15 February 2015

The Romantic is Dead

The day after St Valentine's is as good a moment to turn away from a current writing project for this blog and look at this book review which was linked by someone I follow on Twitter. I would propose this thesis: that the Romantic Movement, as an attempt to transform the Enlightentment, will be seen by future historians as effectively haveing expired during my lifetime. It seems likely that its last gasp involved various gestures made in politics and culture starting in 1956. (The abandonment of Communist parties by many on the Marist left after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts are two examples of inspirational moments for these last romantics. This romanticism is not just a feature of the culural left, as the career of Russell Kirk represents. All of these were transformed during the era of what might be called High Post-Modernism (roughtly the late 1970s unitl the early 1990s) into forms more appropriate for our New Enlightenment era.

Thomas Kohut's review of RĂ¼diger Safranski's book on Romanticism starts with describing what Romanticism is: The Enlightenment’s vision of a rationally functioning, lawful universe created by a deistic God seemed a “monstrous mill” or a “perpetual motion machine” to the Romantics, and they pushed back against the sterility of such a world. In response to the “disenchantment of the world” through secularization and the triumph of empiricism, the Romantics sought to satisfy the “appetite for mystery and wonder” that religion traditionally had satisfied.Romanticism also reacted against the emergence, in the 19th century, of the modern rationalistic society, with its efficiency, its specialization, its emphasis on economic utility—and its monotony.

The key here is 'specialisation'. In the Anglosphere we now live in a world that is thoroughly compartmentalised. It is the idea which we find at the root of those courses on Business Administration, of The Model as the basis for analysis and understanding. In other words, instead of treating human beings and their institutions as individuals with distinct personalities and problems, the most appropriate model is identified and applied. Arguments are more about which model to apply than questioning the suitability of the approach itself. Subsequently, through practice, adaptations will be made if the case seems especially intractable, but the expectation is that the institution will respond by conforming more closely to the model. We even find Safranski himself embracing this attitude, if the quote by Kohut does not omit any crucial context: If we fail to realize that the reason of politics and the passions of Romanticism are two separate spheres, which we must know how to keep separate...we risk the danger of looking to politics for an adventure that we would better find in the sphere of culture—or, vice versa, of demanding from the sphere of culture the same social utility we expect from politics.

One could argue that Romanticism itself was tainted by the Enlightenment from the very beginning. This would repressent its Achilles' Heel, which is what would be exploited in the conflict between the heirs of the Enlightenment and those of the Romantic Movement in the years after the mid 1950s. Safranski identifies the French Revolution as a point of intersection between the two, which created tensions among the Romantics: Beginning with the French Revolution, Romanticism and politics came together, as “questions of meaning that were formerly the precinct of religion are now aligned with politics. There is a secularizing impulse that transforms the so-called ultimate questions into sociopolitical ones.” Initially inspired by the French Revolution and then opposing it, especially during the period of the wars against Napoleon, Romanticism became politicized in Germany.

One might think one knows where this is going, but Safranski does not include the Nazis among the descendants of the early Romantics. Kohut disagrees. It is a question that makes an interesting academic exercise, but with the passing of time seems less and less relevant to an attempt to understand how the Third Reich could happen in a civilised country. The important thing is that Safranski apparently sees the student rebels of 1968, whom both agree were heirs to the Romantics, as an ephemeral phenomenon. In fact, their attempt to universalise the kind of highly personal, gnostic, movement that Romanticism represents is exactly that Achilles' Heel. Universal values are part of The Model, something the Enlightenment inherited from its Christian roots. Romanticism is about discovering what each person values, allowing each to neglect those values which seem less relevant to their personal situation.

Romanticism could not survive in a battle for intellectual supremacy with the Enlightenment because the religious impulse it sought to supplement or replace had a universalist dimension that it could not mobilise. What happens when my rights or my gnosis conflicts with yours? Christian religion asks us to draw on our charitable feelings at that point, and for both parties to understand each other and come to some compromise. People always fall short of that standard, but that does not invalidate the underlying principle. 'Try, try again', is at the heart of the Christian message. Indeed, on this day after St Valentine's, it seems appropriate for couples, too.

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