In his foreword, this book’s excellent translator, Robert E. Goodwin, describes the author, Rüdiger Safranski, as a “raconteur.” This is an apt characterization: Highly intelligent and extraordinarily well-read, Safranski brims with intellectual self-confidence. He is firm in his convictions and in his judgments. He relishes his erudition and delights in conveying it to his readers, which he does with imagination and panache. Indeed, one might even say that Safranski loves the sound of his own voice. It is generally a very enjoyable voice to listen to.
The author distinguishes between “Romanticism” and “Romantics.” The former was a circumscribed historical period beginning (in Safranski’s account) in 1769 with Johann Gottfried von Herder’s voyage from Riga and ending in the 1820s with E. T. A. Hoffmann and Joseph von Eichendorff. The Romantic era is the subject of the first half of the book. The “Romantics,” then, are the individual thinkers who carried on the tradition of Romanticism after the Romantic era was over: Romantics—down to the student rebels of the late 1960s—are the subject of the book’s second half. According to Safranski, the idea animating Romanticism from 1770 until the 1820s, and Romantics to the present day, is “that the beam of our awareness does not illuminate the entirety of our experience, that our consciousness cannot grasp our whole Being, that we have a more intimate connection with the life process than our reason would like to believe.”
Although Romanticism responds to the sense that there is more to the world and to our lives than meets the eye, to the universal human need for meaning and fulfillment, it emerged in specific response to the triumph of Enlightenment rationality and, consequently, the decline of religion in the late 18th century. The Enlightenment’s vision of a rationally functioning, lawful universe created by a deistic God seemed a “monstrous mill” or a “perpetual motion machine” to the Romantics, and they pushed back against the sterility of such a world. In response to the “disenchantment of the world” through secularization and the triumph of empiricism, the Romantics sought to satisfy the “appetite for mystery and wonder” that religion traditionally had satisfied.
Romanticism also reacted against the emergence, in the 19th century, of the modern rationalistic society, with its efficiency, its specialization, its emphasis on economic utility—and its monotony. A world mastered by human reason seemed conventional, prosaic, boring. In sum, the Romantics sought to “banish the wasteland of disenchantment” produced by Enlightenment rationalism and capitalism and, like traditional religions, respond to a yearning for the mysterious, the sublime, the transcendent. In contrast to religion, however, Romanticism discovered these experiences not in the afterlife but in the here and now, within individual human beings. And these experiences were to be recovered not through the institutions or the rituals of the church but through art. As Goodwin neatly puts it in his foreword, Romanticism for Rüdiger Safranski “is essentially the recuperation and reinvigoration of the religious imagination in a secular age by aesthetic means.”
The author is sympathetic to Romanticism, when it remains in the aesthetic realm, as having the potential to enrich and fulfill a life and a world that would otherwise be sterile and superficial, a literal life and a literal world. The problem comes when Romanticism enters the political realm. Whereas the Romantic craves adventure, intense experiences, and extremes, successful politics depends on compromise, rational discourse, consensus, and achievement that is mostly partial and prosaic.
If we fail to realize that the reason of politics and the passions of Romanticism are two separate spheres, which we must know how to keep separate . . . we risk the danger of looking to politics for an adventure that we would better find in the sphere of culture—or, vice versa, of demanding from the sphere of culture the same social utility we expect from politics. Neither an adventurous politics nor a politically correct cultural sphere is desirable. [Only misfortune and suffering result when] we seek in politics what we can never find there: redemption, true Being, the answer to the ultimate questions, the realization of dreams, the utopia of the successful life, the God of history, apocalypse, and eschatology.