How do you romanticize death

Novalis follows her beloved to death

Two years after their engagement, Novalis' fiancée died of consumption in March 1797. He decides to follow her in death and dies four years later of consumption.

The occidental philosophy from Plato and Epicurus to Montaigne and Schopenhauer to Heidegger understood itself as "practice in death", as "learning to die". Her goal was to overcome the fear of death, serenity her impressive promise. But it was mostly limited to "own death", the individual, very personal death of the ego. To an extent that was only noticed with the necessary emphasis by the philosophers - not the poets, who were always more realistic about death - when they came to grips with Martin Heidegger's philosophy of death, "own death" determined the philosophy of death. And even in the concept of "foreign death", which was contrasted with "own death", the death of others remained fundamentally alien. In contrast, the philosophy of death of Emmanuel Levinas taught: "The death of the other is the first death." This is true in every sense, ontological, chronological, existential. The experience of death, which makes all further experience impossible for the dying person, is primarily that of the death of the other.

Love and death story

Of course, one does not die with the death of the other - he survives it too. Life is mortal, but more than that, it is survival. And this survival, contrary to the usual assessments, is not a privilege. Far worse than dying yourself is to see the coffin of your loved one disappear into the open grave or, more recently, to see the elevator from the crematoria to the basement of the final disposal. The ego can do without itself in a pinch - Friedrich Nietzsche put it in an unsurpassable way: "I" - me as a dead person - "I would not miss myself." I miss "you", the dead, like nothing else. This applies most to lovers: death is the separation of lovers. Your hopeless question of who has the privilege of going first is always answered to the detriment of the survivors.

This paradigmatically shows the love, life and death story that illustrates the priority that the death of the other has over one's own death, but which at the same time is considered the most romantic, most forgiving of all romantic love stories: the one that Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis, with his bride, Sophie von Kühn, who is ten years his junior. It is a story of loving and dying, and above all of "dying afterwards", which is supposed to lead to the reunification of the couple separated by death, but which ultimately takes a different path. The unsolved, perhaps indissoluble bond with the beloved releases a death and death cult of the survivor, which cannot really let the one die and the survivor who is determined to "die afterwards" cannot really let live. In November 1794, 22-year-old Novalis met Sophie von Kühn, who was only twelve at the time, and fell in love with her "mortally" after only a quarter of an hour's first encounter. Tenderly he called her his "little boy", his love for her with a beautiful double meaning his "Philo-Sophie", the love for Sophie, synonymous with the love for wisdom.

Love was returned. After only four months, the couple got engaged - initially in secret, but then also in public. However, Sophie loved a little more distant. Novalis wrote in his diary in 1796: “She does not want to be embarrassed by my love. My love often expresses it. It's cold all the time. " Despite all the love, Novalis is initially far from its idealization. The other is perceived as another. “She doesn't want to be anything. She is something. "

Precisely for this reason “she does not believe in any future life, but in the transmigration of souls”. Then, however, only six months after the engagement, Sophie's fatal illness breaks out: inflammation of the liver and pulmonary tuberculosis. Sophie is operated three times without anesthesia. Against the background of a death-prone, death-thirsty romanticism, the disease can be called by its old name: it is consumption, the addiction to disappear. Sophie, of course, hides her wounds, unlike the stigmatized women of the mystical and romantic tradition, who follow the path of imitation of Christ as brides in heaven with their only too gladly shed blood. The bridegroom, who meanwhile literally “adores” her, loves her “almost more because of her illness”. Suffering and compassion, illness and threatened death show up as the forces of bondage and at the same time the stylization of the bride into "one of the noblest figures that has ever been and will be on earth".

This romanticizing of the other under the threat of death increases the feeling for the full extent of the impending catastrophe. At the same time, it prepares salvation by elevating the image, by iconising the bride while at the same time fading the real figure. But the bridegroom is still determined by hope. The "good God" of the lovers gives him faith in Sophie's recovery. But hope is disappointed without Novalis arguing with God about it. Love and lament are related, but love and accusation are not. With the waning of hope, however, he falls into despair, life disgust, life weariness. For him everything is now "dead, desolate, deaf"; sleep as death's twin brother is the only benefit. After a painful fatal illness for a year and a half, Sophie died on March 19, 1797.

Admittedly, the bridegroom was not present at Sophie's death: "It was beyond my strength," he confesses, "to watch the terrible struggles of the underlying blooming youth, the terrible anxieties of the heavenly creature, powerlessly." A little less love and compassion - and he could have stayed with Sophie. As a result, idealization and iconization increase to the apotheosis, a new worship service of love, as if the now transfigured bride had always been so pious, so quiet that she was out of place in the earthly world. Love is supposed to be grounded in a "heavenly figure", whose image in turn owes itself to love. Hardenberg's first biography writes: "This lovable creature became his Madonna."

But the more tormenting life. When Novalis receives the horrific words of the news of her death eight days after Sophie's departure, the certainty of lifelong hopelessness and abandonment falls upon him, the burden of which can only end with his own death. Sadness is limitless like love. The death of the bride, who is inextricably amalgamated with his ego, is the complete loss of self and world. "With her I am separated from everything, because I almost no longer have myself."

The second death

Early Romanticism, which, like no other epoch of intellectual history, focused on the I, the self, experiences its corrective in a rigorous experience of unconditional coexistence. The death of the other is so much the actual, the true death that the supposed first death: that of the self, becomes the secondary. Our own life has become a survival that the survivor can no longer live, yes, no longer wants to live. Logically, Novalis determine death fantasies and death longings. "She died - that's how I die too - the world is barren - empty."

The hope for a reunification on the other side could also be strengthened through an apparition, a self-revelation from Sophia. But since this does not occur or only in poetic form, Novalis makes a "decision", as he resolutely says, should lead to a heavenly reunion with the death and loss of the beloved. This “decision” is recorded obsessively in the diaries. He wants to "die after" his beloved. Love was the beginning - it will also be the end of his life. The dying after, the second death should overcome the first death, the dying should lead to the long-awaited wedding night of the mystically married couple, the "hymns to the night" to hymns to a sweeter wedding night. Within a year, according to Novalis' vow, he wants to follow the beloved on the way to the heavenly kingdom of the life beyond.

How this "after-dying" is to take place, however, remains open. It could take place as a process of consensual infirmity, a broken will to live, an illness leading to death, as it actually does in the end. Even more, however, the active “decision to voluntarily say goodbye” and leave life plays a hardly concealed role.

In Novalis' diary there are family concerns: “My mother, father and the method are still bothering me. . . But the decision received new life - new strength. " The diary is already becoming suicidal: "This morning a serious conversation about the suicide with Langermann," one of Sophie's doctors. «The decision was made. The doctor spoke to me today about the difficulty of examining whether someone had died of plant toxins. " So there is no threat of proof of the deadly poison. The Christian verdict of “suicide”, however, speaks against active suicidal “after-death”. And the thought of parents and siblings depresses the soul. But you will learn to miss him.

To confirm his decision to “die afterwards” Novalis repeatedly visits the grave of his beloved, which he decorates with flowers and where he incessantly prays to the now completely idealized, sacralized. The cemetery becomes a place of residence, at the same time a place of sanctification, a place of pilgrimage and a mystical place. And when Novalis is not celebrating his funeral service at the grave, he stages a literal, not perverse, "necrophilic" cult of the dead by arranging the beloved's favorite clothes on her bed as if she were still there herself.

Getting used to death

Now things against dying and after dying are also happening. Even against the overwhelming power of the dead, the survivor's continued life demands his rights. The “Journal” becomes the document of his vacillation between the affirmation of the “decision” to “die afterwards” and impulses for self-preservation. Novalis watches himself with suspicion. He meticulously registers the level of his grief. He doesn't cry anymore. His "petrification" takes place at a rapid pace. He experiences a kind of post-traumatic paralysis that comes to a standstill and freezes life. Then his spirits return, especially the erotic, yes, blatantly the sexual. The extraordinarily frank journal becomes the «journal intime». Again and again he experiences, who had longed impatiently for “the bride's night” in his sensual movements and fantasies, “somewhat distant” moments of “lasciviousness”.

If he nevertheless gets more and more used to Sophie's death, she will, as it were, die all over again. The death of the other is now the secondary death again. Habituation is the survivor's food, the means of survival. And like feeling, the mind also shows the traces of time. He "ponders" the unsteady "decision". Reflection is the vehicle of relativization. When Novalis reaffirmed the “decision”, he was visibly relieved. But that does not prevent him from entering into a new engagement with the more mature Julie von Charpentier as early as 1798.

He remains loyal to the transfigured Sophie in literary terms: with the “Hymns to the Night” and the “Blue Flower” of the “Ofterdingen” novel, which bases poetry on love. But one must not ignore the consequences of the real end either. Because when Novalis himself dies four years after Sophie's death, it is like a renewal of the death decision to die afterwards, like a final celebration of the death cult that Novalis dies exactly at the moment when the love for Julie leads to the celebration of a new bridal night threatens. In this sense he follows the first bride. Succession also in the cause of death: it is consumption that he is infected by and how Sophie dies: the longing to disappear after the death of the bride. And this longing is fulfilled.

The love, life and death story of this romantic couple shows, contrary to the abbreviations of an occidental death philosophy fixated on “own death”, how much dying and death are in advance of those of the other, of the other.

The transformation of the unthinkable

The death of the other is the first death, life as survival is the difficult fate that remains for the bereaved. Hence the romantic attempt to first escape the direct experience of the death of the bride, then by dying after the cutting dissonance of the death of the one and the survival of the other. Hence the attempt to establish a cult of the dead with the idealization, the iconization of the dead, which is supposed to translate the pain of the inevitable farewell into the celebration of a new divine service, a goddess service. But the survivors are and remain other than the dead. Above all, they do not escape the most fundamental form of dying: the almighty time, which although it cannot heal wounds, can only form scars, but which is transformed into habituation or into a new love, which was the unthinkable.