Alienation, Irony, and German Romanticism Rado Pribic Lafayette College, Easton, PA At the end of the eighteenth century, there was a powerful outburst of original intellectual creativity in German-speaking areas of Europe that led to the Age of Romanticism throughout Western civilization. Since the Romantic movement is multifarious, encompassing sometimes even contradictory aims and characteristics, literary historians have a difficult time categorizing and defining it precisely. However, the Romantics definitely turned against the pure rationality of the Enlightenment and the precise norms of Neoclassicism. The theoretical foundation for the early German Romantics can be found in their publication Athenaeum (1798-1800), where the brothers Schlegel especially emphasized the “universality” of the new intellectual, artistic, and literary movement. This essay will concentrate on two very interesting features of the German Romantic movement: Alienation and Irony. Although there are numerous publications discussing “Romantic Irony,” they rarely connect it to the concept of alienation. One can argue that the Romantic or Artistic irony is definitely a literary device that emphasizes the alienated disposition of several Romantic protagonists. Before looking at the concept of alienation in the context of German Romanticism, one should briefly consider its historical roots. Alienation is a multifarious phenomenon that is associated with many areas of human existence. The term “alienation” can be traced back through Middle English and Old French to classical Latin. The German equivalent “Entfremdung” appears first in Middle High German literature. The term “alienation,” originating in the Latin “alienatio,” has been used through the ages with various meanings such as “transfer of ownership,” “paralysis or loss of one’s mental powers or sense,” “cooling of a warm relationship, with another,” “renouncing,” “robbing,” etc.1 It was Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) who in 1793 for the first time delineated the concept of alienation and dehumanization in the twenty-seven letters in his Briefe über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen.2 Yet it was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes3 that in 1807 presented the first exhaustive and systematic treatment of this universal predicament of man and prepared the ground for both Karl Marx and twentieth-century Existentialism. Both Friedrich Schiller and the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), who earlier used the term “Entäusserung,” meaning “surrender” or “divestiture,” exerted a considerable influence upon Hegel (1770-1831).4 Erich Fromm popularized the term “alienation” in the United States. He studied Marxist manuscripts and Marx’s dream of an un-alienated society, and it is probably due to this fact that most people in the U.S A. today see the concept of “alienation” in a rather negative light. The term “alienation,” however, does not have to have a negative connotation. Schiller in his 25th letter on “aesthetic education” claims that alienation (“Entfremdung”) is necessary in order for a man to become an individual. The Romantics generally recognized the fragmentation of society and saw alienation in opposition to harmony or unity. Fichte, in his The Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre, 1794/95), spoke of a self-understanding through self-reflection, i.e., of a negation and affirmation on “the next highest level,” Hegel uses the same concept
2 later, especially in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, 1821). The greatest barrier in this process is the “ego” (das “ich”) or the “non-ego,” according to Fichte, and this may cause the alienated self. However, not everyone agreed with Fichte. Several Romantic poets, such as Clemens Brentano (17781842) in his “Philister-Rede”5 or Jean Paul in the witty satire “Clavis Fichtiana seu Leibgeberiana” (1799-1800)6, criticized Fichte, accusing him of advocating nihilism...
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