–This first draft, unrevised post is under construction and is not yet complete.
When Berlioz had reached a dead end in his musical composition he took a walk in the Tivoli gardens outside of Rome. The intoxication of his senses by nature led him back to his true self–nature’s emotions had found a correspondence in his own. (34)
–George Mosse, The Culture of Modern Europe
My favorite thing to say about Romanticism relates to how it has built aspects of our Western imagination to the point of normalizing thinking that we consider to be purely individualistic and personal. When I was twenty-three or twenty-four I went to La Jolla Beach in San Diego (where I was attending graduate school) for a walk. I was feeling pretty miserable about my life and so I just sauntered for an hour or two at the water’s edge, picking up stones and shells as I went. (One of the stones I picked up that day is on my desk as I write this.) What was I doing? I was doing something that I think most people think of doing when they are sad: taking their feelings to a place where they will synchronize with bigger and more elemental truths, and that place is usually the so-called ‘natural’ world. It is there that we feel most at home when we want to indulge in reflection, and emotional experience, and we believe that some form of understanding will be achieved and established by our being there. I tell my students that this kind of behavior, and the attitudes and beliefs that justify it, is a modern cultural creation first disseminated by the Romantics. What we think of as the domain of our private individuality and feeling originates in cultural history, at the end of the eighteenth century. Without the Romantics maybe I would not have gone to that beach and picked up that stone and maybe you would not look for that pretty tree under which to shed a tear about something existential.
Everything else I have to say about Romanticism is probably less interesting, unless it’s about a Romantic poem, painting, story, or novel, since such artifacts are usually intriguing for some reason or other. In contrast, definitions in the form of bullet points is pretty much flat and homogeneous, most of the time. A few years ago I enjoyed thinking about Romanticism for my article “Gender Iconoclasm and Aesthetics in Esteban. Echeverría’s La cautiva and the Captivity Paintings of Juan Manuel Blanes,” which touches on the theme of “dark” Romanticism and psychologism (not a word, but still using it on purpose). For that article, I discovered that I liked The Portable Romantic Reader published by Viking Press in 1957, and edited by Howard E. Hugo. This exhaustive anthology of miscellany by the Romantics about how they saw Romanticism really helped me dig in deeper to the topic than I had before. I also found Hugo’s introduction to be a good student friendly overview of the topic.
Hugo does what everyone who defines Romanticism must do; qualify everything to make sure that we understand that Romanticism is plural rather than singular. He calls his attempt at a definition a “lowest common denominator” approach to the subject, and an attempt to describe a set of general attitudes rather than a doctrine or a school. The first time I ever studied Romanticism, with Professor Jonathan Beecher at UC Santa Cruz, I distinctly remember this point being emphasized over and over again. But at the end of the day, you have to just define the damn thing, however poorly or generally, and proceed. Hugo does so by discussing how the Romantics approached the domains of feeling, heroism, the past, nature, revolution, and the figure of the artist. What comes out of the grater is this: anti-rationalism, the loner, melancholy, a fascination with the past (Hellenic, Pagan, and Medieval), a populist or democratic disposition toward heroism, Nature as a portal into the self (beach anecdote above), Pantheism, Exoticism, and finally, political commitment of some kind (revolutionary or reactionary.) Such shavings are perfectly fine for getting started with Romanticism.
In terms of older sources about Romanticism, I am also partial to George Mosse, whose book The Culture of Western Europe is an unusually friendly synthesis for students and lay readers. Besides effectively crystallizing Romanticism’s penchant for feeling and subjectivity in various quotable passages, he sees forerunners in Rousseau’s concept of “natural man,”and the rise of pietism in Christianity (English evangelicalism and German pietism.) Pietism was exhortative and became a common form of address in the early nineteenth century. I first learned of the origin of the literary use of the word Romantic from Mosse’s précis of Madame de Stael. Thanks to her, he shows, we inherited this idea of the elevation of “character above action.” The Romantics “centered their attention upon honor, love, and bravery–in short, upon the internal conditions of individuals rather than upon those external forces the ancients thought guided human destiny. This mean the primacy of ’emotion’ and ‘sentiment,’ since the human character must be detached from the environment and analyzed in terms of the individual’s own emotions. External events were mere superficialities when compared with the true self…The distinction between outward phenomena and the real essence of things was thus present from the very beginning of romanticism” (32).
One of the best passages in Mosse’s treatment of Romanticism is this one, which admirably distills many elements into a variable system: “The emphasis on feeling implicitly in the poetry of life can then be dissected into these various parts: a correspondence between humanity and nature into which an emotional view of Christianity could be integrated, a vision of the Middle Ages as part of a renewed consciousness of history, and the urge to rebel against conventions. All of these elements functioned apart from one another or in any variety of combinations” (41). Mosse also does an excellent job of summarizing the idea of romantic unity and different expressions of it, including Chateaubriand’s Christian romanticism, and how all of these constructs begin to break down at mid-century.
Another source that I like looking at when talking about this subject is Arnold Hauser’s The social History of Art Vol. III, which is also over fifty years old. Like Eric Hobsbawm’s work, which I have written about here, it’s a fetish for scholars of a certain generation who like historical materialism, or who used to like it. Still, Hauser has some memorable turns of phrase and descriptions of Romanticism that are punchy and fun to read. His interest in dialectical materialism, however, has not aged well and really dates the work. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Hauser (from the Vintage 1985 edition):
“The characteristic feature of the romantic movement was not that it stood for a revolutionary, a progressive or a reactionary ideology, but that it reached both positions by a fanciful, irrational and undialectical route.” (164)
“The escape to the past is only one form of romantic unreality and illusionism–there is also an escape into the future, in Utopia.” (165)
“The romantics are constantly searching for their greatest inspiration from ideals which they believe have already been realized in the past.” (167)
“It is unmistakable that the romantic experience of history gives expression to a psychotic fear of the present and an attempt to escape into the past. But no psychosis has ever been more fruitful.” (168)
“The idea that we and our culture are involved in eternal flux and endless struggle, the notion that our intellectual life is a process with a merely transitory character, is a discovery of romanticism…” (169)