The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy: On All Sides Infinity

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She insightfully explains that for Romantic poets including Keats, as seen in his Lamia , the new knowledge was a destroyer of the mystery and magic of the natural world and other cultures such as those of Classical Greece and the African continent.


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This chapter pays close attention to his paintings Ecce Ancilla Domini! The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy provides an enticing new study of interest to literary scholars, and historians of astronomy, navigation, and colonial expansion. Regrettably, it does present some difficulties for the reader which impair its usefulness. There are instances when the reader is expected to remember which Herschel — William or John — is being written about as the book progresses. It is also disappointing, that despite the inherent visuality of astronomy and colonial exploration, Brothers text has only four illustrations.

Nevertheless, readers should not be deterred from cautious engagement with this distinctive study. Powered by WordPress and Tarski. Gillian Daw , University of Sussex. Search this site. Schlegel, in his early writings, maintained that the drive to provide a systematic explanation of all reality was both necessary and impossible: necessary in that the mind by nature wants to see things whole; impossible in that its finitude keeps it from ever succeeding.

Thus he took a novelistic approach to system-building—i. Truth was to be found, not in the system, but by turning back to look into the mind that wants to create it.

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Astronomy with an Opera-Glass IV

As with art, the truth of philosophy lay not in a coherent representation of the universe, but in expressing and understanding the desire to represent it coherently. The desire to have everything explained and familiar was an attempt to close oneself off from wonder and newness of each present moment. If the universe is truly evolving, no system—even a system to explain its evolution—can do justice to the authentic experience of being both a passive and an active participant in that evolution.

So instead of striving for truth as coherence, Novalis felt that one should strive for the truth of authenticity: being true to the fact that we are evolving creatures at our own particular place and time, while at the same time rising above those limitations, through our powers of imagination, to taste the infinite. For him, authenticity was the opposite of being a philistine, someone confined to the mechanical repetition of everyday habits. An authentic person was one who lived outside the commonplace, who was able to transform the experience of the commonplace into something continually magical and new.

Thus the primary guarantee of an authentic participation in the evolution of the universe was that it romanticized the commonplace—a process that Novalis admitted could not be explained even though it could be experienced. In his words,.

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The lower self is identified with the better self in this operation. By giving a higher meaning to the ordinary, a mysterious appearance to the ordinary, the dignity of the unacquainted to that of which we are acquainted, the mere appearance of infinity to the finite, I romanticize them. Romanticizing the commonplace, Novalis thought, encouraged a sensitivity to the twofold process of self-alienation and appropriation that allowed the mind to be both more responsive to the world and to be more self-directed in shaping the world through the imagination.

Thus the powers of the imagination, rather than being empty fabrications and lies, were actually a source of truth. For Novalis, this truth was proven by the fact that ordinary existence is wretched, and thus unnatural. The best a person can do to convince others of the truths of his or her own revelations, Novalis concluded, is to persuade them indirectly, through poetry and novels that portrayed the world as magical.

Schlegel, as his thought developed, came to adopt a similar position on the microcosmic sublime. Thus he, too, felt that literature was the best way of persuading others of the truth of the infinite. However, he developed his own line of thought on how best to communicate the fact that the infinite was constantly changing. As a result, he developed two connected concepts— irony and idea —that constituted his distinctive contribution to Romantic notions of truth. The first concept concerned the stance of the author toward his works. To convey the incessant nature of change while at the same time trying to step outside it, one should assume a stance of irony.

The author should create a work of art to convey a truth while at the same time realizing that the truth is destined to change. Thus he should be serious about his message and yet take a comic—and cosmic—distance from it. It is the freest of all licenses, for by its means one transcends oneself; and yet it is also the most lawful, for it is absolutely necessary. Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great. Although Schlegel found irony in many genres—he saw the Socratic dialogue, for example, as the greatest philosophical genre because its sense of irony transcended the rigidity of philosophical systems—he perfected his own personal genre to convey the ironic nature of the truth.

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This genre was the fragment : a statement short enough to be pithy, but long enough to contain at least two contrary notions, and suggestive enough to hint at implications lying beyond both thoughts—the larger whole of which the fragment is just a part. It portrays that reality by presenting two opposite thoughts without committing to either of them.

Furthermore, by presenting ideas in fragments with an ironic attitude, an author not only portrays and embodies the changing nature of reality, but also is able to suggest that the truth lies beyond the words. Of course, even a philosophy of irony has its underlying assumptions about truth. The creative philosophy that originates in freedom and belief in freedom, and shows how the human spirit impresses its law on all things and how the world is its work of art.

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He was more concerned with the question of which truths an ever-changing individual should adopt in an ever-changing world. Given the fact that he later suffered a total psychological breakdown, there is a poignancy to his criterion: Each individual, he said, should choose the philosophy that best creates a sense of internal psychological unity and harmony. As the individual changes, the philosophy he or she needs will also have to change: a principle he illustrated in his novel, Hyperion, and explained in his philosophical sketches.

These opposing views are suited to different stages in life, although neither is necessarily more advanced than the other. In other words, one might find comfort and inspiration by shifting back and forth between these philosophies as needed. And no one else could require the individual to be consistent in sticking to any particular choice. Its overflowing energy heals all wounds. The conflicts of the world come from not realizing that our views of reality can offer nothing more than partial and fleeting glimpses of the truth. When seen from a larger perspective, conflicts of opinion—like all other conflicts—are no more than temporary dissonances in the evolving harmony of the entire cosmos.

This, however, raises two important issues with regard to all the early Romantic theories of truth: If the organic infinitude of the cosmos means that all human ideas can offer only partial and temporary glimpses of the truth, what does that say about the idea that the cosmos is an organic infinitude? Is that idea, too, only partial and temporary?

After all, the purpose of the organic infinitude is essentially unknowable, so how can it be trusted to be benevolent?

In response to both of these objections, the Romantics insisted that the idea of the infinite organic unity of the cosmos had a special status. Unlike ordinary human ideas, it was not subject to the limitations of the senses. Instead, it was directly intuited by the sensitive mind. And the experience, once obtained, showed that the miseries of life as perceived through the senses—aging, illness, and death—only seemed to be miseries.

The larger view afforded by this experience was infinitely comforting. It was there, the highest, in this circle of human nature and of things, it was there! I ask no more what it may be; I have seen it, I have come to know it. Beauty of the world! Yet all ensues from pleasure, and all ends with peace. Similarly, when Schlegel spoke of a chaos that lay outside of any systematic thought, he did not imply that the world beyond thought was one of danger or disorder. It was only one of seeming disorder.

Still, this experience could not be proven to others. It could only be felt within. To prove that it was not purely subjective, though, the Romantics needed to induce other people to become sensitive to the same experience.

And the only way to do that was to make the idea of such an experience attractive. As a result, a large part of the Romantic Bildung for creating a free harmonious society lay in their attempts to make the experience of Oneness an attractive idea. To some extent, the burden of this task fell to their literary skills. But perhaps the most attractive part of their program lay in their explanation of what freedom meant in the context of an infinite organic unity.

If human beings were simply part of a larger unity over which they had no control, then the purposes of that unity, whatever they might be, would automatically override human freedom. With no freedom of choice, human beings could not be granted the dignity that comes with responsibility.

The Romantics were well aware of these arguments, and yet they each, in their own way, maintained that human beings were free even though they were parts of an infinite organic unity. The way they found around this paradox, of course, was to redefine what freedom meant.

Schelling—the only one who held to the criterion that truth should be logically consistent—came to the bleakest view of the four as to what constituted freedom. Arguing from the unity of the cosmos, he concluded that human beings, as finite beings, do not even exist, in the sense that nothing can exist in and of itself. From this conclusion he further argued that finite human beings have no freedom of choice. In fact, he ultimately concluded that the very idea of freedom of choice was actually the source of all evil. To foster the good of the universe, human beings had to accept that their only freedom was to be open to the divine force acting within them.

Unlike Schelling, the remaining three thinkers, when defining freedom, openly denied that the principle of logical consistency had any authority over them. This did not mean, however, that they made no effort to be coherent.


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They simply looked for coherence in other terms. Only to the extent that you could use your powers of imagination to see the sublime in the commonplace could you know that you were playing a role in shaping the cosmos, and that you shared in the creative freedom of the infinite. For Schlegel, freedom consisted in versatility, the ability to not be tied down by any side in conflicting issues. But if described from outside, as part of an infinite organic unity, these abilities can be nothing more than an expression of impulses over which one has no control. So here again, the Romantics were caught in the conflict between description and expression.

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