Novalis And The Translation Of The Universe


The Universe, contends young Novalis in Logological Fragments I (LF-1) as translated by Margaret Mahony Stoljar, is full of Energy. That Energy can exist in two forms. When it is pure Energy, it manifests as a discharged force. “All discharge of Energy is instantaneous,” writes Novalis. We experience it “only as it passes.”  But Energy can also come in a more stable and enduring form which we call Matter.

We humans experience Energy in myriad ways, and this gives the misperception of a Universe filled with an infinite multitude of heterogeneous objects.  But fundamentally, whether manifesting as force or object, it all still Energy, and the multiplicity is an illusion, one which, if persisted in, can harm us or stunt our development.  “Whoever sees life other than as a self-destroying illusion,” states Novalis, “is himself still preoccupied with life.”  He can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.  But those who recognize the illusionary nature of the various phenomena of the Universe stand at the cusp of enlightenment.  Or as Novalis puts it in his poetic way, “we are close to waking when we dream that we are dreaming.”

It seems that the world, to Novalis, is a game of symbols in which we must guess at the nature of the true Substance behind the symbols. In Logological Fragments II (LF-2), he speaks of “the wisdom of riddles” and “the art of concealing the substance under its own characteristics.” Also in LF-2, Novalis conjectures the existence of something even more fundamental to the Universe than Energy… the Spirit World. “Everything that exists and comes into being,” he declares, “does so out of contact between Spirits.” Obviously, he can offer no supporting evidence for this claim, and he simply asserts it.  Not the height of sound philosophy, perhaps.  But then, we must remember– this guy was less than thirty years old when he died (tuberculosis).

In Miscellaneous Observations, Novalis –talking here about literature not metaphysics–  states that there are three different kinds of translations:   1. the Grammatical (which is more or less literal, succeeding in varying degrees of word-for-word accounts of the original)… 2. the Modifying (in which the translator eschews the word-for-word approach and opts to try to convey the general spirit of the work)… and… 3) the Mythical (Novalis doesn’t describe this last sort of translation very well, but does say that it is “the highest kind,” and that it has not yet been achieved). Novalis goes on to assert that “Not only books, but everything can be translated in these three ways.”

Such thoughts about the art of translation led me to consider Novalis’s description of the Universe as his own attempt at a translation.  In this vein of thought, I began to consider the phenomena of the Universe as symbols from an exotic language, a language which philosopher-scientists attempt to translate for us.  

In this view, scientists could be viewed as operating on the surfaces of things, manipulating the symbols, themselves, and translating them into other symbols, such as those of mathematics. This would qualify as the Grammatical type of translation.

But someone like Novalis, who is attempting to explain the meaning behind the collection of symbols, could be said to be using the Modifying technique. Novalis (although he, himself, is talking about literature not Nature, we must keep in mind) describes this type of translator as “an artist himself,” who admixes his own ideas into the work being translated.  Novalis warns that this type of translation can “easily slip into travesty.”

Some future philosopher-scientist may be able to translate the language of Nature according the third techinique, that of the Mythical. The person who succeeds in this attempt, says Novalis (at least for literature), would be able to “represent the pure, perfected character” of the work under consideration.  Such translators “do not give us the real work of art, but the ideal of it.”  So far, writes Novalis, the closest man has come to achieving the Mythical approach has been in the area of critiques and descriptions (as opposed to translations) of works of art. [By the way, I personally believe that Novalis’ Mythical translation technique was finally achieved in the excellent book, from the 1960s I believe, called The Poem, Itself.]

When Novalis comes to talk about the Soul, in LF-1, he describes it as “the individual principle whereby anything becomes one whole.” Thus, the human form, being “a small whole,” has its own “special Soul.” But there are different levels of wholeness. The entire world, in fact, could be considered as one whole, implying that it, too, would possess a Soul.  Because of this, Novalis contends that not only a person’s body but his meaning would be “determined partly by itself and partly by the idea of the whole– by its Spirit, the World Soul.”  Due to this, human Soul and World are “inextricably united so that, properly speaking, one could refer neither to the one nor the other exclusively.” 

Because of this inter-relatedness between individual Soul and encompassing World, it is incorrect to consider parts of Nature as isolated from the whole. “The isolation of the elements, and the false belief in their reality, are the sources of most, perhaps all, errors hitherto,” Novalis writes. “We are related to all parts of the Universe, as we are to the future and to times past.” This inter-relatedness both extends our power to incredible lengths, and equally curtails it, as we must accept that we are influenced by all the other components of the Universe.  Novalis boldly asserts that this inter-relatedness extends even unto the Deity, and that “the world is the result of a mutual effect between myself and the Divine Being,” with humanity and world occupying “integral halves” of the same greater entity. He also hints that each characteristic contained in one side of this bifurcated entity will possess a correspondencing characteristic in the other side.

This is very similar to the idea held by those who see man as a microcosm of the greater world– that he contains the entire cosmos in miniature, with his parts and processes corresponding to the larger parts and processes of the world around us.  It is for this reason that Novalis asserts that “we shall understand the world when we understand ourselves.”

In LF-2, Novalis states his belief that “humanity is the higher meaning of our planet,” and that humans act as the “nerve” connecting the lower with the upper world. As Novalis poetically puts it… in terms of the world, humanity is “the eye it raises to heaven.” 

In Miscellaneous Observations, Novalis maintains that it is only due to its cooperation with the bodily organs and to “the imperfect condition” of its state, that the human mind remains bound to this plane of existence. But as the mind achieves perfection, it will loosen its corporeal bonds and ascend.

Humanity feels the weight of its material anchor as restraints or limitations which affect us in ways “imperceptible but extremely important.” 

“Everything that surrounds us,” writes Novalis in LF-1, “daily incidents, ordinary circumstance, the habits of our way of life– exercises an uninterrupted influence on us.”

Novalis contends that restraints upon our behavior “are like the finger-positions of a flute-player” which only appear to be random to those who do not understand the relationship of instrument and melody.  These restraints, by blocking alternative avenues, generate a certain behavior (or melody) from us… Novalis implies that this manipulation could be purposeful, a part of the Divine Plan– that we are each (in my words) a manifested melody vitally contributing to a symphony written eons ago by the master conductor.

Novalis suggests in several works (LF-1, LF-2, On Goethe) that the restraints mankind feels are due to feelings of deficiency. This feeling of deficiency prompts men to act. For instance, cold– felt as an absence of heat or energy– stimulates us to seek or produce warmth.  Thus, “deficiency brings out activity.”

Interestingly, Novalis does not consider this feeling of deficiency as something internal in man, but as something external, not as something we are generating outward but as something flowing into us. Humanity, says Novalis, has a tendency to feel besieged by the Universe because we do not project enough Energy outward.  Under this view, we humans are “negative”– with the positive Universe streaming into us to restore equilibrium.  Novalis suggests that humans should become more “positive” and “stream outward.”  Then “at last there will be no more negation” and we will feel ourselves what we are, the “all in all.”

Switching metaphors in LF-2 from man as musical instrument to man as device, Novalis describes the human body as a “tool to shape and modify the world.”  In LF-1 he observes that a tool is, in a sense, a part of the product it produces. “Every tool modifies the powers and thoughts of the artist that conducts it to the material,” as well as modifying “the resistance of the material” to the artist’s designs. To restate in my own words, what I think he’s getting at is that, to some extent, the job determines the tool, and the tool determines the job.

Novalis suggests that in this situation the best we can do for ourselves is to try to become a tool “capable of anything”-– a sort of metaphysical Swiss Army Knife.

In LF-1 Novalis maintains that the world and its human tool should operate so much in harmony that the world’s use for us should line-up perfectly with our own will.  “The world is to be as I will it,” he boldly declares.  And what if (just of the sake of argument) this is NOT how find the world to be?  Well then, says Novalis, there has obviously been some kind of mistake… Either “the world is a degenerate world” or “my contradictory will is not my true will.”

Novalis also throws out there — seemingly in contradiction to all his talk of man as instrument or tool of the world– that “I will my will.”  This is quite the opposite of what many philosophers, such as Schopenhauer, have maintained– that the one thing we can NOT will is our own will, our drives. Young Novalis adds not a word of direct support for this enormously important contention.

As it is, what we DO know is that– due to our perpetual feeling of lack– humanity is always attempting to fill the hole, so to speak. This feeling of needy emptiness, says Novalis, ultimately stems from our false impression of a divided Universe in which the “inside” stands in need of something from the “outside.” Novalis says we feel this lack or need as an “injury.”

But division and multiplicity are illusions. A man who feels a deficit has fallen into error. He is not really divided from the rest of the world; it all belongs to him, and he belongs to it all.

The problem of division arose, writes Novalis in LF-1, when the first person “understood how to count to two.” For he then could not help but see “the possibility of infinite counting.” In other words, to attempt to emulate Novalis and give it my own poetic turn, the first step away from unity is infinity.

Novalis suggests that one path leading back to unity is abstraction. Abstraction allows us to think beyond individual objects and consider, instead, entire classes of objects, with each class — no matter how gigantic– conceptualizable as one thing. Thus, in abstraction, Novalis writes that “a crowd has become a society,” and a “chaos can be transformed into a manifold world.”

One may wonder, with all his talk of illusion, error, division, and deficiency… does Novalis believe that mankind, in his present state, is capable of happiness? Perhaps surprisingly, Novalis appears not only to believe that, even in his current state, happiness is possible for Man, but that a good life is something within the reach of even the most average of us.

I’ll end this post with Novalis’s pretty-much unassailable description of the good life...

“What more can we want if we have good, upright parents, friends deserving of respect and affection, gifted and diverse acquaintances, a blameless reputation, a comely figure, a respectable way of life, a generally healthy body, appropriate occupations, pleasing and useful skills, a serene soul, a moderate income, diverse beauties of nature and art around us, a conscience largely at ease, and either love, the world, and family life still before us– or love beside us, the world behind us, and a successful family around us.”

—   —   —   —   —   —

More from Hammering Shield On NOVALIS:

Novalis On The Need For An Intermediary In Religion

Novalis On The ARTIST And The CRITIC

Novalis: Society, Such A Disappointing Pedestal For Us Artists


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