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Tuesday, December 28, 2004


the romantic movement

influential throughout western civilization from the 18th c to the modern day, the romantic outlook was centered on a new way of feeling. it began as a reaction among some cultivated french against the excesses of the age of reason. initially admired were those prone to spontaneous sympathy (la Sensibilité), particularly for the rural poor, who were imagined as more virtuous than civilized men. this is not to be confused with the urban proletariat.

rousseau, the first romantic, combined la Sensibilité with democratic ideas and a thoroughly primitivist point of view -- which extended to all received tradition (which was utilitarian) from manners to arts to morals. this is not to say the romantics were amoral; they abandoned the morality of restrained, mannered, reasoned modesty that characterized the west from 1660 and had been praised as the bulwark of civilized society for unbridled aestheticism. revolt of the solitary against the social is the philosophical cornerstone of romanticism; the aim was to emancipate the individual from social tradition and morality.

this first incarnation manifested itself in french revolutionaries like danton and napoleon, and in the aftermath of 1815 safety was again valued for a time. but the remainder of the 19th c rebelled against the old quietude and the new industrialism in pursuit of grand, passionate individual lives.

romanticism after rousseau became centered as a german movement at the end of the 18th c, but took full flight in england (shelley, byron, keats) in the early 19th and france after the restoration.

romantics admired strong passion above all else. all beauty and all emotion, destructive or not was loved in proportion to its intensity -- the most intense emotions naturally being hatred, jealousy, despair and outrage. hence, romantics to that extent encouraged violence and anarchism -- byronic heroes are tyrants and rebels.

romantic literature glorified the strange, horrifying, ancient and tragic; ordinary things were deemed insufficient to rouse the spirit. the medieval and mystic appealed, and the more fantastic the better -- coleridge's rime of the ancient mariner is the first instance of english romantic literature (1799). the prototypical romantic novel, mary shelley's frankenstein, combines the strange with the romantic hero as a monster: an altruistic, noble being driven by traumatic rejection to terrible violence and, ultimately, self-destruction.

the appeal of romanticism is plainly quite carnal -- the liberation of the individual from the irksome constraints of being a prudent, gregarious socially-concerned creature is wildly empowering if not intellectual, a mystic feeling of communing with god -- or even being god. russell wrote: if we could all live solitary and without labour, we could all enjoy this ecstasy of independence; since we cannot, its delights are only available to madmen and dictators.

romanticism led through the philosophy of german idealism to solipsism. self-development became the goal of ethics. the individual idealized solitude even when he did not seek it; passionate romantic love in revolt against society was praised, but orthodox relationships were undesirable -- and passionate breakups were just as praiseworthy. love between lovers was conceived rather as a battle between individual egos. another could be loved only insomuchas the other reflected the self. blood relation became very important.

this being so, the romantic political manifestation became nationalism -- groups of people purported to have common lineage, possessed of a mystic bond of national identity. national liberty, akin to individual emancipation, became paramount.

some of what romanticism rebelled against was useless obstruction, of course; but the unleashing of the passionate ego, after christianity had done much to subdue it in the years following the roman collapse, did much to make social cooperation difficult, sometimes impossible. russell: Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence. man is not a solitary animal, and so long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics.

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