Archive for January, 2013

Romanticism & Christianity 4 – The human struggle…


Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)

The “romantic” point of view … does not think that man is by nature bad, turned into something good by a certain order and discipline, but that, on the contrary, man is some-thing rather wonderful, and that so far he has been prevented from exhibiting any wonderful qualities by these very restrictions of order and discipline that the classic praised. … When one has this conception of the infinite possibilities of man thus imprisoned, one is carried on to the conception that anything that increases man’s freedom will he to his benefit. … The romantic imagines everything is accomplished by the breaking of rules. 

T. E. Hulme A Tory Philosophy

As we look at some of the distinctives of the Romantic sensibility I have been circling around the idea of what it means to experience or imagine a rich life. In post two I discussed the tendency to identify this with certain times and places; in the third I talked about the related idea that the fullest or happiest state of existence is to be found in the experience of (primal) nature.

A corollary of the Romantic emphasis on emotional encounter with Nature is an emphasis on individual person who is having that experience. As we have already touched on in passing, Romanticism gravitates toward individualism: the lone traveller staring out toward the distant peak; the glorious hero valiantly leading the charge against a sea of enemies; the artist or scholar standing up and rebelling against tradition, authority and the mindless throng.

Romantics love stories and they want their own lives to be a good story – they are not content with happiness or plenty, or shopping, or television, or suburbia. They want colour; vivid experience, profound meaning and glory. Modernity promised – and in many ways delivered – a comfortable healthy life for millions. But that is not enough for the Romantic.

A neat caricature of this plays out in the last two chapters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the Savage – a man raised in he wilds and brought up to read the Bible and Shakespeare comes into contact with the new world where there is no more struggle or dissatisfaction and where the citizens are genetically engineered and chemically doped for perfect contentment. In one meeting with an official, the Savage cries:

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin. …I’m claiming the right to be unhappy. …the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind. …I claim them all.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

This life that the Savage claims might not sound particularly Romantic to our ears – syphilis and cancer! But the point is that it is a real life with real passions and risks. As much as anything, it is a life that seeks authenticity in setting out the opposite of what it protests: the safe, drugged-out hedonism of 26th century London.


William Blake, Marriage of Heaven & Hell (1782)
In this early work Blake attempts to proclaim a Dionysian vision of virtue that throws off all shackles and restraint:
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

Nevertheless, the peculiar nature of the life claimed by the Savage points to a serious weakness with the Romantic spirit. Its negative and reactive nature makes for a vague answer as to what the rich life is supposed to be like, and what exactly we should be rebelling against.

Thus even in its first two generations, Romanticism could be identified with many different “types”: the dreamy poet sitting in his room and writing tragic odes to lost Arcadia; the wanderer on the fells; the revolutionary charging the Bastille; the tragic lover; the heroic fighter; the neo-gothic artisan.

In our current generation, the same diversity can be found in modern “Romantics”: Twilight tragics; Occupy (would-be) revolutionaries; Parkour daredevils; backyard farmers; budding novelists, and even gambling addicts. Everyone, it seems, is trying to imagine (or achieve) a richer and more real existence. Everyone is engaged in their own struggle to rebel against the confines and strictures of their own (or contemporary) world.

Yet are any of these dreams and activities able to fulfil the Romantic impulse that generates them? Certainly we might grant that there are more and less happy ways to live, and legitimate causes to strive for. But it is also true that revolutions generally disappoint; books and films tend do not really grant us escape; experiences and achievements last only for a while; relationships grow cold or end at death; and even radical lifestyle changes have a way of becoming ordinary after a while.

Somehow, all these moments and styles of life manifest Romantic longing, yet none of them has been able to elevate itself as the one true version of the good and rich life. Romanticism begins to look like a feeling or a vague aspiration in search of an object. But it has no way to reliably sort the good bits of human existence from the bad.

Where, then, does that leave us? Should we simply dismiss Romanticism as a chasing after a series of mirages? Or should we pursue it and resign ourselves to disappointment?



Romanticism & Christianity 3 – Back to Nature

In these posts I am trying to map out some of the distinct ways in which the Romantic spirit influences our culture before I try to tease out some of the connections between this and Christianity (yes, we’ll get there eventually).

In the last post I dealt briefly with the attraction of other times and places – observing, in particular the elevation of “primitive” life and childhood as embodying the Romantic idyll. But what is special about these “moments” in human life that make them so suitable for this dreaming?

Part of the answer is that they represent a more supposedly “natural” state of existence. Now this is a fairly problematic statement. In one sense, pretty much every philosophy and movement in Western believed in the pursuit of nature from Platonism through to deism and even atheism. The great problem for Western anthropology is how to deduce the true natural state of the human being when there are so many different forces acting on us and within us.

Nevertheless, for the Romantic, the answer to the problem is to look to nature at its most primal and least coerced. The richer “mode of life” that I spoke of in my definition of Romanticism is found in the untamed. Romantic artists produce paintings of rugged hills and deep forests and sunsets over distant oceans; Romantic poets find a mystical encounter with the sublime away from society; as they “[wander] lonely like a cloud”  (Wordsworth) or “fade away into the forest dim” (Keats).


Jean François de Troy (1722-4), Pan and Syrinx

The mystical reaction to the natural environment also blurs into pagan nature religion. In 19th century Romanticism (and in the late neoclassical art that preceded the Romantic era proper), Pan, Greek god of mountain wilds, appears as a symbol of the mysterious sacredness of nature. In more recent times the same God (and others beside him) has reappeared in more literal form in the latest expression of the Romantic quest – neopaganism. The current most popular form of Western paganism known as Wicca generally envisages a vaguely Taoist style dualism in which the universal Goddess balances a male horned God. For modern Wiccans or witches Nature is literally magical – filled with an immanent spirituality that can be encountered and channelled through rituals, chanting and so on.

In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all. She is the full circle: earth, air, fire, water, and essence body, mind, spirit, emotions, change.
(Starhawk, quoted in Pop Goes the Witch, ed. Fiona Horne)

Sex as divine

If Romanticism is characterised by a powerful emotional encounter with Nature then it is scarcely surprising that there is a special place for sexuality. John Keats in one letter proclaimed “Love is my religion–I could die for that.” Lord Byron (1788-1824), whose own personal life reads like Romantic pulp-fiction – woman after woman in exotic locations; death in Battle at the siege of Lepanto – gives us a view of his own idealised version of sex in his poem Don Juan. In one Canto his hero is washed up from a shipwreck and nursed back to life by a Spanish pirate’s daughter (arr).

A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concéntrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,

…The silent ocean, and the starlight bay,
The twilight glow which momently grew less,
The voiceless sands and dropping caves, that lay
Around them, made them to each other press,
As if there were no life beneath the sky
Save theirs, and that their life could never die.

…She loved, and was belovéd — she adored,
And she was worshipp’d; after nature’s fashion,
Their intense souls, into each other pour’d,

(Don Juan, Canto ii)

In modern psychological parlance we are talking about flowstate. Sex is cast as a mystical moment that blots out self and world – even the natural world around falls away. If we read on Byron assures us of the innocence and purity of the woman “she had never heard of promises to a spouse …She was all …pure ignorance and flew to her mate like a young bird” This of course is Rousseau’s myth of primitive innocence; instinct without the clutter of reason and knowing.

It goes without saying that this vision of Romantic love is very appealing and it has been taken on board almost wholesale by our own culture which – at its best believes in the dream of the one true soulmate who will finally complete us, and at worst looks to lose itself in simple phyiscal sex without attachment as the thing that gives colour and excitement to life. In music, film and literature sexual love is everything from the answer to meaning of life to the cure for a up-tight personality.

This time we go sublime
Lovers entwine-divine divine
Love is danger, love is pleasure
Love is pure-the only treasure

The power of love
A force from above
Cleaning my soul
A sky-scraping dove

(Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Power of Love, 1984)

Once again neopaganism, sacralizes sex as part of its Nature worship. Witches such as Fiona Horne and Francesca Gentille describe the revival of ancient pagan fertility rites. At the feast of Beltane where couples pair off to mate in the open and “inspire the earth and its animals to be fruitful”. Horne suggests that instead of praying a prayer before going to bed you should “have an orgasm …and offer the energy to the universe where it can be put to even more good use”

Romanticism & Christianity 2 – The Enchanted Place

pooh3In my last post, I attempted to defend an enlarged interpretation of Romanticism, offering it as …an act of the imagination which indulges the idea of richer and more emotionally satisfying worlds, times and modes of life. In the next few posts I want to briefly unpack some of the ways this works itself out in specific imaginings. I have already mentioned these briefly but they need a little fleshing out (also, I am still learning the art of blogging so I pray the reader’s [sic.] indulgence if I repeat myself).

“Of foreign lands and peoples”

One important expression of the Romantic spirit is its imagining of sweeter, richer or more exiting times and places. Typically this means a looking-back to days long gone, or to a rosy version of the world that only ever existed in the mind of the artist.* These, for the wistful Romantic, were the glory days; this is when life had real colour and vibrancy.

One of the most serious and influential exponents of this Romantic impulse is Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). A paradoxical thinker, Rousseau optimistically looks forward to the prospect of a better and fairer future, but he takes his inspiration from the past. He imagines humanity caught between the innocence and freedom of primitive life or childhood and the maturity of reason. Once we were free to follow our instincts and passions – one day we may be governed by our own reason, but in the present we are weighed down by civilisation and the expectations of others. As he writes at the start of his Discourse on Political Economy:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they.
Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy

For Rousseau the idyllic other time and place is firstly the exotic (and, let’s face it, completely fictionalised) life of the Carribean native who lives free of social constraint and possession stifling morality in peace and good health.

And it is … absurd to represent savages as continually cutting one another’s throats to indulge their brutality, because this opinion is directly contrary to experience; the Caribbeans, who have as yet least of all deviated from the state of nature [are] the most peaceable of people in their amours, and the least subject to jealousy, though they live in a hot climate which seems always to inflame the passions.
Rousseau, A Discourse Upon The Origin And The Foundation of The Inequality Among Mankind

“Scenes from Childhood”

The second Romantic moment for Rousseau is childhood. Rousseau has been described as one of the inventors of childhood, meaning he is one of the first to see childhood not as simply a precursor to adulthood and responsibility but as a good stage of life with its own joys and innocence.**

Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man …
Nature wants children to be children before they are men. If we try to pervert this order we shall produce a forced fruit that will have neither ripeness nor flavor and that will soon spoil. … Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling that are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to try and substitute our ways.
Rousseau, Emile

In the Anglophone world this sentiment produced a completely unprecedented outpouring of a children’s literature – much of it is marked by wistfulness or even tragedy. For the golden age of innocence cannot last:

  • At the end of the story J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911), Wendy grows up and goes back to the real world. When the eternally young Peter visits her years later she can no longer go with him: “I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.” She says “When people grow up they forget [how to fly] …It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.”
  • In P. L. Travers Mary Poppins, we hear that babies can understand the language of the sun, wind and animals but they all (except Mary Poppins) tragically forget the skill.
  • In the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner AA Milne describes a last tea party for Christopher Robin before he goes off to school and leaves behind his toys and childhood. He tells Pooh Bear that he won’t be able to come and play anymore and chokes up as he asks Pooh never to forget him. In the final sentence Milne tries to save us from the tragedy here by freezing time. “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
  • In Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale the Walker children and Blackett girls climb a mountain in the lake district and discover a thirty year old cache containing a testimony of the same climb made by the Blackett’s uncle, mother and (now dead) father. The sudden reminder of childhood’s short lease leaves the climbers silent or talking in “queer voices”.
  • In Wind in the Willows the baby otter Portly goes missing and is discovered sleeping in the dawn-lit lap of Pan himself. For a moment the Rat and Mole are struck with unspeakable awe, yet both forget the tableau as the vision fades. Only the infant senses the loss: “[he searched] dogged and unwearying, till at last the black moment came for giving it up, and sitting down and crying bitterly.”

And so on…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

For those who came after Rousseau – and especially for the heirs of the industrial revolution – just about anywhere seemed better than the present. The Romantic artists and poets of the 19th century recreated their own vision of the Middle Ages in gothic revival architecture and retellings of Arthurian and Norse mythos. Against the background of smog, clutter and soullessness of bourgeois prosperity, they held out for a simpler and more spiritual time: when people lived closer to nature; when men of valour would fight with their own strength with swords and armour – rather than in anonymous lines; when things were hand made rather than mass produced.

Of course this stuff was only slightly less fantastical than Rousseau’s vision of the noble savage. These Romantic visions of the past were as rose-tinted as the Victorian depiction of childhood. Later, with the advent of fantasy writing this fictionalising becomes explicit. Now we have a magical middle ages with real magic and the Romantic imagination is cut free of reality altogether.


* Of course there are many variations and permutations possible here. For example the movie Blade Runner offers a dystopic future which itself is a decayed past involving Frank Lloyd Wright/Art Deco/Film Noir aesthetics. The (original) Star Trek series transposes the golden age of discovery into the distant age of warp-drive. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings offers an alternative version of our own history, restocked with the fairy-tale elements. James Cameron’s Avatar mashes Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage (see above) with New Age Gaia theory and projects it into a distant solar system.

** It should be noted however that Rousseau’s own practice of abandoning his children to orphanages meant that this could only ever be theoretical. It was Britain, under the influence of Evangelical Christianity, that first made the Romantic idea of “childhood” a possibility by means of child-labour reform.

Romanticism & Christianity 1

Scene from Pixar's movie "Up"
Today, to coincide with an essay published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald I am going to begin a series of posts on Romanticism and Christianity. I am convinced that our culture be understood apart from understanding its Romantic sensibility, and that Christianity has important things to say to it.

What do I mean by Romanticism?

Romanticism has had enough definition and redefinition to make scholars throw up their hands. Historically it is associated with a reaction to modernity in the arts in the 17th and 18th centuries (I am only secondarily interested in that). Culturally, Romanticism is something much broader. Here’s my working defintion:

Romanticism is an act of the imagination which indulges the idea of richer and more emotionally satisfying worlds, times and modes of life.

Of course Romanticism is popularly associated with the idea of romantic relationships – which is understandable since we commonly believe that finding the right mate will fulfil us – but it also encompasses far more. For example:

  • Children’s stories are traditionally Romantic. Victorian children’s literature trades on the idea that there was once a free, joyful period in our early lives – a time where magic and adventure were plausible.
    At their most Romantic, children’s stories themselves explicitly incorporate nostalgic elements that remind us that childhood cannot last: Peter Pan; the final scenes in The House at Pooh Corner; the barring of older children from Narnia. Pixar, the most successful contemporary purveyors of children’s stories exploit this theme repeatedly – fils such as Up, The Incredibles and Up are suffused with a sadness of lost glories and joys that cannot last.
  • Cinema is, of course, thoroughly Romantic. When they convert your life into a movie it will be more exciting than it really was and you will be played by an actor who is better looking than you. But almost every genre of cinema is Romantic:
    • superhero stories imagine humans as gods;
    • action movies and thrillers allow us to journey with people stronger & smarter than ourselves;
    • science fiction movies imagine humans living among the stars;
    • dystopian movies might recall the present in a more golden hue;
    • romantic-comedies… obviously.
  • Much political and social theory tends to be Romantic. Left-wing politics is particularly prone to the Romantic spirit, a fact that can be glimpsed in:
    • the general instinct that non-Western cultures are more interesting (and sometimes more righteous);
    • the Marxist notion that a golden age (an end to history) might be ushered in through political action – particularly revolution;
    • green politics that attempts to move toward a world where humans live in Eden-like harmony with nature.
  • But there is Romanticism on the right too. Conservatives like to dream of a world pacified by free-trade agreements and democratic process. Fascists look toward a localised utopia with a unified culture and purified race.
  • We have Romantic ideals for our own lives. At the present moment this can be seen clearly in “Hipster” nostalgia for depression-era fashion, music and crafts, or in the Steampunk aesthetic which finds its starting point in the industrial revolution. But Romanticism can also be found in the preference for “extreme” sports; the dream of travel to exotic locations; the search for more creative and fulfilling work; various “good-life” TV shows which deal with food and renovation; the idea of making it big on a talent competition etc etc.

Am I defining Romanticism so broadly that it can encompasses pretty much everything? Yes, that’s the half the point.

Some random observations concerning Romanticism

Romanticism can often be sad because it imagines that the best times are past or passing.

(Left) Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire” (1839) offers a classic expression of Romantic sentiment – it depicts (in exaggerated tones) the final voyage of a majestic Napolean era battleship being towed up the Thames to be scrapped by an ugly steam tug.

Romanticism can be extremely dangerous if it imagines those times to be attainable (or recoverable) through political action (see above).

(Left) “Arbeitsmaiden” by Leopold Schmutzler (1940) illustrates the Romantic impulse in German facism.

Romanticism frequently turns toward nature because it is here that the Romantic feels the pull of the transcendent.

(Left) Caspar Friedrich’s “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” (c. 1824). Doyen of Romantic painters, Friedrich’s scenes often depict wild and lonely locations with few human subjects.

Romanticism is peculiarly vulnerable to the accusation of sentimentalism – of pursuing emotion for emotions sake without any good reason for it. For the same reason it can easily slide into kitsch.

(Left) Recently deceased, and super-prolific, Thomas Kincaid remains the quintessential example of kitsch Romantic for respectable art critics. His work remains hugely popular at a popular level.