Brother of August Wilhelm (the great Sanskritist and Shakespeare scholar), contemporary of Goethe, Schiller, Ludwig Tieck, and Madame de Staël, and influenced by his predecessors Lessing, Herder, and Kant, Friedrich Schlegel was one of history’s great practitioners of the essay form. While he wrote in many other genres, his other bestknown works were collections of aphorisms, in part probably inspired by S. R. N.Chamfort’s revival of the form. His critical masterpiece is generally agreed to be “Über Goethe’s Meister” (1798; “On Goethe’s Meister”), though an earlier essay, “Uber das Studium der griechischen Poesie” (1797; “On the Study of Greek Poetry”), aroused much interest, inspired as it was by Schiller’s famous piece, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795–96; On the Naive and Sentimental in Literature).
Schlegel developed further Herder’s earlier efforts to relate ancient and modern literature, using Herder’s insights into Shakespeare and historical relativism, and learning much from neoclassicists like Johann Winckelmann and Lessing, however much of their thought he also rejected. In 1797, Schlegel published his first collection of aphorisms in the journal Lyceum der schönen Künste (Lyceum of the fine arts), introducing central ideas about “romantische Poesie” from earlier conceptions of the character of modern literature as “interessant.” Three years later, the Gespräch über die Poesie (Dialogue on Poetry) was published, and became known as Schlegel’s manifesto of Romanticism.
By this time, Schlegel had begun to believe that the preoccupations of earlier critics with the differences between ancient literature (Greek, Latin, Hebrew) and modern writings had obscured the more important fact of their similarities. The tendency to revile and devalue modern literary works, forms, and styles in the 18th century in favor of ancient ones had begun to falter, as Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Tieck, and others began to perceive the appropriateness of new art for new eras—hence the centrality of Herder’s “historical relativism.” Yet, while other early writings of Schlege’s, including “Über Lessing” (1797; “On Lessing”), “Über die Unverstandlichkeit” (1800; “On Incomprehensibility”), “Athenäum Fragmente” (1798; “Athenaeum Fragments”), and “Ideen” (1800; “Ideas”), functioned to gain a new appreciation for modern literature, using Shakespeare’s works as a touchstone, Schlegel also established this evaluation by a new means. His writings reveal a dawning awareness that, in spite of all the differences—now perceived as valuable innovations and beauties, instead of fallings away from a classical ideal—there were central similarities between ancient and modern art and literature. Even further, Schlegel came to believe that these similarities were expressive of whatever those characteristics are which we feel to be “aesthetic” qualities, and which lead to “aesthetic” experiences. Thus, the earlier effort to understand better the “essentially modern” in literature led instead to a better appreciation of the “essentially aesthetic.” Eventually, the adverb “essentially” was dropped, and a historical, relative view of art, literature, and the aesthetic was fully developed, in which Schlegel and other contemporaries like Novalis, Tieck, Jean Paul (Richter), and Karl Solger explored the way concepts like “Romantic irony,” “self-criticism,” and “selfdevelopment” could contribute to an openended, non-absolutist, non-essentialist aesthetic theory. The essays, fragments, and other writings of these German Romantic ironists—as they are often known—combined with writings in England by their friend Coleridge and, later, Shelley, laid the theoretical grid for much modern critical theory, starting with the Russian formalists and leading, through Mikhail Bakhtin, the New Critics, and structuralism, to both deconstruction and new historicism. For the Romantic ironists, deconstructive ideas and historicist-relativist ideas would hardly seem as antagonistic as they are made out to be today. Schlegel’s concept of “Romantic irony” was, in large part, an attempt to show that historical and textual criticism are not antagonists, and not even alternative approaches, but necessary complements in any critical discussion of a work of art.
Schlegel’s essays, as well as his fragments, his novel Lucinde (1799), and his other writings proceed in the main through a playful, witty, and nonsequential mode which defies traditional essay forms and audience expectations. Much like Shelley, Schlegel released the energies of extended metaphors, symbols, images, and apparently anecdotal, miscellaneous asides to create a new kind of development which defied the reason while intriguing the imagination. Digressions, absurd asides, and other disruptions led to the juxtaposition of themes, styles, and manners not normally seen in such a relation, so that the usual discursive prose of the essay is turned into rhetorical fireworks, and the essay— the criticism—itself becomes a work of art. Like Coleridge with his Biographia Literaria (1817) or Shelley with “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), Schlegel nurtured a form of literary criticism which sought not to reveal objective truths or best interpretations of literary works. These writers sought to achieve a criticism which was so illuminating about how works of art delight the reader that it became a work of art itself. This is a case of “Romantic irony” in its most exemplary form. It led to such concepts as “selfcultivation” and “self-development,” ideas about which Schiller and Goethe had also written or in which they had also been interested. However, these two giants rejected, in the main, formulations that the younger, rebellious generation gave them.
Such central aesthetic concepts about the self were based on the Socratic/Platonic emphasis on self-knowledge: “Know thyself” as the end not only of philosophy, but also of art and its sister, religion. Schlegel’s essays, as well as his fragments and novel, were designed as implicit dialogues, functioning to draw the reader into the thinking and imagining processes embodied in the text. This dialogic trait helps to prevent the reader both from extracting notional truths in a subservient way and from being condescending.
SchlegePs ironic (selfimplicating) narrative structures gradually reveal to the reader that the “content” of all works of criticism/art/philosophy can be said metaphorically to be self-cultivation and self-knowledge. Moreover, as Novalis added, without a thorough knowledge of ourselves we can never understand others. This self-knowledge, however, is described by means of concepts of layers and strata with no center; like an onion, we peel away layer after layer. Schlegel described self-development as “eternal agility”:
endless, purposeless play, with art as a central initiator—for both artist and reader—of opportunities for partaking in a feast of intense self-experiencing, which alone leads to a knowledge of the world.
Other characteristics of Schlegel’s essay form involved techniques of “indirect communication”—adopted with ironic intensity by Kierkegaard some decades later.
Based on ideas discussed above, indirect communication is at the center of Schlegel’s aesthetics, and is demonstrated in his essay style, whereby in speaking and writing about one thing—some specific subject matter—he is actually speaking and writing about language, speaking, and writing. Since language is so fundamental to human consciousness, this leads to SchlegePs indirect subject matter, the human mind and the reader as specific occasion of that mind. Yet, while individuality is one focus of Schlegel’s attention in his fragments and essays, it is situated in that quintessentially communal, social experience, namely literature. Through an emphasis upon Sympoesie and Gesellschaft or community, Schlegel’s essays often do actually succeed in demonstrating what he set out to expound in them.
Carl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel. Born 10 March 1772 in Hanover. Studied at the University of Gottingen, 1790–91; University of Leipzig, 1791–94. Apprenticed to a banker in Leipzig, 1788; moved to Dresden, 1794, and Berlin, 1797. Contributor, Deutschland, 1797, and Der Teutsche Merkur (The German Mercury), cofounder and editor, with his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel, Athenäum, 1798–1800. Lecturer, University of Jena, 1800–01. Lived in Paris, 1802–04. Founding editor, Europa journal,
1803–05. Married Dorothea Veit (née Mendelssohn; daughter of Moses Mendelssohn), 1804. Lived in Cologne, 1804–07. Converted to Catholicism, 1808. Moved to Vienna, 1808. Administrator, Austrian government diplomatic service, 1809; served in the Austrian army, 1809–10. Cofounder and editor, Deutsches Museum (German museum) periodical, 1812–13. Appointed by Metternich as member of Austrian delegation to the
Bundestag, Frankfurt, 1815–18. Editor, Concordia journal, 1820–23. Died (of a stroke) in Dresden, 12 January 1829.
Essays and Related Prose
Die Griechen und Römer: Historische und kritische Versuche uber das Klassische Alterthum, 1797
Gespräch iiber die Poesie, in Athenaum, 1800; as Dialogue on Poetry, with Literary Aphorisms, edited and translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc, 1968
Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, 1808; edited by E.F.K. Koerner, 1977; as “On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians,” in The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of F.von Schlegel, translated by E.J.Millington, 1849
Über die neuere Geschichte (lectures), 1811; translated by Lyndsey Purcell and R.H.Whitelock, in A Course of Lectures on Modern History, 1849
Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur, 1812; as Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, translated by J.G. Lockhart, 2 vols., 1818
Philosophie des Lebens (lectures), 1828; as The Philosophy of Life, and Philosophy of Language, translated by A.J.W.Morrison, 1847
Philosophie der Geschichte (lectures), 2 vols., 1829; as The Philosophy of History, translated by James Burton Robertson, 2 vols., 1835, revised edition, 1846
Philosophische Vorlesungen, insbesondere über Philosophie der Sprache und des Wortes, 1830
The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works, translated by E.J. Millington, 1849
A Course of Lectures on Modern History: To Which Are Added Historical Essays on the Beginning of Our History, and on Caesar and Alexander, translated by L.Purcell and R.H. Whitelock, 1849
Kritische Schriften, edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch, 1956
Kritische Fragmente, edited by Wolfdietrich Rasch, 1956; as “Critical Fragments,” in Lucinde and The Fragments, translated by Peter Firchow, 1971
Literary Notebooks, 1797–1801 (in German), edited by Hans Eichner, 1957
Dialogue on Poetry; Literary Aphorisms, edited and translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc, 1968
Lucinde and The Fragments (includes the novel Lucinde; “Critical Fragments”;
“Athenaeum Fragments”; “Ideas”; “On Incomprehensibility”), translated by Peter Firchow, 1971
Philosophical Fragments, translated by Peter Firchow, 1991
Other writings: the novel Lucinde (1799), a play, poetry, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, edited by Ernst Behler and others, 28 vols., 1958–95.
Deubel, Volker, “Die Friedrich-Schlegel-Forschung, 1945–1972,” Deutsche
Vierteljahrsschrift 47 (1973):48–181
Dieckmann, Liselotte, “Friedrich Schlegel and the Romantic Concepts of the Symbol,” Germanic Review 34 (1959):276–83
Eichner, Hans, “The Supposed Influence of Schiller’s ‘Naive and Sentimental Poetry’ on Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie’,” Germanic Review 30 (1955):260–64
Eichner, Hans, “Friedrich Schlegel’s Theory of Romantic Poetry,” PMLA 71
Eichner, Hans, Friedrich Schlegel, New York: Twayne, 1970
Henel, H., “Friedrich Schlegel und die Grundlagen der modernen literarischen Kritik,” Germanic Review 20 (1945):81–93
Immerwahr, R., “The Subjectivity or Objectivity of Friedrich Schlegel’s Poetic Irony,” Germanic Review 26 (1951):173–91
Immerwahr, R., “Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘On Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister” Monatshefte 49 (1957):1–22
Lange, Victor, “Friedrich Schlegel’s Literary Criticism,” Comparative Literature 7 (1955):289–305
Szondi, Peter, “Friedrich Schlegel und die romantische Ironie: Mit einem Anhang iiber Ludwig Tieck,” Euphorion 48 (1954): 397–411
Walzel, Oskar, German Romanticism, New York and London: Putnam, 1932 (original German edition, 1908)
Wheeler, K.M., Introduction to German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe, edited by Wheeler, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984:1–27
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