David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Novalis: Monologue

The excellent piece on Novalis in this week’s TLS quoted a bit of his brilliant Monolog, and it’s short enough I figured I’d just post the whole thing here:

Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs really; true conversation is just a game with words. It is amazing, the absurd error people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a marvellous and fruitful mystery – for if someone merely speaks for the sake of speaking, he utters the most splendid, original truths. But if he wants to talk about something definite, the whims of language make him say the most ridiculous false stuff. Hence the hatred that so many serious people have for language. They notice its waywardness, but they do not notice that the babbling they scorn is the infinitely serious side of language. If it were only possible to make people understand that it is the same with language as it is with mathematical formulae – they constitute a world in itself – their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror to the strange play of relationships among things. Only their freedom makes them members of nature, only in their free movements does the world-soul express itself and make of them a delicate measure and a ground-plan of things. And so it is with language – the man who has a fine feeling for its tempo, its fingering, its musical spirit, who can hear with his inward ear the fine effects of its inner nature and raises his voice or hand accordingly, he shall surely be a prophet; on the other hand the man who knows how to write truths like this, but lacks a feeling and an ear for language, will find language making a game of him, and will become a mockery to men, as Cassandra was to the Trojans. And though I believe that with these words I have delineated the nature and office of poetry as clearly as I can, all the same I know that no one can understand it, and what I have said is quite foolish because I wanted to say it, and that is no way for poetry to come about. But what if I were compelled to speak? What if this urge to speak were the mark of the inspiration of language, the working of language within me? And my will only wanted to do what I had to do? Could this in the end, without my knowing or believing, be poetry? Could it make a mystery comprehensible to language? If so, would I be a writer by vocation, for after all, a writer is only someone inspired by language?

Novalis, “Monologue” (1798), tr. Joyce Crick

This, together with Kleist’s “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking”, make the deconstructionists seem rather late to their own game.

The artistic complement to Novalis here is Paul Klee, whose drawings inspired by The Novices of Sais capture some of what Novalis is saying. This one is called “Demony”:


  1. Thanks, that’s very good – although I myself am reluctant to put it like that, as in the contexts I deal with people rush to misunderstand such views as if their very lives depended on it. But yes, the Romantic/postmodern connection is very important, for good or ill. Andrew Bowie is good on this.

    I’m also reminded of Wittgenstein: “Philosophie sollte man eigentlich nur dichten” or something like that.

  2. Schlegel’s “On Incomprehensibility”, too. But it’s not as if the deconstructionists were unaware of these things.

  3. “Rather late”? At least they noticed the game. What attracted me to Barthes, Derrida, Cixous, and so on was precisely their awkward, sincere grappling with stuff that mattered to me — the stuff of Novalis and Blake, Kleist and Mallarme — while Anglo-American philosophy departments snuffed themselves in a cocoon of “seriousness.”

    Far less attractive were the poststructuralists’ sycophants and imitators. _Citing_ Barthes, Derrida, or Cixous when you could be citing Novalis, Blake, Kleist, or Mallarme, citing Freud when you could be citing Sophocles or Shakespeare — now that just shows bad taste.

    • David Auerbach

      23 June 2012 at 23:45

      Ray: it may boil down to having been subject to many of those sycophants and imitators. But when you’re damning every past writer before you for falling into the metaphysics of presence, how can you blame your followers for thinking they’re not worth reading? Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Tugendhat, Hermann Fraenkel, Vernant, even Habermas–none of them felt the need to tell their disciples that everything need be put through a funhouse Leo Straussian interpretation.

      Reading Derrida, De Man, Lacan, Cixous (Barthes is a different beast: S/Z is basically structuralist ne plus ultra) & others *as* literature remains an option, but reading them *on* literature seems too much like free association for me (the charge of “intellectual narcissism” leveled by Paolo Rossi seems accurate, though intellectual *solipsism* seems closer to the point). For Kafka, I get much more out of Emrich, Politzer, and Koelb. For Shakespeare, much more from Cavell, Colie, Melchiori, and Pequigney.

  4. I am glad to see Novalis’s “Monolog” here, but the translation is too colloquial, even vulgar, in way that Novalis seldom was, even in his notebooks. Was Dick Higgins somehow involved in this?

    The difference between the Romantics (or even non-/pre-Romantic writers such as Sterne) and Post-Modernists /Deconstructionists is that the former understand how unimportant self-referentiality is, at least compared to other ideas, and of course the latter would certainly not even understand, still less endorse, the “Magic Idealist” spin that Novalis places on the idea.

    “The artistic compliment [sic; Klee’s scribbles to my mind are anything but a “compliment” to Novalis] to Novalis here is Paul Klee, whose drawings inspired by The Novices of Sais capture some of what Novalis is saying.”

    My understanding is that Klee’s drawings have nothing to do with Novalis’s text. They are pre-existing works that merely chosen by the editors at Valentin, for some incomprehensible reason, to illustrate the text. If anyone has actual evidence to tie the Klee drawings to Novalis’s text, then I’d be very interested to see it. I, for one can’t imagine that Klee had the slightest interest in Novalis. The Surrealists (why do I suspect I am uttering a dirty word here?), by contrast, admired Novalis tremendously.

    • Whoops, thanks for catching that typo. The translator is Ralph Manheim, whom I generally hold in high esteem, but even Homer nods. Michael Hamburger might have been better suited to the task instead of Celine and Grass’s translator.

      I do think that pomo & Romantic sorts are unified by a certain type of solipsistic narcissism, self-referentiality being the last resort of solipsists who no longer have the metaphysical basis to elevate the self in any grander fashion.

      It looks like you’re right about Klee, and one should never trust press releases. Klee still does evoke some of the same ideas for me, Klee being one of the most conceptually self-sufficient artists of the period. Perhaps he didn’t need Novalis to get to where he was going.

  5. Very belated thanks for your reply, David. I can’t really agree with your generalization about the Romantics–Novalis criticized Fichte precisely because of the solipsism implied by Fichte’s Transcendental Ego–but I respect how you and others might come to it.

    In any case, I hope I haven’t quibbled too much. I am delighted that you are helping to bring deserved attention to Novalis. I’ve returned the favor, in a manner of speaking, as I linked to this page from the comments section of a recent article/review about poetes maudits versus “normal” poets, and so you will see it getting a few additional hits, I hope.

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