Sheffy, Rakefet 1994. "Strategies of Canonization."
© 1990, 1998 by Rakefet Sela-Sheffy. This text is available from



Rakefet Sheffy
Unit for Culture Research
Tel Aviv University

Dr. Rakefet Sheffy
Unit for Culture Research
Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv 69978, ISRAEL
tel. +972-3-640-9548
fax: +972-3-640-7909

* First version of this paper was delivered at the Dartmouth Colloquium, "The Making of Culture", Dartmouth College, 22-27 July 1994.

In the making of modern German national culture, the last third of the eighteenth century is traditionally viewed as the "Golden Age": an era of optimal achievement in which the pecularities of the German Kultur with its new Romantic orientation attained a formative breakthrough. In this process, textual and specifically literary activities were assigned a central role and, consequently, became its most sanctioned representatives. However, the foregrounded and glorified movements and writers of this period and their literary production certainly did not emerge in a void. It would be impossible to account for them without reference to the massive intellectual and literary activity in the formidable Classicist, though not necessarily German, literary tradition, which preceded them and continued to predominate at least until the middle of the eighteenth century, and even later. Moreover, the self-same thrust toward "authentically German" culture was already central to the prior literary activity all throughout the century. Yet into the 1770's, "German culture" was hardly an entity in its own right, let alone a match for contemporary cultural superpowers such as the French or English. By the turn of the century, however, it is said to have reached its peak: its pantheon had been founded and it first gained intercultural reputation.

This paper discusses the regulating mechanism of that intellectual field which generated, or allowed the crystallization of, the new "indigenous German canon" in face of the still active old one. Since one of the prominent practices of this field was the business of novel production accompanied by debate concerning the reading public; and, further, since one of the literary achievements of this period, according to traditional literary histories, is the perfection of the novel as an art form, I focus in this paper on the way in which the novel, or rather the idea of the novel, was developed and used by German literati as catalyst in remodeling their occupation and reorganizing their field of action. Further, all this certainly bears on the ongoing, if somewhat shopworn, discussion of how canons are constructed, maintained or changed. I therefore use this case for reconsidering questions of canonicity and canonization.

1. The standing of literature in the cultural arena

Before addressing the theoretical questions, a brief introduction is needed on the standing of literature in the cultural arena in Germany at the time, and the special role it fulfilled in the formation of modern national German culture.

My view in this matter relies heavily on Norbert Elias's analysis of the "Sociogenesis of the Difference Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage" (Elias 1978 [1939], which even today is still unrivaled for its powerful socio-semiotic insight. According to it, the "German revolution" so to speak, in contrast to the French, was essentially a literary movement. The tension between the rising bourgeoisie and the declining court society was not a political struggle in the strict sense of the word, but rather played out primarily in the literary arena. By this, it should be stressed, it is not meant that the historical process was simply "reflected" in the literary writings of the time (i.e., as "themes" treated in the literary texts responding to the social events), but that the alleged awakening of class or national consciousness was to great extent an ideological (retrospectively formulated) expression of a more fundamental struggle held by intellectuals and literary functionaries to increase their cultural capital in the give social figuration. Because of the particularly sharp class division in Germany, with an indigent nobility intent on preserving its privilege, the German bourgeoisie was excluded from all political activities, and practically barred from those channels of class mobility through which other Western bourgeois rose. On the other hand, the bourgeois elements led in everything connected with "written culture", qua civil servants, clergymen and university professors, as well as scribes, translators, poets, school or private teachers, and of course novelists, publishers and distributors. Consequently, they could construct their collective identity and gain self-assurance only in terms of the profession of letters; "at most, they could "think and write" independently; they could not act independently" (Elias 1978: 18). A significant point here is that these people shared a common habitus without constituting a group in the sense of a collective consciousness mobilized by an explicit social ideology. As Elias puts it:

[...] the bourgeoisie as a whole did not yet find expression in [this "literary movement"]. It was at first the expression of a sort of bourgeois vanguard, what is here described as the middle-class intelligentsia: many individuals in the same position and of similar social origin scattered throughout the country, individuals who understood one another because they were in the same position. Only occasionally do individuals of the vanguard find themselves together in some place as a group, for a shorter or longer time; often they live in isolation or solitude, an elite in relation to the people, persons of a second rank in the eyes of the courtly aristocracy (ibid.: 18-19).

It should be remembered that "culture" in Germany, at least until the middle of the eighteenth century, means a cross-European court culture, whose center and dominant source for models was France. This official upper cultural stratum was a typical example of cultural provincialism; the language of culture as well as social taste and manners were French, as was most of the admired literature. Hence, as I would like to show in this paper, the underlying motivation for the later promotion of a "native German culture" was the ambivalent position of the educated bourgeoisie who, more than the nobility, were also skilled in a "local culture" in the German language in addition to the "Frenchified" one. The German practices and skills served later as an option which enabled members of the learned bourgeoisie to overcome their relative cultural and social inferiority. Since their forte lay primarily in written and intellectual activities, the cultural repertoire which could be distinguished as "genuinely German" was in many ways a literary repertoire: literary taste, textual models and models of criticism, models of literary and intellectual life styles, etc.

2. Reconsidering canon and canonization

The case in point sheds light on the relation between ideology and cultural repertoire, implying that it might be misleading always to presuppose the outright subordination of a repertoire (say, literary models) to deliberate ideological guidelines (e.g., national, racial, or other). In fact, this case reveals that often prevailing repertoires not only delimit the social outlook, but also actually generate social orders and ideologies. In other words, it reveals that often ideology itself emerges as an option of a cultural repertoire. This challenges today's regnant belief that canons are flexible and entirely negotiable, a conviction which overlooks the specific weight of canonized repertoires as virtually "hard facts" of social reality. This does not mean that canons never change. Moreover, there are obviously cases where whole new canons are constructed that were not conceivable before. The national German canon is one such case. However, in light of the above, "the normality of canon change" (see Lindberg 1990) is by no means self- evident. A real structural transformation of canonical repertoire and overthrow of the former canon require a very complex and resourceful, though not necessarily intentional, exploitation of the available repertoire, a process often indiscernible on the level of sheer ideology.

Consequently, there is a lot more to the process that may be called "canon formation" than a contest over the "celebrated list." It is often taken for granted that the struggle for the canon involves simply a "selection and assessment" of texts, figures or trends, including those from the past, by competing agents aiming to define and monopolize legitimate corpora. Yet such combat is rife in "cultural market" dynamics in general: dynamics ceaselessly producing ad hoc accepted corpora without necessarily guaranteeing their durability as canonical. For the most part, the "winners" of these ongoing battles quickly fall into oblivion, whereas canonized items maintain their position as orientation points in the cultural market regardless of its vicissitudes.

In other words, as I said elsewhere (Sheffy 1990), the "canonical" is not identical with the "central" or "fashionable" which rises and falls as result of the manipulative "selection and assessment" that keeps the cultural market going. The canon indicates an unshakably sanctioned body of models and exemplars, transmitted and preserved over the generations as a long-standing "reservoir" or "program" for the future. Indeed, the crucial point about canonicity, thus understood, is the sense of "objectification" it confers on such a reservoir, thereby naturalizing it as congenital in a given socio-cultural order, concealing the social struggles that determined it in the first place. That is, the status of the canon as a collective source of authority is different than, say, best-sellers list or haute couture (I am thinking about Bourdieu's analysis of the cultural market dynamics; see Bourdieu 1980); it functions rather like a shrine or a safe, into which, once an item is accepted, its value is almost irreversibly secured. As such, it constitutes a factor of uniformity which endures the infinite struggles of rival ideologies vying to determine cultural dominance (equally invoked, time and again, by all of them).

Hence, two basic questions underlie my analysis of the canonizing process:

(1) What is the actual impact of the canon in regulating specific activities in culture? Is it only the mechanism directly responsible for the inculcation and circulation of tastes and practices, or does it also function to inspire abstract worship of certain cultural models by sacralizing and thus suspending them from the current cultural "market exchange"? (For instance, with regard to the literary field, are canonical literary models directly dependent on their persistence in the actual literary production? Or does canonization of models, on the contrary, frustrate their viability for implementation in the actual literary production by the sanctification attendant upon the canonizing process?)

(2) In light of this distinction, are there different processes of canon construction, and are they respectively dependent on different socio-cultural conditions? The process of canonization can be either one of consolidating an existing sanctioned repertoire (often marking a phase of socio-cultural stagnation), or an act of prefiguring an optimal repertoire as means of reorganizing a cultural field. Apparently, the former strategy is more common. It applies even to cultural fields of rather loose social equilibrium, including cases of overt struggle for "canon change" (which nonetheless often amount to nothing but "canon expansion"). However, this consolidating strategy is most typically observed in cultural fields of extremely rigid social equilibrium maintained by "absolute" codification. A perfect example is the eighteenth century French court culture.1

In this case, the canonizers' work consists in meticulous explicitation of the compelling categories of the field and maximal formalization of its rules for "correct conduct" extracted from "precedents" such as normative manners or sanctioned texts. The collection of examples from guides on etiquette and manners, involving a period of several centuries, through which Elias illustrates his notion of the evolutionary civilizing process (1978 [1939]), demonstrates in fact the inertial power of such a canonizing strategy. Analyzing the instructions for civilized table manners, for instance, Elias concludes that

At the end of the eighteenth century, [...] the French upper class attained approximately the standard of eating manners, and certainly not only of eating manners, that was gradually to be taken for granted in the whole of civilized society.

[...] If this series were continued up to the present day, further changes of detail would be seen: new imperatives are added, old one are relaxed; [...] but the essential basis of what is required and what is forbidden in civilized society - the standard eating technique, the manner of using knife, fork, spoon, plate, serviette, and other eating utensils - these remain in their essential feature unchanged. Even the development of technology in all areas - even that of cooking - [...] has left the techniques of eating and other forms of behavior essentially unchanged. (Elias 1978: 104-105).

And the same applies to more "spiritual" matters, such as language or literature: this canonization strategy operates in the various channels which determine privileged linguistic and literary repertoires and assign them the status of "objective" rules: channels such as normative poetics or grammar books.

No doubt, this canonization strategy may also include the expansion of the canon by allowing additional inventory into the sanctioned list. In this case, even what appears to be an entirely unprecedented "innovation" is practically only a "remodeling," namely, an imposition of existing categories on products that until that point were not labelled as such (while the ultimate effect is eventually still that of enhancing the established rules of the field).

To return to the issue of the novel's canonization: precisely such consolidation was the dominant strategy in the early attempts toward a literary theorization of the novel made by German scholars already in the late seventeenth century. These scholars saw it their task to sanction prose writing in terms of canonized poetical rules and to fix its status under the rubric of a classical generic category (see Jacobs 1976; Vosskamp 1973). Pierre-Daniel Heut's traité de l'origine des Romans (1670), translated into German in 1682, is thought to mark a point of departure for the theory of the German novel. Following this treatise, German literati tended to classify the novel as an Epic variant. This is evidenced, to mention one of many examples, in Georg Morhof's Unterricht Von Der Deutchen Sprache und Poesie...:

It is another type of narrative / yet in prose / which however is entitled with full justification to be called (heroic) Epic. For it is not different from the other types / except only in metrics / yet it was granted by Aristotle / that there may also be a poem without versification (metrics). These are the so-called novels (Romainen), about whose origins there is no univocal opinion. ((Teil 3, Kap 14; Von den Helden-Getichten. Kiel 1682; cited in Lämmert 1971: 33. My translation. Emphasis in original.)2

3. Shift of Canonization Strategies

This highly consolidating cultural mechanism was indeed typical of the environment in which the German bourgeois intelligentsia rose. However, although this cross-European genteel culture was in many respects theirs, it doomed them to inferiority. For all their perfect mastery of civilized taste and practices, they remained forever on the "receiving" end, with no prospect for full integration in this culture, let alone for playing a leading part. At least until the middle of the eighteenth century, German culture was definitely a translating but hardly a translated one.

As is often the case when peripheral, yet resourceful, cultural groups are concerned, this state of affairs gave rise to two opposite tendencies within the local intellectual field. In combination, they were responsible for the later "Building of the German indigenous canon", since the seemingly self-same vogue for "authentic German" literature was in fact promoted by two different stances taken by German literati vis-à-vis the French-Latin oriented canonical culture which was their frame of reference. Paradoxical though it may appear, the predilection for "Germanness" first originated, as Gunter Grimm shows (1983), precisely from conformity with the "cosmopolitan" canon rather than from "primordial nationalism:"; that is, from attempts, already in the previous century, to cultivate a domestic version of the very same Classicist repertoire, with an aspiration to matching its achievement and finesse.

This inclination to consolidate the existing canon prevailed well into the eighteenth century. In his classical study, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language (1959), Eric Blackall gives a detailed account of the literary debates in Germany during the first half of the century, which revolved mainly around linguistic and stylistic questions (including problems of imitation, literary tropes, generic classifications, etc.), debates that were for the most part rooted in the work of Classicist canonizers on which they drew for legitimation. However, during the second half of the century, a contradictory tendency gradually prevailed, namely, the search for an alternative source of cultural capital. After a prolonged fascination with a mystified English literary trend, young German intellectuals around the 1770's felt freer to embrace the notion of natural genius as their cultural code and a kind of competence, which would neutralize the ruling classicist dictates and standards of perfection.3

This new code, eliciting a whole set of complementary oppositions (such as inherent/imitated; profound/superficial; genuine/spurious), molded their image of "indigenous German spirit" which provided them with a new cultural bond. The formation of this cultural disposition is to a large extent the main theme of Goethe's autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-14). Goethe describes the rise of a new solidarity among young German students who failed to integrate into the French genteel society in Strasbourg:

But what, more than all, forcibly alienated us from the French, was the unpolite opinion, repeatedly maintained, that the Germans in general, as well as the king, who was striving after French cultivation, were deficient in taste. With regard to this kind of talk, which followed every judgment like a burden, we endeavoured to solace ourselves with contempt; [...] Having been before and often directed to nature, we would allow of nothing but truth and uprightness of feeling, and the quick, blunt expression of it [...] was the watchword and cry of battle, by which the members of our little academical horde used to know and enliven each other. This maxim lay at the foundation of all our social banquets, on the occasion of which we did not fail to pay many an evening visit to Cousin Michel, in his well-known "Germanhood". (Goethe 1969 [1811-14; 1831-32], volume 2, book 11: 100. Translated by John Oxenford)

However, Goethe's profile reveals that this Romantic disposition emerged in Germany not so much from frustration on the inter- cultural level (i.e., from a sense of marginality vis-à- vis the French culture) as on the intra-cultural level, namely, from a collapse of the frenchified "German Classicist literature" project. According to his recollection, Goethe's disillusion had began a few years earlier, during his experience as a student of law and literature in the scholarly center of Leipzig, a citadel of German provincialism. Goethe reports an overall sense of awkwardness and distaste, in both the social and literary spheres, given the affected and dogmatic so-called "cosmopolitanism", absent any real alternatives at the time. His sarcasm illustrates this crisis of cultural orientation:

Everyone who perceives [...] the influence which men and women of education, the learned and other persons who take pleasure in refined society, so decidedly exercised over a young student, would be immediately convinced that we were in Leipzig, even if it had not been mentioned. [...] a student could scarcely be anything else but polite, as soon as he wished to stand on any footing at all with the rich, well-bred, and punctilious inhabitants.

All politeness, indeed, when it does not present itself as the flowering of a great and comprehensive mode of life, must appear restrained, stationary, and, from some point of view, perhaps, absurd; [...] For the student of any wealth and standing had every reason to show himself attentive to the mercantile class, and to be the more solicitous about the proper external forms, as the colony exhibited a model of French manners. [...] at first this kind of life was not repugnant to me [...] But as I was soon forced to feel that the company had much to find fault with in me, and that, after dressing myself in their fashion, I must now talk according to their tongue also; and as, moreover, I could plainly see that I was, on the other hand, but little benefited by the instruction and mental improvement I had promised myself from my academical residence, - I began to be lazy, and to neglect the social duties of visiting, and other attentions; [...]

His criticism is even bolder when directed at the literary world:

The Gottsched waters had inundated the German world with a true deluge, which threatened to rise up, even over the highest mountains. It takes a long time for such a flood to subside again, for the mire to dry away; and as in any epoch there are numberless aping poets, so the imitation of the flat and watery produced a chaos, of which now scarcely a notion remains. To find out that trash was trash was hence the greatest sport, yea, the triumph of the critics of those days. Whoever had only a little common sense, was superficially acquainted with the ancients, and was somewhat more familiar with the moderns, thought himself provided with a standard scale which he could everywhere apply. (ibid. volume 2, Book 6: 270-273) 4

Evidence of this ambivalence is strewn throughout the eighteenth century, even as genteel culture and Classicist literature still reigned supreme in Germany. And yet, as Peter Uwe Hohendahl shows (1989), the construction of an indigenous German canon was delayed until early in the nineteenth century, after a new cultural order had already crystallized. In other words, it appears that canonicity involves a certain distance from "actuality": there was a gap, both in time and in content, between the formation of a recognized "native" literary repertoire, less and less compatible with classicist canonical categories, and the point in which a full recognition of the alternative, indigenously German, canon was possible. A typical example of such non-synchronization between the canon and the actual repertoire in eighteenth century German culture is, of course, the novel.

For all the attempts at a literary theorization of the novel, it is clear that its status as a cultural practice remained borderline, resisting for the most part classicist categories. Furthermore, the most crucial perspective in the scholarly discussion of the novel was in any event not that of "intrinsic" literary categories, but rather that of "social engagement." The controversy concerning the novel focused first and foremost on its role in inculcating moral and ethical norms, as a major channel of the Enlightenment "mass education" endeavor. Indeed, the enormous impact of the novel in creating large-scale cohesion in the so-called German "learned public" is undeniable. On the other hand, literary critics, apparently threatened by what they viewed as an overwhelming craving for reading, expressed ever greater hostility toward the novel throughout the eighteenth century, especially toward the century's end (see Sheffy, 1992).

However, precisely this combination of a huge cultural impact and a borderline literary status made the novel the most fitting catalyst for generating the Romantic disposition. Of all the writing models which pertained to the educational profile of the young German intellectuals, "free speech in prose" provided the most feasible literary option in defiance of classical rules. Already in Leipzig, Goethe expresses his admiration for his teacher Gellert who encouraged his students to write prose and disapproved of poetry. The incompatibility of the novel with formal poetics was the basis on which the "enigma of poetry" was conceived in the first place. Endowed with a "concealed intrinsic logic," instead of "superficial artfulness," this idea of "the essence of poetry in prose form" would provide by the end of the century the kernel for the literary theory of the Romantics. To be sure, this idea is already contemplated by Goethe with reference to the 1770's:

[...] I value both rhythm and rhyme, whereby poetry first became poetry; but that which is really, deeply and fundamentally effective, that which is really permanent and furthering, is that which remains of the poet when he is translated into prose. Then remains the pure, perfect substance, of which, when absent, a dazzling exterior often contrives to make a false show, and which, when present, such an exterior contrives to conceal. I therefore consider prose translations more advantageous than poetical, for the beginning of a youthful culture. (ibid. Book 11, volume 2: 112).

In short, the liability of the idea of the novel to the shift of strategies made it a key agency in the new canonizing process, and a paradigmatic illustration of the new literary institution as prefigured mainly by the Early Romantics at the turn of the century. Consequently, two aspects are central to the canonization of the novel in its new conception:

(1) The discrepancy between the theoretical concept and the actual novel production;
(2) The delicate balance between evocation and denial of old canonical parameters as a source of legitimation.

In other words, to speak about the literary canonization of the novel means actually to show how, on the one hand, canonical categories were imposed on it so as to attach it to existing cultural dictates, while, on the other hand, it induced the prefiguration of an entirely new cultural regulating code.

This was a gradual process which involved, on the part of the canonizers, a range of tactics whose common denominator was evasiveness. In his renowned essay Versuch über den Roman (1774), Friedrich von Blanckenburg still takes pains to defend the novel in terms of the "glorious classical precedents." Yet contrary to previous efforts to substantiate the novel's "ancient origin" by citing formal features (e.g., Morhof's "unversed Epic"), Blanckenburg dubs the novel canonical only by way of functional analogy: he does not specify the novel as an Epic variant, but rather rationalizes that as much as the Epic had been the "natural" mode of expression for the ancients, so was the novel for the moderns. In this way, the novel gains canonicity by a remote parallel to the Classics, obviating the requisite of generic standards demanded of other active canonical models (such as the drama, and even the Idyll or lyrics).

About twenty-five years later, this very argument was repeated in statements of the Early Romantics' conception of the novel, as designed mainly by Friedrich Schlegel (see quotation in the following note). However, for them, it became part of a global approach underlying their ambition to formulate a whole new (total) idea of poetry, whose essence was sketched in 1800 in Schlegel's Dialogue on Poetry (as well as in his and Novalis's many aphorisms published mainly in the last two years of the century in the Athenäum). In their vision, the novel played the role of the canonical paradigm of Poetry par excellence, yet not as a specific literary model but rather as a general idea, an organizing principle.5

As implied by Schlegel's tautological dictum: "der Roman ist ein Romantisches Buch", his dilemma was apparently no longer how to legitimate prose fiction in terms of canonical dictates, but rather the opposite: he could now rely on the novel's loose poetical standards (already a celebrated feature in their own right) as a legitimate source of inspiration for dissolving the notion of poetry and making it elastic and sublime to the extent that it became devoid of any specific content: "A novel must be poetry through and through. Poetry is actually, like philosophy, a harmonious mood of our spirit, [...]" (Novalis, Fr. 21 1965-68 [1799]: 558; my translation).6

In itself, the Early Romantics' notion of the novel is sweeping and unfocused. Given the systematic avoidance of formal definition, all kinds of literary categories are confected into a most generalized notion of poetry, which embraces all of its components' merits yet cannot be reduced to any one of them alone: "What can be required from the novel is only what the entity of poetry is, naive - grotesque - fantastic - sentimental" (Fr. 1761,7 Schlegel in Eichner 1957: 176; my translation). However, depleted as it may appear, the Romantics' obsession with this notion implies that they were attracted to it, seeing in it a good investment for promoting their prospects in the intellectual field at the time.

Unsurprisingly, the question of the applicability of this imagined literary idea does not seem to have bothered its proponents. Even if Schlegel could, he probably would not have wanted to instruct specific models for the novel's generation or classification, because his aim was not to perpetuate an established repertoire in the first place. In fact, his theory was rather indifferent to the actual repertoire of novel writing, and made practically "no claim [...] that any literary work of the time had satisfied the requirement of the task" (Behler 1978: 10). Moreover, it appears that Schlegel was not only undisturbed by the irreconcilability of his abstract notion of the novel with the novel's actual production, but was also anxious to push this split to the extreme. For him, as for other elitist critics, the welter of contemporary novels in the mass-production market was an object of scorn, and entirely unrelated to his cultural concern.8 The split is made fairly explicit in his Letter about the Novel, one of the Dialogue's chapters, where he feels obliged, before presenting his sublime idea of the novel, to denounce his addressee's bad habit of reading piles of "those dirty volumes [...]," allowing "the confused and crude phrases to enter through [her] eye to the sanctuary of [her] soul" (Schlegel 1968 [1800]: 95. Translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc).9

In short, the inapplicability of the notion of the novel as a generative model clearly attests to the Romantic theory's lack of interest in the field of large-scale literary production; rather, the notion was restricted to the field of intellectuals, achieved by mystifying it to the point of exclusive accessibility for the members of this circle. This strategy indicates that the dynamics governing the literary arena in which the Early Romantics jockeyed for position had radically changed from that which prevailed a few decades earlier. As described above, German intellectuals formerly were exercised by the search for their own source of cultural capital, which they pursued by promoting a shared literary repertoire of "Germanhood" that induced a new type of cultural solidarity. As Klaus Berghahn shows (1988 [1985]), even as late as the 1770's cultivating a "public taste" for literature was still a central concern of literary critics, who profited from the ever prospering local book market and educational system. However, at the turn of the century, a distinctive German intellectual milieu was already highly institutionalized with literary practitioners, many endorsing the cult of genius, enjoying the status of ultimate legislators in the new German culture. On the other hand, the increasing separate market for profitable popular literature seriously jeopardized their elite status, threatening their prerogative as regulators of the German bourgeois ethos. The result was the Romantic retreat into sectarian aestheticism (Schulte-Sasse 1988 [1985]). Individual exchange and competition, with a declared overlook of "market interests",10 became the major regulating code, according to which every candidate strove to bar others from entering the contest.11 Now the magic spell of the "enigma of poetry" was adopted by Schlegel and his closed circle as a means of exclusion. Mystifying the idea of the novel was their means of making the whole field of literary activity inaccessible, like some unapproachable shrine.

Since Schlegel viewed the novel the ultimate embodiment of the imperceptible principle of poetry, he could not but present this idea as hypothetical by definition, nothing but a pure vision. Here again, Diana Behler sounds more romantic than the Romantics themselves in crediting Schlegel with an extraordinary prognosis for the future: "The novel was for Schlegel the highest genre of literature, an ideal not achieved within his own time, but pointing to nineteenth and twentieth century literary manifestations" (Behler 1978: 9). However, Schlegel seems to be jousting directly against his immediate rivals, bewildering them by blurring the criteria for winning the literary game. The quotation that follows is from Schlegel's Fragment 116, one of the most celebrated manifestations of the idea of "Romantic Poetry":

Other poetical kinds are final and liable to thorough analysis. The Romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; indeed, this is the essence of its being, that it can always be but in an eternal process of becoming and never be completed. It cannot be exhaustively rendered by any theory, and only a divinatory critique may dare to try and characterize its ideal. Only it alone is infinite, for only it is free and sees as its prime rule the poet's free will which acknowledges no other law above it. The romantic poetical kind is unique in being more than just kind, and to a certain extent it is the art of poetry itself, because to certain extent, all poetry is Romantic, or should be so in the first place.(Fragment 116. Schlegel in Eichner 1967: 182-183; my translation).

In conclusion, what is interesting is that this cryptic literary notion was so tremendously functional for the reorganizing of the German intellectual field in late eighteenth century regardless of the fact that, save for a scant experimental corpus, it barely left any traces on the literary production, even of later generations. It must also be stressed, that although the Early Romantics themselves, and the Schlegel brothers in particular, were, at least in the eyes of Heinrich Heine (1833), but a scandalous, often pathetic clique not up to the ruthless literary battles of their time, there is no doubt that their activity stimulated crucial changes in the structure of that field, expediting the formation of the indigenous German canon.


1. As Elias describes this culture:
[...] etiquette and ceremony increasingly became [...] a ghostly perpetuum mobile that continued to operate regardless of any direct use-value, being impelled, as by an inexhaustible motor, by the competition for status and power of the people enmeshed in it [...] In the last analysis this compelling struggle for ever- threatened power and prestige was the dominant factor that condemned all those involved to enact these burdensome ceremonies. No single person within the figuration was able to initiate a reform of the tradition. Every slightest attempt to reform, to change the precarious structure of tension, inevitably entailed an upheaval [...]

2. Es ist eine andre art Getichte / aber in ungebundener Rede / welche dennoch mit guten Fug Helden=Getichte gennant werden können. Dann sie sein von den andern nicht unterschieden / als nur bloss an dem metro / es hat aber Aristoteles zugegeben / dass auch ein Poema ohne metro sein könne. Solche sein die so gennanten Romainen, von welcher Ursprung nicht einerley Meinung ist. [...]

3. More than half a century later, in his autobiography, Goethe reflects, not without sarcasm born of sobriety in hindsight, on the "genius craze" that swept German culture at the time:

Natural gifts of every kind can the least be denied; and yet, by the phraseology common in those times, genius was ascribed to the poet alone. But another world seemed all at once to rise up: genius was looked for in the physician, in the general, in the statesman, and before long in all men who thought to make themselves eminent either in theory or practice. [...] the word genius (emphasis in original) became a universal symbol; and, because men heard it uttered so often, they though that what was meant by it was habitually at hand. But then, since every one felt himself justified in demanding genius of others, he finally believed that he also must possess it himself. The time was yet far distant when it could be affirmed that genius is that power of man which, by its deeds and actions, gives laws and rules. At this time it was thought to manifest itself only by overstepping existing laws, breaking established rules, and declaring itself above all restraint (my emphasis).It was, therefore, an easy thing to be a genius; and nothing was more natural than that extravagance, both of word and deed, should provoke all orderly men to oppose themselves to such a monster.
When anybody rushed into the world on foot, without exactly knowing why or wither, it was called a pass of genius; and when any one undertook an aimless and useless absurdity, it was a stroke of genius. Young men, of vivacious and true talents, too often lost themselves in the limitless; and then older men of understanding, wanting perhaps in talent and in soul, found a most malicious gratification in exposing to the public gaze their manifold and ludicrous miscarriages.

[...] With a strange rapidity, words, epithets, and phrases, which have once been cleverly employed to disparage the highest intellectual gifts, spread by a sort of mechanical repetition among the multitude; and in a short time they are to be heard everywhere, even in common life, and in the mouths of the most uneducated; indeed, before long they even creep into dictionaries. In this way the word genius had suffered so much from misrepresentation, that it was almost desired to banish it entirely from the German language. (Goethe 1969 [1811-14; 1831-32], volume 2, book 19: 404-405. Translated by John Oxenford).
4. And specifically on the doctrines of literary criticism Goethe says:

Now for criticism! And first of all for the theoretic attempts. [...] of a highest principle of art no one had a notion. They put Gottsched's "Critical Art of Poetry" into our hands; it was useful and instructive enough, for it gave us a historical information of all the kinds of poetry, as well as of rhyme and its different movements: the poetic genius was presupposed! But, beside that, the poet was to have acquirements and even learning: he should possess taste, and everything else of that kind. They they directed us at last to Horace's "Art of Poetry:" we gazed at single golden maxims of this invaluable work, but did not know in the least what to do with it as a whole, or how we should use it. (Goethe 1969 [1811-14; 1831- 32], volume 2, Book 7: 281)

5. This shift of argument is explicit in Schlegel's "Letter About the Novel," one of the Dialogue's chapters:

Certainly, all that is best in modern poetry tends toward antiquity in spirit and even in kind, as if there were to be a return to it. Just as our literature began with the novel, so the Greek began with the epic and dissolved in it.
The difference is, however, that the Romantic is not so much a literary genre as an element of poetry which may be more or less dominant or recessive, but never entirely absent. It must be clear to you why, according to my view, I postulate that all poetry should be Romantic and why I detest the novel as far as it wants to be a separate genre. (Schlegel 1968 [1800]: 101. Translated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc).

6. The following quotation from Diana Behler's The Theory of the Novel in Early German Romanticism (1978) is typical in that it demonstrates how deeply this Romantic literary doctrine has been internalized in the modern scholarly stock of accepted ideas without reservation until today:

In the last analysis, there are two elements which determined the early Romantic concept of poetry, metrical form and inner spirit. Metrical form may even be relative, secondary to inner spirit, perhaps constitute only the 'äusserer Schmuck der Poesie' [external ornament of poetry]. As inner spirit, poetry is original and ineffable. Yet poetry does not come into existence by an expansion of prose towards the realm of poetry, but poetry exists originally and independently. If poetry manifests itself in prose, then this is not because prose has risen to the level of poetry, but because poetry has permeated this essentially unpoetic form of expression" (ibid: 13, my emphases).

7. Fragmente zur Poesie und Literatur II, 1798-1801.

8. Schlegel voiced this stance very clearly:

Two completely different types of literature exist right now alongside one another...Each has its own public, and each proceeds without worrying about the other. They take no notice whatsoever of each other, except when they meet by chance, to express mutual contempt and derision - often not without a secret envy of one's popularity or the other's respectability. (Cited by Schulte-Sasse 1988 [1985]: 108).

9. In fact, as critics have observed (see Behler 1978: 60-61), Schlegel's enthusiasm for the sublime notion of the novel soon diminished, since his goal was "no longer the novel [as such], but symbolic poetry" (ibid. :61): in his later Fragments, he counted it among "falsche Poesie" (false poetry), disparaging it as "Confessions, Arabesque and the writing of Frauen Romane, this is the whole profit from the so-called novels of our time" (Fr. 1743. Schlegel in Eichner 1957: 174; emphasis in original).

10. Often, the declared contempt for "materialism" emerges as the grounds for Schlegel's conception of notion of the "poetical spirit":

Everyday life - economy - is the necessary supplement of all people who aren't absolutely universal [that is, who only foster their selfish interests]. Often talent and education are lost entirely in the process. (cited by Schulte-Sasse 1988: 101-102, from Schlegel 1971: 229.)

11. Some vivid descriptions of the bitter rivalries which pertained to this process of exclusion are available, e.g., Berghahn 1988 (1985), Ward 1974, and others; see Sheffy, 1992.


Behler, Diana. 1978. The Theory of the Novel in Early German Romanticism. (Bern, Frankfurt and Las Vegas: Peter Lang).

Berghahn, Klaus L. 1988 [1985]. "From Classicist to Classical Literary Criticism 1730-1806." In A History of German Literary Criticism 1730-1980. ed. Peter Uwe Hohendahl. (Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press).

Blackall, Eric A. 1959. The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, 1700-1775. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Blanckenburg, Friedrich von. 1965 [1774]. Versuch über den Roman. (Stuttgart: Metzler. original: Leipzig und Leignitz).

Bourdieu, Pierre.1980. "Haute couture et haute culture". Questiones de sociologie. (Paris: les Editions de Minuit): 196-206.

Boyle, Nicholas. 1991. Goethe. The Poet and the Age. (Clarendon Press. Oxford).

Bruford, W. H. 1965. Germany in the eighteenth century: the Social Background of the Literary Revival. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Elias, Norbert. 1978 [1939]. "The Social Genesis of the Concepts `culture' and `civilization'" In The History of Manners. (The civilizing process). (Pantheon Books).

------. 1983 [1969]. The Court Society. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 1969 [1811-14]. The Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Dichtung und Wahrheit). (translated by John Oxenford). New York: Horizon Press.

Grimm, Gunter E. 1983. Literatur und Gelehrtentum in Deutschland; Untersuchungen zum Wandel ihres Vehältnisses vom Humanismus bis zur Frühaufklärung. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Heine, Heinrich. [1833]. "The Romantic School". The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine. Ed. Havelock Ellis. (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co.): 68-141.

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. ed. 1988 [1985]. A History of German Literary Criticism, 1730-1980. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

------. 1989 [1985]. Building a National Literature. (Cornell University Press).

Jacobs, Jürgen. 1976. Prosa der Aufklärung: moralische Wochenschriften, Autobiographie, Satire, Roman: Kommentar zu einer Epoche. (München: Winkler).

Lämmert, Eberhard [and others], ed. 1971. Romantheorie: Dokumentation ihrer Geschichte in Deutschland. (Neue wissenschaftliche Bibliothek. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch).

Lindenberg, Herbert.1990. "The Normality of Canon Change". The History in Literature: on Value, Genre, Institutions. (N. Y.: Columbia University Press): 131―147.

Novalis. 1965. Novalis Schriften. Vol. 2. Das Philisophische Werk. Ed. Samuel Richard. Collaborators Hans- Joachim Mähl and Gerhard Schulz. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftlische Buchgesellschaft).

Schlegel, Friedrich. 1957. Literary Notebooks, 1797-1801. Ed. Hans Eichner. (Toronto: Toronto University Press).

------. 1967. Charakteristiken und Kritiken 1796-1801. In kritische Ausgabe. Vol. 2. Ed. Hans Eichner. (München, Paderborn and Wien: Verlag Ferdinand Schöning; Thomas Verlag, Zürich).

------. 1968. Friedrich Schlegel: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorism. Trans & intod by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc. (University Park & London: The Pennsylvania University Press).

------. 1971 [1799-]. Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments. Ed. and translated by Peter Firchow. (Minnesota University Press).

Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. 1988 [1985]. "The Concept of Literary Criticism in German Romanticism 1795-1810." In A History of German Literary Criticism 1730-1980. ed. Peter Uwe Hohendahl. (Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press).

Sheffy, Rakefet. 1990. "The Concept of Canonicity in the Polysystem Theory." Poetics Today 11(3): 511-22.

------. 1992. "The Late Eighteenth-Century German 'Trivialroman' as Constructed by Litarary History and Criticism". Texte (Toronto UP), 12: 197-217.

Vosskamp, Wilhelm. 1973. Romantheorie in Deutschland. Von Martin Opitz bis Friedrich Blanckenburg. (Stuttgart: Metzler).

Ward, Albert. 1974. Book Production, Fiction, and the German Reading Public 1740-1800. (Oxford, Clarendon Press).