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?



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