The romantic literary theorist Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) was, as Michael Weston explains, inspired by Kantian philosophy to the extent that he exclaimed “poetry and philosophy should be made one” (Schlegel 1971: 115; in Weston 2001: 8). And the basis of this modern philosophical poetry lies the fundamental unknowableness of the Kantian thing-in-itself, unknowable because according to Kant’s philosophy the synthesising genius of imagination effectively creates reality.
Weston explains that fundamental to Schlegel’s concept of philosophical poetry is the idea of Socratic irony and its relationship to paradox. The paradox hinges on the fact that, according to Kant, knowledge is always founded on the unknowable, hence it is always incomplete, unresolved. Schlegel notes: ‘The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming [and] … should … never be perfected … It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free.’ (in Weston 2001: 10; Schlegel 1971: 116).
Weston explains that the fundamental purpose of Schlegel’s poetic-philosophic irony is to evoke an awareness of the contingency of knowledge. For Schlegel “All the greatest truths of every sort are completely trivial and hence nothing is more important than to express them forever in a new way and … ever more paradoxically, so that we won’t forget … that they can never be expressed in their entirety.” (Schlegel 1971: 263). Poetry is beyond rules, it isn’t possible to impose “restrictive laws as the theory of poetics would like to” (Schlegel 1968: 54). And, Weston points out, for Schlegel the ultimate ambition of philosophical poetry is to “precipitate a relation to… creativity in the reader” (Weston 2001: 13). Schlegel explains: “You’re not really supposed to understand me, but I want very much for you to listen to me.” (Weston 2001: 13; Schlegel 1971: 129a).
In Schlegel the thing-in-itself becomes poeticised, romantically portrayed as a sublime chaos: “isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos?” (Schlegel 1971: 268). And the genius of synthesising imagination that creates understanding out of this chaos becomes placed in a dialectical relationship with incomprehension. Schlegel comments: “it’s equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.” (Schlegel 1971: 53) To have a system, like Kant’s intricate philosophical architecture, is fundamentally a fabrication. On the other hand to have no system is to confront the sublime incomprehensibility of nature. Schlegel also provides a romantic evocation of genius and its relationship with the forces of nature when he exclaims: “poetry bursts forth spontaneously from the invisible primordial power of mankind” (Weston 2001: 10; Schlegel 1968: 54). Which is to say Kant’s sober projection of rationalistic categories into the deepest recesses of the mind becomes reconfigured in terms of primordial forces of nature.
Human beings are part of this sublime, unknowable nature; in terms of our inner nature: the unconscious aspect of their mental processes. Human beings then, like nature, harbour the unknowable: “nobody has ever understood himself yet” (Schlegel 1971: 132); and:
Other things cannot go back into themselves … [But man] can concern himself forever with himself and forever find new matter to occupy him … Just as every animal is attracted to its own native element as soon as it reaches maturity, so man’s instinct leads him to his own depths; there he must be destroyed, perhaps by plunging headlong downwards, perhaps by sinking down calmly and beautifully … For a human being who is a human being, there is no other death than his own self-induced death, his suicide. (in Weston 2001: 11; Schlegel 1971: 138)
The unknown nature of nature, and the sublime chaos that the Romantics conceived as the heart of nature, become poetically intertwined with death. There is a link here, as will be shown later, with Georges Bataille for whom death was also a fundamental of human existence; indeed we can also mention Heidegger in this respect.
Schlegel, Friedrich von. 1968. Dialogue on poetry and literary aphorisms. Translated by R. Struc and E. Behler. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Schlegel, Friedrich, and Peter Firchow. 1971. Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde; and, The fragments. Translated by P. Firchow. Minneapolis: London, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press ; Oxford University Press.
Weston, Michael. 2001. Philosophy, literature, and the human good. London ; New York: Routledge.