Authors aspiring to be recognized for interpretive (as opposed to escapist) novels in the twenty-first century should avoid Romanticism as a genre. Why? Is the style too old-fashioned for the discerning modern reader for the same reason painters no longer imitate Friedrich, Delacroix, and Turner? Does earning the literati’s recognition require veering from this expressive approach for fear of judgement by a commentariat which frankly repudiates novels with heroic individuals? Which Romantic novel last won a major literary prize? Bring Up the Bodies, perhaps? This book was deservedly well received, but representative of Romanticism in modern times? I leave that to the reader to decide.
Romanticism is important because of what it says about individualism. But what is meant by Romanticism, and where did it come from? On my bookshelf are two works on the Romantic movement as it emerged in the latter-half of the 18th century. Typical of what a second-year humanities student might have found on a supplementary reading list for a course covering the subject, both are long-winded, turgid, unenlightening. One concentrates primarily on painting; the other follows the emergence of the Gothic revival in literature as represented by Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. Neither gives adequate time to discussing why the genre came to be; and when they do, they mostly get it wrong. Both more-or-less say Romanticism was brought to the people by an elite group of artists reacting to the formal, sterile Augustans who had taken the Baroque down a cul-de-sac that would end in pretty rococo paintings and the highly structured couplets of Pope. Placing the emergence of the movement in a historical context, they make no mention of the revolutionary times during which Romanticism was at its height, or how those upheavals might have influenced the sensibilities and tastes of the consumers absorbing what the artists produced. Instead, they give lopsided credence to the artists’ relevance in influencing popular proclivities, completely ignoring that same group’s natural propensity to cater to critical and consumer tastes; a propensity which might explain why modern artists refrain from the Romantic style today.
Isiah Berlin described Romanticism as “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West,” and I am inclined to agree with him, but for different reasons. Berlin, discussing (in lectures available on YouTube) the essence of Romanticism, drops some names even his graduate students might have found obscure before mentioning better known characters about whom he adopts the “study the artist to understand the genre” method of analysis. By looking at Chatterton’s, Byron’s, Keats’ and the Marquis de Sade’s disreputable behaviors, he provides his explanation of Romanticism and why it was popular. Quite apart from denigrating by dubious distinction, his view is taken from the wrong end of the telescope, leaving me to think he does not quite grasp the essence of his subject. When he eventually states Romanticism begets Fascism because, along with a passionate belief in their own rightness, they share nationalism as a value, he ceases to be interesting.
To better understand Romanticism, regard it not as a movement, a genre in art, but as a point of view.
Henry Hazlitt asserts that once such a point of view is held widely enough, it becomes the “spirit of the age,” and Romanticism was indeed the spirit of the age. So widely held, so markedly different from that which preceded it, it was something more than a mere concoction contrived by an exclusive group of artists. The prevailing point of view for an age&mdashthe people’s spirit—emanates from those people at large who have the time and wherewithal to reflect upon their thoughts and draw their own conclusions on the subjects at hand.
The number of such thinking people in the 18th and 19th centuries was admittedly small (I leave you to ponder whether it is any greater today) yet it nonetheless contained a pantheon of individuals who changed their point of view markedly from the one held by their recent and ancient forefathers. This was because the universe as they knew it was markedly different. Brought about by the Enlightenment, which began roughly a century before Romanticism emerged, Western man’s view of the universe shifted at this time from a theological perspective to a scientific one.
Cultures differ, in time and place, by the degree to which the individual is relevant. This degree is what differentiates Western Civilization from other cultures. But it also holds within cultures. Key to understanding a characteristic spirit of an age, and to differentiate it from other spirits in other ages, is the perspective taken on the individual’s place in the universe. In the King James Bible, a widely read (and even more widely heard) piece of literature written just prior to the Enlightenment, the perception is of the individual as a sinner prone to mistakes, particularly when thinking or acting for himself. Mankind’s struggle is to act, even when it seems counter-intuitive to do so, according to God’s will, or else! In Greek and more recently, Elizabethan tragedy, the intrinsically flawed individual, regardless of his temporal powers, is also shown as helpless in the face of gods and fate. Think of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s thinking man. Afforded the attributes of acute observation and deep understanding, Hamlet remained uncertain in the face of his own rational faculties and despite intelligence and perspicacity, incapable of action. Shakespeare renders him impotent and eventually crushes him under his own melancholic indecision.
This view of man as a mere pawn of greater powers who, despite his intellect, could not change his destiny, shifted after the Enlightenment because it contradicted the reality of his existence. Discoveries in the natural sciences had exorcised ancient superstitions; applied reason made God’s work comprehensible; nature’s scarce resources, manipulated through the adoption of new methods of transformation, rendered more from less and so inventions increased productivity. If thinking people (growing rapidly as the Enlightenment progressed, thanks to the development and widespread use of one such invention) viewed man as a doer, a maker, an achiever capable of understanding and accomplishing more, why not present him that way in art? Why present a protagonist destined to fail when it was in his control to overcome life’s “slings and arrows”?
The sense of individual importance in the great scheme of things grew throughout the Enlightenment. Capable of reasoning, understanding, volition, it followed that the individual had inalienable rights to his life, his property, how he chose to live. Though the philosophical views expounded by Locke, Paine, and Voltaire mostly pre-dated the art form in question, they nonetheless emphasized a point of view that was Romanticism’s essence—individualism. And a side effect of individualism was the encouragement of Romanticism’s most memorable feature, the celebrity status enjoyed by Romantic artists. Chatterton (posthumously) Byron, Beethoven, and Hugo were celebrated like modern pop idols for who they were, not just what they did. Is it any wonder Romanticism held such an attraction to the would-be artist?
Skeptical readers will claim Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment, not a result of it. They will claim the Romantic poets and painters eschewed modernization and industrialization, perhaps in contradiction to the thinking people who espoused it. Well, if artists viewed the dark satanic mills as wreckers of an idyllic countryside, they could scarcely ignore man’s growing reluctance to cringe in the face of his existence. Indeed, they themselves believed they had discovered a greater appreciation of what life offered and advocated throwing off the limiting bindings of classicism (and, yes, reason) to create new forms of expression that reflected their inner yearning for some higher state of consciousness and meaning. In fine art, they sought the unattainable, the ideal, the transcendental, not through any great belief in such things, but because this was how a man must think to truly experience those elements of life’s wonder that seemed beyond rational comprehension. Their audiences thought so, too. Romanticism remained popular well into the 19th century.
Notice the phrase, how a man must think. Key to the search for the elements of life’s wonder was action by the individual. In literature, such a point of view demanded the protagonist confront life with bravado and confidence. Exit Hamlet, enter the Byronic hero: rebellious, self-aware, confident, successful; a man of action, guided by convictions and individually capable of changing things. Recently, while watching the BBC television series Luther, I was struck by the degree to which the titular character embodied so many of the essentially individualistic traits celebrated in Romanticist literature: thinking for oneself; working alone outside of a stifling bureaucratic methodology; refusing to veer actions from convictions’ narrow path while all the time remaining steadfast in the righteousness of those actions; and all in the face of a ridiculous array of obstacles placed by those both trusted and opposed. Luther’s ethnicity, gender, or background are irrelevant. His struggle is that of the individual, not the persecuted member of a self-proclaimed identikit tribe. Luther the man, living in a thoroughly imaginable modern setting is an unadulterated Romanticist.
Staying with television, and in a similar vein to Luther, we find the not-so-different-as-you-think characters Christopher Foyle, in Foyle’s War, and George Gently in Inspector George Gently. Notice how the hero is named in the title. These programs are not principally about the plot line (usually murder) or their historical settings (the south coast of England during World War II and 1960’s Tyneside, respectively) but about the characters themselves and how they act virtuously regardless of time, place, or antagonism. The themes in the stories, neither simple nor callow, provide enough moral ambiguity not to leave the audience feeling intellectually insulted (thereby qualifying them as interpretive literature) and emerge through the choices made by the protagonist. The heroes’ destinies are not determined by circumstance, though they might claim otherwise, but through their own actions; any pain they endure comes from their own choices. I think it likely these programs will remain popular and will spawn imitators, suggesting Romanticism, in this medium at least, is still alive.
But what place does the Romantic hero hold in serious contemporary art that purportedly comments on the state of mankind as it exists in today’s reality? Can Romanticism even be used to explain mankind’s apparently parlous state? Is it not folly to think the individual can, and will, prevail against the odds? Is humanity in its modern guise not beyond seeing the world through vehicles of childish, escapist tales where the hero prevails, evil is thwarted, and the good live happily ever after? Don’t grown-up thinkers deserve better? Surely, they want an adult’s understanding and insight in art, not childish reassurances and happy endings.
Naturalism, the dominant intellectual movement of literature today, purports to provide this higher state of thinking by offering its perception of man’s place in the universe. It sees the individual as a victim, impotent in his opposition to forces beyond his control regardless of the choices he makes. “Look at the world,” their critical theory demands, “individuals are not heroes, they are victims of a struggle that they have no hope of conquering alone; highlight their struggles but not their individual successes, for these are gained at others’ expense and so perpetuate the struggle.” Such thinking eschews individual rebellion, heroism, and sublime emotions (unless induced by artificial means), and replaces them with conformity, self-deprecation, and numbed bemusement. Flawed man, a tragic figure destined to fail, is controlled by dominant groups and collectivist conflict. Where we are provided glimpses of individualistic volition, such actions and ambitions are thwarted for the sin of reaching too high, unless they are self-sacrificing. They swap gods and fate for dominant races, genders, or classes who rig circumstances in a malevolent system to foil justice. Against such forces, volition is futile; destiny, tragic. For the individual, remedy comes from recognizing the forces arranged before him, growing resentful, and identifying as oppressed. Along with being the antithesis of Romanticism, Naturalism is a refutation of the Enlightenment.
But how did this all come about? How did we move from Naturalism to Romanticism and then back to Naturalism? And why?
By the middle of the 19th century, the great exhibitions, displaying the best science had to offer, surpassed the art world in leading people’s fascination. It was the practical application of reason and scientific methodology that was seen to improve mankind’s development, not understanding in the humanities. Lamenting this loss, popular writers like Tennyson, Eliot, and Dickens decried the changes they saw and questioned whether things were indeed improving. Whatever material changes were wrought by science, some thinking people saw no improvement in mankind. But they wouldn’t. For them, individuals are not for improving. Naturalism, the artform of the collectivist, does not recognise the individual as heroic. The protagonist’s worthiness is not measured by the degree to which it overcomes its antagonists, but by how much suffering it is forced to endure. Exit the Byronic hero; enter Little Nell and Sidney Carton.
By the end of the 19th Century, Hugo was dead, Zola was in fashion, and the exuberant expression of the Romantic poets, as represented by the trite foppery of Beardsley and Wilde, proved insufficiently attractive for the growing mass of consumers clambering to indulge in artistic culture. Spying a growing audience keen to indulge in the arts, a movement emerged at the turn of the 20th century that hoped to assert its influence on what people liked through an epistemological legerdemain designed to confuse. This movement, a self-appointed establishment and commentariat, seeing the popularity enjoyed by the Impressionists, sought to direct consumer tastes further from the comprehensible and closer to the confused. By presenting banal items as art and heralding them as insightful commentary on mankind’s shameful modern existence, they took advantage of a new, credulous audience desperate to be seen indulging in higher culture. Playing on its doubts, it invited this public to join them, the anointed establishment, in seeing a new vision of art. That this was nothing short of a reactionary putsch, a throwback to when art appreciation and consumption were the exclusive preserve of a tiny elite who dictated taste and fashion, escaped most thinking people. The unwitting consumers, keen to be in tune with the establishment, fell for the folly and followed.
Like any good market maker, this arm of the art establishment quickly recognized an opportunity when it saw it. Self-identifying as progressive, labelling itself modern (thereby subtly implying the art of the past was somehow out of step in a rapidly changing world) they pushed their cause to increase their influence. The complex, the glorious, the melodic, maligned as old fashioned, increasingly found itself pushed aside in favor of infantile exhibitionism, atonalism, and downright fraud. The primitive, its hidden sagacity undiscovered, was lauded for its sophisticated expression. Form, having mutated into distortion, meant anything was sculpture, you just had to present it as such. And what of beauty? Why, they asked, was its inclusion in art ever thought to be important? Difficult to define, it excluded pieces with an alternative message, obstructed artists whose talents lay elsewhere, and hamstrung commentators who had to explain modern art’s actual quality. I like to think these knaves had a sense of humor and secretly laughed at their audience’s credulity, but in all probability, they believed their malfeasance to be legitimate thought.
Art is an essential element of culture. Today, culture is deemed the new religion. Certainly, one can observe objectively the popularity of fine art and classical music throughout the world. What is difficult to discern is whether the populous knows what it is accepting on faith. Good art, whether it be music, literature, painting, or architecture, is difficult to access and takes effort, concentration, contemplation, and knowledge to identify, let alone appreciate. But it is within most people’s ken, if they try. Many are aware that a fraud is afoot, yet feel insufficiently capable, intellectually, of calling out the play. They should not. When somebody heralds a kitsch piece as fine art, they are only demonstrating their own level of deception, or deceiving you. Disregard them, they will not help you to understand art.
If a basic understanding of art, which can be taught quite easily, is not difficult to acquire, who can deny that everybody should try to some degree, for it produces beneficial consequences, not the least of which is increased self-awareness? Understanding why a piece of art appeals tells the consumer (of art) something valuable about himself, provided the understanding is not gleaned second hand. “I like it because everybody says it’s good,” or “it’s good, it’s a so-and-so,” is not appreciating art. I say appreciation is not difficult to acquire, because it is not. But the consumer needs to know certain things to facilitate understanding; things that are common to all pieces of art. Like an Ordnance Survey map, once you learn the basics of how to read it, you can make sense of it to find out where you are and where you are going. Without that basic knowledge, the map doesn’t mean anything to you.
To understand art, you need to know that any art requires a theme and a style. Without these, it is not art. You need to recognize the point of view taken in the theme and ask yourself what you think of what the artist is saying. Don’t be shy. The artist has declared his audacity by confronting you with his thoughts and emotions. He wants your attention. Take a stand. Have a view. What is he saying? How does he say it? What style does he adopt? How effective is he at evoking your emotional responses? Later, through contemplation, you can find out more about the piece. If it is good art, there will be much to contemplate that won’t be immediately apparent.
Unfortunately, politics has entered the realm of art in a remake of the unholy alliance of religion and power. Such an alliance, opposed and denounced by Enlightenment thinkers and reviled by Romanticists for its compulsion towards groupthink, is more entrenched in the art world today than before. As a concrete example, when the late Roger Scruton, a philosopher and commentator on art, questioned mainstream views by pointing out that much of modern art was a hoax, he was hounded from his job of advising the government on the enduring importance of including beauty in buildings. That he was simply doing his job by telling the truth, mattered not; his views were heresy and heretics deserve everything coming their way. A spate of such occurrences labelled “cancel culture,” followed. Celebrated writers like J.K. Rowling were denounced by the modern equivalent of the Inquisition for pointing out a fact that contradicted a narrative championed by the art establishment, among others. Imagine her fate had Rowling promulgated and championed her opinions in her books, rather than on Twitter. Of course, she wouldn’t; her publishers wouldn’t let her. But what do Rowling’s views on transgender identification have to do with art? My thoughts, precisely. What more proof is there that politics has infested art appreciation?
Returning to our original question, why modern interpretive literature seems so averse to Romanticism, some of the responsibility must lie with education. A review of books assigned for reading by English departments in secondary schools across the country is telling. I see Lord of the Flies endures? I’ve met only one person who admitted to liking it. Of Mice and Men is still there, too, with its unashamedly Marxist view of Depression Era California. Is it really that good? Steinbeck has two other books on the list. Marxism’s glorious contribution to artistic style, Social Realism, or kitchen sink drama as it became colloquially known in Britain, gets further tribute through Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. How relevant is Willy Loman today? Running down the list, only Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter can be claimed as Romantic, the rest are Naturalist with strong ideological messages on subjects such as race, misogyny, and class. None have especially heroic protagonists.
I have no objection to such books being read widely, but why purge the antidote by ignoring individualism? If Steinbeck’s books on the horrors of dustbowl America are considered a valuable time capsule of the 1930s, why not Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I remember being assigned in grade school? Accessible and short (essential attributes for teenage readers), it paints a vivid picture of the horrors of the gulag in Stalinist Russia. Perhaps it is considered too painful a memory.
It doesn’t get any better for English literature students at university. They can only look forward to further brainwashing at the hands of a faculty touting Critical Theory with its vile assaults on anything written that does not conform to its canon of antihuman values. One student said to me recently, “You can’t say that; all truth is relative.” Really, I thought? Ignoring the absurd contradictory reasoning in such a statement, I wonder how relative and arbitrary her professors consider truth in the methodology of their Critical Theory? She would do well to ask them.
Whatever the reason for the paucity of Romantic novels being published, one should remain optimistic. Individualism as a point of view has not gone away, and so fertile ground remains. Isiah Berlin’s description of the emergence of Romanticism as:
is not just an apt (and eloquent) description of late 18th century Romanticism, it pertains to all of man’s existence. Individualism has always been with us and Romanticism won’t go away while the restless spirits of artists with their unappeasable yearnings for unattainable goals still live. They just need to up their game.