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28 November 2006

The World and Everything In It

What is romanticism? — Interdisciplinary symposium at the International Science Forum of the University of Heidelberg

The city of Heidelberg is indissolubly bound up with German romanticism. Every year, hordes of tourists come here to revel in "romantic Heidelberg". It may seem unlikely that they have any very clear idea of what romanticism actually implies, which is hardly surprising as even Germanic Studies experts are anything but unanimous on the point. This month, an international symposium convened in Heidelberg to cast more light on the subject. It was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), the world-famous collection of German folksongs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.

Looking at German romanticism as if it were a unified phenomenon is hazardous, although the distinction between "early", "high" and "late" romanticism does seem to confirm that impression. In his introductory talk, Friedrich Strack suggested that the Heidelberg brand of romanticism was less republican in spirit and more critical of the Enlightenment than "early" Berlin and Jena romanticism. Eva Koczisky went on to assert that Heidelberg romantics like Görres and the mythologist Friedrich Creutzer sought loci of identification in the Orient and above all in the Middle Ages.

It was these medieval yearnings, plus their Catholic leanings, that Goethe found repugnant in the romantics. Peter Pfaff indicated how in his novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre Goethe outlined an alternative future free of "masses and myths", thus "brutally elbowing aside" the romantics' concept of modernity.

In its attempt to achieve as comprehensive an outlook on romanticism as possible, the symposium did not restrict itself to literary studies. Musicologist Antje Tumat described the musical reception accorded to Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while medical historian Dietrich von Engelhardt focused on the romantics' universal engagement with the world as a whole and the sciences in general. Art historian Klaus Krüger accused the famous collection of old German paintings compiled by the brothers Boisserée of being put together at random (one might dispute this view) and historian Julia Scialpi argued that Richard Benz was the last of the Heidelberg romantics. The conference culminated in a round-table discussion chaired with considerable aplomb by Jochen Hörisch, who started the ball rolling by asking "What do we mean by romantic?"

For Eva Koczisky the term referred in the first place to a bid for "progressive universal poetry", an attempt to achieve totality by "fragmentary additions" and a propensity for irony, all these tempered with the "selection of one's own past" and a cosmopolitan view of things. Strack took issue with the idea of cosmopolitanism, recalling that Heidelberg romanticism in particular derived essentially from a confrontation with France and the French. He illustrated his viewpoint by quoting Freiherr von Stein, who claimed that much of the "fire that consumed Napoleon" had been ignited in Heidelberg.

Hans Martin Mumm of the Culture Department of the City of Heidelberg freely admitted that he could offer no satisfactory definition of romanticism. On the one hand there was a tendency today to equate romanticism with the beautiful, on the other the term was widely used to refer to a stage in life. Heidelberg's former enfant terrible, Michael Buselmeier, contributed a personal view of Heidelberg romanticism, recalling that as a boy he had been aware of what he called a "romantic substrate" in Heidelberg, the impression of a romantic world. Bewailing the fact that the was no longer able to identify this substrate today he upbraided the academics for paying too little attention to the cultivation of national traditions. A remarkable volte-face indeed for the former radical leftist Buselmeier! There was general agreement that romanticism is always a response to a crisis, while conceding that not every crisis gives rise to a form of romanticism.

The discussion ultimately gravitated towards the question of the site-based nature of romanticism. The speakers emphasised the "genetic" connections between romanticism and Heidelberg. Arnim and Brentano had imbibed the spirit of romanticism in Heidelberg and Heidelberg was central to the general understanding of romanticism. Koczisky recalled Jan Assmann's concept of "cultural memory" and underlined the importance of the University in the development of romanticism. Peter Pfaff concurred, asserting the "poetic topography" of the city, while insisting that beauty alone was not a sufficient condition for this. What it required, he said, was a "poetic formulation". The romantics had supplied this formulation and it is to this that Heidelberg owes its romantic complexion.

Martin Osterloh

Note: The contributions to the symposium will be published in the "Heidelberg Yearbooks" (November 2007) to celebrate the publication's 200th anniversary.

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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