German Romanticism and Its Institutions Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The stereotypical Romantic artist is alienated from society, a loner who shuns the company of others and tastes most fully in private his feelings and sorrows. In German Romanticism and Its Institutions, Theodore Ziolkowski offers a reading of many of the most central texts of the movement in an attempt to revise this stereotype. He insists that Romantic writers and artists in Germany (in contrast to those of other nations) were deeply involved in the institutions of their society, and that this involvement can be seen in their works.

The institutions he considers are five in number: the mine, the law, the madhouse, the university, and the museum. The precise relation of each institution to the literature that is linked to it varies from case to case, as does the direction of the causal link. It may well be true, as Ziolkowski suggests, that a burgeoning Romantic interest in the semidivine nature of the artist caused Karl Friedrich Schinkel to build the Altes Museum (Old Museum) in Berlin (1823-1830) in the form of a Greco- Roman temple, but it is evident that the precious metal mines around Freiberg created the Romantic interest in mining, rather than the reverse

In the case of some of these institutions, the link to Romanticism is intuitively clear, and the author’s analyses of the literature he considers under their rubric serve to confirm and enrich standard readings. This is especially so in the case of the mine and the madhouse, the first two institutions considered. The initially puzzling assertion that mining was central to Romanticism becomes instantly understandable when Ziolkowski explains that even as late as the Romantic period many people believed (or talked as if they believed) that the minerals actually grew, in organic fashion, in mines. Mining for precious metals in Germany (as opposed to coal mining in England) therefore was used by the German Romantics as a metaphor for quasi-sexual entrance into the living innards of a mother Earth, a search for precious things hidden in darkness and far from the profane eyes of the mob. (Why writers before this period did not use it for this purpose remains unconsidered.)

Yet despite the light Ziolkowski’s explanation casts on such masterpieces as E. TA. Hoffmann’s “Die Bergwerke zu Falun” (1819, “The Mines of Falun”)—which tells the legend of a miner preserved in vitriol in the youthful state of his wedding day who is exhumed fifty years after his death and identified by his fiancee, now a withered crone—it ends up functioning like a sort of superior footnote, explaining an authorial interest in mining which is otherwise inaccessible to us today Indeed, much of the consideration of mining takes on this analysis-as-footnote quality, consisting of biographical notes to show just how many of the Romantic writers were in some way involved in mining or visited mines. Madness too was one of the well-known interests of Romanticism: The conception of insanity changed about this time from the Enlightenment view of the mad as simply devoid of reason to the notion that they were uniquely privileged, possessing a somehow more intense set of experiences and perhaps even a clearer view of the truth. Yet the author’s insistence that this is related in more than a general way to the institution of the madhouse—the insane were placed in the newly formed mad-houses to be treated, rather than incarcerated and forgotten—rather than to the madman, or a “romanticized” view of madness, tends to be unconvincing. Ziolkowski admits, in fact, that the point of view of the Romantic writers converged with that of the scientists who set up the madhouses for only a brief time, and that medical treatment of the insane quickly moved off in another direction. Here the author does not seem to claim a causal relation at all between the institution and the literature; instead, both seem part of a more general Zeitgeist, if only briefly, and the reader is left wondering what that was.

Ziolkowski most clearly displays his unease with the question of causal links between the institutions he is studying and the literature that is related to them in his consideration of the museum as an institution. His claim is that the museum as we know it was essentially the creation of one man, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who designed the Altes Museum utilizing both the external Grecian form of a colonnade and an internal Roman rotunda. Here again the link of this institution in a very general way to Romanticism is intuitively clear: It is widely known that the Romantics tended to substitute art for religion,...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)