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.

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