Jena Romanticism and the Art of Being Selfish: On Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels”

February 19, 2023   •   By Anthony Curtis Adler

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

Andrea Wulf

“JENA” IS A SHIBBOLETH, and not only because the J, pronounced as an English consonantal Y, will trip the tongues of those who fail to recognize it as a German toponym. To pronounce “Jena” correctly and knowingly, as if intoning a mystery, is to signal initiation into an understanding of the genealogy of the contemporary world that defies conventional opinion. Everyone knows about the storming of the Bastille, Jacobins and guillotines, the demise of the Republic and the Empire’s rise. But only a few know that the real thing took place not in Paris but in Jena, a now-forgotten provincial university town, the second largest city in the sixth smallest of Germany’s 16 federated states. It was here that the French Revolution, a questionable affair on its own account, was transmogrified into ideas — indeed, into idealism.

This alchemic transfiguration debouched in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). But it also yielded stranger by-products, few of which have gained a secure place within the world literature that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, himself a leading figure in Jena’s milieu, would prophesy: Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of the Science of Knowledge, 1794/1795), Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and his later dramas, Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy of nature, and the poetry, prose, fragments, and translations associated with the Athenaeum journal. The latter, edited by August Wilhelm Schlegel and his younger brother Friedrich, created a platform for an extraordinary experiment in intellectual collaboration. This collaboration would come to be known, following Schlegel’s coinage of the term “Romantic,” as Jena Romanticism — the first of many Romanticisms in what would soon become a global movement.

With Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (2022), Andrea Wulf, the bestselling and prize-winning author of an intellectual biography of Alexander von Humboldt, turns to the “Jena Set,” as she styles them. The Jena Set is the early German Romantic school rebranded: August Wilhelm Schlegel, Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Dorothea Friederike Veit-Schlegel, Friedrich von Hardenberg (a.k.a. Novalis), Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schelling, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. But Wulf also spends considerable time on the older generation of writers and philosophers that drew the “Young Romantics” to Jena: the luminous authors Goethe and Schiller, as well as the philosopher Fichte, whose Wissenschaftslehre was a primary source of inspiration.

It is perhaps no accident that “Jena Set” is two letters away from “jet set,” the modern successor of café society: Wulf’s Romantics are erudite, prolific, original, courageously revolutionary — but they are also narcissistic, self-serving, vain, entitled, reckless, and feckless. August Wilhelm Schlegel appears as a proto-dandy, his slovenly younger brother and Dorothea as bohemians avant la lettre, and the death-and-grotto-obsessed Novalis as an ur-goth.

All of this makes for good reading. Magnificent Rebels is nothing if not a page-turner, and Wulf indeed has considerable gifts as a writer. Her characters make striking entrances, almost coming alive under her pen. This semblance of life is achieved, not least, by showing them in a nearly constant state of movement and agitation. Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling appears as her “carriage came to an abrupt halt,” and Prussian officers arrest her on trumped-up charges of collaborating with the French revolutionaries occupying Mainz. Goethe enters the narration as he “heaved himself into the saddle and rode from his house in the center of Weimar to Jena, where he planned to attend a botanical meeting of the recently founded Natural History Society.” Here he will “run into” Schiller, occasioning a long conversation that will mark the beginning of their friendship.

Even writing and thinking assume a kinetic form: “In the middle of the night, neighbours could see a lonely light in his study and Schiller pacing up and down.” A buzz of gossip escorts Fichte, the newly arrived professor who had “declared the self to be the supreme ruler of the world.” And when, perchance, the characters are not themselves kinetic enough for such dashing debuts, an event stands in for them. August Wilhelm Schlegel, the more orderly and less gifted of the two brothers, appears on the “long and uncomfortable journey” from Amsterdam to Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. A lively description of the inconveniences of travel in the 18th century follows, and we are reminded, among other things, that “people sweated, farted, burped, smoked and ate.”

Best of all, though, is when two parties burst in at the same time:

On 8 July 1796, the same day that Caroline and August Wilhelm Schlegel arrived in Jena, Doctor Johann Christian Stark and two of his colleagues rushed to a small house just beyond the old town walls to conduct a dangerous surgery. […]

Their patient was fourteen-year-old Sophie von Kühn.

Thus does the polymathic Friedrich von Hardenberg, perhaps the most gifted poet of the Jena Set, enter the historian’s stage: through Sophie von Kühn. Her eventual death, following several more gruesome surgeries, would precipitate his own transformation into the poet Novalis, whose Hymns to the Night (1800) earns him enduring fame.

Wulf loves the rush of rushing in when things are happening, but when the matter itself lies before her — the real lives of real people in all their mysterious depths — she is somewhat at a loss. Walter Benjamin famously contrasted the witch doctor with the surgeon. Lacking either the magical touch of the novelist or the analytic dexterity of the critic and theorist, Wulf drains the abscess of Novalis’s love only to draw back at the sight of pus. While Novalis’s diaries suggest a “man wrestling with bodily urges as he doggedly records his sexual arousal and masturbation,” and while as “an adolescent, he had written erotic poems in which rosy-cheeked and blushing young girls played naked in streams, their breasts mere buds,” the possibility that his relation to Sophie von Kühn, while unconsummated, was motivated by erotic desire is itself nipped in the bud: “At first everybody assumed that Novalis’s infatuation with Sophie would peter out, but his feelings for her remained strong. Maybe only a girl as young and as innocent as Sophie could control Novalis’s sexual urges? She was simply too young to be seductive.”

It is unclear whether Wulf is offering her own opinion or the opinion of Novalis’s contemporaries. This ambiguity seems deliberate since it allows her to offer an interpretation, in the guise of scholarship, that flaunts standards of scholarly research while also maintaining a cover of plausible deniability. That adult men shouldn’t find 12-year-old girls seductive doesn’t mean that they never do. Laws and taboos are simple; human sexuality, not so much. Moreover, Wulf herself seems to undermine her own account of Sophie’s youth and innocence: in Novalis’s brother’s eyes, “[s]he played him like a game of cards.” And indeed, what seemed to draw in Novalis was her amphibious dwelling between two realms: “Sophie was both child and woman, he said, a woman with a ‘penchant for childish games’ yet a child with steadfast opinions […] imperious yet charitable […] self-controlled yet wild. She wanted to please yet could be capricious. […] She was a free spirit yet insisted on formalities.”

This may seem like a pedantic quibble. Yet if German Romanticism did nothing else, it made it impossible to regard seduction as a simple effect of the “seductive” object. Seduction becomes inflected with all the paradoxes of the lamp-like creative self in its relation to the other.

These same paradoxes, moreover, carry over to the reading and interpretation of the historical artifact. What remains of Sophie von Kühn’s short life are only fragments. Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterful and subtle 1995 novel The Blue Flower describes Novalis’s failed attempt to have a proper portrait of Sophie made to replace a poorly executed miniature; it might indeed seem as if, for all her ordinariness, there was also something essentially fragmentary about her — she seemed to shatter the male gaze. But the same thing can be said, if to a lesser degree, of everything whose time has come and gone. Among the most powerful insights of early Romanticism, however, is the potency of the fragment, which, in its apparent impoverishment, occasions the infinite productivity of the imagination. The fragment stretches into both the past and the future. This is expressed with precision by Friedrich Schlegel: “The feeling for projects — which one might call fragments of the future — is distinguishable from the feeling for fragments of the past only by its direction: progressive in the former, regressive in the latter.”

Historic positivism must limit itself to gathering these fragments and dusting them off. Yet this is only a starting point for the task of criticism, which reaches toward the truth — poetic, philosophical, historical, religious — that the fragment initiates. With Wulf’s book, the very opposite thing happens: endless fragmentary details, culled from historical sources, are brought together and shaped into a continuous narrative. These are granted an almost cinematic vivacity, and finally coated with emotions expressed in language that, drawn from a standing reserve of colloquial clichés, has the sad, tawdry look of the adverts in a decades-old fashion magazine: “When he walked into the sickroom he was surprised to see his fiancée cheerful and composed despite the agonising pain, even though the doctor warned him that she might not survive. That was an outcome Novalis was not prepared to accept. They had too many plans.”

Wulf does best with those characters who are most superficially charismatic — and least enigmatic. Her portrait of the thrice-married Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling is compelling, and she certainly deserves credit for bringing out her central role in the Jena Set — not only as an eminently gifted conversationalist and letter writer but also as an unacknowledged collaborator on August Wilhelm’s Shakespeare translations. One also suspects, however, that the strength of this portrait rests in Wulf’s own identification with the subject, and that when she likens Caroline to a “river that flowed through the landscape, irrigating the dry soil and turning it into fertile fields,” she is also trying to capture her own revivifying literary labors.

Gender relations are foregrounded in Magnificent Rebels. Yet Wulf’s insistence on cinematic immediacy and her penchant for bold images deprives her of the theoretical means to come to grips with them. Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde (1799), the erotic roman à clef dedicated to his scandalous love for Dorothea Veit, is reduced to a celebration of third-wave-feminist sex-positivity — Dorothea and Friedrich even swap roles making love — and an “allegory of the equality of men and women.” This fails to grasp, even in faint outline, not only Lucinde’s clumsy and wonderful strangeness but also the asymmetry between male and female that organizes its plot. Julius, the male protagonist, appears as unbound desire in search of an object, and his life before Lucinde a sequence of failed quasi-erotic experiments including sexual encounters with the doomed prostitute Lisette, vaguely described male friendships, and a nonsexual friendship with a maternal older woman. Only with Lucinde does he find the desired object, and their love achieves a consummation at once physical and spiritual, reciprocated and fully reciprocal. This very reciprocity and even equality, however, is only possible because love, for Friedrich Schlegel, is something different, and more essential, for a woman than it is for a man. As we read in Lucinde:

Now he recognized that love — a completely simple and indivisible emotion for woman — can be for man only an alternation and mixture of passion, friendship, and sensuality; and with happy astonishment he saw that not only did he love infinitely, but that he was the object of an infinite love.

Lucinde does not so much escape as fulfill the male gaze; as if a parabolic mirror, she reflects Julius’s endlessly fragmented gaze back into a single point. If she transcends the mother-whore dichotomy, it is only by uniting mother and whore into a higher unity. Nor is it insignificant that the erotic quest in Lucinde parallels Friedrich Schlegel’s own search, in the name of Romanticism, for the essential characteristics of a modern art that could hold its own against the weight of the neoclassicism embodied above all by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose homosexuality was an open secret. Neither Winckelmann nor homosexuality are mentioned even once by Wulf, however — a strange erasure in a work obsessively preoccupied with who was sleeping with whom in a college town where, she reminds us, births out of wedlock were among the highest in German lands.

Magnificent Rebels revels in minutiae. But it also has a grander point to make. It wants to ask the big question — “why we are who we are.” The first step in answering this “is to look at us as individuals — when did we begin to be as selfish as we are today?” For Wulf, Jena is at the heart of this story: the Jena Set, we are to learn, was “bound by an obsession with the free self at a time when most of the world was ruled by monarchs and leaders who controlled many aspects of their subjects’ lives.” And so, they “invented” the self.

It is, however, precisely in addressing this grander question that Magnificent Rebels fails most magnificently. While Fichte’s radical attempt to ground Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in the self-and-other-positing “I” is reduced to a caricature, this very caricature carries Wulf’s entire argument: it justifies her in conceiving the self as an invention, and of understanding the egoism and narcissism of her extravagant characters as practical Fichteanism. Fichte, however, did not invent the self; rather, he invented the idea of the transcendental self as the self-positing, self-inventing, radically inventive ground of the empirical self. Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling, and Novalis, as well as Hölderlin and Hegel, were all, to be sure, deeply influenced by Fichte, but they also almost immediately recognized the one-sidedness of his early system. This precipitated an extraordinary philosophical revolution that, despite a tremendous body of rigorous and probing scholarship, has not yet been fully fathomed. What it did not precipitate is a sudden storm of egoism.

A philosophical history of the modern self would certainly pass through Jena. But this is one stop among many along a laborious, uncomfortable, treacherous journey leading from Achilles’ tent to Heraclitus’s Ephesus to Socrates’s Athens to the Stoics and Epicureans of the Hellenistic world. And to Augustine’s North Africa, Dante’s Florence, and to Montaigne, Shakespeare, Descartes, and, not least of all, Rousseau. And this is only its Eurocentric trajectory. But even if Magnificent Rebels were to humbly accept the modest task of “merely” offering a history of the Romantic construct of the self, it would still prove inadequate.

Romanticism’s origins, as Tim Blanning reminds us, remain a vexed question. Yet to ignore almost completely Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder, not to mention more minor figures such as Johann Georg Hamann and François Hemsterhuis, is tendentious. It almost seems as if Wulf’s representation of history were guided not by historical veracity but by the neoclassical, quasi-Aristotelian norms of the unities of time, place, and action. This is especially strange given that one of the places where Romanticism began was an eviscerating critique of contemporary French drama’s shallow appropriation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Stranger yet — and more troubling — is Wulf’s circumscription of the other end of the history of Romanticism. In the second part of the epilogue, Wulf describes how the Jena Set’s ideas “rippled out from the small town in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar to the wider world.” This wider world includes France, England, the United States, Denmark, France, Russia, Spain, Poland, and Sweden; the group’s concepts even flutter into Freud’s office in Vienna, then leapfrog into Joyce’s modernism. A deafening silence, however, surrounds the fate of Romanticism in German-speaking lands. We do not need another jeremiad since much of the scholarly work has already been done. Wulf is certainly correct to maintain that an exploration of the beginnings of Romanticism will reveal something “much more complex, contradictory and multi-layered” than a celebration of irrationalism or other such clichés. Her own account, however, adds nothing to the scholarly picture that has emerged in the 100 years since Benjamin’s pathbreaking dissertation. Rather, she reduces and simplifies in a manner bordering on revisionism.

The closest she comes to broaching the question that has at least troubled every serious scholar of Romanticism in the wake of Auschwitz is a brief discussion of Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1808). “It seemed that Fichte had become interested in what he called the ‘national self,’” she writes. “Until France’s decisive victory, the Ich-experience had been the lens through which the friends in Jena had experienced reality. Now, Fichte also paved the way for a bigger Ich — the Ich of a nation. This was a dangerous idea, and one that would be exploited in Germany in the future.” Yet this is a clear misreading of Fichte: when Fichte speaks of a “universal and national self,” it is in the context of a discussion of education. He is not “scaling up” the transcendental “I” into the behemoth of the nation-state. Rather, he is talking about cultivating, in all the individuals of the nation, an empirical self that, no longer given over to selfishness, is truly capable of existing as a member of the nation and state. Fichte was a nationalist, but his concept of nation remained grounded in the autonomous selfhood of the individual: it did not dissolve it. What this might mean becomes clear in his lectures in Erlangen from around the same time: cultivating in the empirical individual an openness for the transcendental. Fichte’s nationalism, as many have argued, never entailed a repudiation of cosmopolitanism, humanism, or a profound commitment to freedom.

The next paragraph — skipping forward seven years later — has Fichte die for the German cause after his wife, tending fallen soldiers, contracts typhus and passes it on to him. A poignant description of his funeral follows. The Jewish hostess Rahel Levin Varnhagen, herself the subject of a postdoctoral thesis left unfinished when Hannah Arendt fled the Nazis, will intone the last word: “The eye of Germany has closed.” This reader, at least, has the chilling sensation that he is witnessing a ritual as vivid and as strange as the Rites of Spring: the unspeakable weight of Germany’s sins is piled onto Fichte. He is scapegoated, sacrificed, and then made sacred — as if to tear an unpassable rift between German Romanticism and the horrifying exploits that, on some counts at least, are to come of it.

Yet even if an account of Romanticism could confine itself to Jena, it could not avoid a real engagement with philosophy. It would have to really read the textual fragments that history has bequeathed to us — including the writings of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel as well as the odd, prickly hedgehogs left by Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. The little time that Wulf spends talking about the ideas of the Jena Set rather than their interior decor, comings and goings, squabbles, and affairs makes one wish that she spent even less. Regarding the categorical imperative, she writes that, for Kant, “one should act only in such a way that one’s actions can become a universal law. Unless you want litter-dropping to become a law, for example, you shouldn’t drop it yourself. Freedom is the triumph over our base instincts and urges.” She then draws this contrast: “Fichte agreed, though he went further. Where Kant saw these decisions as a responsibility, Fichte regarded them as a choice. In other words, Kant’s Ich had the burden of compliance whereas Fichte’s Ich acted from the position of free will.”

This tidy opposition between Kant and Fichte is untenable. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, Kant begins the third and final section with its subtitle’s declaration: “The Concept of Freedom Is the Key to the Explanation of the Autonomy of the Will.” In the preface of the Critique of Practical Reason, published three years later, he states that “the concept of freedom, insofar as its reality is proved by an apodictic law of practical reason, constitutes the keystone of the whole structure of a system of pure reason.” Freedom and responsibility are logically correlated concepts: we can only be responsible because we are free, and indeed our very freedom burdens us with responsibility. Hence for Fichte, as becomes clear in his 1798 System of Ethics, the freedom of the individual can only be realized through a community of individuals, and such a community in turn demands self-restriction.

There are, no doubt, significant differences between Kant and Fichte, the latter having rejected the obdurate thing-in-itself and sought to derive his system from a single, unifying principle, thus uniting theoretical and practical reason. More striking are the differences in their politics: while Kant believed that the categorical imperative compels obedience to the law, Fichte’s Contribution to the Correction of the Public’s Judgments on the French Revolution (1793) would seek to justify the right to revolution. And while Kant embraced economic liberalism as fueling historical progress toward a federation of republics, Fichte believed that the state could only fulfill its duty to its citizens as a closed commercial state. This suggests, if nothing else, the volatility of the concept of freedom: purified into a fundamental principle, it explodes into paradox. Hegel saw this with clarity in the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit titled “Absolute Freedom and Terror”: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive work nor a positive deed, and there remains for it only the negative doing. It is only the fury of disappearing.”

The final chapter of Magnificent Rebels closes with a description of Hegel’s Phenomenology, whose manuscript miraculously managed to make its way through enemy lines during the Battle of Jena. Hegel, Wulf writes, “explained how humanity had progressed through a series of stages, moving from feudal systems to democratic societies. The end of this process, he believed, would be the moment when humankind lived in a society ruled by the universal right to freedom.” In Hegel’s view, “Napoleon’s victory on the battlefields of Jena was that moment — nothing less than the ‘end of History,’ the end of the long evolution of human society itself and the beginning of an epoch of freedom.”

Wherever this is coming from, it is not Hegel: the word democracy doesn’t appear a single time in the Phenomenology of Spirit, and the very phrase “humankind lived in a society ruled by the universal right to freedom” is so conceptually convoluted as to beggar belief. Hegel did see freedom as the principle and end of history, but, in the Philosophy of Right (1820), he envisioned a constitutional monarchy rather than a pure democracy. Whereas the state represented the actuality of freedom, it could not create freedom. Rather, concrete freedom flourished through civil society.

In the epilogue, Wulf speaks of an “art of being selfish.” It is hard to know what this means if not the art of civil society, the art of being oneself with others — of realizing oneself through concrete relations with others. The Jena Set, to be sure, can teach us something about this, but so can many others who came before — and after. And few of their lessons are simple or easy. Certainly not Novalis’s declaration that “without perfect self-understanding we will never learn truly to understand others.” Wulf, citing this quotation approvingly, addresses her readers in a parabasis: “Let Novalis’s sentence roll in your mind for a moment.” Then she adds, without so much as paragraph break to give it time to roll: “What he meant was that we are morally obliged to turn inwards in order to be good members of society.”

Novalis’s sentence is strange and austere. By making any understanding of the other dependent on a degree of self-understanding that could never be achieved, it shatters the very project of self-understanding. But Novalis also writes, in a passage cited by Heidegger: “The peculiar property of language, namely that language is concerned exclusively with itself — precisely that is known to no one.” If there is one thing we learn first and best from the Jena Romantics, it is that the element of freedom, and hence of political life, is not just bodies and souls and “Ichs,” but language. It is not the art of “being selfish,” but of reading and criticism, of encountering fragments in their potential and becoming. This is the last thing that Magnificent Rebels, with its glib moralizing, emotional ventriloquizing, and cinematic immediacy, could teach.


Anthony Curtis Adler is the author of Politics and Truth in Hölderlin: Hyperion and the Choreographic Project of Modernity (Camden House, 2021).