Umbauen, Umgewöhnen, Umdenken: Romanticism as Translation

by Harry Heuser

Umbauen: The Movement Removed

Moving within the literary periods charted for us by the cartographers of imaginary landscapes, I am no stranger to alienation; and that the Heimliche (something concealed yet potentially congenial) does not always translate into the Heimische (the homelike) is largely due to the puzzling inadequacy of maps that never quite match the scenery, as well as to the inflexibility of the theoretical apparatus with which scholars are wont to compass the literatures of the past.  Rarely has this feeling of estrangement been more pronounced than during my confrontation with Romantic Hellenism; that is to say, not necessarily with any of the poems claimed to be representative of the movement but with the movement itself as an historical construct, with the tendency of literary historians to reduce poetry to story.  As Shelley argues in this oft quoted passage from “A Defence of Poetry”:

There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.  The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature. . . .  The story of particular facts is a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.  (485)

That poetry can make “familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (487)1 is an experience to be cherished; historians, on the other hand, who are intent upon periodization are apt to store that which they have storied, to shelve it, and thus estrange us from texts upon which they would have us look as upon mere artifacts, as products of their time.  Of course, most readers are desirous to make poetic pieces fit, to contextualize them, not only when encouraged to do so by period-fencing anthologists, but by the polymorphic poems themselves, particularly if, as is the case with many early 19th-century works, they announce themselves as fragments.  Such an engagement supposes, as De Man—once again asking “What is the meaning [. . .] of romanticism?”—suggests,

that Shelley or romanticism are themselves entities, which, like a statue, can be broken into pieces, mutilated, or allegorized [. . .] after having been stiffened, frozen, erected or whatever one wants to call the particular rigidity of statues.  Is the status of a text line the status of a statue? (“Shelley Disfigured” 40-1)

In the minds of imaginative statue-smashers performing their bold acts of disfigurement or animated refiguration, poetry may certainly find its survival; in the hands of scholarly statue-snatchers, however, our literary remains—once they are systematically catalogued and turned into history (Geschichte), all figured out—are reduced to being stacked (auf-geschichtet) and lowered into the archival vaults of cultural anthropology.  Thus, unless prepared to relinquish my imagination, I must meet the proponents of the latter approach with a reproach suggested to me by young Hölderlin: “Was nimmt ihr mir, den nur die Kämpfe retten, / Ihr Weichlinge! mein glühend Element?” (“Der Jüngling an die Klugen Ratgeber”; 15-16).  It does not follow, however, that I am ready to take up the hammer of deconstruction myself.

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