A Philosophical Romantic
Of all the women writers working in German around 1800, Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) has been subject to a troubled reception history. This is not so much about her life, but rather the manner of her death – a dramatic suicide on the banks of the Rhine after being spurned by her married lover. Themes of love and death recur in the poems, prose, and plays that Günderrode wrote, and so there has been a critical temptation from the nineteenth century on to see Günderrode’s work through aspects of her life.
My book, Karoline von Günderrode: Philosophical Romantic (Legenda, 2022), is the first monograph in English dedicated to Günderrode’s work, and is based on my doctoral dissertation, which was awarded two German research prizes. As the title suggests, I read Günderrode as standing at the productive intersection of philosophy and literature. Whilst this is not unusual for the period in general, what is unusual about Günderrode is the consistency of her philosophical positions, and how these are articulated throughout her literary work. She stands out in the era of German Idealism and Romanticism by continually developing a form of Spinozist pantheism – the idea that God and nature are the same. Whilst writers and thinkers such as Hölderlin, Novalis, Fichte made recourse to the vocabulary of pantheism, none adopt pantheism as a central metaphysical category. Günderrode does, and this matters. Pantheism functions as a heterodox means to hold on to core Christian concepts, such as providence, whilst side-stepping problems around religious orthodoxy known to the period, such as the rise of Biblical criticism. Pantheism, too, has political resonance: if we proceed from the idea that everything that exists is composed of the same material, or essence, then that neatly maps onto ideals familiar from the French Revolution.
But these are not philosophical speculations alone. What is important is how Günderrode’s poetic ambitions combine with this project of naturalisation – of writing the human individual into nature, understood as a divine, self-sustaining, and self-developing force. Her later poems, such as the trio of sonnets ‘Aegypten’, ‘Der Nil’, and ‘Der Caucasus’, are experiments in lyrical subjectivity and use prosopopoeia to give voice to features of the natural world – the barren earth, the flooding Nile, and the sublime range of the Caucasus. This is more than anthropocentric projection – is it instead grounded in the idea that humans and the natural world are not distinct, but rather are identical. Human subjectivity is subsidiary to a broader or higher subjectivity of the generative world around.
What is also distinct about Günderrode is intellectual ambition, and a degree of eclecticism that causes her work to resist neat classification. She refused to write novels – the more socially acceptable literary form that women could write at the time – and her work ranges instead across literary forms, from elegies, sonnets, ballads, plays in both verse and prose, to meditations in philosophical prose. Part of the interpretative difficulty with Günderrode lies also in the diverse themes and sources drawn on – which becomes something of a who’s who of intellectual currents around 1800 (for example: Ossian, Jean Paul, Schelling, Platonism, Kantianism). Behind this diversity lie a set of consistent concerns, such as how individual freedom and agency can be possible, if the world is understood to be deterministic, and how the individual might gain reliable knowledge about the world. The book traces these questions through Günderrode’s literary work, situating it within its relevant contexts, and in doing so aims to offer a more differentiated narrative of both literary and philosophical Romanticism than has previously been possible. I also understand the book to be part of a broader trend in literary studies and in the history of philosophy: there have been recent moves by scholars such as Kristin Gjesdal and Dalia Nassar to place German women philosophers in the canon. The book, as I understand it, is part of that scholarly dialogue – and it has been gratifying to see Günderrode is slowly becoming a staple in narratives in both German Romanticism and Idealism in the past few years.