Signs of Revolution


Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: Published: December 1994

European Studies, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Novalis traces the meteoric career of one of the most striking—and most strikingly misunderstood—figures of German Romanticism. Although Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known by his pseudonym, Novalis) published scarcely eighty pages of writings in his lifetime, his considerable fame and influence continued to spread long after his death in 1801. His posthumous reputation, however, was largely based on the myth manufactured by opportunistic editors, as Wm. Arctander O’Brien reveals in this book, the first to extract Hardenberg from the distortions of history.
A member of the generation of the 1770s that included Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling, Hardenberg was an avid follower of the French Revolution, a semiotician avant la lettre, and a prescient critic of religion. Yet in 1802, only a year after his death, the writer who had scandalized the Prussian court was marketed to a nation at war as a reactionary patriot, a sweet versifier of Idealism, and a morbid mystic. Identifying the break between Hardenberg’s own early Romanticism and the late Romanticism that falsified it, Novalis shows us a writer fully engaged in revolutionary politics and examines his semiotic readings of philosophy and of the political, scientific, and religious institutions of the day. Drawing on the full range of Novalis’s writings, including his poetry, notebooks, novels, and journals, O’Brien situates his semiotics between those of the eighteenth century and those of the twentieth and demonstrates the manner in which a concern for signs and language permeated all aspects of his thought.
The most extensive study of Hardenberg available in English, Novalis makes this revolutionary theoretician visible for the first time. Mining a crucial chapter in the history of semiotics and social theory, it suggests fruitful, sometimes problematic connections between semiotic, historical, "deconstructive," and philological practices as it presents a portrait of one of the most complex figures in literary history. Indispensable for scholars of German Romanticism, Novalis will also be of interest to students of comparative literature and European intellectual history.


“In this fresh, exciting, contentious, and deeply scholarly study of a major Romantic figure . . . O’Brien attends closely to the composition of the works, the circumstances of their publication, and the scanty documents recording their author’s biography. . . . [An] indispensable and outstanding study.” — Ritchie Robertson, Journal of European Studies

“O’Brien produces refreshing readings of familiar Novalis texts without wrenching them from their place in the idealistic discourse of the 1790s. . . . This wittily written and elegantly produced book enriches our understanding of Novalis.” — Nicholas Saul , TLS

"This is clearly the most authoritative, comprehensive work on Novalis to date in English. It is unique in its convincing retracing of Novalis’s development while still offering insightful, dialectic readings of individual texts. O’Briens’s work is remarkable." — Alice Kuzniar, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"This is the first book in English to encompass all phases of Novalis’s work in a comprehensive discussion. With a focus on Novalis’s theory of semiotics, O’Brien presents a decisive aspect of Romanticism in a novel context and an entirely new reading of the major texts that shows them to be inspired by highly astute socio-political and historiographic considerations." — Géza von Molnár, Northwestern University


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Wm. Arctander O’Brien is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1519-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1509-4
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