When Johann Gottlieb Fichte read the Critique of Pure Reason in 1791, he was so excited that he set out for Königsberg to visit the famous Immanuel Kant. But what he found there was an old, disinterested man who sent him back home. There, in exactly five weeks, Fichte wrote “An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation,” sent it to Kant, who was suitably impressed and found a publisher for him. For fear of censorship, the book appeared anonymously. The critics at the “Allgemeinen Literatur” newspaper in Jena wrote that anyone who knows even a bit of Kant will recognise that this new work can only be from him. Kant explained in a letter to the editor that a certain Fichte, and not he, was the author. And so he became famous overnight.
Rüdiger Safranski’s fabulous book on Romanticism doesn’t only consist of such stories but it so smoothly combines philosophical analysis with anecdotal perspective, and so gracefully switches between profound reflection and biographical wit, that we are presented with a genuine rarity: exciting German intellectual history. “Romanticism. A German affair.” That’s the title. It refers to both the epoch which lasted an astonishingly brief 30 years as well as the ongoing influence of Romantic thought and its often dangerous mutation into the political realm. In 1798, Novalis wrote, “In giving the entirety a higher value, the usual an element of secrecy, the well-known the value of the unknown and the finite the appearance of infinity, I romanticise.” This preamble to the Romantic constitution was to be fatally radicalised later by dark ideologies and their masters. Goebbels used the term “steely romantic.” And Safranski sees in Ernst Jünger “the warmongering version of the Dionysian,” which plays an instrumental role in Nietzsche (also a Romantic renegade).
more from Sign and Sight here.