The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol

May 1, 2008

This book offers one of the most profound reflections on symbol since Paul de Man: subtle, original and provocative. It is a brief book, but extremely rich, and often brilliant.

Nicholas Halmi's subject is the Romantic concept of the symbol (and not, as an innocent reader might suspect, poetic images pregnant with meaning, such as Coleridge's albatross). In other words, it is about that way of thinking shared by some English poets and most of the German Romantics as well as Goethe that sees nature as possessing significance for humans far beyond functionality and appearance. Think of Coleridge's famous notebook entry of 1805: "In looking at objects of Nature ... I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists." Here the originality (or mind-bending irrationality, depending on your point of view) of the Romantic concept of the symbol is in full view: the symbol (in this case nature) relates to its referent (the immortal mind) not in terms of similarity and difference but in terms of part and whole. The symbol is a part of the whole that it also represents (this Friedrich Schelling called, in a felicitous neologism he borrowed from Coleridge, "tautegorical").

Halmi approaches his subject by way of an innovative methodology. Previous critics, including Walter Benjamin and de Man, he argues, rightfully demystified the Romantic concept of the symbol, pointing out its self-contradictions and the blindness of its hostility to interpretation. But these critics took the Romantics' self-definition at face value (one can deconstruct Romanticism only if there is a Romanticism to deconstruct), and so remained, even if only in a negative sense, allied to the Romantics' own search for meaning as such.

Halmi's genealogical method avoids this problem. He takes utterly seriously the Romantic concept of the symbol, but instead of reading it semiotically (that is, for its truth content), he reads it symptomatically: for clues to its origins, development and decline. What sociopolitical purpose did the Romantic concept of the symbol serve? How did it come about? Why was it never fully instantiated in cultural practice? Halmi is not the first to attempt these questions, but he is the first in English to offer a book-length response. It is full of surprises.

Halmi sees the Romantic concept of the symbol as an innovative, if unrealisable, response to the central problem of modernity: humanity's feeling of estrangement in the world subsequent to the rise of science and the collapse of the medieval world-view, with its confidence in the inherent meaningfulness of nature and the purposiveness of life. The Romantic concept of the symbol exercised a compensatory function: the greater the feeling of estrangement, the more insistent become the calls for seeing nature as "a symbolical language for something within me".

Contrary to many critics, who see this as a self-deceiving anti-Enlightenment medievalism, Halmi argues persuasively that the Romantic concept of the symbol earned philosophical respectability from the Enlightenment (by revaluing one of its main inventions, the aesthetic), and in some sense bravely tried to complete what the Enlightenment secretly desired but had not the courage to do: to ascribe noumenal content to the signs of nature.

If the Enlightenment was the sine qua non of the invention of the Romantic concept of the symbol, it was also indirectly responsible for its failed instantiation in a work of art, let alone a new mythology. Famously, German Idealism called for a new mythology that would function symbolically: the new mythology would represent nature as well as instantiate it (in other words, it would reflect the whole of which it was itself a part). Such a new mythology would reassure modern individuals of the meaningfulness of nature and would bind them socially through a common culture.

As Halmi demonstrates in one of the most brilliantly argued chapters, this desire for a symbolic mythology was frustrated by the Romantics' own residual commitment to a myth central to the Enlightenment, that of inevitable progress. This made their invention of a new mythology redundant. In a sense, one sees from Halmi's analysis that Romanticism found itself in a far worse predicament than did the Enlightenment: neither saw clearly, but at least the latter had the satisfaction of rejecting someone else's symbolic mythology; the Romantics had to reject their own.

Halmi himself is caught between the two. His genealogical methodology marks clearly the book's good Enlightenment credentials, but only a critic sympathetic to the Romantics' desire for the noumenal could so carefully chart their efforts to seek it out. I suspect, though, that the book too pessimistically accepts the inevitability of their failure: is not every attempt of this sort already a qualified success?

I've touched only on some of the book's main themes. It is bursting with others: that Coleridge, alarmingly, could not use his theory of the symbol to defend the Incarnation; that de Man is wrong to play off allegory against symbol (they are not comparable approaches to the same end); that M. H. Abrams's secularisation hypothesis mistakenly falls into reification; that Shelley and Friedrich Holderlin, in a nice Romantic irony, mythologised the failed new mythology.

The book is grounded in a meticulous knowledge not only of the Romantic idiom (mainly Schelling, Schlegel, Goethe and Coleridge, and in passing Lessing, Herder, Holderlin, Cruezer, Shelley and Wordsworth) but of the vast hinterland out of which and against which their reflections grew - Kant, of course, but also Rousseau, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Vico and, further back, Bacon, Bruno and Luther.

It is further proof of Halmi's impressive range that his main interlocutors are not only specialist commentators on the symbol (say, Tzvetan Todorov) or on the Romantics (Frederick Beiser and Andrew Bowie) but 20th-century German philosophers including H.-G. Gadamer, Joachim Ritter, Odo Marquard and Manfred Frank, whose long-view approach to intellectual history informs every page of this striking book and makes today's many single-author studies seem parochial and narrow by comparison. This is history of ideas as it ought to be written.

The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol

By Nicholas Halmi
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199212415
Published 29 November 2007

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