Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf
Back when the world was young, I was once a psychology major. And I have always been a romantic—the whole hippie counter-culture thing was a late twentieth romantic movement.
So how could I not be intrigued by the subtitle: “The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self”. : – )
Of course, I was not a philosophy major nor a poet, and have not one word of German. So, I knew essentially nothing about the Jena Set, per se.
Actually, that’s not quite true.
As Wulf makes clear, the psychology, ecology, and literature I learned in the late twentieth century was deeply touched by this gang, and by their many nineteenth century disciples across Europe and America. As noted, much of the late twentieth century “counter culture” descends from these ideas. And so on. Wulf is right: their fingerprints are all over contemporary thought, politics, and culture.
The story of the Jena Set is an interesting story. For a short, shining moment; only a few years really; Jena was the home of the most exciting thinkers in Germany, and possible all of Europe. These remarkable thinkers and writers collaborated, cohabitated, argued, and produced a remarkable burst of philosophy, poetry, criticism, and science. The group notably included not only eccentric young men, but a handful of remarkable women.
This creative burst was a bit of a fluke. The University of Jena inhabited an administrative seam in the Balkanized political geography of Western Germany at the time. With weak formal supervision and the unofficial patronage of the mega celebrity Goethe, Jena was relatively free of censorship and adult supervision. The kids got away with comparative murder for a while.
The Jena Set could be a paradigm for every nerd’s fantasy of what life ought to be like. A group of really bright, articulate, and energetic men and women meeting every day (and night), partying, reading, arguing, collaborating on anything that interested them. They published scholarly journals and books, created poetry and novels, did some science, and, above all, developed and taught a new philosophy. (And don’t forget the sex and drugs and rock and roll.)
No one will be shocked to hear that this marvelous, exuberant conclave soon disintegrated. Squabbles broke out. Sexual tensions broke up marriages and friendships. And eventually, some of them went too far, and the grown ups found out what they were up to.
The often observed exclusion principle applied here: too many geniuses can’t occupy the same space. The Jena Set dispersed, and shortly thereafter Napoleon invaded and fought a major battle at Jena. Napoleon’s victory conquered Prussia and destroyed the town, and there could be no going back.
The results of this brief burst of creativity set off the Romantic movement across all of Europe and the US. Alexander von Humboldt was inspired by his visit to Jena, as was a whole generation of poets and explorers.
The people we learned in school followed these guys. The opium eaters in Britain and Transcendentalists in Boston learned German just to read (and steal from) these guys. Mary Shelley was writing about the Jena Set when she wrote Frankenstein. Freud had them on his bookshelf. And so on.
The ”invention of the self” was a bunch of ideas about nature that recognized and argued about a self-determined, imaginative, “Ich”—an individual, personal identity. The French Revolution was happening next door, and part of the excitement was the overthrow of old notions of identity and worth based on birth and hierarchy in favor of what we now recognize as the independent, responsible, sovereign citizen–a modern person.
As Wulf notes, we tend to take the notion of personal identity and personal sovereignty as a starting point for philosophy, psychology, and politics, at least in “the West”. But it wasn’t always so, and these folk are one of the places where this concept started.
Hot stuff! And they knew it. They created (and named) what became Romanticism, which they considered nothing less than a total revolution in thinking about everything. No false modesty in Jena.
This movement was not just about synthesizing poetry and science, the psychology of free will and political revolution. It was a reaction to the mechanistic reductionism of the old ideologies and newly emerged science, which they replace with a vision of a unified and beautiful nature, including humans. You can’t do science without poetry, they would say, nor study nature as if it is separate from the human mind.
It’s all here.
Wulf has a point. This small group had a immense impact, to the point that it is hard to even understand just how revolutionary it was at the time. We are so used to the concept of individual identity and the autonomy of a self-determined “I” that we are unaware of its origins.
Now, I’m not as fond of Romanticism as Wulf seems to be, but it is true that the wholistic, systematic view of Nature, the perception of humans as part of nature are the bedrock of my own concepts of science and psychology, not to mention philosophy.
On the other hand, a lot of the subjective psychological thinking of this group are just plain inscrutable to me,. Much of the “Ich” stuff is not just obscure, it is nonsense to my eye.
Worse, their explorations of the meaning of culture led to path to the disasters of nationalism and racism. Idealism (a la Kant) is one of the roots of fascism and the primacy of the self is the foundation for the worst sorts of extractive capitalism.
Obviously, this whole story is very Eurocentric. Many of these concepts have been thought of and lived out in many parts of the world, likely unknown to these folks in Jena. For that matter, many of the ideas were thought of by the ancient Greeks and Romans, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of Chinese, Indian, Muslim, and who knows who, with similar ideas about nature, mind, and “Ich”.
So, did the Jena Set “invent” the self? Hardly. But they definitely injected a powerful version of it into the European formal academic tradition, which was just becoming a vast, global cultural network.
This is a big, long book, with good points and weaknesses.
Wulf does her best, but it’s impossible to make much sense of this nineteenth century German philosophy, at least to me. Honestly, I still couldn’t tell you what any of these guys were really trying to say.
For that matter, the soap opera about the individual lives was awfully hard to follow. There are far too many Carolines and Friedrichs in a six block area for me to keep straight easily. There is a lot of sickness and brutally incompetent medical care. Several cases of serious depression. Giant egos. Petty fights. Jealousy and backstabbing.
It’s all possibly more than I really needed to know.
Wulf emphasizes the women in the set, several of whom shine in their own right; even if they were required to publish under their husband’s name. I don’t know enough of this history to evaluate Wulf’s coverage here, but I’m pretty sure she provides an unusually nuanced view of the experiences and attitudes of these women. Marriage, free love, and divorce were no cureall for women then any more than they are now.
Wulf is a good enough historian that she does not project our own attitudes and expectations on these women’s lives. And this part takes work, because Wulf has to carefully explain the legal and cultural shackles of the times to us, not to mention trying to make clear what was scandalous and what was not scandalous in that time and place.
The bottom line is that this is a pretty detailed story about an interesting group of European intellectuals. Wulf argues the case that their contributions were seminal to contemporary culture.
Honestly, I’m not as fascinated by these people or their work as Wulf is. But the book is well written, so I stuck with it all the way.
- Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels:The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
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