Image, Language, Science: Hieroglyphs and the Romantic Quest for Primordial Truth

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date






Publication Title

Before Photography: German Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century


Novalis (1772-1801), poet and scientist of early German Romanitcism, opens his novel fragment Die Lehrlinge zu Sais [translated as The Apprentices or The Novices at Sais], a meditation on the relationship of human knowledge and natural wisdom, with the description of a world composed of visual cues:

"Mankind travels along manifold pathways. He who pursues and compares them will perceive the emergence of certain strange figures that appear to be inscribed in that massive tome composed in cipher that one beholds everywhere and in everything: on wings, eggshells, in clouds, in the snow, in crystalline and stone formations, in freezing waters, on the skins and in the bowels of mountain-ranges, of plants, beasts, people, in the stars of the heavens, in affected and stroked discs of pitch and glass, in the clustering of iron filings around the magnet, in the extraordinary ebb and flow of contingency. In these one may glimpse an intimation of the key to this wondrous text, its very grammar-book [...]."

Strange figures inviting decipherment reappear throughout Novalis's text, which he wrote between 1798 and 1799 at least in part as a reaction to Friedrich Schiller's 1795 poem "The Veiled Image at Sais" [Das verschleierte Bild zu Sais"]. Both verses invoke the mythical city of Sais in Ancient Egypt, whre, if we believe the legend, priests guarded wisdom symbolized in a cloaked statue of Isis representing ultimate knowledge and truth. Lifting the veil was strictly forbidden. Schiller and Novalis show us different outcomes to the transgression against this interdiction. In both parables a young man in search of insight arrives after a long journey at the shrouded figure. Schiller's protagonist, driven by a "hot thirst" for knowledge, "des Wissens heißer Durst," ignores all warnings and approaches the statue in the dead of night. Despite the threat of dire consequences, he lifts the veil and is found the next morning pale and senseless, "besinnungslos und bleich;" falling subsequently into a deep depression that results in early death.

Author Note: The following paper attempts to uncover the roots of a Romantic fascination with hieroglyphs that I began to explore in "A Science of Hieroglyphs, or the Test of Bildung," in The Technological Introject: Friedrich Kittler between Implementation and the Incalculable, ed. Jeffrey Champlin and Antje Pfannkuchen (New York: Fordham UP, 2018), 84-92. The earlier text takes the Romantic concept of hieroglyphs as its starting point and relates it to contemporary science with the goal of diversifying Friedrich Kittler's analysis of Romantic reading. My project in the present chapter is to decipher the origins of the Romantic understanding of hieroglyphics and to show the centrality of this concept for early German Romanticism.


For more information on the published version, visit De Gruyter's Website.



Full text currently unavailable.