Romantik

July 7, 2012 | 9 comments
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Heinrich von Ofterdingen by Novalis is one of the founding documents of Romanticism. The novel is perhaps most famous for the title figure’s vision of a blue flower in the first chapter. What is not as well known is how Heinrich’s family drama is also the ecclesiology of Mormonism. After Heinrich wakes from his vision, his father reacts skeptically, using language that is uncannily familiar. Heinrich mentions that he has seen a vision in a dream, but Heinrich’s father replies:

Dreams are fluff, whatever the scholars might think, and you would do well to keep your mind off of such useless and harmful ideas. The times when divine visions were the companions of dreams have passed, and we cannot and will never comprehend how it was for those elect men of whom the Bible tells. Dreams must have been of another kind at that time, as were human affairs.

In the age of the world in which we live, direct concourse with the heavens no longer takes place. The old histories and writings are now the only sources through which we receive knowledge of the supernatural world, inasmuch as we need it, and instead of those explicit revelations, the Holy Ghost now speaks indirectly to us through the understanding of intelligent men of good will and through the manner of life and the fates of pious people.

Or as Joseph Smith records in Joseph Smith-History 1:21:

Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.

The sequence of foundation – apostasy – restoration found in JS-History that is the foundational narrative of Mormonism is also found in Heinrich’s family history: His mother returns and reminds Heinrich’s father that he too had once had visionary dreams as a young man, and a flower had figured prominently in them, and that the flower may well have been blue.

Mormonism and Romanticism share an epistemology that sees the most important source of knowledge as direct contact with the divine. Another reason it’s probably not wrong to see a connection between Mormonism and Romanticism is that the founding texts of both movements regard their epistemological foundations as something that their predecessors and contemporaries had lost or denied.

9 Responses to Romantik

  1. Ben Huff on July 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I’d like to read more of this stuff. There are a number of tendencies we share with Romanticism. On this particular one, I think it isn’t just the Romantics we share it with. I would think in any age it would be hard not to be struck by the contrast between an age of prophecy and public miracles, such as the scriptures describe, and an age without them. In the time of Tertullian, the Montanist movement insisted that the gifts of the spirit were still available to those in tune, rejecting the claim that apparently was already appearing that God doesn’t do that stuff any more. Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and the Greek mystery rites are other examples of the idea that there is no substitute for learning directly from God. If you believe that God sometimes communicates directly with human beings, even only in the distant past, how could you not wish for it yourself? Even though we have prophets and seers at the head of the church today, looking back at the days of Joseph and Brigham, it is hard not to feel like things just don’t work that way any more, and to wonder why. To the extent that revelations have diminished, our theology gives us a few quite direct and quite different answers from the traditional “God just doesn’t do that any more,” though, locating the explanation in either a lack of faith generally, or a failure to sufficiently heed what we have already received. For Mormons, of course, the continuing experience of personal revelation also changes the conversation quite a lot, even if personal revelation is mostly just confirming what is already publicly revealed.

  2. Peter LLC on July 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Der Watzmann!

  3. Amy T on July 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Ah, Romanticism. I’m working on a long-term project about the Eminent Women of Wilford Woodruff (an 1877 temple work project associated with his Founding Fathers Vision) and it’s striking how many of his selections for temple work came out of this tradition. He didn’t choose Shakespeare; he chose Goethe and Schiller and Robert Burns and Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. (Among others.)

  4. Bill on July 7, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Great Friedrich painting – I like the Richter even more; incidentally, both were painted in 1824.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Isn’t the belief that the human soul can perceive things outside the mundane also the theme of another Romantic work with which Mormons are more familiar, William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality? Truman Madsen described one way we penetrate the veil as having recollections of things we learned in the pre-existence in his book Eternal Man.

  6. Jonathan Green on July 7, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    Bill, thanks for the reference to the Richter painting, which fits perfectly with a class discussion I had a couple weeks ago and will get back to again in a year or so.

    Ben, I agree it makes sense to try to look at earlier and later movements. Something else worth thinking about is that the generation of Goethe and the next generation of Romantics both had to move on from some of their youthful passion. Romanticism produces some amazing work in ten-year stretches, but at some point anyone who doesn’t die young has to grow up, get a job, and worry about feeding a family. If we can push this analogy a bit farther, Joseph Smith died young, leaving the following leaders with the task of helping the church grow up.

  7. themormonbrit on July 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I personally love romanticism. It is my favourite period in both literature and music. And I love Mormonism as well. I guess there’s probably some reason I am attracted to both – which probably indicates that they are actually quite similar.

  8. christine on July 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I am with Jonathan. Moreover, in my mind, young Werther’s youthful passions have nothing to do with the visions and revelations which God bestowes on earnest truth seeking Latter Day Saints. Potentially we can choose to indulge in the notions of a Romantik Era when we are in Heaven but here on earth we have to be grown ups

  9. themormonbrit on July 10, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Christine, doesn’t being ‘grown up’ entail some kind of acknowledgement and respect for the important role that intuition, emotion and human connection with the divine play in our spiritual journeys as human beings?