Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf; Knopf, 512 pp., $35
For a few years at the turn of the 19th century, Jena, a small university town in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, was an intellectual Shangri-La. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Though its population was barely 4,500, Jena was for a while home to many of the leading German thinkers of the time—Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Novalis, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schiller, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel, and Ludwig Tieck. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived 14 miles away in Weimar, was a frequent visitor and collaborator.
Andrea Wulf, born in India and raised in Germany, impulsively moved to England in her late teens and adopted the English language as her professional medium. She finds kindred spirits in the proudly independent, unconventional prodigies of Jena. They inspire in her the extravagant boast that “the last decade of the eighteenth century saw more famous poets, writers, philosophers and thinkers living in Jena in proportion to its population than in any other town before or since.” The Athens of Aristophanes, Democritus, Plato, Protagoras, Sophocles, and Thucydides, like the Princeton of Freeman J. Dyson, Albert Einstein, Clifford Geertz, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and Erwin Panofsky, might, per capita, have outshone even Jena. However, Wulf’s central assertion is indisputable: “The Jena Set changed our world. They did so irrevocably. It is impossible to imagine our lives, thoughts and way of understanding the world without the foundation of their ground-breaking ideas.”
Wulf titled her 2015 study of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (who often visited his older brother, the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, in Jena) The Invention of Nature. Like recent popular books that make broad historical claims—for example, that the Scots invented the modern world or that the Irish saved civilization—Magnificent Rebels credits the Jena Set for “the invention of the self.” Its members initiated the Romantic movement and redefined romanticism to mean an emphasis on subjectivity, a preference for emotion over reason, an exaltation of the imagination, a reverence for the natural world, and a yearning to poeticize science. Fichte was not the first philosopher to take the Ich as his starting point (René Descartes’s cogito ergo sum did that 150 years earlier), but a preoccupation with the self would be inherited from Jena by thinkers as disparate as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ayn Rand, and Martin Buber, and it would manifest itself in the institutionalized cravings of consumer society. The German Romantics predated and inspired poets and philosophers in Britain, France, and the United States. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was so enthralled by the Jena thinkers that much of his Biographia Literaria is plagiarized from Schelling.
Members of the Jena Set are not strangers to anyone conversant with German cultural history. Much has been written in German about the subject, including Peter Neumann’s Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits, published in 2018 and translated into English earlier this year. And though English-language readers surely have heard of Goethe, they might be unfamiliar with his contemporaries and confused by the profusion of Friedrichs—Schelling, Schiller, Schlegel, and Schleiermacher. Wulf begins with a list of dramatis personae and, relying on letters, journals, and published texts, proceeds to recount the stories of distinct personalities during troubled times. Her book is a collective biography of talented and productive men and women who worked brilliantly together, apart, and in opposition.
The story begins with Schiller, the first of the major figures to reside in Jena. Already famous for his 1781 play The Robbers, he founded the journal Die Horen, which drew many of its contributors to the town. The polymath Goethe came to Jena to supervise its botanical garden. His was an inductive mind, working from the specific to the general, but he developed a close friendship with Schiller, who worked from the general to the specific. Yet it was the house at Leutragasse 5, shared by poet August Wilhelm Schlegel, his free-spirited wife, Caroline, plus August’s younger brother, Friedrich, and Friedrich’s lover, Dorothea, daughter of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, that became the cradle of German Romanticism. There, August and Caroline translated Shakespeare’s plays into versions that turned the Bard into the quintessential Romantic. Many German speakers consider the couple’s translations superior to the original. The philosopher Fichte and the poet Novalis spent many hours in the Schlegel household in conversations that fertilized their own work. During one dazzling four-day session, writes Wulf, “they composed poems, drafted philosophical treatises, edited essays, set up scientific experiments and translated passages from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Shakespeare.”
But these were high-strung, competitive, and libidinous people, and their idyllic creative community was doomed to dissolve. Dependent on income from teaching, some members of the Jena Set resented it when the charismatic speakers Fichte and Schelling drew students away from their own lectures. After Friedrich Schlegel attacked Schiller in print, neither spoke to the other. Soon, other enmities developed. For a while, August Schlegel seemed complaisant about the openly adulterous relationship between Schelling and his own wife, Caroline, but numerous sexual transgressions and rivalries also fractured the group. The translator Tieck dismissed the Leutragasse coterie as being “like a big farm full of pigs.” Dysentery ended the promising life of Caroline Schlegel’s 15-year-old daughter, Auguste, in 1800, months before tuberculosis killed 28-year-old Novalis. Increasingly, disease and death took a toll on the Jena Set.
Germany would not become a state until 1871, and in its 1,500 jurisdictions, no central authority could enforce censorship. The Jena Set, then, was relatively unshackled by convention. Inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution, its members saw their own revolution founder in spasms of freedom. By 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte arrived to “liberate” Jena, most of its authors had already left. The invading French army, which many had welcomed as a force for liberté, égalité, et fraternité, left the town in ruins. l
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
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