[A] novelistic group biography...admirably translated by Shelley Frisch. It’s an exhilarating account of a remarkable historical moment, in which characters known to many of us as immutable icons are rendered as vital, passionate, fallible being ... Neumann, in drawing his subjects, selects marvelous vivifying details ... In lively, precise, and accessible short chapters, the book conveys both the earnest intensity of those heady days and the entropic forces that swiftly brought them to a close.
A group biography, the book offers scenes and episodes illustrative of a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment. Alongside ideas, it narrates war, romance, university politics, professional rivalries and domestic tragedies ... The book is novelistic and eccentric. Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, it assumes more background knowledge than anglophone readers will generally possess and is too brief and sporadic to offer a comprehensive intellectual history. Nevertheless, it succeeds at conveying the personalities, the atmosphere, and the exhilaration of Jena’s philosophical and aesthetic revolution ... The success of Jena 1800 relies on its kaleidoscopic narrative style. The doctrines of the Idealists and the effusions of the Romantics are not neatly summarized as if in retrospect. Instead they spill out in real time, amid the personal triumphs and tragedies of their authors ... Mr. Neumann has provided an evocative account of a rich episode in Europe’s cultural history. How relevant readers will find his subjects is another question ... These critiques are highly exaggerated, and certainly Mr. Neumann has no time for them. His book is much warmer toward the Jena free spirits, whom he presents as progressive visionaries. One suspects, however, that they would have found our late liberal world naively empirical in philosophy and unattractively solipsistic in culture. Jena 1800 is, in this respect, the devoted account of a lost cause.
This vivid group biography captures the moment, at the end of the eighteenth century, when Jena, a small university town, suddenly emerged as the 'intellectual and cultural center of Germany' ... Neumann is adept both at conveying the gossip, feuds, and eccentricities of this tight-knit milieu and at grappling with his subjects’ political and philosophical ideas, which were crucial to the development of German Romanticism.
... captures the epic year in which a group of free thinkers set up house in the history of ideas ... Neumann brings to life an industrious and clever clique, who questioned society in a post-revolutionary Europe still leery about 'freedom fever' in academia. One doesn't need a philosophy degree to enjoy this enchanting account of the power of ideas to change the world.
German poet and philosophy professor Peter Neumann beautifully captures the special moment when, guided by Goethe and inspired by Kant, the young philosophers Fichte, Hegel and Schelling, poets Schiller and Novalis, brothers Fritz and Wilhelm Schlegel and their wives Dorothea and Caroline all lived in the same small university town, Jena, at the same time, and tried to remake the world ... Being a literary artist himself, Neumann tells this story so much like a novel that I often forgot it wasn't. With a sweeping style, he charmingly animates the atmosphere of Jena, with its lecture halls, living rooms and Saale River. Yet he focuses on relationships, the alliances and rivalries of friends and lovers. And like most biographers, Neumann plays with the hypothetical ... Indeed, Jena 1800 would have been much better as fiction. For despite Neumann's knowledge, everyone blurs together; to me, only Novalis is distinct.
To the extent that the kind of life envisioned and practiced in this small circle in Jena from 1798 to 1800 continues to figure in the contemporary cultural imaginary (at least among those in educated circles who have the time, means, and taste for bohemianism), it would be good to have a serious book on it. Unfortunately, Jena 1800 is not that book. Partly, this is a matter of structure. The book is written in short sections (five to eight pages) that jump chaotically across time, place, and character ... These are all relevant topics for a book on Jena Romanticism, but it is impossible to treat any of them adequately, let alone all of them, in the brief and scattershot way in which this book indulges. It is impossible, here, to see how any personality, set of ideas, or mode of life arises, changes, and passes away for any kinds of social, intellectual, or economic reasons ... This difficulty is exacerbated by a style of writing that is both excessively breezy and sometimes incoherent ... Most important, Neumann makes little effort to analyze the ideas and mode of life proposed by Jena Romanticism. Jena 1800 is written only to present an eruption of fantasy in detached snapshots, not to understand it.
Neumann has written a compelling tale that focuses on the tumultuous concatenation of a number of imaginative and dynamic thinkers ... What might limit the appeal of this book is that it does not focus on a grand unifying theme. The worship of freedom is implied through the many short anecdotes and sidebars Neumann dedicates to his subjects. The suggestion is that the force of genius is multiplied when enough gifted highbrows are bundled together in energetic proximity. Sometimes quantity and quality go hand in hand.
Walking freely into the minds of his characters, Neumann takes us through this shift in a series of scenes in which the group’s members attempt to control or steer their careers, their love affairs and other relationships ... In Shelley Frisch’s admirable translation we see Fichte enjoying his evening wine and milk bun; corpulent Goethe looks 'like a Frankfurt wine merchant' in the eyes of Dorothea Veit.
[A] colorful intellectual history ... Neumann succeeds in capturing the heady atmosphere of this place and time. This invigorating aperitif will whet readers’ appetites for diving into the deep end of 18th- and 19th-century German philosophy.
Neumann adeptly narrates the philosophical advances that quickened in this heady environment. But his true fascination is Jena’s social milieu, the feuds, romantic dalliances, and chance encounters that undergirded the 'republic of free spirits.' The result is a quirky, fleet-footed intellectual history that foregrounds the human beings behind the ideas.
Neumann paints a broad portrait of a group of luminaries at argument, work, play, and love ... The author relates this intriguing human story in a kind of informal, novelistic style, an approach that doesn’t fit the subject. In a tale centered on a few people who made profound contributions to Western culture, Neumann offers little about the works they produced or the significance and influence of their thought, fiction, poetry, and plays. There’s nothing wrong with portraying such people’s lives. But if they’re shown principally as squabbling, striving, ego-threatened, love-needy—that is, normal—humans whose often epochal achievements remain in the background, we might as well read about fictional characters. Lost in the book’s pages is consideration of the relationship, if any, between what these men wrote and the lives they lived. Readers, told of the leading figures’ significance, need more direct acquaintance with what they’re significant for ... A prospectively important work that misses its mark