The Revivifying Word

The Revivifying Word

Literature, Philosophy, and the Theory of Life in Europe's Romantic Age

Clayton Koelb


Camden House



Reading as key to the mysterious relation between lifeless material bodies and living, animate beings in Romantic fiction and thought.
"What is not Life that really is?" asked Coleridge, struggling, like many poets, philosophers, and scientists of Europe's Romantic age, to formulate a theory of life that explained the mysterious relation between dead material bodies and living, animate beings. Romantic intellectuals found a key to this mystery surprisingly close at hand: the process by which dead matter could come to life must be something like the process of reading. The Revivifying Word examines the reanimating acts of reading that became a central focus of attention for Romantic writers. German theorists, building on the Apostle Paul's assertion that the dead letter can be revivified by the living spirit, proposed a permeable, legible boundary between the living and the dead. This inaugurated a revolution in European aesthetics, implanting the germ of an extraordinarily productive narrative idea that enriched Romantic literature for decades. Poets and novelists created a large cast of characters who crossed the boundary between death and life with the help of some form of reading: figures like Keats's Glaucus, Kleist's Elizabeth Kohlhaas, Shelley's Frankenstein (and the monster he creates), Maturin's Melmoth, Poe's Madeline Usher, and Gautier's Spirite. Clayton Koelb demonstrates that such fictions offer a nuanced consideration of the most urgent question facing any theory of life: how do material bodies come to acquire, to lose, and then perhaps to regain the immaterial intellectual/spiritual quality that defines animate beings?

Clayton Koelb is Guy B. Johnson Professor of German, English, and Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


October 2008
219 pages
9x6 in
Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture
ISBN: 9781571133885
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Camden House
BIC DS, 1D, 2AB, 3JH
BISAC LIT004170, SOC036000, HIS054000
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Koelb's novel approach produces a highly original reading of a selection of Romantic texts. MLR

It is a tour de force . . . to bring under one cover a set of chapters on such disparate works as Goethe's Walter, Keats's Endymion, Hugo's Notre-dame de Paris, Gautier's Spirite, Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas," Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Maturin's Me/moth, and several stories by Poe. GERMAN QUARTERLY

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