Nothing gets quite so romanticized as Romanticism. It all seems so — well — romantic. We get all fuzzy inside and think pretty thoughts. Romanticism means emotional music, beautiful paintings, expansive novels, and poetry of deep feeling.
Or so we think, forgetting that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Romanticism a “disease.”
The surface of Romanticism may be attractive, but its larger implications are more complex. We should look deeper into what we mean by “Romanticism.”
Initially, it is a movement in art and literature from the end of the 18th century to the middle or latter years of the 19th century. It responded to the rationalism of the Age of Reason with a robust faith in emotion, intuition and all things natural. We now tend to think of Romanticism as a welcome relief from the artificiality of the aristocratic past and a plunge into the freedom of unbuttoned democracy. We read our Shelley and Keats, we listen to our Chopin and Berlioz and revel in the color of Turner and Delacroix. Romanticism was the ease of breathing after we have unlaced our corset or undone our necktie.
Yet, there is something adolescent about Romanticism, something not quite adult. It is too concerned with the self and not enough with the community. There is at heart a great deal of wish fulfillment in it, and a soft pulpy core of nostalgia and worse, an unapologetic grandiosity. One cannot help think of Wagner and his Ring cycle explaining the world to his acolytes. Music of the Future, indeed.
I’m not writing to compose a philippic against a century of great art, but to consider the wider meanings of what we narrowly define as Romanticism.
Most importantly, one has to understand the pendulum swing from the various historical classicisms to the various historical romanticisms. Romanticism didn’t burst fully grown from the head of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, but rather recurs through history predictably. One age’s thoughtfulness is the next generation’s tired old pusillanimity. Then, that generation’s expansiveness is followed by the next and its judiciousness.
The classicism of Pericles’ Athens is followed by the energy of Hellenism. The dour stonework of the Romanesque is broken open by the lacy streams of light of the Gothic. The formality of Renaissance painting is blown away by the extravagance of the Baroque. Haydn is thrown overboard for Liszt, and later the tired sentimentality of the Victorians (the last gasping breaths of Romanticism) is replaced by the irony of Modernism. This is almost the respiration of cultural time; breathe in, breathe out. You could call it “cultural yoga.”
We tend to label the serene and balanced cultures as classical and the expansive and teetering ones as romantic. The labels are not important. Nietzsche called them Apollonian and Dionysian. William Blake personified them in his poems as thought and energy.
We are however misled if we simplify the two impulses as merely rationality vs. emotion. The twin poles of culture are much more than that.
Classicism tends to engage with society, the interactions of humans, the ascendency of laws instituted by men (and it is men who have instituted most of them and continue to do so — just look at Congress). Romanticism, of whatever era it reveals itself, engages with the cosmos, with history, with those things larger than mere human institutions, with Nature, with a capital “N.” Romanticism distrusts anything invented by humans alone, and surrenders to those forces mortals cannot control.
These oppositions concern whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.
In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.” The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.
The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.
There are many more polarities to these movements in art and culture. One side privileges clarity, the other complexity. Just compare a Renaissance painting with a Baroque one. The classical Renaissance tends to line its subjects up across the canvas in a line, while the Baroque wants to draw us in to the depth of the painting from near to far. Renaissance paintings like to light things up evenly, so all corners can be seen clearly. The Baroque loves the great patches of light and dark, obscuring outlines and generally muddying up the works.
Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno. See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings. The Renaissance liked stability and clarity; the Baroque, motion and confusion.
One side values unity, the other, diversity. One side values irony, the other sincerity. One side looks at the past with a skeptical eye, the other with nostalgia. One side sees the present as the happy result of progress, the other sees the present as a decline from a more natural and happier past. One side unabashedly embraces internationalism, the other, ethnic identity and nationalism. If this sounds familiar, think red and blue states.
One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”
That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.
We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.
In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.
The history of art pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations.
In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto. The styles are distinct and identifiable.
But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.
Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian. In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.
The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.” That style is now so passé as to be the butt of jokes.
The classical era values rationality and clear thinking, while its mirror image values irrationality and chaos.
You’re ahead of me if you have recognized that much of what I am calling Romanticism is playing out in the world and in the White House as a new Romantic age.
Nationalism is reasserting its ugly head in Brexit, in Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin — and in Donald Trump.
The mistrust or outright disbelief in science is a recasting of Rousseau. Stephen Colbert invented the term “truthiness,” and nothing could be a better litmus test of Romanticism: The individual should be the arbiter of truth; if it feels true, we line up and salute. In a classical age, the judgments of society are taken as a prime value. Certainly, there are those who resist, but by and large, the consensus view is adopted.
As we enter a new Romantic age around the world, one of dissociation, confusion and realignment, we need to recognize the darker side of Romanticism and not merely its decorative accoutrements.
We will have to accept some of those adages propounded in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” And, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
As income inequality becomes the goal rather than the problem, we must remember that, “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
The first time America entered a Romantic age, in the 19th century, it elected Andrew Jackson, arguably the most divisive president (outside the Civil War) before Donald Trump, and certainly the most cock-sure of himself and the truthiness he felt in his gut. Facts be damned. For many of us, Trump feels like the reincarnation of Jackson, and this era feels like the reemergence of a Romantic temperament, and we may need to rethink just how warm and cuddly that truly is.