With his moony-eyed, flushed face gazing out from his portrait, the late-eighteenth-century poet Novalis looks like the patron saint of German Romantic literature. Friedrich von Hardenberg took his pen name from his twelfth-century Saxon ancestors, known in Latin as de Novali, or “clearers of new land,” which finely evokes the otherworldly aura for which he came to be revered. Yet the “ardent and holy Novalis,” as Emerson called him, had his feet firmly planted on the ground. The poet made his living as a salt-mine inspector, conducting geological surveys and mineralogical studies–an experience that had a significant influence on his literary work that scholars are only beginning to register.
Still, it’s not the scientist who has enchanted generations of readers but rather the doomed visionary who died young after spending his entire life in the shadow of mortality. Born in 1772 in Saxony, Novalis barely survived an attack of dysentery at the age of 9. In 1794, after completing a law degree, he fell desperately in love with the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn, to whom he was engaged in secret. But Sophie soon fell ill and died just after her 15th birthday. The following, grief-stricken year, Novalis enrolled at the Mining Academy in Freiburg and began writing poetry while pursuing his studies of mathematics, physics and chemistry. His first major work–the Blütenstaub [Pollen] fragments–appeared in 1798 in the premiere issue of the journal Athenäum. Edited by August and Friedrich Schlegel, the journal was the central forum for the early German Romantics who congregated in the city of Jena, notably the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the writer and critic Ludwig Tieck and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.
The Romantics, feeling that the French Revolution had left mostly desiccated cultural forms in its wake, sought to forge a new mode of existence out of the ruins. Their movement ran counter to the cult of reason and scientific objectivity arising from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Advocates of a higher unity, they did not so much reject rational illumination as insist that the nocturnal, subterranean and interior realms of existence not be forgotten. Significantly, the Athenäum‘s history paralleled Novalis’s career, its final issue containing his last work before his death at the age of 28 in 1801. In the span of three years, he virtually patented the sensibility of early German Romanticism. His writings–most notably the haunting poetic work Hymnen an die Nacht [Hymns to the Night], which memorialized his lost child-bride, and the never-completed novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen [Henry of Ofterdingen]–helped launch the movement and have since become practically synonymous with it. The yearning for the remote and unattainable, the fascination with ancient myths and mysticism, the heralding of spiritual rebirth, the celebration of the fragment as a form of expression–it’s all there in Novalis. But his unfinished novel Die Lehrlinge zu Sais–which has just been reissued by Archipelago Books as The Novices of Sais–is more than a specimen for an anatomy of a literary movement. Its variations on the theme of the human search for knowledge of nature exhibit a dazzling array of poetic motifs and philosophical expositions.
The basic scenario of The Novices of Sais harks back to an ancient, mystical age of masters, disciples and initiation rituals. The novel takes the form of a conversation among a group of “novices,” spiritual apprentices who gather at the feet of their mentor, the “teacher,” to receive instruction in the secrets of nature. For the Romantics, nature was a forest of symbols containing all mysteries and all truths. In this, they expressed the spirit of their times, except that they assigned the task of deciphering nature to the poet rather than to the scientist. The Novices is a kaleidoscope of interpretations, visions and allegories of nature, all conveyed by the disciples in a series of philosophical dialogues. In the mesh of their “crisscrossing voices,” paradoxes abound. One disciple observes that nature is as foreign as an indecipherable script “written…in crystals and stone formations,” yet as familiar as a “household utensil.” Another calls it a “sacred home” from which human beings have strayed, while yet another sees it as a “hideous prison” confining them to their mortal fate. The teacher, for his part, finds in nature a delightful play of resemblances: “Sometimes men were stars, sometimes the stones were beasts, the clouds plants.” A more menacing view is expressed by a disciple for whom nature is an “awful, devouring power,” a force of annihilation wreaking the “desolation of former glories,” a perilous abyss that swallows up life and human civilization.
Like Plato in the Symposium, Novalis uses conversation rather than disquisition to convey ideas. In fact, the affinity with the Symposium runs deeper: Both books view Eros as essential to the attainment of truth, and both have a female character as their vehicle of revelation. In the Symposium, the priestess Diotima explains how the desire for knowledge is initially sparked by erotic attraction. This must have appealed to Novalis, who famously likened his passion for philosophy to his love of Sophie, playing on the Greek philosophia. In The Novices of Sais, the connection between erotic mystery and the quest for truth is epitomized in the motif of the veil appearing in the myth, told by one of the disciples, of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. Her tantalizing veil entices mortals to uncover the naked secrets it conceals: “He who does not seek to lift it, is no true novice of Sais.”
In its capacity to incite unquenchable desire, the veil rivals the Blue Flower, an image from Heinrich von Ofterdingen, widely hailed as the quintessential novel of Sehnsucht (romantic longing). But it also has an enigmatic quality much like the rippling, suggestive texture of Novalis’s prose. His language seduces in the same way that the numerous cloaks and guises of nature captivate the knowledge seekers of the novel. The Novices of Sais beguilingly embodies the process of “romanticizing” the world as he defines it in a posthumously published fragment: a transfiguration of the commonplace, giving “the ordinary a mysterious countenance, the known the dignity of the unknown.”