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The Revivifying Word

The Revivifying Word: Literature, Philosophy, and the Theory of Life in Europe's Romantic Age

Clayton Koelb
Volume: 26
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 219
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81twn
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  • Book Info
    The Revivifying Word
    Book Description:

    What is not Life that really is? asked Coleridge, struggling, like many poets, philosophers, and scientists of Europe's Romantic age, to formulate a theory of life that explained the mysterious relation between dead material bodies and living, animate bei

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-804-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Clayton Koelb
  4. Note on Abbreviations and Translations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Part I: Letter and Spirit

    • Introduction:“The Dead Man’s Life”: Romantic Reading and Revivification
      (pp. 3-13)

      Many poets, philosophers, and scientists of Europe’s Romantic age struggled to formulate a theory of life that would answer some of the most difficult questions in philosophy. How can we properly characterize and explain the mysterious relation between dead material bodies and living, animate beings? What process causes one to turn into the other? What happens when a living creature ceases to live? And, most puzzling of all, is it possible that life could arise out of lifeless matter? The key that could unlock these mysteries lay surprisingly close at hand: the process by which dead matter could come to...

    • 1: “The Sound Which Echoes in Our Soul”: The Romantic Aesthetics of Matter and Spirit
      (pp. 14-29)

      The miracle of the revivifying word results from the paradoxical coexistence of death and life in a single phenomenon, and the principal theater for the performance of such magic is the scene of reading. The vocabulary of Paul in 2 Corinthians provides an essential concept for Romantic aesthetics: the dead letter and the living spirit exist together in the poetic text.¹ Hamann was perhaps the first of the German aestheticians to put Paul’s vocabulary to work in the service of a theory of art, but he was by no means the last or even the most prominent. The same idea...

    • 2: “Spirit Thinks Only Through the Body”: Materialist Spiritualism in Romantic Europe
      (pp. 30-44)

      I know of no moment in the history of modern European culture in which science and literature were more intrinsically interrelated” than in the Romantic age, wrote G. S. Rousseau in 1969 (131).¹ The pursuit of science and the practice of poetry certainly worked comfortably together during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, sometimes even combined in the same person: Goethe was a particularly notable example. It would be equally true to claim that at no moment in European history were science and philosophy so closely interrelated, since what we call “science” was generally still called “natural philosophy,” and...

  6. Part II: The Dead and Living Past

    • 3: “The Heavenly Revelation of Her Spirit”: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther
      (pp. 47- 67 )

      Although Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, 1774) is one of the most famous and most highly praised works in all of German literature, one of its principal climactic scenes almost always bores or mystifies modern readers almost to the point of ruining their pleasure in the story. It is a scene of reading. Werther arrives at Lotte’s house unexpectedly, after the two had an agreement that they would have to keep apart from each other. It is to be their last meeting together, for Werther will commit suicide the next night by shooting...

    • 4: “O Read for Pity’s Sake!”: Keats’s Endymion
      (pp. 68-77)

      John Keats’s Endymion:A Poetic Romance begins with a famous assertion of immortality: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” (1.1). Chief among the poet’s examples of deathless loveliness is the tale he is about to tell of Endymion, for it depicts “the grandeur of the dooms / We have imagined for the mighty dead.” It belongs among the “lovely tales that we have heard or read” issuing from “an endless fountain of immortal drink” whose source is the realms of heaven (1.20–24).

      Why would Keats expect himself or his audience to gain access to the immortality of...

    • 5: “Graecum Est, Non Legitur”: Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris
      (pp. 78-96)

      The first scene of reading that one encounters in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) does not belong to the story proper but to the paratextual apparatus that the author placed before it. A prefatory note dated March, 1831, explains that Hugo had visited the great cathedral a few years before writing his novel and had found inscribed on a wall “in a dark recess of one of the towers” the Greek word for fate, άνάγκη:

      The Greek capitals, black with age and cut quite deep into the stone, the forms and attitudes of their calligraphy, which had something peculiarly...

    • 6: “Spiritual Communication”: Gautier’s Spirite
      (pp. 97-110)

      The opening paragraphs of Theophile Gautier’s “fantastic tale” Spirite (1865)¹ describe in considerable detail a quiet moment of reading in the life of the story’s hero, Guy de Malivert:

      Near him a lamp, placed in a stand of old crackled celadon, shed through its groundglass globe a soft, milky light, like moonbeams through a mist. The light fell upon a book which Guy held with a careless hand, and which was none else than Longfellow’s “Evangeline.”

      No doubt Guy was admiring the work of the greatest poet young America has yet produced, but he was in that lazy state of...

  7. Part III: The Incarnate Word

    • 7: “Eat This Scroll”: Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”
      (pp. 113-126)

      Romantic protagonists not only revived the dead past by reading; they also often achieved spiritual revivification by incorporating texts into their physical bodies. We have seen how Goethe’s character Werther seeks to make himself one with a set of texts, principally the poems of Homer and “Ossian.” He reads his way into these texts so thoroughly that he seems to have consumed them, and indeed at times he even appears to have figuratively eaten his way into them. The merger of self and text, both wished for and dreaded by Romantic protagonists, is also inevitably a crossing of the border...

    • 8: “I Sickened as I Read”: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
      (pp. 127-144)

      Mary Shelley’s account of the genesis of her famous novel is now familiar to nearly every reader of English literature: the immediate occasion for the composition of Frankenstein (1818) was a literary game suggested by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816. Byron, the Shelleys, and John William Polidori were on holiday in Switzerland. During a spell of bad weather, the company amused themselves by reading “some volumes of ghost stories, translated from German into French” they had chanced upon, and Byron suggested as a further amusement a sort of literary contest in the manner of the Decameron in which...

    • 9: “Those Who, Being Dead, Are Yet Alive”: Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer
      (pp. 145-164)

      Like Goethe’s Werther, Kleist’s Kohlhaas, and Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Robert Maturin’s gothic romance Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) exposes the demonic underside of a resurrection of the flesh and a death that brings one into life. Melmoth emphasizes the unnatural quality of a form of life that belongs to death; the novel makes the reader share in what Maturin’s character Monçada calls “the horror of being among those who are neither the living nor the dead” (MM 205). In the first chapter, Old Melmoth, John Melmoth’s uncle, hovers on the boundary between life and death and leads the reader into that...

    • 10: “This Hideous Drama of Revivification”: Poe and the Rhetoric of Terror
      (pp. 165-180)

      The narrator of “Berenice” (1835), surely one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most horrifying tales, presents himself as a man afflicted by a pathological “intensity of interest” so acute that he is utterly taken up “in the contemplation of even the most ordinary objects of the universe.” Among the activities symptomatic of his peculiar condition he notes the following:

      To muse for long unwearied hours, with my attention riveted to some frivolous device on the margin or in the typography of a book; to become absorbed, for the better part of a summer’s day, in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 181-184)

    The Romantic century displayed an abiding interest in exploring the boundary between life and death. The natural philosophy of the late eighteenth century suggested that life might be a fundamental characteristic of all matter. What an observer perceives as life, however, is in fact the presence of a Geist, a spirit/intellect that comes into being as a result of matter organized to a particularly high degree. Life inheres in all things, but spirit varies proportionally with the level of matter’s organization. When that organization breaks down, spirit breaks down as well, and organisms experience the rupture that we normally think...

  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 185-194)
  10. Index
    (pp. 195-206)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)