Schlegel on Wit by Duncan Smith

BOMB 2 Winter 1982

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


2 Smith

Friedrich Schlegel’s Remarks on Wit From His Literary Notebooks

Translated by Duncan Smith

Translator’s Introduction

Writers of fragments will always be indebted to Friedrich Schlegel for affirming the practice.He wrote some of his best pieces in The Athenaeum, a literary journal whose name is synonymous with the members of what may be safely called the first avant-garde milieu: his brother August, August’s wife (until 1803) Caroline, Friedrich’s future wife Dorothea, Schleiermacher, Novalis, Tieck, Schelling, to name a few. Between the years of 1797 to 1801, either in Jena, Weimar, or Berlin, this group left a wide assortment of cultural documents from which Romanticism was given its name and momentum. The Athenaeum is for the most part responsible for a literary sensibility which still affects writing up to this day. With the exception of Baudelaire, no other critic of the 19th century matches Schlegel’s level of insight. His influence also provoked Hegel to say “the epoch of Lucinde by Friedrich Schlegel” in relation to a literature he felt “licentious.”

Aside from what he wrote in The Athenaeum, as well as other publications, Schlegel kept notebooks in which he jotted down his ideas. They run into many volumes and serve in part as preliminary drafts for the thoughts featured in the Critical FragmentsAthenaeum FragmentsIdeas, and his novel Lucinde. Much of those texts explore the nature of wit, hence the frequent appearance of this idea in the Notebooks.

But why is this translation of Schlegel’s remarks on wit from his Literary Notebooksimportant? Simply because wit is the capital determination of all his theorizing, as fragment 781 states, “Everything is wit and in everything is wit.” Wit is “combinatory spirit” which blends together art and nature, man and woman, science and poetry, literature and philosophy. Wit is the universal combination, the mysticism of analogy. And in terms of truth, “wit … would be the absolute master” is wit and not a human subject.

Schlegel’s effort to articulate the chaos of wit takes on force for those of us who live in urban milieus where the practice of asteismus or urbanitas, the non-rustic merry conceit, is a fine art. “Society is a chaos that only wit can organize and bring into harmony” (Lucinde). A contemporary, Jean-Paul Richter, says “wit and beauty are social powers and triumphs.” The swarms of people who crowd the popular agoras crave wit, this “disguised priest who joins every couple” and “uses various marriage vows” (Jean Paul). Our nights out beckon us to wed the dissimilar, through wit, and grant us freedom, for wit always “give[s] equality first’’ (Jean Paul). (He wrote a chapter called “On Wit” in his School for Aesthetics.)

Moreover, this perpetual mixing and dissolving of the mixture is found in the Romantic genre par excellence, novels, these “sons of wit” as Schlegel calls them. Novels contain all genres, their dialogues constitute “a chain or garland of fragments.” The best conversations would only be like novels, one bright burst disembodying an equally scintillating one, a kind of Don Quixote (but never as good) in a nightclub. The German word for genre is Gattung related to gatten (to match, pair, copulate, unite), Gatte/Gattin (husband/wife), and gattieren (classify, sort, mix). Furthermore, satura which Schlegel constantly discusses, is a “mixed dish” satire, the “literary form loosely combining a variety of topics claimed as a Roman invention” (Casell’s Latin Dictionary). Horace’s satires are Schlegel’s principal example. The novel, taken as a “satura” in the sense of a mixture of genres, was what Hegel said typified the cross-over form of the classical ideal” (Aesthetik II). Since satura was a Roman invention, and not a Greek one, it demonstrates in Hegel’s eyes another moment in the “final” dissolution of art, the movement away from classical Greek adequation into a Roman sense of morality and Christian subjectivity.

Philosophy has indeed always debased wit. Wit, in the vocabulary of Latin oratory, is related to invention (inventio) whose more serious counterpart is judgment (judicum). Hobbes in the eighth chapter of De Homine says that judgment meets at history and demonstrations while wit meets at poetry and rhetoric. Locke, in his failed attempt to eliminate tropes (figures of speech) from philosophy believed that diversions of wit do “not absolutely conform to truth or to correct reason.” But judgment is a “merely probable” instrument of knowledge whose rule is analogy. Analogy, always already an operation of substitutions, i.e. metaphor, forms the basis of judgment used for purposes of “correct reason.” Judgment, however, “headed for the calculations and risks of analogy, ‘goes’ no ‘further’ than wit.’’ (Jean-Luc Nancy). Locke wants wit to be separated from the use of serious judgment and philosophy will have to establish moral criteria for the separation, although it never does so. From Leibniz to Hume, wit appears to be buried under the doctrine of judgment, the metaphoric play of analogies ruled by “correct reason” which wit appears to unrule and unlocke.

Kant’s Anthropology again debases wit as an empirical “castoff” of philosophy, Kant restricting wit from a pragmatic point of view. Furthermore, in the 59th section of The Critique of Judgment Kant formulates a distinction between “schemata” and “symbol.” Schemata are illustrations (hypotyposis), “direct… presentations of the concept” while symbols are “indirect.” Schemata, like a drawing of a triangle, are different from symbols since symbols are facilitated by an “analogy.” Symbolic hypotyposes, philosophy’s metaphors (“ground Grund,” “to depend abhangen,” “to follow from fliessen,‘’ and with reference to Locke, “substance”), “express concepts with employing a direct intuition for the purpose, but only drawing upon an analogy with one, i.e. transferring the reflection upon an object of intuition to quite a new concept, and one with which perhaps no intuition could ever directly correspond” (my italics). Kant’s argument is how can a representation directly correspond to a given concept or not, i.e. schemata for objects of the mind and symbols for the thing symbolized. Symbols such as ground and to depend are not epistemologically reliable, but the “perhaps” expresses that they might be accurate in depicting the thing symbolized as opposed to schematic hypotyposes which Kant says are more “direct.” In more general terms, the crucial “perhaps” signals the possible accuracy of symbolic illustrations, i.e. tropes or figures of speech, in depicting concepts, something that philosophy, however hard it tries, can never eliminate. Kant goes on to say that “all our knowledge of God is merely symbolic,” but not just God also our “knowledge of knowledge is then bound to remain symbolic” (de Man). Philosophy can never avoid the implication that symbols or tropes form an irreducible component of our cognition, which is also saying that wit, as the imaginative combination of such symbols or tropes, forms the “ground” of our most serious judgments. However to stress symbols would fall into the trap of aestheticism whereas to stress schemata would fall into reification, the moment where transcendental authority “pertain[s] to the objective reality of entities unmediated by language” (de Man).

Resuscitating language’s figurative potential is one of the tasks of literature, something which Romanticism extends by positing “the word as subject” or “more than poetic power it is a power of magic” (Blanchot). Abracadabra, this ABC of wit summons forth the possibility that “words will originate like flowers” (Holderlin), the witticism or joke a premonition of our entrance into the interior of language. Blanchot asserts that “in order to speak poetically, it is made possible by a non-transitive word which does not have the job of saying things (in order to disappear in what it signifies), but to say (itself) by letting (itself) say, without however making itself the new object of this language without objects. A witticism is like a “non-transitive word” whose internal transformation says itself, for example, the near puns of Witz(wit) and Wissen (knowledge) from the German at first appear only to take place within the internal unity of their graphic/phonic/semantic relations, but, as has been argued, their equality unsettles so much else. The unity of Witz and Wissen confirms that “Toute fleure s’etalait plus large/Sans que nous en devisions.” Every flower showed itself to be larger without our discussing it. Mallarme, Prose pour des Esseintes.

The edition I used for these translations was Literary Notebooks 1797–1801 edited with introduction and commentary by Hans Eichner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957). The fragments are numbered and correspond to the following years of their composition: 1–1000 to 1797, 1001–1513 to 1798, 1514–1826 to 1799, 1827–2121 to 1800, and 2122–2192 to 1801.

2 Smith

Literature and Poetry

16. Satiric prose is only suitable for the mixing of heterogeneous objects; still the urbaneseems different from it.

53. Romantic wit is the highest. The satiric comes the closest and is the most similar. Socratic irony also belongs to it.

89. Compact combinations that are not logical but found to be synthetic, i.e. are insights, without urbanity and salt in the expression, these constitute the material of wit without its form.

119. There is also a natural wit as there is an artistic wit.

168. In critical prose everything must be philology, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, history, satire idyll, mimicry; everything classic, on the other hand, and not slurred by sociability; not mixed together as in romantic style. (Theory of PROSE.)

356. The fantastic romance is for sensuality and imagination, the sentimental for the heart, the psychological for understanding, the philosophical for reason. Wit must rule here. In the psychological, fantasy is preoccupied by excitement, yet it moves in the grips of understanding. In the fantastic it ceases at the point of understanding, mocking reason and giving the heart nothing.

383. The parabasis of the philosophical novel, the mimical and urbane together constitute what one calls humor. [Translator’s note: Parabasis is derived from Greek tragedy when the chorus steps forward to state the author’s opinions. It is also a novelist’s aside that may comment on the fictionality of the event. Schlegel’s formulation of parabasis occurs elsewhere in the Notebooks as in 461, “Parabasis must be permanent to the fantastical novel.”

407. Note. The arabesques of wit are the highest. Irony and parody are simply negative, and the same goes for the characteristically satiric. Only in the former does the indication of the combinatorial occur in interminable cases.

470. A riddle is completely constructed wit.

475. Wit is a dithyramb in prose. (Witty dithyrambs in all letters.)

480. Lexicons should be witty.

514. Humor is unconditionally false tendentious romantic wit.

531. Is a classical or absolutely ignorant artisan of wit a fool?

532. Puns must be poetic or highly urbane; it is philological formula wit Formularwitz]. [In his text, On Poetry, he says, “The original form of poetry is the pun; is there a proper art [Art] for each special art [Art]?‘’ Further on he states that the poem’s “body is the pun (the corporeal unity), the form of wit.”]

536. Cervantes’s wit is the golden age of innocence in modern wit.

537. The ground of wit in philosophy is the imperative*: philosophy should become poetry. Wit is the philosophy as the prophetic is in poetry. (*Imperative of the synthetic.)

538. Nonsense is mystic wit and overturned.

540. The form of wit is the appearance of absolute antitheses. Or rather, in unattended wit merely absolute antitheses will be synthesized without that something made into a thesis.

541. Iambic, comic, satiric wit has polemical tendency; epic wit is a polemical play, it is for the most part poetic throughout.

568. All prosaic wit is critical as well as all that I have called philological wit. Also philosophical irony or positively mimical (combinatory wit [Leibniz]—characteristically transcendental wit) or negatively mimical wit = rhetoric – polemic. Combinatory wit is suitable for philosophical novels. After a while this form is often no longer wit. (All poetic wit is universal. Political wit should only be written poetically. Combinatory wit is truly prophetic.)

613. Imperative: poetry should be social and sociality should be poetic. [See Athenaeumfragment 116: “Romantic poetry … should make … poetry lively and social, and life and socially poetical.”]

621. For a writer of society like Forester the lack of wit is very important.

727. In transcendental poetry irony rules, in romantic poetry parody, in absolutely ethical poetry urbanity.

763. Wit is logically beautiful.

771. There are four kinds of prosaic wit: 1) the combinatory transcendental, which is almost completely matter Stoff; 2) the analytical, consisting of the higher philological wit and Socratic irony; 3) social wit, urbanity, fragmentary wit, the nose of the Romans; 4) rhetorical wit from which the three are mixed.

777. Humor—poetic, sentimental, transcendental wit. (Purely mimical wit = the epic. Comic wit + epic wit + iambic wit. Every piece of lyric wit is iambic, every piece of dramatic wit is comic. Homer is also the source of wit, i.e. the epic.

778. Irony = self parody? Parody is epic wit. Prophetic wit a single genre, classical and progressive wit, poetic, prosaic, epic, lyrical, dramatic, romantic, satiric wit.

779. Socrates has transcendental satire; he was only missing in sentimentality, in order to be witty.

781. Everything is wit and in everything is wit.

785. Rhetorical wit is vibrant in short blows. It springs from the absolute difference of individuals.

900. Puns are parasites of wit, musical wit, dithyrambic glosses. Without sentimentality nothing is right; then very good and terrible.

920. Combinatory wit is truly prophetic.

1008. Humor is probably not as immediate as poetry and philosophy are, potentialized and combined poetic wit.

1009. Some wit is more an empty form for wit as wit itself.

1029. The romantic is only the humorous wit that is immediately philosophical, ethical and poetic, grotesque; that is immediately combinatory and ironic and parody. Is not wit completely identical with geniality?

1030. Irony and parody are absolute types of wit; the first are ideal, the second real. Systematic wit + irony + parody. Projects are the single indication of practical wit. The form of combinatory wit used for individual hence completely antisystematic material provides grotesque wit. Wit has a larger area than art and science.

1039. Wit as art and science.

1067. Satire is transcendental, elegiac wit. Humor is part sentiment, part fantasy. Persiflage is a rhapsody of urbanity.

1068. Paradox for irony is the conditio sine qua non, the soul, source and principle, what liberality is for urbane wit.

1069. Originally scholastic wit is especially at home in Germany, but also everything that Germany nationalizes; only a German can be (universally) witty.

1071. Theoretically, appearance is a transplantation of the center and horizon, play, a practical transplantation of the positive and negative. Wit is logical play with practical appearance (in rhetorical appearance and look). Wit and rhetoric are the angles of pragmatic philosophy.

1077. Similarly there is wit of the excrement of spirit.

1107. Courtesy is romantic urbanity.

1142. Puns are grammatical wit, yet highly poeticized by Shakespeare. They must be musical, in order to be good. There is a wit that cannot be laughed at. Wit = philosophical poetical ethical? Mystical wit = enthusiasm.

1114… . Puns are something very social; conversation as far as to irony. Puns are a logical and grammatical music, where they must provide fugues, fantasies (and sonatas).

1145. Comic pathos is the characteristic wit, le mot pour rire. Almost all the persons in Shakespeare are without exception witty. In no play does wit itself appear as needed as it is in Lear. Shakespeare’s center lies in wit. His ethos = history. His mythos = philosophy. His ethos is throughout whimsical, historical, individual.

1153. One pities Macbeth and loathes him at the same time; Aeschylus is applicable here. In addition, the form of the whole in Shakespeare is witty. Macbeth “an earthquake of nobility.”

1286. The essence of society is music and hierarchy.

1299. Each esoteric poem has a spirit and a letter Buchstab. The irrational belongs only to the letter, even in order to negate it, to show it is simply a letter, as with the chaotic in dithyrambs. The placing of mere dissolution, the most arbitrary and super-elaboration of art and the undoing of art. The poles returned and dithyrambically struggled, such is the artistic.

1320. The allegorical, the religion of the new, holds together the wit of the romantics.

1337. Each witty insight is a novel en miniature.

1361. Conservation is ethical, mythic, dithyrambic, chaotic.

1364. There is a witty moral with naivete and caricature. (There is also witty criticism and witty history.)

1501. Good society consists in everyone loving in jest.

1518. Well-being, friendship, society, and love rule in the separated genres of the novel (now brought to unity).

1520. In chaos the + and – alternate; in a system are the two blended.

1665. Poetry has two ideas, where in one art rules, in the other wit.

1760. Chaos and eros are probably the best clarification of the romantic.

1813. Wit is the craft of allegory. [The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) maintained that allegory deploys asteismus, or the urbane, witty expression, along with irony, antiphrasis, enigma, euphemism, paroemia, and sarcasm.]

1846. Poetry in relation to the old enthusiasm must again succeed along the path of grand wit and the fury of physics. The single principle of poetry is enthusiasm.

1848. Wit falls in the mid-point between reason and love. Love alone is the absolute unpresentable. It develops itself midway between light and earth. It is the character of humanity.

1860. The morality of Socrates along with the cynicism over poetry as ethos of the artist; the same is for morality of heroism. There is a moral wit too whose tendency is cynical and pervades ancient satire.

1959. Hieroglyphs are religious witticisms. Sarcasm must be political wit, festiveness, joviality, the social. Urbanity-moral wit. Irony-the philosophical, parody-the poetic, caricature-mimical wit, humor musical wit, grotesques picaresques wit. Physical wit-combinatory genius.

2005. The factors of rhetoric are wit and polemic.

2012. Already wit is a beginning toward universal music.

2061. The root of the idyll and lyric is obviously elegy, the poetry of love, as arabesques/satura of wit; the two poles of romantic poetry.

2079. All romantic poetry is in a limited sense chaotic.

2115. There are three kinds of prose: classically worked through, contemporary witty and orientally colored.

2143. The form of romantic life is the wittiest. Wit is between art and virtue, love and phantasy, the purest indifference, since it is so exceptionally philosophical. As well, love is already an indifference between desire and fantasy.

2172. All poetry is witty in form; only when the material purely governs is it possible to be deficient of wit. In cosmogony irony is philosophically witty, satire classically witty or republican (moralistic), caricature plastic; the naive the ground of everything. Reject humor and burlesque as mere fun and caprice.

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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982
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