Language & Romantic Irony

Greetings at the season of Michaelmas. Here is a summary of the recent weekly Section for Literary Arts & Humanities meeting of the local group in Fair Oaks, CA. This meeting occurred on September 26, 2020, via Zoom.

“Intimate acquaintance with Novalis means for any perceptive spirit a deep and magical experience, that is the experience of initiation, of consecration into mystery.” — Hermann Hesse, Novalis, Documents on His Life and Death, 1925

Meeting summary

Well, once again, our meeting consisted of three parts: Announcements, Opening Remarks, and Presentation. Followed by discussion! Marion gave a presentation on Hermann Hesse, and she featured examples of his artwork. The artwork consisted of selections from Hesse’s watercolor paintings. Hesse, like Goethe, was an enthusiastic watercolorist.


I am preparing to launch a website for our local Fair Oaks Section group. The group is approaching its tenth year of continuous meeting, and we have a growing library of meeting summaries that extend back a few years. The website will be a place for friends and members who participate directly or indirectly in the local Section meetings in Fair Oaks, CA to read summaries and stay in touch with our local work. “Think Globally, Act Locally” — as the saying goes. The site will not replace the meeting summary emails. I share these emails after each local Section meeting so that interested friends and members can hear what we are doing. Due to the challenges of 2020 and the local group’s decision to meet weekly and to deepen our work with Novalis, these emails have gone out with greater frequency recently.

“Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs . . .” 

With these words, Novalis begins his fragment titled Monolog, which can be found in Volume 2 of the Kohlhammer Edition (Das philosophische Werk I, page 672). The translation I presented yesterday is by Professor Joyce Crick. In German the quote above reads: “Es ist eigentlich um das Sprechen und Schreiben eine närrische Sache . . .” (go to the bottom of this summary for the complete text that I displayed to the group.)

One of the pleasures of the literary arts is fooling around with translation — and I use the word “fooling” deliberately here because Novalis uses the word “foolish” in the opening words of Monolog, when he begins his discussion of language.

I presented the fragment Monolog by Novalis last night as a means to introduce a theme that we have not had time to develop in our meetings: Language. The uses and misuses of language: this is a topic much in the spotlight these days, is it not? Novalis and his early romantic contemporaries, such as Friedrich Schlegel, devoted much attention to language, needless to say. A foolish statement! But as we deepen our acquaintance with Novalis and other early romantic poets and literary theorists — or for that matter, as we deepen our acquaintance with Schiller — I think we will need to look at how Novalis and his contemporaries thought about language — and by extension, how they approached aesthetics and literary critical theory.

I included the selection from the Monolog fragment at the end of this summary. The translation by Joyce Crick is lively and spicy — but its liveliness captures the liveliness and spicy challenge of the original text — a text which is foundational for an understanding of how Novalis thought about language and his work as a poet. We have spent considerable time in Heinrich von Ofterdingen in contemplation of the Poet’s Realm — but we haven’t spoken much at all about the Poet’s Medium: words and language. We need to do that. Hermann Hesse, for example, paid quite close attention to HOW Novalis used language, and Hesse benefited enormously from this acquaintance.

As Marion reported in her presentation last night, Hesse thought that Novalis “never wrote a single word as decoration or rhetoric” — every word was of the essence. Hesse’s style, for that matter, in its artful simplicity, that “fools” some undiscerning readers into believing that his style is naive or simple-minded, is a reflection of Hesse’s deep acquaintance with Novalis, one might argue. It is intriguing to compare Albert Steffen’s style of writing to Hesse’s, I might add. For reference, if you still have old Section newsletters, check out Douglas Miller’s article from the February 2019 newsletter, where Douglas quotes Steffen’s words: “If we want to grasp Novalis as a living being we must awaken language from its sleep of death.”

Last night I tried to give a very brief orientation to the topic of language and romantic irony, using Novalis as a touchstone. I am hoping that as a result of our close relationship to Novalis that we can accept Novalis as a companion when we approach the subject of language — a subject that should, of course, be of central concern to our Section.

Read through the selection from Monolog then as a starting point for what may become a thematic focus for our group. And as you read it, perhaps reference what we have said about Schiller in previous meetings — most especially what Schiller has to say in the selection of essays titled Letters on Aesthetic Education with its discussion of play in relation to freedom, spirit, beauty.

Hovering, Play, Irony — what quality do these have in common? We saw early on in our work with Novalis that “hover” and “hovering” (Schweben, in German) are key words for Novalis. Novalis used the word “hovering” frequently, and it appeared notably in one of the very last poems he wrote. We looked at this poem when we first began our journey with Novalis:

“All around I see the living
Many careless floating passing just a few with effort striving
Only one however minding
Lightful striving, hovering.”

As we continue our adventure with Novalis and those writers in the late eighteenth century who contributed so centrally to anthroposophy as it came to expression later with Rudolf Steiner, let’s try to set aside some time to consider language in its relationship to the consciousness soul. I suggested last night that we take note of “Romantic Irony” — or irony generally — as an important feature of the mood and attitude of the consciousness soul — a mood and attitude that finds a quite different and more familial relationship to irony than can be felt, for example, in the mood and attitude of the intellectual soul, one might argue. As Novalis and his contemporaries lead us toward poetry and “the poet’s realm,” the self-evident “scribal” certainties of axiomatic thinking fall into parenthesis.

These self-evident axiomatic certainties cannot survive a dunking by Sophia — I am referring here to the scene in Klingsohr’s fairy tale, of course. The Scribe is furious to bump up against hovering, irony, eros, fable, and play — “play” in that specific sense in which Schiller uses the word. Is this a new approach to Mystery — to language, to human knowing? Or just more romantic Lorelei flimflam sophistry? Heine, after all, does make a point — and with no lack of irony! Last week I mentioned Keats — in particular, I pointed to Keats’ idea of Negative Capability. Does this relate to our theme of language, as Novalis presents it in Monolog? Keats specifically associates Negative Capability with Shakespeare — another master of irony, indirection, and (tom) foolery, as we know.

Many late-night college term papers have been crunched out to explain the ironic attitudes of Hamlet. But what about Novalis and his ilk? As you read the quotation from Monolog at the end of this summary, think again of Keats:

“Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . . “

“How deaf and stupid I have been . . .”  
 (Magic Theater. For Madmen Only!)

Marion’s presentation on Hermann Hesse gave us more lively details on Hesse’s life and career, and it helped illuminate or perhaps to remind some of us why Hesse made such an existential appeal to our younger selves when we styled ourselves as “seekers.”  As I tried to emphasize earlier, we have not left Novalis far behind when we journey with Hesse. To help us understand the congruencies, Marion pointed out that Hesse and Novalis shared a similar early childhood experience of growing up in Pietist families strictly devoted to the Christian faith. In Hesse’s situation, however, he had the advantage of learning more about the East (so-called), since his parents were missionaries. Those parents imagined a Christian missionary destiny for their first-born son.

But Hesse wouldn’t have it. He rebelled and read Goethe, Novalis, and Schiller (horrors!) — finding in those transgressive poets a vision of the Grand Adventure of Becoming Human that did not take comfort from any single faith or philosophy or settled ideology. Unlike Novalis, Hesse lived a long life of considerable doubt and inner strife — one might say, however, that he followed a path of “one slowly wise,” — a “Parzival” who out of the power of his own stubborn initiative and imagination found his pathway to the Grail.

A true adventurer of the spirit — he was born just a few decades prior to the Age of Light, as Steiner describes it, and died in 1962. A remarkable span of decades! Marion properly reminded us that Hesse’s life included two World Wars. These were times of turmoil and transformation — crisis and uncertainty and dread — such as might help us put our own year 2020 in a perspective. Hesse, unlike most of his contemporaries, opposed Germany’s involvement in World War I. This won him the unbridled hatred of many, if not most. He nonetheless, like Goldmund and Siddhartha and Heinrich, followed the path of conscience. His quest for wholeness, as Marion put it, led him, again like a Parzival, to a middle way — a path between light and darkness, eros and logos — a “hovering” between extremes.

Never a comfortable position, to be sure. Hesse was a tireless letter writer, and a devoted world citizen, concerned and engaged with the Spirit of his Times — but with a hermetic proclivity for self-reflection, humor, and Taoist retreat. Gardening was a passion — he responded to nature with the same enthusiasm we find in Goethe and the romantics. And music, of course, he equally loved.

The novel Steppenwolf, which I doubt that we will have time to read, is often misread as a self-indulgent chronicle of madness or male mid-life crisis — it is more properly a celebration of Mozart and all that Mozart represents for Mind. Marion reminded us that “like Goethe and Novalis, there was a strong living power at play in Hesse’s life and work, and that was the world of beauty.” We are never far from Schiller, eh?” Marion closed her presentation with a quote from Siddhartha.

This is a book in which Hesse achieves a balance of style and meaning. It has the artful simplicity of a fairy tale, in the sense that Novalis uses the term. One might, in fact, read Siddhartha in concert with Heinrich von Ofterdingen — for Siddhartha is NOT about the Buddha, as new readers might first naively assume. More properly, it should be read only after reading Heinrich von Ofterdingen — after pondering Heinrich’s koan: “Where are we going then? Always towards home.”

“. . . sky and river, woods and mountains, all beautiful, all mysterious and enchanting, and in the midst of it, he, Siddhartha, the awakened one, on the way to himself.” — Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Marion closed her presentation with a selection of Hesse’s watercolor paintings that span the years 1922 to 1935.

The Apprentices of Sais

At the close of the meeting, the question arose: what edition of The Apprentices of Sais should we acquire? I soon will send to meeting participants a PDF translation and/or a link to an edition that can be read in a browser. Some of you already own the Mannheim translation that has all those whimsical Paul Klee illustrations. This is a good one, but it may be hard to find. Long story short: it really doesn’t matter which translation you use. If you prefer, you can sit tight until I send out the PDF and link. I’ve been a bit dilatory, but we have plenty on our plates, do we not!

Here is the quoted text that I mentioned earlier. I will send the complete translation as a PDF to meeting participants when I send Apprentices.


By Novalis (1798)
(Trans. by Prof. Joyce Crick, London)

“Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs really; true conversation is just a game with words. It is amazing, the absurd error people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a marvelous and fruitful mystery – for if someone merely speaks for the sake of speaking, he utters the most splendid, original truths. But if he wants to talk about something definite, the whims of language make him say the most ridiculous false stuff. Hence the hatred that so many serious people have for language.They notice its waywardness, but they do not notice that the babbling they scorn is the infinitely serious side of language . . .”

“Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.” — Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

“The spiritual world is in fact already open to us. It is always open.
If we were to suddenly become so alive and supple to perceive it,
We would perceive ourselves in the midst of the spiritual world.” — Novalis

“So it goes.” — Kurt Vonnegut