The Daybreak and Nightfall of Literature

17.12.2008 Natascha Gruber

Veli-Matti Saarinen’s book The Daybreak and Nightfall of Literatureis a rich, comprehensive study of romantic literature, which Saarinen, a teacher of art theory at the Finnish Academy of Arts, analyzes with the work of the German writer, poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829).

Romanticism has been an important period within German literature, and in European art altogether. It is well known and established that Friedrich Schlegel was one of the key figures of early romanticism and his novel, Lucinde, which is discussed extensively in the book, a founding document and example of a new approach in novel writing. The young Schlegel reflected intensely over the connections between philosophy and literature, and how these academically separate disciplines could be integrated with each other.

In his Literary Notebooks as well as in the Atheneum Fragments, a journal Schlegel published with his brother August, one can track the development of Schlegel’s ideas of romantic writing and poetry, which finally culminated in his novel Lucinde. Originally planned as the first part of a series of four, Lucinde remained Schlegel’s first and last novel. Using this novel Saarinen analyses Schlegel’s conceptualization of romantic literature as an attempt to bridge reflection (philosophy) and intuition (art). With this approach, Saarinen offers a new reading of this scandalous novel as he focuses on its philosophical implications and innovative ideas.

Within a general context, the romantic period can be seen as a countermovement following the era of enlightenment, rationalism and classicism, with an emphasis on the power of reason. Saarinen discusses Schlegel’s philosophical background, mainly influenced by the aesthetic theories of the philosophers Kant, Fichte and Hegel. From these philosophers of German idealism Schlegel also overtook theories of the self, free will and autonomy and transferred them into literature.

Schlegel’s result is an open, free spirited, non-conformist style of writing. What Schlegel calls a “religion of art” is the effort to transgress the limits of reason and knowledge and so to reach the divine, in philosophical terms: the absolute, via art. Schlegel believes that art and aesthetics (the realm of beauty) is needed in order to complete philosophy (the realm of reflection and reason), in order to experience the whole dimension of the human spirit.

Consequently, works of the visual arts, of music or literature are seen as manifestations and evidences of this effort, and artistic, creative processes are, according to Schlegel, in themselves already spiritual and divine. The focus on the always ongoing, never terminated process of creation renders, as the general features of romantic literature, an open, fragmented, non-linear and genre-crossing style of writing, Schlegel also calls “Universalpoesie” (universal poetry). As applied in Lucinde, it combines genres like prose with letters, diary notes, dialogues, dreams and reflections.

With the novel Lucinde, as the love story between the protagonist Julius (Schlegel himself) and Lucinde (his wife Dorothea Veit), Schlegel presented his era not only a new style in novel writing but a new model of love and marriage as well, causing a scandal and furious reception after the publication in 1799. What caused the scandal was the couple’s presentation as a spiritual, intellectual as well as a sensual, sexual union, as equal partners, and each other’s best friends. This image did not quite fit into the prevalent notions of gender roles, and a woman and wife actively seeking and enjoying lust and sexuality as well as art and intellectual encounters was something to be disguised at this time.

All this is well known and has been extensively commented on, but Saarinen’s interesting contribution here is to show how Schlegel’s idea and ideal of love is interrelated with his philosophical concepts, since, according to Schlegel, the state of love opens humans up, makes them receptive to higher spiritual levels, and to the experience of humanity in a general sense altogether, in Lucinde narrated as the protagonist’s development from a wandering adolescent into a mature artist and poet.

The reception following the novel addressed not just its scandalous, frivolous contents but the writing style of the novel itself. Opponents, among them Hegel, Herder, as well as his brother August, and a friend Novalis, questioned the open, fragmentary style, as not counting for a novel at all, whereas the philosopher Fichte responded enthusiastically. As for contemporary Schlegel interpretations, Saarinen discusses W. Benjamin, who reads romantic art as a medium of reflection, to present the absolute in its symbolic form, in language. Further Saarinen discusses contemporary readings of M. Frank, B. Wanning or R. Bubner.

The French reception includes commentators like Blanchot, P. Lacoue-Labarthe or J. L. Nancy. I see Saarinen’s main contribution to the study of romantic literature in his profound, comprehensive analysis of the complex relationship between philosophy, art and writing in Schlegel’s thought and how successfully Schlegel was able to apply philosophical, highly theoretical concepts into the practice of art, notably into his own practice of writing.

The book title gestures towards this Schlegelian conceptualization of romantic literature as a mediation, a passage between the “daylight” of reason and the mysterious “night” of creation. And from today’s perspective Schlegel’s Lucinde may even be seen as an early prototype of postmodern experimental, fragmented and collaged forms of writing.

Saarinen, Veli-Matti: The Daybreak and Nightfall of Literature. Friedrich Schlegel’s Idea of Romantic Literature Between Productive Fantasy and Reflection. European University Studies Series 1 German Language and Literature, Peter Lang Publ. Frankfurt/New York 2007.