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Sunday, March 6, 2011


is a short Romantic novel written in the first decade of the nineteenth century by the German author Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué (1777 – 1843), and it is a wonderful work to illustrate the manner in which the Romantics attempted to breach the dualism implicit in the Kantian philosophy.

Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué

De la Motte, Baron Fouqué, was born in Brandenburg and der Havel in 1777. He was descended from French Huguenot immigrants to Prussia. His grandfather was one of Frederick II’s generals and his father was also a Prussian officer. De la Motte himself gave up university study at Halle in order to join the army and joined in the Rhine campaign against the French revolutionary armies in 1794. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to literary pursuits.

De la Motte was influenced by the German Romantics, particularly August Wilhelm Schlegel. His work is very much within the tradition of this style, of which he is one of its most accomplished representatives. The short novel Undine is his best known work, but he was also the first to dramatize the legend of the Nibelungs, in 1808, which would have a distinguished history culminating in Wagner’s work. Undine appeared in 1811, and De la Motte’s popularity peaked during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, and then began to wane after 1815.

De la Motte Fouqué

It is said that after 1820 the quality of De la Motte Fouqué's work deteriorated, but this could be due to the fact that the exalted Romantic style associated with his work itself began to lose favor and became less popular after the war. His work seemed evenly divided between a preoccupation with medieval chivalry on the one hand and northern mythology on the other. When the Prussians rose against Napoleon in 1813, De la Motte fought with the Prussian army in the war of the sixth coalition, and his work thereafter had the flavor of the new patriotism, which dimmed after the war was over. Romanticism would begin to move on to the revolutionary concerns of authors like Georg Büchner.

Romanticism and Kantian dualism

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason laid strict rules to limit transcendent inquiry beyond what we can know through sensual perception and understanding. He set the rules delimiting the power of our mental capacity in his quest to answer the question “what can I know?” Anything that could not be subordinated to the table of the Categories of the Understanding was beyond our ability to know. But in the later sections of the First Critique, he admitted that the noumenon, the thing in itself which causes our sensations but is unknowable in itself, had a heuristic or regulative function in relation to the understanding. The noumenon, he argued, is knowable by Reason. It is the Idea behind and beyond the phenomenon, the latter being known only through empirical sensation and understanding. In moving from the epistemological to the ethical and aesthetic concerns of the Second and Third Critiques, the function of the Ideas known to Reason grew in importance, to the point at which they operated as if constitutive, in the case of the moral imperative and of the aesthetic judgment. The self-enclosure of Kant’s system seemed to open up as both moral behavior and art offered access to the noumenal realm.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Coleridge, who learned his Idealism during the trip he made to Germany in 1799, believed that the sharp demarcation between phenomena and noumena in Kant's First Critique was a compromise due to political conditions in Prussia. “I could not believe,” wrote Coleridge in the Biographia, “it was possible for him to have meant no more by his Noumenon, or THING IN ITSELF, than his mere words express: or that in his own conception he confined the whole plastic power to the forms of the intellect, leaving for the external cause, the materiale of our sensations, a matter without form.” (Biographia Literaria, I, 155). For Coleridge, it was the limits that Kant had placed upon scientific endeavors to penetrate the metaphysical sphere that constituted the highest value of Kant’s work. Coleridge argued in favor of a form of direct knowledge of the noumenal realm which was the basis of a richer human experience than any which Science could provide. It was the direct access that the imagination of the poet and of the artist had to the essence of the world of Nature, and the direct access of the good man to the knowledge of his duty. As well, he believed this was the actual purport of Kant’s own statement in the 1787 Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason: “I have . . . found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the preconception that it is possible to make headway in metaphysics without a previous criticism of pure reason is the source of all that unbelief, always very dogmatic, which wars against morality.”

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)

The Idealists sought to move beyond what they saw as Kant’s compromise between a strictly phenomenal world of sensible objects and a strictly noumenal world of absolute Ideas, and to make the Absolute apply to the here and now of every-day existence. They sought to incorporate the noumenon into the dialectical structure of their philosophical systems. Hence they attacked Kant as a dualist. Fichte argued that the thing-in-itself could not possibly be the “cause” of our experience because causality fell within the categories of the understanding by Kant’s own criterion. How could causality condition the unconditioned? The argument that the noumenon is the cause of experience is an unwarranted application of a category of the understanding to a non-empirical object.

The Idealists would replace the unconditioned noumenal realm by Self-Consciousness, a “subject which becomes its own object.” Self-Consciousness has the unconditioned power of a ‘substantial ego’ affording it immediate knowledge of its own ground. The gap between the noumenal and the phenomenal, they argued, could thus be bridged.

Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775-1854)

This was the environment wherein German Romanticism grew apace. What appealed to the Romantics about the self-consciousness systems of the Idealists, particularly that of Schelling, is that it argued that the knowledge of self endows man with insight into the rationality and purposiveness of the whole natural universe. For Schelling the identification of mind and nature is based upon a form of intuitive knowledge, a gnosis (a Greek word that means 'knowledge'), which affords an immediate and direct comprehension unlocking the secrets of Nature. He was inspired by myth, which does not distinguish between a symbolic and a rational experience of reality. Goethe had already said that the universal shimmers through the particular. For Schelling the ‘shimmering’ was the gnosis. Not limited to empirical inquiry and barred from the knowledge of the noumenon, the creative mind of the poet is provided with an immediate insight into the transcendental powers which, in turn, construct the ultimate phenomenon experienced by the senses. The re-creation of an alien experience, the experience of a truth that transcends the sphere of the control of scientific method, was possible through a self-consciousness that culminated in the work of art.

This is the ground of the work of art of the Romantic period which seeks to transcend the real and empirical and penetrate the mystery of the unknown, the equivalent of the philosophical noumenon. Such is the background of the great poems of Coleridge, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan,’ as well as of the fairy tales of the German Romantics.

In his book on German Romanticism, (German Romanticism and Its Institutions, Princeton, 1990), Theodore Ziolkowski remarks on three facets of the Romantic image that characterized the work of three prominent German Romantics: “Eichendorff was fascinated by the ambivalence of a nature at once serene and threatening and by the tension between the security of home and the demonic lure of the unfamiliar. Novalis was philosophically and scientifically convinced that death represented an extension of life, and he saw that tranquil death reflected in the nocturnal side of nature that he portrayed so vividly in his writings. And Hoffmann, like the characters of his fiction, sometimes teetered precariously on the line between reality and imagination, between bourgeois sobriety and the poet’s frenzy.” (pp. 3-4) These three facets correspond to the two realms that Romanticism intended to breach, the realm of the supernatural or fantastic and the realm of the empirical phenomenon, of every-day reality. The security of home and the lure of the unfamiliar, the objects of reality and the objects of the imagination, the natural and the supernatural, these are the polarities that Romanticism sought to overcome. It was the dualism implicit in the Kantian critique that Kant himself had sought to bridge by way of the Categorical Imperative and the Aesthetic Judgment of Taste. The Romantics now sought to use these tools to bring the strange and unfamiliar, the supernatural, into the life of the real.

Jose Antonio Villarrubia (b. 1961), Undine, (n.d.)

UNDINE (1811)

[click on images to make them larger]

The story of Undine is all about elemental forces of Nature engaging with human beings. The water-spirits that are the main protagonists of the story, Undine and her “uncle” Kühleborn, are agents without cause, forces that are perceived to operate, but do so beyond the law of causality that governs the phenomenal world.

A spirit of the rivers and of water has exchanged a human little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, for an underwater sprite named Undine. As the story begins, the fisherman and his wife have lost their daughter, who has drowned. Shortly thereafter, Undine appears on their doorstep, a beautiful little girl, presumably of the same age. The fisherman and his wife do not know that Undine is a “spirit,” and they adopt her. She grows up to be a lovely and spirited young maiden in their home, which is located in a peninsula that projects onto a lake. As she grows older, the maiden becomes increasingly more beautiful, but occasionally spiteful and unruly. One day a knight appears at the fisherman’s home. He has braved the forest, where he experienced various haunting encounters with spirits, and was compelled towards the peninsula where the fisherman’s house is located. The knight, Huldbrand von Ringstetten, falls in love with Undine. Undine then tells Huldbrand that she is a mermaid, that she has no soul, and that she has been placed on earth because she wants to marry a human being in order to thereby acquire a soul.

Arthur Rackham, Undine

Huldbrand and Undine marry, but during the wedding ceremony he meets once again with Bertalda, a woman he had been attracted to before his trip into the forest. Bertalda is jealous of Undine, and seeks to undo the bond between the young married couple. Undine notices this and decides to befriend Bertalda.

Arthur Rackham, Bertalda

Undine, as a gesture of friendship towards Bertalda, and wanting to make up for Bertalda’s disappointment, reveals to her guests that Bertalda is the long-lost daughter of the fisherman and his wife, whom she has invited to be present at the announcement. Horrified by this revelation, which threatens her social status, Bertalda denies it, and heaves insults at the fisherman and his wife who are present, and turns her back on them. Her behavior causes her to be outcast, and to make amends for this unintended grievance towards her, Undine invites Bertalda to come and live with her and Huldbrand at the castle in Ringstetten.

Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), Undine, 1882

Life in the castle is not easy for Undine, nor is her marriage. Huldbrand’s desire for Bertalda begins to surface and deepen, and he begins to tire of Undine. Undine orders a certain spring of water sealed. It is the conduit through which her “uncle” Kühleborn comes to spy on her life and to do ill to the humans around her. Kühleborn mistrusts both Huldbrand and Bertalda, and acts to protect Undine. But Undine does not want him around, and believes that Huldbrand will be loyal to her if she acts like a human being. The spring is sealed, but Bertalda, who relies on the water for her skin care, is offended and leaves the castle in a rage into the night. A harrowing rescue follows, where Huldbrand and Bertalda are almost drowned by Kühleborn, but they return safely due to Undine’s intervention and some sort of normalcy returns to the castle.

Chauncey B. Ives, Undine, 1884

When the three protagonists decide to take a trip down the Danube together to visit Vienna, the denoument of the story begins. The tricks of Kühleborn, who rules the Danube and constantly creates difficulties for the travelers, increasingly irritate Huldbrand to the point where he becomes angry with Undine and berates her for not being a human being. His anger and contempt are too much for Undine. The magic is broken and, forlorn, she plunges into the Danube and vanishes beneath the waves.

Arthur Rackham, Undine sinking into the Danube

A desperate Huldbrand returns to his castle full of pain and regret, sobbing for the dead Undine. But Undine is not dead. She lives under the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. When Huldbrand finally decides to marry Bertalda, the spirits condemn him to die for his unfaithfulness. He is warned in a dream, but proceeds with his wedding plans. On the wedding night, Bertalda notices a blemish on her skin and orders her servants to unseal the spring and bring her some of its waters. Through the spring, Undine returns and suffocates Huldbrand with tears and watery kisses. She is present at the funeral, uninvited, but Bertalda appears to forgive her, and Huldbrand’s tomb is surrounded by the waters of Undine.

Margarita Dusjen, Undine, 2004

What are we to make of this story? The spirits have no soul, but desire one. Undine is prepared to forego her magical powers, which defy the laws of causation, for the sake of obtaining a human soul. As pure Nature, she is a creature of causality, but in contrast to the humans around her she is not so, because she originates beyond the phenomenal world. Yet she seeks to possess a human soul, which is a metaphor for free will, and thus to raise herself above the world of phenomena, which is the Natural world of the elements. This is accomplished by love. It is her love for Huldbrand that makes Undine human, temporarily, and his eventual rejection of her love leads her back to her element.

The free passage from the phenomenal to the supernatural realm is characteristic of Romanticism, and it is a way of bridging the gap rather than highlighting it. Again Ziolkowski: “. . . it was one of the principal aims of that generation to overcome the split between mind and matter, rationalism and sentimentalism, reason and emotion, which characterized the eighteenth century. Romanticism discovered history precisely because, in that temporal dimension, the kind of change, development, and synthesis could take place that was exemplified by Fichte’s “productive imagination” and the energy of Hegel’s dialectics.” (German Romanticism, p. 5)

John Waterhouse, Undine, 1872

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your collection of ideas and images of Undine. I am a Los Angeles based playwright and your blog is helping feed a new work. Best,

    Andrea Barczay Sloan Pink