Saturday, February 12, 2011

Romanticism Past and Present

I should like to make some remarks on Romanticism, in particular inspired by Berlin's seven part lecture series, the first part of which is embedded here, and all of which is included on youtube.

I will only briefly summarize Berlin's taxonomy, risking injury to his majesty. More importantly, I will offer my own remarks on the wider culture, in both the present and recent past.

For millennia, Berlin says, there was a code or the code. He calls it the "structure to things". The details of this structure may very well vary according to geographic distance or individual and group placement in society, but the important thing is that the structure came first. Interiority was always subordinated to the code, as was personal feeling more generally or individual initiative.

One of the marvelous, revolutionary things about Shakespeare is that he was the first artist to create a break or crack in the code, such that individual differences, in terms of psychological diversity, came to the fore as never before in representation.

But it would not be for another hundred years until a revolt against the code was to be realized in the broader society.

This code was the precondition for other things in life. It was always cause and never effect. In that special sense, sincerity, in the usual and modern sense of that word, was either a nonexistent or incoherent notion. You were either right about a proposition or not. And intent, that major psychic force in modern jurisprudence, was also not conceptualized. It did not matter much what one's intent was behind an act, but rather whether the intent followed the code or not.

Isaiah Berlin (in The Roots Of Romanticism) illustrates this with a wonderfully graphic and clear illustration from political and religious history:

"Suppose you had a conversation in the sixteenth century with somebody fighting in the great religious wars which tore Europe apart in that period, and suppose you said to a Catholic of that period, engaged in hostilities, 'Of course these Protestants believe what is false; of course to believe what they believe is to court perdition; of course they are dangerous to the salvation of human souls, than which there is nothing more important; but they are so sincere, they die so readily for their cause, their integrity is so splendid, one must yield a certain amount of admiration for the moral dignity and sublimity of people who are prepared to do that'. Such a sentiment would have been unintelligible...the more sincere, the more dangerous."

While it would be absurd to carry a Michel Foucault styled social constructionism too far - that is, to the point where emotions are thought to be suddenly created, without any underlying latency, potential or constancy across cultures and times - it would be equally absurd to suppose that emotions are static and without history. I believe that the current ability to empathize with emotions that are contrary to our own - modes like comprehension and appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism, for example - came to the fore at the time in the 18th century as Isaiah Berlin records, and ushered in a new epoch in consciousness. This is especially the case with the conviction that Will and Intention, and Sincerity of belief and emotion are innately virtuous.

For some reason Germany was the beginning of the greatest shift in consciousness. (He speculates that this was due to an inferiority complex on the part of Germany and the domination of culture by the arguably more "advanced" country of France. If France was going to play the game of Truth and rationalism and science, it was left to Germany to trumpet the game of psychology, feelings and Spirit etc.).

Yet all of the great art movements of the modern and current post modern period are heirs to Romanticism and not merely the familiar poets of Keats and Wordsworth, but even the Avant-Garde, even when that Avant-Garde was opposed to sentiment in favor of detached rigor. That is, the anti-Romantics are themselves, in spite of themselves, Romantic.

The list is long: surrealism, naturalism, the Method approach in acting, the emotive cinema of Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray, Classical Cinema of Hollywood, the observational cinema of John Cassavetes, the abstract painting of Pollack, Bauhaus architecture, the ecology movement, the poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, jazz improvisation, the Feminist and Civil Rights movements in politics and culture, the Rock Revolution in music, including both Glam and Punk rock, Disco music, all folk music of course. And in matters sartorial: both the t-shirt and jeans revolution of the sixties and seventies as well as the go-go 1980s, and especially the grungy nineties. All these and more should be seen as heirs to Romanticism too.

Lest you, dear reader, feel this is to stretch the word Romantic till it loses all definition and boundaries, there is a principle uniting such disparate and often opposed movements: this is the principle of a sincerely felt and freely willed individuality in expression and creativity, coupled with the conviction that authentic, sincerely felt expressive acts ought to take priority over unfelt rules or codes. Words like "real" and authenticity are key here.

I would dare say that even the most "ironic skepticism" of the the past thirty years is as heavily invested in this notion of the authentic. To feel a loss of the self is to have always already believed in a deep self to begin with.

Does this mean we are all Romantics today? Yes and no. We are, in truth, divided souls. One half of each of us carries a vestige of the Classic and Ancient piety towards the code (which accounts for the continuing popularity of the older religious traditions), the other half committed to the newer principles of sincerity and individual freedom.

However Romanticism carried too far becomes an evil thing: both Fascism and Bolshevism, though foes of one another, are part of Romanticism's legacy too. Ironically, Romanticism carried too far destroys Romance itself as normally understood, resulting in a kind of Sadeian orgy of depersonalization. Conversely, Romanticism can be anti-erotic, resulting in a Platonic idealism: devoid of lust and seeking refuge in a cult of Androgyny, free from the code of gender altogether.

So too, the notion that the truth or falsity of a behavior or assertion is less important in comparison to the depth of sincerity and intent behind a behavior or assertion has caused a great deal of mischief, resulting in a kind of "sophomoric Relativism".

Beliefs and convictions we utterly take for granted today, like the belief that one's feelings have a sacredness that ought to be tolerated and honored by others, (such as one finds in modern psychology), have been made possible by Romanticism.

At times it may seem as if the only area of life untouched by Romanticism in the sense that Berlin and I mean, is in the scientific method, that last bastion of Enlightenment belief.

Most representative and illustrative of long standing tensions in the individual self and the collective culture is the important passage in Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James, in chapter 19. Other authors have written on this passage. Above all, Ray Carney (in the The Films Of Mike Leigh, Cambridge University Press 2000), has written wisely on this passage. More recently Robert Pippin has commented in his book on James. The dialogue is between the novel's protagonist Isabel Archer and Madame Merle.

"When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self–for other people–is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps–these things are all expressive."

This was very metaphysical; not more so, however than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of human personality. "I don't agree with you. I think it is just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!"

"You dress very well," Madame Merle lightly interposed.

"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."

James was so prescient. In this one passage, written in 1881, at the end of the nineteenth century, he anticipated the 1960s cultural revolutions that would mark the end of the twentieth century: the cult of authenticity, the battle between, on the one hand, the plea for the "real me", free from oppressive masks and artificial codes, and on the other hand, the plea for traditional values, the feeling that fashion and, in one sense, "the mask" is needed for formal rigor, or even as a precondition for expressing the truth of the self.

I can imagine a contemporary reader saying "you go girl" to Isabel Archer's stance against what today would be called "fakeness" or oppressive codes. Yet such a reader would be wrong in that Madame Merle, though she is a negative figure in the novel, is giving in part an authorial view: the degree to which Isabel Archer looks past surface signs, is what causes her to end up wedded to the most unsuitable, indeed, sinister Gilbert Osmond. She refuses to see the surface when the surface was warning her all along. (She also stubbornly clings to a romantic view of the ultimate changeability of all character flaws, also related to a belief in inner, deep essences). Isabel Archer's dream of a formless, pure self, floating free of masks and constructions is a vision of self that cannot read the surfaces of life very well. Moreover, at it's most extreme, it is a view of selfhood that is against the aesthetic, favoring the alleged utility of raw and unmediated emotion.

This is both the best and worst of times for "the couple". It is the best in that for the first time people may freely choose for reasons of individual and sincerely felt meaning rather than the "code". It is the worst, because, the more choice there is, and Capitalism is surely one of the engines of this phenomenon, the more burdens there are upon each individual self: the more a self is blamed and shamed should things go awry.

And that is all I have to say for now on the subject of Romanticism.

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