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martes, 27 de mayo de 2014

The disciples at Sais

Bust of Novalis at Weissenfels.

(English translation of this writing)

The disciples at Sais can be considered one of the most enigmatic and fascinating works of Novalis. This novel show us a brotherhood of sages placed halfway between the figures of the philosopher, the mystic and the scientist, and who dedicate to the study of nature. For these sages, the task of scientist doesn’t differ in essence to the one of mystic or the one of philosopher, because all they aspire to get the knowledge of truth by different means, understanding it as the sense of human existence and the existence of the world. The members of this brotherhood devote themselves to the study of nature, hoping that it gives them the necessary keys to know the order of the universe. Within this study, geology is of great importance, because the disciples spend a great part of their time wandering fields and forests, collecting stones of various types which they keep and classify later in the temple of the brotherhood. In this interest in stones and minerals, we can perceive an echo of the interest in geology which Novalis felt in his real life and arose when he had to take lessons of this discipline in order to work at the management of the salt mines of Weissenfels.

The members of the brotherhood conceive of the universe as a net of resemblances which exist between the beings who form it (thus, they think that there are resemblances between the different kingdoms of beings: the mineral one, the vegetal one and the animal one). Nature produces similar shapes and structures in the diverse categories of beings. The aim that the sages pursue with their task is to understand nature, what is to say, to know its structure and its order. Novalis uses the temple of Isis located in the ancient Egyptian town of Sais, which this novel’s title alludes to, as a metaphor of the knowledge of nature. In the interior of this temple, there was an image of Isis covered with a veil. This veil symbolizes the deep mystery that hides the structure of nature. Only the members of the brotherhood described in the novel, after a long and difficult learning, will be able to draw back the goddess’ veil, what is to say, to know the order of the universe and the laws that rule it such as they are, that constitutes the highest knowledge that a man can aspire to: in short, knowing the truth. Furthermore, the idea of evolution already appears in this novel. Nature is not conceived as a static, unchanging being, but dynamic, because it is continuously experiencing changes. Although the idea of evolution will not be formulated in a complete way until the second half of nineteenth century, when Darwin publishes his essay The origin of species, the thinkers and scientists of the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth one have already intuited it. For example, Goethe, in his scientific labour, formulated the theory of the Urpflanze (in German, primitive plant): according to this theory, in remote times there was a plant that would have served as a prototype for all the others, because it contained the features of all them. In the description of this brotherhood of sages, we can perceive the desire that early German Romantics felt of creating a total science, a science that unified all the disciplines of knowledge, as humanistic ones as scientific ones, with the aim of providing a general explanation of the world. In short, we find a scene very different to the radical separation between sciences and humanities and the specialization of the branches of knowledge which have took place in Western society from the birth of scientific positivism.

After the philosophical introduction which the novel begins with, one of the disciples narrates an allegorical legend, with the fabulous tone of a children’s story. The protagonist of this legend, Hiacinthe, leaves his house, his parents and even his lover Rosenblüthe, in order to walk to Sais, the town where the temple of Isis is, and to receive the teachings that will ease his desire of knowledge. After a long tour which leads him to diverse places, he reaches the temple’s doors and he falls asleep (in this reference to dream we can observe the irrationalism of Novalis, for whom dreams could constitute true revelations). In the dream, he passes through the temple’s halls, which seem familiar to him, although he doesn’t remember being ever in them, he arrives at the image of Isis and he lifts the veil which covers it. As soon as he lifts the veil of the goddess, his beloved Rosenblüthe appears. The two lovers end up together, having many descendents and enjoying the happiness of family life. The sense of this legend resides in the necessity of love to get the deep knowledge of nature. Only by the experience of love, by the union with the loved person, man understands the ultimate meaning of the universe. The lover overcomes his lacks, the limits inherent to his individual being, and goes out to the encounter with the loved person. Novalis considers man as a reflection of the universe and this as a reflection of man, to the extent that they share a series of resemblances in their structure; for this reason, the loved person becomes a reflection of the universe for the lover, so that loving somebody is equal to love the universe. This idea is expressed in a beautiful aphorism of the author: My beloved is an abbreviation of the universe, and the universe is an extension of my beloved.

In The disciples at Sais, Novalis talks about the existence of a general soul of the universe, which all the beings belong to. Here the influence of Spinoza’s pantheism can be seen. We shall remember that Spinoza formulated the concept of intellectual love towards God, which is defined as the love of nature (Spinoza, as a pantheist, identifies God with nature) which is born from the true knowledge of it and which produces a feeling of deep joy. However, Novalis cannot be called exactly pantheist, because he makes a curious synthesis of pantheism and Christianity. In Novalis’s thinking, Christ appears as the only direct mediator between man and nature, because only he is in a direct relationship with God; now then, the rest of beings of the world can act as indirect or second-degree mediators between God and man, allowing the loving relationship of man with Christ, who in turn allows the loving relationship of man with God. This synthesis of pantheism and Christianity is not perceived in The disciples at Sais, but in the Hymns to the night, where Novalis’s beloved Sophie appears as a mediator between Christ and the own poet. From there comes the identification of Sophie with the Virgin Mary which Novalis will carry out in the Hymns, because one of Mary’s fundamental missions, in Christian theology, is the intercession before God for men.

Novalis uses the conversations which the members of the brotherhood hold to include a debate where four disciples expose their opinions on nature and the most appropriate mean to know it. According to Félix de Azúa, who writes the prologue to this edition of the work, these disciples embody the thinking of some philosophers contemporary of Novalis and the own poet’s one. Thus, the disciple who begins this discussion defends Schelling’s and Schleiermacher’s ideas. In this disciple’s ideas we see the influence of the theory of correspondences, according to which the structure of the universe consists in a series of resemblances which exist between the macrocosmos (the whole of the universe) and the microcosmos (the human being). Therefore, for Schelling and Schleiermacher the human being must dedicate to self-knowledge, because he has few possibilities to achieve a certain and infallible knowledge of the world that surrounds him. In this way, studying his own structure, his own physical and intellectual characteristics, he would not only know himself, but also discover the structure of the universe.

The second disciple defends, in his lines, the theories of the philosopher Franz von Baader, contemporary of Novalis and member of the school of thought called philosophy of nature. Baader defines nature as an unwonted harmony, a miraculous balance which all the beings of cosmos have achieved in their relationships. He expresses the diversity of nature, describing it as a whole formed by an immense variety of beings, and remarks the connections that join some to the others, because the beings do not live isolated, but they create numerous relationships between themselves and influence some to the others in a continuous way. He considers that the influence of some beings on the others is produced through a sort of cycle, which could be understood as an energy transmission where three agents take part: nature, human beings and the universal spirit (in other words, the divine intelligence which is present in all the universe, of which its external manifestation, perceptible for the senses, would be nature). First, nature influences human beings; later, these ones influence the universal spirit; finally, this latter one influences nature again, so this cycle of energy transmission gets closed. In this way, a disciple expresses it with his words:

It is very bold […], wanting to rearrange […] Nature, with the aid of her external forces and phenomena, and consider her now as a monstrous fire, now as an accidental fact strangely shaped, as a duality or a trinity, or as any other singular force. It would be more plausible that she was the product of an incomprehensible agreement between infinitely diverse beings, the miraculous bond of the spiritual world, the point of union and contact for countless universes.

[…]

anything is not as extraordinary as the great homogeneity and simultaneity of Nature, who seems to be fully present everywhere. In the flame of a light, all the forces of Nature are in activity; and, in this way, she continuously represents and transforms herself in every place, making leaves, flowers and fruits emerge at the same time. She finds herself, in the middle of centuries, present, past and future at once; and who knows at what special kind of remoteness she works in the same way; it is probable that her system is anything but a sun in the universe, a light, a stream, of which its influences are perceived, first at all, by our spirit, but, outside it, they spread over Nature the spirit of universe and communicate the soul of the latter to other systems.

The third disciple defends the theories of Henrik Steffens, a philosopher of Norwegian origin who moved to Germany, becoming another representative of philosophy of nature. For Steffens, nature evolves according to a program, a plan previously laid down. Therefore, man’s mission consists in finding out this program, with the aim of discovering how it has developed up until now and predicting how it will do in the future. The most suitable discipline to carry out this mission is natural history, which is in charge of explaining the different stages of nature’s development; because this, Steffens gives it great importance, considering it as the only science who will allow to access to the true knowledge of nature. However, Steffens states that, at his time, natural history was an emerging discipline, which was in formation process, because it had still neither achieved to gather enough knowledge about its matter of study nor arranged them in a consistent way in order to become established as a science. In that period, scientists only had made some discoveries about the matter, laying the foundations of natural history.

Novalis expounds his own conception of nature by a fourth disciple. Thus, he talks us about the moral appropriation of nature, a concept that we will try to explain below. Novalis believes in the myth of the Golden Age, and he considers that nature has fallen into a state of degeneration and decline from the end of that age. Now then, man is destined to collaborate with nature; by his creative and transforming activity, he will lead nature again to its perfection. In this way, as examples of this activity, he mentions painting, which organises colors so that they produce a beautiful result; dance, which teaches the limbs of the human body to move in a harmonious way; domestication of animals, which allows them to get used to coexisting with men; and gardening, which joins natural elements in order to create organised and harmonious landscapes. Leading nature to its perfection, man will manage to restore the mythical Golden Age, that period which Ovid described in his Metamorphosis, when mankind lived in a state of general happiness and harmony with nature. In this way, man provides a moral purpose to nature, because his task repairs the decline where nature sank from the end of the Golden Age; and he guides the beings that form it, both the living ones and the inanimate ones, towards the achievement of good. It is clearly perceived that Novalis follows an optimistic view of the transformation of nature that man carries out. That could be down to the fact that, in the spatial and temporal setting where he writes this work (the Germany of the eighteenth century), the industrial revolution had not still begun and was far from its peak. In those days, they don’t even imagine the negative consequences which industrialization would entail: the conversion of man in merchandise, of which value the market determines by the exploitation of working class, and the conversion of nature in a mere resource, of which aim is reduced to provide commodities for the economic development. On the other hand, when Novalis asks himself how to access to the knowledge of nature, he states that only poets can discover the last meaning of natural phenomena, by an intuitive approach to them, which entails a privilege forbidden to scientists, whose activity is limited to discover the physical qualities of objects. In this way, it is expressed the supreme value that Novalis gaves to the figure of poet. The fourth of the disciples explains it in his lines:

Only poets have understood what Nature can means for a man, said a handsome adolescent, and it is not bold stating that the most perfect solution of mankind finds itself inside them and, in this way, each sensation spreads pure everywhere, with its infinite modifications, through the crystal and the mobility of the said solution. They find everything in Nature, whose soul only does not refuse them; and poets seek in the relationship that they have with her, with much reason, all the happiness and the charm of the Golden Age. Nature offers them the variability of her infinite character; and more than man, witty to the highest degree and full of life, she surprises with her finds and her deep detours, with her encounters and her diversions, with her great ideas and her rarities. The everlasting treasure of its fantasies does not allow that even one of his friends moves away empty–handed. She embellishes, animates and confirms everything; and, if it would be said that an unconscious and meaningless mechanism rules in certain details, the look that delves into the essence of things discovers an amazing friendliness towards human heart, in the coincidence and the continuation of its particular features. The wind is a movement of air that can be due to many external causes, but, does not it seems to you that it has other meaning for the lonely heart full of desires, when it passes through, from a very loved region which seems to dissolve the serene sorrow with a thousand profound and melancholic murmurs, in a deep sigh of the whole Nature? Perhaps does the young in love not find his soul swamped in flowers, so does he, and with admirable truthfulness, expressed in the fresh and tender vegetation of the spring fields? And can the vigour of a soul that has just immersed in the gold of wine seem more precious and smiling than in the bunch of heavy and shiny grapes, almost hidden under the leaves?

In the examples that Novalis brings to this passage of the work, we can confirm how the poet identifies his mood with the elements of nature. For example, the lonely man full of unsatisfied desires reliefs his sadness hearing the soft rumour of the wind; the lover sees his gladness reflected in the fields full of flowers of the spring; the man immersed in enthusiasm thanks to the wine finds an image of his mood in the bunch of grapes. In this way, the poet discovers resemblances between his internal life and the outer world, between man and the whole of the universe.

Once the four disciples have compared and discussed their theories, the brotherhood’s master takes part in the dialogue, and his speech seems to back in a veiled way the theory of moral appropriation of nature which Novalis has formulated. In order to access to the knowledge of nature, he recommends the disciples the acquisition of two indispensable habits: a discreet and simple life, like a children’s one, and tireless patience. The serenity of a discreet and simple life becomes a condition necessary to achieve this knowledge, because, as the master admits, it can be considered as very rare the fact of finding the true intelligence of Nature joined to the great eloquence, the skill and a notable life, as it is generally accompanied by very simple words, an honest and sincere thinking and a humble life. On the other hand, patience becomes necessary, because it is not possible to determine how much time after Nature reveals her secrets. Certain chosen few obtain and know them when they are still young; others only at an advanced age. The master links the aging of the body with the wisdom of the spirit, because he states that the true enquirer never gets older: every eternal passion is out of the limits of life, and the more the external sheath withers and dries up, the clearer, more blazing and more powerful the core becomes. According to the master, the acquisition of these two habits comes about, in an easy and frequent way, at the workshop of the artisan and the artist, where men are in contact and have to fight with nature in a thousand ways, in the work of country, mines and navigation, in the breeding of cattle and in many more professions. In this praise of work we could find a reflection of the theory of moral appropriation of nature, because, as we already have said, for Novalis man leads again nature to its perfection, by his creative activity, which transforms reality.


The disciples at Sais. Novalis. Prologue by Félix de Azúa. Hiperión Publisher.


Translation: Ramiro Rosón

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