Yes, we need to talk about Romanticism

(A reply to Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin) *

We need a robust discussion about Romanticism as has been properly introduced, though not for the first time in these pages. Some very important observations have been made with the proposal that Romanticism is something we “need to talk about”.

In fact, there is a serious need for placing much of the political and economic debate here and today in the context of cultural history. In a part of the world, or a population, that has been schooled for the past century to look forward and never look back — except under the most circumscribed and frankly quite dishonest conditions — it is indeed helpful and I have been arguing, essential to recognise broader processes which have shaped the Geist (culture) in which we live today.1   As I have also argued elsewhere we have no genuine access to the past but only to documents, which we ascribe to the past.2 We construct the past — to the extent we are interested in it at all — by ordering such documents and artefacts in a manner we call chronological (although often enough even the chronology has had to be revised).

For this reason, Romanticism as it has been described elsewhere, does reflect a point of departure for examining a bundle of attributes. These attributes are in turn historicised in the context of two cultural historical traditions. Let us leave aside chronology for a moment.3 Those traditions are Romanticism and Enlightenment. Since the discussion “we need” to have is one in the context of Western culture, a discussion of Enlightenment in other cultural contexts; e.g., Islam, can be deferred here. That is not because it is irrelevant but because it would exceed the scope of this intervention.

While one can certainly find sources that support the definition of Romanticism as focus on emotions, it is not very useful to suppose that emotions and sentiments are antonymous. The problem, which such a dichotomy attempts to address, is real. However, it can be stated in another way: why is the emotional as a source of consciousness and supposed font of knowledge of the world melded with possessive individualism? To say of Romanticism that; i.e.: “This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society’s ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism, and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance) and retarded “art’s frequently reiterated dedication to humanity”, is to no small degree anachronistic.

The inward-looking conception is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, which is better termed — vulgar Enlightenment. The Enlightenment secularised Christian salvific dogma, distilling sentiment from religious prescriptions. The inward-looking conception was a secularised form of Protestantism’s justificatio sola fide. Voltaire parodied this superficial substitution of rationalism for divine will in Candide.

In contrast the phenomena that triggered the extremes of Romanticism were the French Revolution and its apparent failure. All the major Romantics, especially the English Romantics like Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, were sincere supporters of the French Revolution.4 The myth of British liberty was fully discredited by the support Britain and its allies gave to the Reaction. The degree of disappointment cannot be exaggerated. The emotions which became the focus of Romantic poetry — and one must remember that until the latter part of the 19th century poetry was the mass cultural product par excellence, not the much later novel — were by no means expressions of individual self-absorption. On the contrary they were expressions of deep social despair. When Wordsworth returned from fighting in the French Revolution he spent some ten years living in London’s slums trying to come to terms with the failures in France. Byron’s “adventures” were clearly an expression of his inward disgust with Britain and a determination to fight it at every chance he had — dying in a war for Greek independence.5

The interpretation of Romanticism — the driving artistic and cultural force for revolution and utopianism in the 19th century — as an opposite to the Enlightenment is only possible if one takes today’s “inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings” ascribes it to Romanticism and projects this back to the documents and artifacts produced nearly two centuries ago.6

Romanticism has been a controversial concept for most of the 20th century. The term itself can be deceptive since its use is often an allusion to a cliché that, in fact, derived from the popular literature historically ascribed to the Enlightenment (late 18th century). Gerald Horne suggests — not without reason — that at least the British “Enlightenment” to which Adam Smith belonged was a rationalisation for political solutions innovated in the Western hemisphere in order to stabilise the colonial order there.7  The “sentiments” which were to lead Europeans to overlook ethnic and religious conflicts of a fratricidal nature would in turn permit even Jews to have rights in the New (colonised) World.

In contrast Romanticism became an expression of great despair at the failure of revolutionary forces and popular insurrection to overthrow the rationality by which the Church, the State and Capital maintained their domination.

Today people have already come to take “social distancing” for granted — within a mere six months. The Romantics were faced with enforced social distancing and vicious repression to which today’s “inward-looking” identity fixated Enlightenment followers are virtually (since real contact is avoided) committed with life and whatever genitals they may have accidentally acquired or developed.

Indeed we need to talk about Romanticism. However, there is not just one concept of Romanticism. So that it is still necessary to clarify the use of the term about which we intend to talk.

* We Need to Talk about Romanticism, Dissident Voice, August 1, 2020

  1. GWF Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), Morse Peckham argued that what Hegel meant could best be translated as “culture”. []
  2. See “Romanticism and War: Contextualising a theory of interpretation”, Dissident Voice (15 September 2016. []
  3. Not only is the value ascribed to the so-called Medieval epoch by artists; e.g., Walter Scott, a complex subject, it cannot be assumed that the periodicity upon which such cultural-historical paradigms are based is beyond question. It is at least safer to say that any assertion that a value or set of values is derived from the past or antiquity is under some conditions an affirmation and under others an condemnation. Thus the validation in reference to a past has to be distinguished from any other valuation criteria. []
  4. “I cannot, however, be insensible of the present outcry against the triviality and meanness both of thought and language, which some of my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into their metrical compositions; and I acknowledge, that this defect, where it exists, is more dishonorable to the Writer’s own character than false refinement or arbitrary innovation, though I should contend at the same time that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From such verses the Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them bas a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say, that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the  impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being  to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.“ William Wordsworth (1802) Preface to “Lyrical Ballads”. []
  5. T P Wilkinson, “Humour, Hatred, and History, or Byron’s Revolutionary Abandonment”, Bulletin de Liaison de Societe Francaise des Etude Byroniennnes, 2008, pp. 37-45. []
  6. Here I would like to draw explicit attention to the body of work on Romanticism by Morse Peckham (1914-1993), Explanation and Power, (1978); Man’s Rage for Chaos, (1967); and three volumes of essays: Romanticism and Behavior, Romanticism and Ideology, The Triumph of Romanticism. []
  7. Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, January 22, 2018. []
Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..