Romanticism has its roots in the middle of the eighteenth century, and is born from the literature that was being written for the embryonic middle-classes in
The theme of Love and Death:
Girodet, The Burial of Atala, 1808
It is particularly in Germany, in the work of Goethe and the ‘Sturm und Drang’ group in Frankfurt (Frankfurter Gelehrter Anzeiger), that this combination between sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit) and social realism is most characteristic and definitory, and as such, it is a perfect point of entry for a discussion of the various definitions of the subsequent Romantic movement that have been traditionally advanced in the study of literature, music and history, and that we shall explore here. In sum, we are going to begin our search for a historical definition of “Romanticism” from a consideration of it as ‘an affair of the heart.’
Caspar David Friedrich, Two Friends Contemplating the Moon 1819
“The Law of the Heart” What is it?
Goethe himself did not think his early work, his characteristic
“The Classical I call healthy and the Romantic sick . . . Most of the new poetry is not Romantic because it is new, but it is because it is weak, sickly, and ill, and the old is not Classical because it is old, but because it is strong, fresh, cheerful, and healthy.” (Conversations with Eckerman, April 2, 1829)
What is this weakness, this sickliness and ill health of which Goethe speaks? I will suggest to you that it is a lot of what we usually refer to as “Nostalgia.”
For Hegel, the separation of what he calls the Ideal (Art) [the Heart?] from the Real (Science) [Instrumental Reason?], is the beginning of the decline of a culture (of a “world-historical people”). (Cf. Introduction to the Greek World, in his Philosophy of History). The ‘sickliness’ of Romanticism is arguably that separation, it’s beginning, which leads through Modernism to the subjective idealism of our time.
“Romanticism” is usually associated in our culture with young heterosexual love, with the romance of infatuation, with the notion of a ‘get-away’ of two people who love each other, in short, with the sort of associations conjured up by the Valentine’s Day celebration. How can we make this fit our own approach as the aesthetic of the “heart?”
To begin with, ‘the law of the heart,’ the preoccupation with the things of the heart, of sentiment and emotion, should not be limited to love, and certainly not to sexual love.
Gros, The young Napoleon at Arcola, 1796
Romanticism also invokes the idea of the love of country, for example. I suggest to you the great patriotic orations of a poet like Manuel Jose Quintana. And, with reference to Spanish poets, I reference the Rimas (Rhymes) of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, always c onsidered as being within the Canon of Romanticism, and many of which pertain to death and cemeteries and graves. Death is as much a part of the Romantic vision as Love, and in the little book of Goethe, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther,’ Werther's death by suicide is the logical conclusion of his love for Lotte Buff.
To return to Manuel Jose Quintana for a moment, it is not a coincidence that patriotic fervor is associated with Romantic literature. Romanticism is the discourse of the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie in
Delacroix, La liberte guidant le peuple, 1830
The story of Argentine independence has always been told in Romantic terms: the blue and white ribbons distributed on the day of the Revolution, the talk of freedom and national greatness as joint aspects of a volcanic eruption of spirit, the national anthem which was sung in the salons of
"El abrazo de Maipu"
San Martin and O'Higgins in 1817
Subercaseaux, El Abrazo de Maipu, 1908
Romanticism is also the macabre, the ghoulish, the spooky and unnatural. The paintings of Fuseli and the monster created by Frankenstein, both derive from the same preoccupation with the abnormal of naturalistic derivation.
Dr. Frankenstein, incidentally, was a reader of ‘Werther.’
What we see in Fuseli is an exaltation of emotion, of fear. It is this keenness for emotion, the frisson of sentiment that is a commonality in the movement. The common denominator being the cultivation of the affairs of the heart, whatever their psychological origin, a fetishization of emotional states.
Why do I focus on nostalgia as, perhaps, a possible trigger for this type of discourse? What is it that this cultural movement seeks to return to? What does it ache to return to? Or, which is the same thing, what sort of lack does this movement articulate?
This is an issue that could be approached from a political as well as a psychological or esthetic perspective. An esthetic is always a reconciliation of the individual body with the state, an organic adaptation to hegemony, and this is what an exploration of the Romantic’s lack would yield. Clearly, the bourgeoisie was not yet at home in the European states of the early 19th century. In Hölderlin’s Odes and Hymns, the sense of absence is keenly felt: the gods have departed, and all that is left is sadness and despair.
Despite Keats’ Grecian Urn, Romanticism is not a cult of Beauty. The ugly is also present, and highlighted. Or perhaps I should say ‘the exaggerated’ rather than ‘the ugly,’ as is evident from the Fuseli painting above, and the following, of the blind
Henry Fuseli, The Blind Milton Dictating to His Daughters, 1793
"The child is father to the Man," says Wordsworth in a little poem entitled My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold, written in
Henry Raeburn, The Allen Brothers, 1792
The discovery of the Ego
Kant’s “Copernican revolution” includes the notion of “productive imagination” (the energy presupposed by the unity of apperception: something touched and seen would be two objects were it not for that unity, which relies on the “power of the imagination”) The notion of “productive imagination” is the activism which sets perception and cognition in motion, and which Kant got from Rousseau’s Emile. The individual, according to Rousseau, can only have a sensation if he enters previously into a “sensation of self,” which is the Ego. The unity of the Ego therefore ensures the unity of the external objects. “I am, therefore I think.”
Safranski calls the thought of the Romantic period, ‘the wild years of philosophy.’ These started with the Kantian revolution, “with the demagification of traditional metaphysics, the erosion of traditional faith, with the pragmatic empowering of the subject and with the diversion of curiosity from the ‘world in itself’ to the production patterns of a ‘world for myself.’ The old ‘order of things’ (Foucault) broke up with Kant and gave birth to that modernity whose magic we may have lost but which we have still not overcome.” (Rudiger Safranski, The Wild Years of Philosophy, p. 63)