The Disciples at Saïs: A Sacred Theory of Earth
This article is excerpted from Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology by Peter Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley, with an introduction by Zia Inayat-Khan. Used by permission of the publisher, Lindisfarne books (www.lindisfarne.org)
Nature loves to hide (Becoming is a secret process). – Heraclitus (Guy Davenport Translation)
The sciences must all be made poetic. – Novalis 
If God can become man, he can also become element, stone, plant, animal. Perhaps there is a continual Redemption in nature. – Novalis
If the world is a tree, we are the blossoms. – Novalis 
Santos-Dumont, the Parisian-Brazilian aviation pioneer and inventor of the airplane, during a sojourn in his native land in 1934, saw federalist planes dropping bombs on rebel troops. He hanged himself later that day. His last words, as reported by an elevator operator: "I never thought that my invention would cause bloodshed between brothers. What have I done?" 
For historians to say that A leads inevitably to Z – for example, that German Romanticism leads inevitably to Reaction, or that Marx leads directly to Stalin – is to mistake the bitter wisdom of hindsight for a principle of fatality. Such determinism also insults all revolutionary resistance with the implicit charge of stupid futility: – Since the real Totality is always perfectly inevitable, its enemies are always idiots. Global Capital was inevitable and now it's here to stay-ergo the entire movement of the Social amounts to sheer waste of time and energy. The ruination of nature was fated, hence all resistance is futile, whether by ignorant savages or perverse eco‑terrorists. Nothing's worth doing except that which is done: there can be no "different world."
The "Ruination of Nature"
For Christianity nature is fallen, locus of sin and death, while heaven is a city of crystal and metal. For Capital nature is a resource, a pit of raw materials, a form of property. As nature begins to "disappear" in the late eighteenth century, it comes to seem more and more ruined. For some perhaps a Romantic, even a magical ruin (as in the dreams of Renaissance magi and their "love of ruins," grottos, the broken and "grotesque") – but by others felt simply as useless waste, a wrecked place where no one lives except monsters, vagabonds, animals: the uncanny haunt of ghouls and owls. "Second Nature" meaning culture, or even "Third Nature" meaning Allah knows what precisely, have usurped and erased all wilderness.  What remains but mere representation?--a nostalgia for lost Edens, Arcadias and Golden Ages?--a ludicrous sentimentality disguised as what? – as a sacred theory of earth?
The view of Nature as Ruin depends in part (or half‑consciously) on the concept of a Cartesian ergo sum alone in a universe where everything else is dead matter and "animals have no soul," mere meat machines. But if the human body remains part of nature or in nature, then even a consistent materialist would have to admit that nature is not quite yet dead.
Science, taking over the mythic task of religion, strives to "free" consciousness from all mortal taint. Soon we'll be posthuman enough for cloning, total prosthesis, machinic immortality. But somehow a shred of nature may remain, a plague perhaps, or the great global "accident," blind Nature's revenge, meteors from outer space, etc. – "you know the score," as William Burroughs used to say.
Taking the long view (and allowing for noble exceptions) science does precisely what State and Capital demand of it:-make war, make money. "Pure" science is allowed only because it might lead to technologies of death and profit-and this was just as true for the old alchemists who mutated into Isaac Newton, as for the new physicists who ripped open the structure of matter itself. Even medicine (seemingly the most altruistic of sciences) advances and progresses primarily in order to increase productivity of workers and generate a world of healthy consumers.
Does Capital make death ultimately more profitable than life? No, not exactly, although it might seem so to a citizen of Bhopal/ Love Canal/Chernobyl. In effect it might be said that profit equals death, in the sense of Randolph Bourne's quip about war as the health of the state (which incidentally means that "Green Capitalism" is an abject contradiction in terms).
Another science might have been possible. Indeed if we reject the notion of fatality, another science might yet come to be. A new paradigm is always conceivable, and theories now considered defeated, lost, wrong, and absurd, might even (someday) be reconfigured into a paradigmatic pattern, a science for life rather than death. Signs of emergence of such a science are always present--because science itself wants to deal with truth, and life is true and real. But the emergence is always-in the long run-crushed and suppressed by the "inevitable" demands of technology and Capital. It's our tragic fate to know and yet be unable to act.
Among those who do act, the scientists and warriors, many believe (for the most part sincerely) that they're serving progress and democracy. In their secret hearts perhaps some of them know they serve Death, but they do it anyway because they're nihilists, cynically greedy for big budgets and Nobel prizes. A few fanatics actually hate the body, hate Earth, hate trees-and serve as shills for politicians and corporations. In general most people find all this normal. Only a few awake – but are blocked from action.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a sort of three-way scientific paradigm war was waged in England and Europe. The contenders were, first: Cartesianism – which denied action at a distance and tried to explain gravity by a corpuscular theory that reduced the universe to a clock-like mechanism set in motion by "God"; second, Hermeticism, the ancient science of the micro/macrocosm, which believed firmly in action at a distance but failed to explain gravity – and (even worse) failed to achieve the transmutation of lead into gold, which would at least have secured for it the enthusiastic support of State and capital; and, third, the school of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, culminating in the Royal Society – and the Industrial Revolution.
This scheme is vastly oversimplified of course. The actual history of "the triumph of modern science" is far more complex than the usual triumphalist version. We now know for example that some of the very founders of modern science were closet hermeticists. Bacon's New Atlantis exhibits strong Rosicrucian tendencies. Erasmus Darwin, Boyle, Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, and most notoriously, Isaac Newton, all immersed themselves in occult studies. Newton devoted millions of words to alchemy but never published a single one of them. William Blake, who skewered Newton's dead, "Urizenic" rationalism, had no idea that Newton was an alchemist. I've always suspected that Newton simply stole the idea of gravity as action at a distance (an invisible force) from Hermeticism. Amazingly, the math worked. The Royal Society suppressed its own hermetic origins and (especially after 1688) adhered to the new bourgeois monarchy, emergent capitalism, and Enlightenment rationalism. The spooky nature of Newtonian gravity still bothers some scientists, who persist in looking for corpuscular "gravitons." But the Newtonians won the paradigm war and "Newton's Sleep" (as Blake called it) still dims the eyes with which we perceive and experience reality, despite the new spookiness of relativity and quantum paradoxes.
Admittedly this historical sketch is very rough, and offered with some trepidation. The whole story of the paradigm war remains quite murky, in part because a great deal of research is still being written from a History of Science p.o.v. deeply infected with triumphalism. True, it's no longer fashionable to sneer at the alchemists or write as if everyone in the Past were stupid. But alchemy and hermeticism in general are still viewed in the light of modern science as failed precursors. The central hermetic doctrine of the "ensouled universe" receives no credence or even sympathy in academia-and very little grant money goes to magicians.
Therefore I offer only a tentative hypothesis. It appears that both the Cartesians and the Newtonians happily agreed in their eagerness to discard and deride the central thesis of the hermetic paradigm, the idea of the living Earth. Descartes envisioned only "dead matter," Newton used the concept of invisible but material forces; and their followers turned their backs on any "sacred theory of earth," banishing not only God from their clockwork oranges but even life itself. As Novalis put it, under the hands of these scientists "friendly nature died, leaving behind only dead, quivering remnants." These loveless scientists see nature as sick or even dead, and their search for truth leads only to "her sickroom, her charnel‑house." 
Goethe, too, attacked the kind of science that bases itself on death-the butterfly pinned under glass or dissected rather than the butterfly living and moving. In his great work on the morphology of plants he founded a new branch of botany. Or rather, perhaps not quite "new." Brilliant as it was, it had predecessors. In some sense it was in fact based on hermeticism and especially on Paracelsus, the great sixteenth century alchemist. German adherents of Naturphilosophie, and such independent thinkers as Goethe, or indeed Novalis (who was a trained scientist and professional mining engineer), might really be seen as "neo" hermeticists, steeped in Paracelsus, Jakob Boehme, and the Rosicrucian literature. We might call this whole complex or weltanschauung, "Romantic Science."
Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), a member of the Royal Society, doctor and inventor, comrade of Watt, Priestly and Wedgewood, wrote a strange epic poem based on the work of the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, in which the sex-life of the plants was expressed in hermetic terms deriving from Paracelsus, who wrote so beautifully of the "Elemental Spirits" of Earth, Air, Fire and Water: the gnomes, sylphs, salamanders and undines.7 Darwin's marvelous Botanic Garden influenced P. B. Shelley (who also admired Darwin's political radicalism); thus Dr. Darwin could be considered a precursor of English Romanticism but also of Surrealism and the ecology movement. His poem has all the marks of the complex I've called neo-hermeticism or Romantic Science. It was published in England almost at the very time Novalis in Germany was writing his fragmentary "novel" The Disciples at Saïs, a neglected masterpiece of hermetic-Romantic science-theory (much admired by the Surrealists). Like The Botanic Garden, it is long out of print (at least in English).
Early German Romanticism in general can be "read" as neo-hermeticism. Novalis, Tieck, Wackenroder, and Schlegel, as well as J. G. Haman, "the Magus of the North," have been vilified as "enemies of the Enlightenment,"  but one might prefer to see them rather as nineteenth century proponents of a seventeenth century "Rosicrucian Enlightenment" (as Frances Yates called it), now stripped of its medieval clumsiness: – a rectified hermeticism, refined by practical experience and dialectical precision. Hermeticism did not stop "evolving" with the failure of the Rosicrucian project. Romantic science was a direct continuation of it; and hermeticism has its scientific defenders even today (such as the well-known chaos scientist Ralph Abraham, a devotee of Dr. John Dee).
During the Second World War certain philosophers of both Capitalism and Communism decided to blame fascism on the German Romantic movement and its "final" theorist F. Nietzsche. Rationalism was defined as good and surrationalism as evil. Ecologists even today are often tarred with the brush of "irrationalism," especially when they're activists. A local real estate developer here in the Catskill Mountains of New York State recently called his environmentalist enemies, a group called "Save the Ridge," "Nazis" in an interview with The New Paltz Times. Everything that Capital wants is "rational" by definition and even by decree. Capital wins all the wars; ergo, Rationalism is "true," q.e.d.
But modern radicals such as the Frankfurt School (Benjamin, Bloch, Marcuse), the Surrealists, the Situationists, all decided to try to seize back Romanticism from the dustbin of History and to champion the surrealist and even hermetic program of left-wing anti‑Enlightenment, anti-authoritarian and ecological resistance that a recent book has called Revolutionary Romanticism. 
I believe that today's ecological resistance cannot afford to ignore its own sources in a vain attempt to reconcile itself with the Totality and scientific apotheosis of Global Capital. Romantic Science is literally a sine qua non for the resistance to ecological disintegration. I would like to argue the case (tho' I'd be hard-put to prove it) that the "new" scientific paradigm we're looking for to replace the dead-matter/material-force scientific world view of Enlightenment/State/Capital, can best be found in the perennial but underground tradition of hermetic-Romantic science. Something very much like a manifesto for this movement can still be gleaned from the Disciples at Saïs by Novalis, a.k.a. Count Friedrich von Hardenberg.
An archetypal Romantic like Keats and Rimbaud, Novalis was born in a haunted house and died young and handsome on March 25, 1801, aged 29. Only the last three years of his life were seriously devoted to literature. In 1794 he met a twelve-year-old girl named Sophie von Kühn and fell in love with her; she died in 1797, as did the poet's beloved younger brother, aged fourteen. Both these ghosts haunted the rest of his life and work. In The Disciples they appear as the sophianic heroine Rosenblüte ("Rose-petal," probably a Rosicrucian reference), and the blue‑eyed boy who inspires the disciples. This child has all-blue eyes like star sapphires, with no white or iris-an image that relates him to the famous symbol of the Imagination in Novalis's only completed novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen: the elusive "blue flower" that became the emblem of German Romanticism.
The Disciples remained fragmentary, in part because the Romantics believed in fragments; Novalis called the text "fragments... all of them having reference to nature," although he'd hoped to expand it some day into a "symbolic novel." He worked on it while composing his best-known poems, Hymns to Night. The story's setting, the Temple of Isis at Saïs in Egypt, was doubtless inspired by Plato, who claimed that Solon of Athens learned the history of Atlantis there from the Egyptian priests. This Greco-Egyptian-Atlantaean nexus already suggests a precise hermetic intentionality, and Novalis makes it quite clear that the disciples at Saïs are to experience not merely an education but an initiation into nature, symbolized by lifting the veil of Isis – simultaneously an act of epistemology and of eroticism.
On the very first pages Novalis evokes hermetic science quite specifically:
"Various are the roads of man. He who follows and compares them will see strange figures emerge, figures which seem to belong to that great cipher which we discern written everywhere, in wings, eggshells, clouds and snow, in crystals and in stone formations, on ice‑covered waters, on the inside and outside of mountains, of plants, beasts and men, in the lights of heaven, on scored disks of pitch or glass or in iron filings round a magnet, and in strange conjunctures of chance. In them we suspect a key to the magic writing, even a grammar, but our surmise takes on no definite forms and seems unwilling to become a higher key. It is as though an alkahest had been poured over the senses of man." (4-5)
The "scored discs of pitch or glass" probably refer to the Chladni Diagrams, patterns formed in resin or sand by sound, much admired by the Romantics.  "Alkahest" means universal solvent; the term was coined by the alchemist Paracelsus. The alkahest dissolves our vision, blurs it, renders it dreamlike. James Hillman once proposed that it doesn't matter much whether we remember our dreams or do anything about them, because the work that goes on in dreams happens regardless of us. Might this be true of nature as well?
The "great cipher" (in the sense of "code") and "magic writing" suggest the occult interpretation of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had fascinated hermeticists since the Renaissance. The whole paragraph thus invites us to read everything that follows as up‑dated Rosicrucian hermeticism.
On the subject of the hieroglyphs, Novalis later says this:
"They (the disciples) had been lured above all by that sacred language that had been the glittering bond between those kingly men and the inhabitants of the regions above the earth, and some precious words of which, according to countless legends, were known to a few fortunate sages among our ancestors. Their speech was a wondrous song, its irresistible tones penetrated deep into the inwardness of nature and split it apart. Each of their names seemed to be the key to the soul of each thing in nature. With creative power these vibrations called forth all images of the world's phenomena, and the life of the universe can rightly be said to have been an eternal dialogue of a thousand voices; for in the language of those men all forces, all modes of action seemed miraculously united. To seek out the ruins of this language, or at least all reports concerning it, had been one of the main purposes of their journey, and the call of antiquity had drawn them also to Saïs. Here from the learned clerks of the temple archives, they hoped to obtain important reports, and perhaps even to find indications in the great collections of every kind." (113-115)
Concerning the Veil of Isis Novalis says: "... and if, according to the inscription, no mortal can lift the veil, we must seek to become immortal; he who does not seek to lift it, is no true novice of Saïs" (17). At first this doctrine may sound promethean- the scientist "conquers" nature and ravishes her secrets--but in truth this is not the Enlightenment speaking here. The transgression, the violation of the paradox (you may not lift the veil but you must), can only be achieved by one who has already transcended the all-too-human – the Nietzschean hero who is none other than the hermetic sage.
Like all Romantics, Novalis believed in an earlier or more primordial humanity that lived closer to nature and more in harmony with it, as lovers rather than ravishers. In one sense he means tribal peoples, "savages," peoples-without-government. But this "antiquity" also includes historical periods as well, such as that of the Late Classical neo-platonic theurgists, or even the seventeenth century Rosicrucians, as the following passage suggests:
"To those earlier men, everything seemed human, familiar, and companionable, there was freshness and originality in all their perceptions, each one of their utterances was a true product of nature, their ideas could not help but accord with the world around them and express it faithfully. We can therefore regard the ideas of our forefathers concerning the things of this world as a necessary product, a self‑portrait of the state of earthly nature at that time, and from these ideas, considered as the most fitting instruments for observing the universe, we can assuredly take the main relation, the relation between the world and its inhabitants. We find that the noblest questions of all first occupied their attention and that they sought the key to the wondrous edifice, sometimes in a common measure of real things, and sometimes in the fancied object of an unknown sense. This key, it is known, was generally divined in the liquid, the vaporous, the shapeless." (21-23)
"The main relation ... between the world and its inhabitants:" – in other words, ecology, the science of Earth's household oeconomie, the balance of a nature that includes the human: this is the great subject of the little book, rising directly out of Novalis's hermetic vision of earth as a living being. This rather radical notion does not really derive from Plato and the Platonists (as many scholars carelessly maintain); the Platonists had an almost Gnostic disdain for the mere shadows of material reality. Tribal and shamanic peoples almost always adhere to some view of nature as alive, but the idea only re‑enters "civilized" western thought with the Renaissance magi, especially Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, and Paracelsus. 
For Novalis the true language of science would be poetry:
"That is why poetry has been the favorite instrument of true friends of nature, and the spirit of nature has shone most radiantly in poems. When we read and hear true poems, we feel the movement of nature's inner reason and like its celestial embodiment, we dwell in it and hover over it at once." (25)
"To hover over and dwell in" simultaneously: the scientist like the poet cannot objectively separate self from nature in order to study it without also subjectively retaining an existential identity with the "object." A split here would constitute an ecological disaster. In fact self and world must be experienced as reflections of each other, as microcosm and macrocosm. "As Above So Below" as The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus puts it so succinctly.
"Those who would know her spirit truly must therefore seek it in the company of poets, where she is free and pours forth her wondrous heart. But those who do not love her from the bottom of their hearts, who only admire this and that in her and wish to learn this and that about her, must visit her sickroom, her charnel‑house"(27). Within us there lies a mysterious force that tends in all directions, spreading from a center hidden in infinite depths. If wondrous nature, the nature of the senses and the nature that is not of the senses, surrounds us, we believe this force to be an attraction of nature, an effect of our sympathy with her."
"A few stand calmly in this glorious abode, seeking only to embrace it in its plenitude and enchainment; no detail makes them forget the glittering thread that joins the links in rows to form the holy candelabrum, and they find beatitude in the contemplation of this living ornament hovering over the depths of night. The ways of contemplating nature are innumerable; at one extreme the sentiment of nature becomes a jocose fancy, a banquet, while at the other it develops into the most devout religion, giving to a whole life direction, principle, meaning." (29-31)
The image of nature as "holy candelabrum," contemplated by the rapt adept, seems to derive from a Kabbalistic source, especially the so‑called "Christian Cabala" of Agrippa and the Rosicrucians such as Knorr von Rosenroth.13 The religion of nature here propounded by Novalis strikes me as the single most radical idea of hermetic Romanticism-the same idea that led Bruno to the stake in Rome in 1600. In nineteenth century America Thoreau was the great prophet of the faith, and the paintings of the Hudson River School its icons. In the twentieth century the American Indians re-emerged among the teachers of this path, giving it the sharp focus of shamanic vision. Hermeticism, like shamanism, cannot be defined exactly as a religion, nor exactly as a science. In a sense both religion and science have betrayed us; – and it is precisely in this sense that hermeticism offers us something else, something different. Romantic Science is also a spiritual path. Without this primary realization science is nothing but fatality, and religion nothing but a kind of anti-science.
The scientist poet
"never wearies of contemplating nature and conversing with her, follows all her beckonings, finds no journey too arduous if it is she who calls, even should it take him into the dank bowels of the earth: surely he will find ineffable treasures, in the end his candle will come to rest and then who knows into what heavenly mysteries a charming subterranean sprite may initiate him. Surely no one strays farther from the goal than he who imagines that he already knows the strange realm, that he can explain its structure in few words and everywhere find the right path. No one who tears himself loose and makes himself an island arrives at understanding without pains." (37)
The "subterranean sprite" refers directly to Paracelsus and the Elemental Spirits again: this is a gnome or kobold, Novalis's tutelary (and seductive) Elemental, inhabitant of the deep mines where the poet earned his living.
"Not one of the senses must slumber, and even if not all are equally awake, all must be stimulated and not repressed or neglected." (37-39)
Here Novalis sounds like Rimbaud; although he speaks of awakening the senses rather than deranging them, he hints at the possibility of a psychedelic path – or rather an entheogenic path – since the object and subject alike of the awakened senses is a goddess. "Entheogenic" means "giving birth to the divine within." It's a new name for the hallucinatory experience of the phantastica; the term is not liked or used by those who require no "divine hypothesis."
"Ultimately some who deny the divinity of nature will come unconsciously to hate that which denies them meaning. "Very well," say these scientists, let our race carry on a slow, well‑conceived war of annihilation with nature! We must seek to lay her low with insidious poisons. The scientist is a noble hero, who leaps into the open abyss in order to save his fellow citizens."
"Exploit her strife to bend her to your will, like the fire‑spewing bull. She must be made to serve you." (43‑45)
To this the Elementals themselves seem to reply: 
"'O, if only man,' they said, 'could understand the inner music of nature, if only he had a sense for outward harmonies. But he scarcely knows that we belong together and that none of us can exist without the others. He cannot leave anything in place, tyrannically he parts us, and plucks at our dissonances. How happy he could be if he treated us amiably and entered into our great covenant, as he did in the good old days, rightly so named. In those days he understood us, as we understood him. His desire to Become God has separated him from us, he seeks what he cannot know or divine, and since then he has ceased to be a harmonizing voice, a companion movement.
"'Will he ever learn to feel? This divine, this most natural of all senses is little known to him: feeling would bring back the old time, the time we yearn for; the element of feeling is an inward light that breaks into stronger, more beautiful colors. Then the stars would rise within him, he would learn to feel the whole world, and his feeling would be richer and clearer than the limits and surfaces that his eye now discloses. Master of an endless dance, he would forget all his insensate strivings in joy everlasting, nourishing itself and forever growing. Thought is only a dream of feeling, a dead feeling, a pale-gray feeble life.'" (69‑73)
Contemporary environmentalists, caught up in the sharpened and swirling debates of what sometimes looks like an End Time, may feel disappointed that Novalis lacks vehemence in his denunciation of "evil scientists" (as Hollywood used to call them). But in the 1790s the full implications of Enlightenment science remained largely speculative. Satanic mills were only just beginning to appear, the concept of pollution scarcely existed. Novalis deserves credit for foreseeing so much so clearly--but nobody could have predicted what actually happened. Now speaking in yet another voice, Novalis explains that the epitome of what stirs our feelings is called nature, hence nature stands in an immediate relation to the functions of our body that we call senses.
"Unknown and mysterious relations within our body cause us to surmise unknown and mysterious states in nature; nature is a community of the marvelous, into which we are initiated by our body, and which we learn to know in the measure of our body's faculties and abilities. The question arises, whether we can learn to understand the nature of natures through this specific nature." (77-79)
This constitutes a perfect summing up of the ancient Romantic doctrine of microcosmic humanity and macrocosmic nature or existence itself.
"'It seems venturesome,' said another, 'to attempt to compose nature from its outward forces and manifestations, to represent it now as a gigantic fire, now as a wonderfully constructed waterfall, now as a duality or a triad, or as some other weird force. More conceivably, it is the product of an inscrutable harmony among infinitely various essences, a miraculous bond with the spirit world, the point at which innumerable worlds touch and are joined.'" (81)
"Everything divine has a history; can it be that nature, the one totality by which man can measure himself, should not be bound together in a history, or--and this is the same thing--that it should have no spirit? Nature would not be nature if it had no spirit, it would not be the unique counterpart to mankind, not the indispensable answer to this mysterious question, or the question to this never‑ending answer." (85)
The Disciples at Saïs is a "novel" in that it uses a variety of voices--but very few developed characters. The voices seem not to argue so much as play out variations in the author's mind, thus allowing him a typically Romantic freedom of inconsistency and self‑contradiction. For example it's not certain that Novalis himself believed that "everything divine has a history;" but he seems to experience or feel the idea as yet another variation on his great theme, the reconciliation of matter and spirit under the sign of nature.
"So inexhaustible is nature's fantasy, that no one will seek its company in vain. It has power to beautify, animate, confirm, and even though an unconscious, unmeaning mechanism seems to govern the part, the eye that looks deeper discerns a wonderful sympathy with the human heart in concurrences and in the sequence of isolated accidents."  (87)
Novalis criticizes even the poets for not "exaggerating nearly enough." The I-Thou relation between consciousness and nature should lead to magic powers, so to speak, an ability to move nature from within rather than as an alienated outsider.
"In order to understand nature, we must allow nature to be born inwardly in its full sequence. In this undertaking, we must be led entirely by the divine yearning for beings that are like us, we must seek out the conditions under which it is possible to question them, for truly, all nature is intelligible only as an instrument and medium for the communication of rational beings." (91-3)
(These "rational beings" of course include the Elementals, the personae of nature.)
"The thinking man returns to the original function of his existence, to creative contemplation, to the point, where knowledge and creation were united in a wondrous mutual tie, to that creative moment of true enjoyment, of inward self‑conception. If he immerses himself entirely in the contemplation of this primeval phenomenon, the history of the creation of nature unfolds before him in newly emerging times and spaces like a tale that never ends, and the fixed point that crystallizes in the infinite fluid becomes for him a new revelation of the genius of love, a new bond between the Thou and the I. A meticulous account of this inward universal history is the true theory of nature. The relations within his thought world and its harmony with the universe will give rise to a philosophical system that will be the faithful picture and formula of the universe." (93)
The "art of pure contemplation" is also a creative metaphysics--that is, an art of the creation of value and meaning--and also "The Art" itself in a spagyric sense, the magical art of transmutation.
"Yes," says another voice, "nothing is so marvelous as the great simultaneity of nature. Everywhere nature seems wholly present." This hermetic thought leads on to a contemplation of the consciousness of nature as essentially erotic.
"What is the flame that is manifested everywhere? A fervent embrace, whose sweet fruits fall like sensuous dew. Water,
first‑born child of airy fusions, cannot deny its voluptuous origin and reveals itself an element of love, and of its mixture with divine omnipotence on earth. Not without truth have ancient sages sought the origin of things in water, and indeed, they spoke of a water more exalted than sea and well water. A water in which only primal fluidity is manifested, as it is manifested in liquid metal; therefore should men revere it always as divine. How few up to now have immersed themselves in the mysteries of fluidity, and there are some in whose drunken soul this surmise of the highest enjoyment and the highest life has never wakened. In thirst this world soul is revealed, this immense longing for liquefaction. The intoxicated feel only too well the celestial delight of the liquid element, and ultimately all pleasant sensations are multiform flowings and stirrings of those primeval waters in us."  (103‑105)
"A man born blind cannot learn to see, though you may speak to him forever of colors and lights and distant shapes. No one will fathom nature, who does not, as though spontaneously, recognize and distinguish nature everywhere, who does not with an inborn creative joy, a rich and fervent kinship with all things, mingle with all of nature's creatures through the medium of feeling, who does not feel his way into them." (109)
"Happy I call this son, this darling of nature, whom she permits to behold her in her duality, as a power that engenders and bears, and in her unity, as an endless, everlasting marriage. His life will be a plenitude of all pleasures, a voluptuous chain, and his religion will be the real, the true naturalism." (111)
* * *
The Disciples at Saïs is not a finished work. It ends with a passage on the figure of the "prophet of nature" that feels unfinished to me and even unrevised. Some commentators believe that it constitutes a character sketch of Professor Werner of Freyberg, his teacher of mineralogy, and apparently a true Romantic scientist. Undoubtedly Novalis meant to go on, to create a firmer narrative structure, perhaps to add more symbolic märchen like the Tale of Hyacinth and Rose‑petal, perhaps to develop ideas about specific sciences such as mining. But the various and rather disorganized paragraphs of the book serve as aphorisms, complete little thoughts in themselves. Novalis gave up trying to combine his "fragments" with his narrative ideas. The latter went into his one complete novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. The former went into his wonderful Aphorisms or Fragments, so admired by Nietzsche and indeed imitated by him in their blending of eighteenth century epigrammatic wit and nineteenth century ambiguity and Romantic fervor.
A complete exploration of Novalis as a conscious hermeticist and Romantic scientist would require a much longer work than this, in which for example a chapter would be devoted to the influence of Paracelsus, and also of the great Rosicrucian novel The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosycross. Further chapters would compare ideas in The Disciples with parallel thoughts in Novalis's other works, his notebooks and letters, etc.--and then with the scientific ideas of his contemporaries such as Von Humbolt, Goethe, and the Naturphilosophie school.
Nevertheless The Disciples at Saïs by itself appears to provide a clear and concise summation--indeed a manifesto--for what we might now call eco‑spirituality. If Novalis were writing today, two centuries later, no doubt he would have a great deal more to say about science as alienation, about the horrors of the industrial and "post‑industrial" assault on nature, about pollution as the material manifestation of bad consciousness. He might be much more pessimistic now, less certain of the return of the Golden Age-that perennial goal of radical hermeticism and Rosicrucianism.
In 1968 German radicals like their French and American and Mexican counterparts re‑discovered revolutionary Romanticism and seized back the blue flower of Novalis from the forces of reaction. "All power to the Imagination." Despite all vicissitudes and set‑backs since the 1960s this paradigm is still emerging. It's exemplified in the almost‑mystical ideas of certain quantum philosophers, chaos and complexity scientists and proponents of the Gaia Hypothesis: the idea that matter and consciousness are inter‑connected--that the Earth is a living being--that science is an erotic relation. It persists in the ideas and actions of those few "defenders of the earth" brave enough to defy the greed/death/media-trance of the Totality and challenge the institutionalization of body-hatred, misery and boredom that constitutes our Imperium and drives our pollution of all time and space.
In the realm of science ideas can really be considered actions--and in this strange identity science retains an ancient and occult link with the magical hermetic tradition. But only a science freed from slavery to money and war (Capital and State) can ever hope to empower the ideas that would act as Novalis hoped his ideas would act: to save the world from the dark forces of Enlightenment, from "the cruel instrumentality of Reason"--not to fall into the opposite sin of irrational reaction-but to transcend all false dualities in a true "wedding," both alchemical and erotic, between consciousness and nature. That was the goal of the disciples, the lifting of the veil of Isis, the initiation into a lost language. If that still remains our goal today, does this prove that in 200 years we have been defeated?-or that we have not yet experienced the true dream of the sacred theory of earth that points the way to victory?
1. Letter to A. W. Schiegel (IV, 229 in N's German Complete Works).
2. The other two Novalis quotes are from the "Notebook," translated by Thomas Frick in Frick and Richard Grossinger, eds., The Sacred Theory of the Earth (Berkeley: North Atlanic Books, 1986). Throughout this essay I will use the translation of The Novices of Saïs by Ralph Manheim (though I prefer the use of "Disciples" rather than "Novices"), in the 1949 edition published by Curt Valentin in New York, with a rather useless preface by Stephen Spender, and sixty exquisite drawings by Paul Klee. I can't think of a more appropriate illustrator-unless perhaps Joseph Beuys. See also C. V. Becker and R. Manstetter, "Novalis' Thought on Nature, Humankind and Economy: A New Perspective for Discussing Modern Environmental Problems," available on line from <firstname.lastname@example.org>
3. Paul Hoffman, Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos‑Dumont and the Invention of Flight (Hyperion, 2003); I saw the anecdote in a review.
4. In the lexicon of the US Parks Services, "wilderness" is defined as the areas most strictly controlled and regulated-a perversion of language possible only to a government bureaucracy.
5. Novalis, The Disciples at Saïs. See below.
6. A.k.a. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, the most original thinker in alchemy since Jabir ibn Hayyan; died 1541 in Saltzberg.
7. Darwin's direct source was undoubtedly Pope's "Rape of the Lock," also based on Paracelsus via a strange little book called Le Comte de Gabalis, a treatise on the Elementals.
8. My copy of Darwin's great poem, with illustrations by Fuseli and William Blake, is a facsimile of the 1791 edition, by Scholar Press (London, 1973). Incidentally, Novalis was a reader of Darwin and refers to him as an authority in Flower Pollen (see The Disciples at Saïs and Other Fragments, translated by F.V.M.T. and U.C.B., with an introduction by Una Birch [later Pope‑Henessy]; London: Methuen, 1903). Novalis's beloved dead brother was named Erasmus. [later note: Thanks indirectly to our conference in New Paltz, a new edition of the Manheim translation of The Novices of Saïs, with the Klee illustrations, is now available from Archipelago Books of Brooklyn, NY (2005)]
9. By the Rationalist philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose useful but polemical interpretation utterly fails to consider hermetic roots.
10. Max Blechman, ed., Revolutionary Romanticism (San Francisco: City Lights, 2000). See also Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). Thanks to Joel Kovel for this reference.
11. E. E. F. Chladni (1756‑1827) also invented a musical instrument called the euphonium.
12. The earliest version I've found is from Bishop Nicholas of Cusa (died 1464), who held that the Earth is a living "star," worthy of respect and even adulation. Needless to say Cusanus was accused of pantheism, and was greatly admired by the hermeticists.
13. "So-called" but not very accurately. Cornelius Agrippa was scarcely an apologist for any Christian orthodoxy. "Hermetic Cabala" might be a more precise term.
14. This speech is attributed by Novalis to certain of the novices, but strangely they speak of "man" as of an other. Such sentiments are attributed to the Elementals by Paracelsus. Perhaps some of the disciples at Saïs are Elementals!
15. Among other things this passage could serve almost as a definition of Surrealism, especially in its hermetic phases, those that reveal it most clearly as a stage of the Romantic movement.
16. This passage reflects the seventeenth century scientific hypothesis of "Neptunism," now discredited but very popular with the Romantics.
An earlier version of this article was presented at a conference on "Sacred Theory of Earth" held at the Old French Church in New Paltz, New York, September 21, 2003. My thanks to all participants for their critiques and comments-Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, Rachel Pollack, Lady Vervaine, Robert Kelly, Bishop Mark Aelred, and especially David Levi Strauss, who responded to my paper and later gave me more quotes and references. Thanks also to Joel Kovel, Lorraine Perlman, Raymond Foye, Kate Manheim. Julia Manheim, for permission to use Ralph Manheim's translation of Saïs, Bruce McPherson, Jack Collom, Christopher Bamford, Jim Fleming, Zoe Matoff, and the Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz. An earlier version of this paper appeared in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism.