toward something “but is not aware what it strives for.”
DER GRÜNE HEINRICH, “Green Henry” (1854) is a psychic autobiography of Gottfried Keller in the same sense and with the same limitations as ‘Werther’ or ‘Wilhelm Meister’ is of Goethe. Truth is freely mingled with fiction, and there is a generalizing purpose to exhibit the psychic disease that affected the whole generation of the transition from romanticism to realism in life and art.
After his father’s death, Keller’s family lived in constant poverty, and, because of Keller’s difficulties with his teachers, in continual disagreement with school authorities. Keller later gave a good rendering of his experiences in this period in his long novel, Der grüne Heinrich (1850-55; 2nd version, 1879). His mother seems to have brought him up in as carefree a condition as possible, sparing for him from her scanty meals, and allowing him the greatest possible liberty in the disposition of his time, the choice of a calling, etc.
Gottfried Keller was concerned with the cultural contradictions of capitalism. How can one live a fulfilled life in such a society? It may be impossible. The radical turmoil that existed in the “hungry forties” (1840’s) produced a foretaste of revolution in Germany in 1844, when Silesian weavers mounted an insurrection. Reduced to starvation, their uprising was quickly put down. This inspired Heinrich Heine’s bitter proletarian poem, “Die schlesischen Weber” (The Silesian Weavers), which would resonate throughout Germany down the next century.
note: Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) was famously ambivalent about his “Jewishness.” He said he was German first. In 1924 he described himself as, “One of the most German beasts in existence … my breast is an archive of German feeling.”
Heinrich Heine described the Anti-Semitism of his era as “more economic than religious.” Heine challenged “God” head-on:
Drop those holy parables and Pietist hypotheses:
Answer us these damning questions – No evasions, if you please
From his mattress/grave, he tells us that poetry can be no help in this desolate world. We have entered the age of prose.
Georg Buchner (1813-1837) had always been interested in politics and, appalled by the conditions of his environs, helped to form a secret society dedicated to revolution. He longed for the poor to attain self-consciousness. In Buchner’s day, the proletarian were not yet a class. He was forced into exile when one of his pamphlets was judged to be incendiary.
His story/play, Woyzeck, based on true events, tells the story of a common soldier driven mad – and to suicide – by unyielding military discipline and strict hierarchal societies where “Man is an abyss; you get dizzy when you look down.”
The play, based on the life of J.C. Woyzecjk, is a savage indictment of the social conditions existing in Germany with the new forms of poverty caused by INDUSTRIALIZATION, with individuals all pitted against each other, and the “fundamental ignorance of most people about the psychological pressures that can exist in simply getting through the day.”