Romanticism appears to be enjoying a boom during the coronavirus pandemic. People are going on forest walks, sharing nature photos on social media and finding fulfilment in baking banana bread. But romantic motifs are not only appearing in private life; they are also emerging in society and politics: many people are unsettled and long for an all-embracing community in which they feel connected. Literary scholar and Romanticism expert Dr Sandra Kerschbaumer explains what this has to do with Romanticism and how that era, which dates back more than 200 years, continues to have an effect in our modern society.
Interview by Ute Schönfelder
Ms Kerschbaumer, is it a deceptive impression or is Romanticism currently experiencing a boom?
You can certainly get that impression. The term Romanticism is at least often used by people to position themselves, to identify themselves or to set themselves apart.
What exactly is understood by Romanticism in relation to politics?
This varies greatly and is also contradictory. It ranges from the accusation of being inward-looking and escapist, through an emphasis on ironic disengagement, to the connection with nationalism; very different ideas and appropriations are made evident.
Let us first clarify what Romanticism requires of politics.
With a view to historical Romanticism and its writings, I advocate looking less at positions held by individual authors and more at a unifying Romantic way of thinking, which is expressed very well in a text fragment by the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis). He called for the world to be »romanticized«. This is an essential point in Romantic thinking: not to limit ourselves to what we can experience in the visible world of the senses, but to seek the connection with something underlying it that is infinite, mystical, mysterious, absolute. However, what is very appealing in the private sphere and in art can become quite dangerous in the political sphere.
In what way?
Because such an aspiration can quickly result in a feeling of insufficiency. In his political texts, such as »Faith and love or the King and the Queen« or »Christianity or Europe«, Novalis transferred the principle of romanticizing to politics: love or a new faith should unite people within a state to create a community and give meaning to their coexistence. A constitution or cold democratic institutions cannot compete with that. Love! Shared beliefs! Meaning! Such demands resulted in an excessively sharp focus on the supposed deficiencies of the bourgeois society that was just emerging at the time, which could only balance individual interests and had no desire to create a community.
Today, we can observe scepticism towards the democratic legal order in many places.
Does this mean that early Romanticism supports today’s populists and contrarian thinkers, such as the protesters against COVID measures?
One has to concede that early Romanticism in particular was under great tension and caught between contradictions: through the processes of secularisation, the slow transformation of the class order into a functionally differentiated social structure, and the French Revolution, a world that had previously appeared to be firmly established lost its central points of reference and deprived many people of a self-evident sense of direction. This explains the impulse of Romanticism to reassemble that which was falling apart, the desire for a meaningful order. This impulse can also be discerned in today’s political relationships. There is, for example, a sociological study by the University of Basel that emphasizes Romanticism-related aspects of the world of the »Querdenker«—the contrarian thinkers—where the desire for (quasi-religious or medical) holistic ways of thinking is combined with a contempt for liberal-democratic institutions.
In my view, however, this contrasts with the fact that the Romantic approach is not limited to the desire for a kind of »wholeness«, however this is understood. It was clear to the Romantics that the breakdown of old beliefs and structures not only unsettled people, but also enabled them to develop a new, to use reason and imagination, to gain freedom and to engage in aesthetic experimentation.
The philosophers of that time, above all Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, had suddenly placed the subject centre stage, and for the Romantics, too, the self forms a focal point of their thinking. They tried to connect things that differed. Novalis does express his longing for a world—including a political world—supported by meaning. But he presents this in a poetic form and not as a political programme. And the fragment of text quoted presents romanticizing as an activity of the self. In a sense, it is the self itself that first creates the connections that it longs for. He formulates an idea that one can use to orient oneself and makes it clear that the path to fulfilment is infinitely long. These self-reflective moments characterize early Romanticism and anyone who wants to do justice to the movement must always include this aspect.
In addition to the attribution of Romantic principles, there are also people who explicitly claim Romanticism for themselves. For example, the Thuringian AfD party leader and right-wing extremist, Björn Höcke.
Correct, although Höcke fails to recognize specifically the subjective, often ironic aspect. He emphasizes in a one-sided way the longing for being taken into a community and closely links this with the concept of the »people«, which for him has a brutally exclusionary character. In his 2018 volume of talks »Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss« (Never twice in the same river), he describes his notion of a »romantic deep clairvoyance of the Germans«, which is supposed to consist in understanding the »things behind the things« and therefore in looking down on the low points of everyday political practice. Malice against parliamentarism, criticism of capitalism and disdain for democratic institutions are all amplified by Höcke into talk of the »rubble heaps of modernity«. He formulates a highly problematic idea for getting rid of these, namely that what matters is not constitution and procedure, but substance. Höcke writes: »It is not the external forms—which are subject to ongoing natural change—but the inner substances from which the genius of the people draws its strength and which must be preserved.« What are these substances supposed to be? Who controls the genius? And who protects the citizens who do not believe in it? It must be noted that the desire for great and unifying ideas in politics are definitely promoted by a traditional strand of romantic thought.
How could this be avoided?
By realizing that excessive demands on the political system can be exploited by enemies of democracy. That it is not about quasi-religious salvation, but about legal safeguards and democratic procedures.
Why is it that romantic longings and ways of thinking are so entangled today?
Modernity is characterized by social developments to which historical Romanticism reacted at the time and which continue to this day. If we consider the period around 1800, the transitional »Sattelzeit« or threshold period between the early modern age and the late modern age, we can see phenomena such as the restructuring of the social system. We see different sub-sectors of society forming, which follow their own brands of logic: the natural sciences, politics, religion, art. And they all compete with each other by offering different norms, value systems and orientations. The individual is increasingly unbound and free to choose, and is suddenly faced with the task of finding his or her own place and achieving certainty about his or her identity.
This was new in the 1800s, but these are processes that continue to this day. We, too, are facing processes of reconstruction and self-interrogation; truths that were previously believed to be certain are disappearing. We have to find ourselves as individuals and, for all our freedoms, we sense a certain contingency. Because we no longer have a fixed identity determined by birth or the place where we grew up or by our religious affiliation. We have to deal with this uncertainty or fluidity of our own lives, and we can do this by seeking points of reference outside our own lives—or beyond supposedly established truths. This was the case at the time of Romanticism and it still holds true today.
The world must be romanticized. This is how one rediscovers the original meaning. [...] The lower self is identified with the better self in this operation. [...] By giving the commonplace an elevated meaning, the ordinary a mysterious appearance, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite an infinite appearance, I romanticize it.
Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis),