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History Seminar 10: Marxism in Context

Letter from Philipp Otto Runge to his brother Daniel, March 9, 1802

[1] When the sky above me teems with stars, when the wind blows through the vastness of space, and the wave breaks in the immense night; when above the forest the reddish morning light appears, and the sun begins to illuminate the world; when the valley steams, and I lie tossing in the grass which sparkles with dew; when every leaf and blade of grass teems with life, and the earth comes to life and stirs beneath me, and everything harmonises in one great chord: then my soul rejoices and soars in the immeasurable space around me. There is no high or low, no time, no beginning or end. I hear and feel the living breath of God Who holds and supports the world, in Whom everything lives and acts--this is our highest feeling: God.

[2] The deepest awareness in our soul--that there is a God above us; that everything once came into being, existed, and perished; that everything is now coming into being, existing, and perishing all around us; that in time everything will come into being, will exist, and will perish again; that there is no rest, no standing still; that the living soul within us came from Him and will return to Him, and will continue to exist when heaven and earth are no more--this is the clearest and most certain awareness of our self and our eternity.

[3] We sense that something mercilessly severe and terrifyingly eternal confronts a sweet, everlasting, boundless love in furious conflict, comparable to the contrast between hard and soft, rock and water. We see them everywhere, in large and small, in general and particular forms. They are the essential realities of the world and deeply rooted in the world. They come from God, and only God is above them. They oppose one another in hard antagonism at the birth of every thing, whether it be a work of God, of man or of nature. The harsher their conflict, the more distant is a thing from perfection. The more they unite, the closer does every thing approach perfection. When it has reached the highest perfection, the spirit returns to God, and the inert material components destroy one another in the very core of their existence. Heaven and earth perish, and from their ashes the world rises anew. The two forces are renewed and purified, in order to unite and to destroy one another again. We sense this eternal transformation within ourselves, in the world around us, in every lifeless object, and in art.--Man comes into the world helpless, unconscious, at the mercy of fate. Against this terrible menace, maternal love, the highest form of beauty, enters into combat, and unites the wild passions with sweetest love and innocence. At the point of perfection, man recognizes his kinship with the whole world....

[4] When we are carried away by feelings which make our senses tremble to their very depths, we search for concrete symbols which others have found before us, and try to match them to our feeling. In a moment of highest felicity, we may then impart our feeling to others. But if we try to prolong the moment, we overstrain it; the spirit escapes from the borrowed symbol, and we can no longer establish this connection within ourselves, unless we recapture the original intensity of feeling, or become children again. Everybody goes through this cycle in which we suffer recurrent death, and the more often we experience it, the deeper and stronger our feeling becomes. Thus art comes into life and dies, when the spirit has returned to God, leaving only lifeless signs behind.

[5] This sense of our kinship with the whole universe; this jubilant delight of our soul's strongest and most vital spirit; this single chord which strikes every heartstrings; this love which holds us and carries us through life; this sweet being besides us, who lives in us and in whose love our soul glows: all these compel and drive us to express ourselves. We hold fast to the peaks of this experience, and this causes certain ideas to arise in us.

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