A new Romanticism

If I say we have entered a new Romantic era, you may lick your chops and anticipate the arrival of great poetry and music. But hold on. 

Nothing gets quite so romanticized as Romanticism. It all seems so — well — romantic. We get all fuzzy inside and think pretty thoughts. Romanticism means emotional music, beautiful paintings, expansive novels, and poetry of deep feeling.

Or so we think, forgetting that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Romanticism a “disease.” 

The surface of Romanticism may be attractive, but its larger implications are more complex. We should look deeper into what we mean by “Romanticism.”

Initially, it is a movement in art and literature from the end of the 18th century to the middle or latter years of the 19th century. It responded to the rationalism of the Age of Reason with a robust faith in emotion, intuition and all things natural. We now tend to think of Romanticism as a welcome relief from the artificiality of the aristocratic past and a plunge into the freedom of unbuttoned democracy. We read our Shelley and Keats, we listen to our Chopin and Berlioz and revel in the color of Turner and Delacroix. Romanticism was the ease of breathing after we have unlaced our corset or undone our necktie.

Yet, there is something adolescent about Romanticism, something not quite grown up. It is too concerned with the self and not enough with the community. There is at heart a great deal of wish fulfillment in it, and a soft pulpy core of nostalgia and worse, an unapologetic grandiosity. One cannot help think of Wagner and his Ring cycle explaining the world to his acolytes. Music of the Future, indeed.

I’m not writing to compose a philippic against a century of great art, but to consider the wider meanings of what we narrowly define as Romanticism.

Most importantly, one has to understand the pendulum swing from the various historical classicisms to the various historical romanticisms. Romanticism didn’t burst fully grown from the head of Beethoven’s Eroica, but rather recurs through history predictably. One age’s thoughtfulness is the next generation’s tired old pusillanimity. Then, that generation’s expansiveness is followed by the next and its judiciousness.

The classicism of Pericles’ Athens is followed by the energy of Hellenism. The dour stonework of the Romanesque is broken open by the lacy streams of light of the Gothic. The formality of Renaissance painting is blown away by the extravagance of the Baroque. Haydn is thrown overboard for Liszt, and later the tired sentimentality of the Victorians (the last gasping breaths of Romanticism) is replaced by the irony and classicism of Modernism. Back and forth. This is almost the respiration of cultural time; breathe in, breathe out. You could call it “cultural yoga.”

We tend to label the serene and balanced cultures as classical and the expansive and teetering ones as romantic. The labels are not important. Nietzsche called them Apollonian and Dionysian. William Blake personified them in his poems as reason and energy.

We are however misled if we simplify the two impulses as merely rationality vs. emotion. The twin poles of culture are much more than that.

Classicism tends to engage with society, the interactions of humans, the ascendency of laws instituted by men (and it is men who have instituted most of them and continue to do so — just look at Congress). AT its heart, it is a recognition of limits. 

Romanticism, of whatever era it reveals itself, engages with the cosmos, with history, with those things larger than mere human institutions, with Nature with a capital “N.” Romanticism distrusts anything invented by humans alone, and surrenders to those forces mortals cannot control. Romanticism has no truck with limits. 

These classical-romantic oppositions concern whether the artist is engaged with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

Yet there is an egotism in the “me vs. the universe” formulation. It tends to glorify the individual as hero and disparage the community which makes life possible. 

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.” The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

There are many more polarities to these movements in art and culture. One side privileges clarity, the other complexity. Just compare a Renaissance painting with a Baroque one. The classical Renaissance tends to line its subjects up across the canvas in a line, while the Baroque wants to draw us in to the depth of the painting from near to far. Renaissance paintings like to light things up evenly, so all corners can be seen clearly. The romanticised Baroque loves the great patches of light and dark, obscuring outlines and generally muddying up the works.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno. See how clear it all is. 

But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings. The Renaissance liked stability and clarity; the Baroque, motion and confusion.

One side values unity, the other, diversity. One side values irony, the other sincerity. One side looks at the past with a skeptical eye, the other with nostalgia. One side sees the present as the happy result of progress, the other sees the present as a decline from a more natural and happier past. One side unabashedly embraces internationalism, the other, ethnic identity and nationalism. If this sounds familiar, think red and blue states.

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is assumed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions he (or she) described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about in his day as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather witty and cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

The history of art pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto. The styles are distinct and identifiable.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian. In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.” That style is now so passé as to be the butt of jokes.

The classical eras value rationality and clear thinking, while its mirror image values irrationality and chaos.

You’re ahead of me if you have recognized that much of what I am calling Romanticism is playing out in the world and in current politics as a new Romantic age.

Nationalism is reasserting its ugly head in Brexit, in Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin — and in Donald Trump and his followers.

The mistrust or outright disbelief in science is a recasting of Rousseau. Stephen Colbert invented the term “truthiness,” and nothing could be a better litmus test of Romanticism: The individual should be the arbiter of truth; if it feels true, we line up and salute. In a classical age, the judgments of society are taken as a prime value. Certainly, there are those who resist, but by and large, the consensus view is adopted.

The previous Romantic age had its Castle of Otranto and its Frankenstein. The current one has its Game of Thrones and its hobbits, and wizards and witches. The 19th Century looked to the Middle Ages with a nostalgia; the Postmodern 21st Century looks to a pre-civilized barbarian past (equally mythologized) with a vision for a post-apocalyptic future. 

(Right-wing nostalgia is for a pre-immigrant, pre-feminist, pre-integration utopia that never actually existed. The good old days — before penicillin.) 

This neo-barbarianism also shares with its 19th Century counterpart a glorification of violence, both criminal and battlefield — as the huge armies that contend in the Lord of the Rings films, to say nothing of the viciousness of Game of Thrones

As we enter a new Romantic age around the world, one of dissociation, confusion and realignment, we need to recognize the darker side of Romanticism and not merely its decorative accoutrements.

We will have to accept some of those adages propounded in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:  “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” And, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Is this not the Taliban? The Brexiteers? The Republican Party? And those elements in academia who want cover their ears and yell “nyah-nyah-nyah” when faced with anything outside their orthodoxy? 

Because it isn’t only on the right. The Noble Savage has come back to us as a new privileging of indigenous cultures over Western culture. The disparagement of European science, art, culture and philosophy as “hegemonic” and corrupt is just Rousseau coming back to bite us on the butt. (The West has plenty to answer for, but clitoridectomies are not routine in New Jersey. There is shame and blame found everywhere.) 

And the political right has discovered “natural immunity” and fear of pharmaceuticals, while still thinking it OK to run Clorox up the kiester. 

The last Age of Romanticism kicked off with the storming of the Bastille — a tactically meaningless act (only seven prisoners remained prison, four of them were forgers and another two were mentally ill) which inspired the French Revolution and all the bloodshed of Terror, but had enough symbolic significance to become the focus of France’s national holiday. We have our January 6, just as meaningless and perhaps just as symbolic. But perhaps that riot has more in common with a certain putsch in Munich. 

The first time America entered a Romantic age, in the 19th century, it elected Andrew Jackson, arguably the most divisive president (outside the Civil War) before Donald Trump, and certainly the most cock-sure of himself and the truthiness he felt in his gut. Facts be damned. For many of us, Trump feels like the reincarnation of Jackson, and this era feels like the reemergence of a Romantic temperament, and we may need to rethink just how warm and cuddly that truly is.

This piece is updated, expanded and rewritten from an April 2017 essay for the Spirit of the Senses

1 comment
  1. I loved this! I have felt similarly, as I’m sure many have, but without all the knowledge of history and the ages. This was so interesting to learn from your essay. I do hope this gets re-published to as wide of an audience as possible.

    What I found most profound was the comparison between breadth and depth (as seen in art), and equality of light vs diversity of light and shadow. This corresponds to what many call the emergence/rise of the collective shadow today. Why can’t all these different eras and truths be right in their own way? It is just that humans have yet to find that balance between the self and the whole. I do believe what you cultivate in the self is what gets reflected into the world. The world is divided, yes, but that’s also because many of our inner world’s are in dissonance, too. Love of self (if not gone to the extremes of self-effacement or selfishness) can become the equivalent of love of humanity. We are what we think. We are each universes unto ourselves. We are all connected. We are all One.

    Thank you for writing something so thought provoking!

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