Wednesday, June 27, 2012

an impression of HYMNS TO THE NIGHT

After a number of years, I read again Hymns to the Night, by Novalis (or Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772 -- 1801). The full text of this poem-thing can be found here:

Hymns to the Night

And if you click on the “Links” there, you'll find a page from which to download a nicely formatted Word version.

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I had forgotten the power of this piece by Novalis. I suppose events in life tend to push even important things farther back into the mind's chambers. But like my dreams, which persist with powerful resonance, I'm confident that Hymns to the Night is also alive in my unconscious regions, doing its silent work there.
Hymns to the Night is an “ecstatic” turning away from the daylight of usual experience, a rejection of the temporal, a refusal of psychological normality.

Novalis's beloved wife died at age 15.

There is something about the death of a young woman that touches a bass organ chord, disturbs sensitive nerves, and inspires a change in one's sense of reality. This could be an evolutionary effect working into our unconscious regions: when timely vessels of propagation are overturned, a faith in time itself is poured out and evaporates; when nature attacks with illness our human hope in the form of woman, nature has darkly injured something in our organic tissues of meaning.

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is an extended reverie on the dubious and equivocal nature of time. And how time can be psychologically (spiritually?) deferred or even rejected. A quietly ecstatic turning toward the melancholy of non-participation. In one poignant scene, Hans Castorp and his cousin Joachim accompany the tubercular and terminal young woman Karen Karstedt on an outing to the hillside above the town of Dorf. The winter day is beautiful, and their nature hike takes them by the town cemetery. They discover there, amid the narrow aisles and crowded gravestones, a cleared and unoccupied space, obviously a grave space awaiting its future occupant. All three realize who that space will soon be for. The cousins stand there in clumsy, silent commiseration with Karen. A strange smile happens on her face. For me, it was as if a shy and curious bride were awaiting Death, her groom. A sense of betrothal to eternity, a submission of the temporal before the uncanny.

The composer Alban Berg wrote his Violin Concerto (1935) in memorial to Manon Gropius, who died of polio complications at age 18. From measures of mourning and anguish, the piece moves toward a concluding transcendence or apotheosis. It moves toward the rapture of night and away from vicissitudes of time.

Edvard Munch's sister died when she was 15. Edvard Munch's paintings have a quality of twilight leaning into darkness. Over time, he painted several versions of The Sick Child. Munch, owing to his early sorrow, turned to a night of the soul. The red-haired teenager in his painting – his sister – stares from her bed at something in the distance, beyond the curtained window. Something is drawing nearer and is profounder than time or experience. A pact between painter and Death was early struck, and his wounded oeuvre holds a consistent theme of ecstatic night.

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Part 5 of Hymns to the Night – oddly the longest section – sounds a wrong note for me. It seems like an incursion of an artificial element, something out of tune with the other parts. Or like an extended didactic aside, with a nod to the religiosity of readers. A genuinely Romantic pulse has been interrupted by the conventional.

But of course, Novalis could be simply layering his eccentric vision into the only tropes familiar to him. He lived when he lived. Maybe he held a conventional Christian belief, or maybe he was casting emotion into allegory. My sense of a wrong tonality might be an anachronistic reading, a projection of my perspective onto a different era. Whatever the facts might be, the last stanza of Part 5 is astonishing in its poetic effect and in its opening onto eternity:

The love is given freely,
And Separation is no more.
The whole life heaves and surges
Like a sea without a shore.
Just one night of bliss—
One everlasting poem—
And the sun we all share
Is the face of God.

Maybe there is a clue in Part 6 that Novalis remains true to the flame of a pagan, ostensibly Christian Romanticism, to the dying light of a beautiful spark as it falls toward the grave:

Blessed be the everlasting Night,
And blessed the endless slumber.

That “endless slumber” seems to me a contradiction of literal or dogmatic deliverance. To me, this is a turning to art, to poetry as an environment of hope against hope, much like the spiritual musings of Miguel de Unamuno.

Novalis's dead bride is vivified by the dark light of his own poem. By his turning away from wounding phenomena and toward the Dream of Night.

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