Philosophy of the Novel III: The Place of the Novel in Hegel’s Idealism and in Romantic Irony

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see my last post and post of 27th August)

Innovations in aesthetic theory and in literary production come together in Friedrich Schiller, Novalis, Richter and Hölderlin. It is Novalis and Richter who develop the importance of the novel, along with the other Romantic Ironists, including Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck who also combined literary theory with literary creativity. For the purposes of this projectthe Romantic Ironists are more significant than Hölderlin given their ideas about the novel, but Hölderlin will also play a role as an expression of an aesthetic literary subjectivism that helps illustrate the concerns of the Jena Romantics, also known as the Romantic Ironists with regard to essays in the last two years of the eighteenth century at a time when the writers concerned were gather in Jena and were  collaborating.

Their themes and preoccupation include the contrast between the Classical and the Romantic, which connects with the contrast between the naive and sentimental. Those two contrasts revolve around the differences between immediacy and reflectiveness in literature and aesthetics, which establish a way of thinking about Homeric epic on one side and the modern novel on the other side. The novel has some origin in epic, but for the Romantic Ironists it is more the Platonic dialogue that anticipates the novel due to its integration of poetry and philosophy.

The Platonic dialogue shows an interplay of relative points of view, which itself indicates an absolute point of view above them. The associated capacity for reflection is not present in the naive naturalism of Homer, in which there is little  awareness of the limits of the dominant point of view. Awareness of the limits of any one point less to the incorporation of irony into philosophy and literature, in which the irony is the awareness of the limits of any one point of view expressed. This is taken into a view of nature as chemical, so interactive and dynamic, rather than mechanical, so that nature becomes part of ironic, romantic, or sentimental dynamism, rather than the course of a naturalistic, classic or naive fixity.

The Romantic Ironists presented their views in essays, which often had a connected literary style, and in their own literary productions.  Given that their literary output has not become amongst the internationally known parts of German literature and their own enthusiasm for Laurence Sterne and Cervantes, their contributions to literature will be focus of the discussion of literary texts here. The enthusiasm of the Jena Romantics for the novel as what allows the exploration of the unity of philosophy and poetry was not universal in Germany. Hegel was dismissive of the novel, the reasons for this and their need to exclude the novel from the highest achievement, to implicitly link it with the ‘death of art’ as expression of religion and philosophy in Hegel, comes next.

Hegel himself had reacted to the Jena Romantics and other expressions of Romantic subjectivism, such as that of his friend the poet Friedrich Hölderlin.  The most notable examples of this are in Hegel’s 1807 book, Phenomenology of Spirit, in the discussion of the beautiful soul and the unhappy consciousness, where Hegel looks at the dangers of attempting to find a pure inner subjectivity. Hegel also deals with this issue in various other places including his Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Right, but most significant for the purposes of this chapter will be Hegel’s dismissive comments on the novel in general and on Cervantes in particular in the Aesthetics.

Hegel regards the novel as a secondary literary genre engaged in a kind of insubstantial playfulness. It was never part of the role that literature had in representing absolute spirit for Hegel, and never will since he believes that philosophy and religion can now express absolute spirit without resort to aesthetic and literary representation of any kind. This is the basis of Hegel’s ‘end of art’ thesis, which is not a literal end of art, but the end of the possibility of art matching religion and philosophy in representing ‘absolute spirit’, that is the activity of  consciousness moving towards absolute knowledge of itself through both self-directed knowledge, knowledge of history, and knowledge of nature. In some respects Hegel simply represents a limitation of the importance of the novel, but provides a basis for thinking about the novel as what is beyond the end of some metaphysical ambitions for art. Hegel may be right in seeing the novel as less suited than some other literary genres to a representation of an absolute ordered cosmos, but wrong not thinking about how this itself might provide the basis for expanded understanding of the possibilities of knowledge and aesthetic form.


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