The most brilliant writers of this German heyday were those who startled their time with cries for the emancipation of instinct from reason, of feeling from intellect, of youth from age, of the individual from the family and the state. Few of us read them today, but in their generation they were tongues of flame setting fire to dry-as-dust philosophies and social bonds imprisoning the expanding self in use and wont, taboo, command, and law.
The source of the revolt was the natural resentment with which any vital adolescent views the restraints imposed by parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, preachers, policemen, grammarians, logicians, moralists. Had not the current philosopher, Fichte, proved that the basic reality for each of us is his individual conscious self? If that is so, the universe has no meaning for any of us except in its effects upon himself, and each of us may justly sit in judgment upon every tradition, prohibition, law, or creed and bid it show cause why it should be obeyed. One might fearfully submit to commandments issued and upheld by God, or by a man of God dressed in divinity; but what had become of God now that Diderot, d’Alembert, Helvétius, d’Holbach, La Mettrie, had reduced him to the impersonal laws of the universe?
To the proud and liberating Enlightenment had now been added the Revolution. Class divisions were melting away; those lords who had once given laws and exacted obedience were now in hectic flight, leaving no barrier between classes, no bogey of tradition to buttress laws; now every man was free to compete for any place or power, chancing the guillotine; career was open to talent, to talons. Never before, in the known history of civilization, had the individual been so free—free to choose his occupation, his enterprise, his mate, his religion, his government, his moral code. If nothing exists but individual entities, what is the state, the army, the Church, the university, but conspiracies of privileged individuals to frighten and control, to form and deform, to rule and tax, to herd to slaughter the indoctrinated rest? Rare is the genius that can come to fulfillment under such restraints. And yet is not one genius worth a dozen pedagogues, generals, pontiffs, kings, or a hundred crowds?
However, in the new free-for-all, among the liberated souls, there were many sensitive spirits who felt that reason had exacted too high a price for liberation. It was “reason” that had attacked the old religion, with its saintly legends, its fragrant ceremonies and moving music, its mediating Madonna and its saving Christ; it was “reason” that had replaced this exalted vision with a dismal procession of masses of matter moving aimlessly to destruction; and it was “reason” that replaced the picture of men and women living in daily contact with deity by a view of male and female masses of matter moving daily nearer, automatically, stupidly, to a painful, degrading, and everlasting death. Imagination has its rights, even though unsanctioned by syllogisms; and we can more readily and justly think of ourselves as souls dominating matter than as machines operating souls. Feeling has its rights, and delves more deeply than intellect; poor wandering, wondering Jean-Jacques may have felt more wisely than the brilliant imp of Ferney thought.
Germany had known and heard both Rousseau and Voltaire, and was choosing Rousseau. It had read and felt Emile and Héloïse, and preferred them to the Philosophical Dictionary and Candide. It followed Lessing in putting romantic Shakespeare above classic Racine; it took more readily to Clarissa Harlowe, Tristram Shandy and Macpherson’s “Ossian” than to the philosophes and salonnières of France. It rejected the rules that Boileau had laid down as the laws of classic style. It resented the emphasis on clarity and moderation; these did not go well with enthusiasm and the reaching toward the Orient and the infinite.
German Romanticism respected truth if this could be found, but it was suspicious of “scientific truth” that darkened the face of life. It kept a warm place in its memory for the myths and fables and fairy tales that Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) and Achim von Arnim (1781–1831) were gathering into Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805–08), and that the brothers Grimm (Jacob, 1785–1863, and Wilhelm, 1786–1859) were collecting for their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812); these echoes of the nation’s and the individual’s childhood were a part of the good German’s soul, perhaps of his “subconscious” self.
If that heritage of the imagination led back beyond the Revolution to medieval Catholicism, the spirit of romance would follow it to the mossy old cathedrals and the unquestioning faith and merry artisans that had raised them; to the prayers and chants and bells and processions that brought deity daily into human life, and merged the tired individualist restfully with the group; to the saints whose lives made a sacred epic of the Christian calendar; to the Virgin Mother who had sanctified the maiden’s wise innocence and the matron’s dedication to the family, the nation, and the race. All this, of course, was an enthusiastic blurring of medieval faiths and terrors, of hunted heretics and haunted souls; but it brought many German Romantics to the peak of their fervor, and some of them, in exhaustion and penitence, to the foot of the altar and into the warm embrace of Mother Church.