Jean Paul’s Lunacy, or humor as trans-critique
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All too human laughter, humor, and comedy in nineteenth-century Philosophy
Boston studies in Philosophy, religion and public life;
The foremost theorist of humor in the German romantic period and one of its most popular novelists, Jean Paul Richter developed a poetics of antithesis at odds with the harmonious dialectics proposed by many of his contemporaries. In narrative form, characterization, and figuration Jean Paul insisted on deepening antitheses rather than seeking reconciliation. Cultivating the incommensurate, his novels give form to his definition of humor as “the inverse sublime,” placing Jean Paul in a line from Kant through Kierkegaard and on to Kojin Karatani and Slavoj Žižek. This essay traces the origins of Jean Paul’s style in his reception of Kant, Rousseau and the French Revolution, all of which to him signaled a clash between human finitude and the infinity of desire. Tracing this clash in formal and thematic features of Jean Paul’s major Bildungsromane, the essay elucidates what is at stake in his enigmatic claim that literature represents “the only second world” (i.e. the world of the resurrection) “in the first one.” Unlike Friedrich Schiller and the Jena Romantics, Jean Paul’s version of “aesthetic education” grounds the authority of literature on its ability not to synthesize polar opposites, but to let each pole critique each other mutually.