Romantic possibilities

'Romanticism' is another excellent contribution to Phaidon's series on Art and Ideas. It is a difficult concept to define, so wisely David Blayney Brown does not try! His chapters are thematic and demonstrative rather than definitional. To quote Wittgenstein, 'Romanticism' was a form of life in which overlapping strands shared a family resemblance - you recognise it when you see it but cannot capture that seeing in a neat, orderly category.

Romanticism shaped our view of the artist as a vocated individual summoned by genius who projected themselves into a hoped for future or a gilded past to judge (and criticise) the unsatisfactory present. It was a present, the opening of the nineteenth century, that saw an encroaching, and dehumanising, industrialisation, so it exalted nature, the exotic and the 'other' worldly. It confronted the reason of Enlightenment with a renewed, personalised sense of feeling. Reason paradoxically had given rise to the frenzied mobbing of revolution and an authoritarian Empire (of Napoleon) spreading faux liberation. Feeling would bring a deeper recognition of the importance of particular cultures and of place.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that though it deals with the art (and its social context) in an exemplary fashion, it is more uncertain (and superficial) in its exploration of ideas. It as if we imagined that 'feeling' cannot be a category of knowing, that we agree with Pascal that the heart has its reasons and that reason cannot know these, which is true but we cannot stop there. As Pascal knew and we have forgotten, there is another faculty of the soul that apprehends truth - the intellect and its intuitive knowing. It was a way of knowing that was a heart of the 'Romantic', grounded as it was, in a renewed appreciation of the Platonic, knowing that consciousness is the prior reality in which matter is grounded.

It is the purity of consciousness that truly matters because it is that, to quote Blake, that ensures we see aright.

This is, at the heart, of what Blayney Brown does not see. He sets up the usual contrast between the classical Goethe and the Romantic. But Goethe is not an enemy, not 'classical' in any Enlightenment sense. His critique of Romanticism is not about its rejection of a rational (and mechanistic) way of knowing but in its lack of providing a rigorous alternative, grounded in an intellectually rigorous yet intuitive way of knowing. Romanticism too often slided into exalting feeling. Feeling that had degenerated into sentiment. Feeling was simply emotion, not emotion purified in intellect.

Like the Polish Nobel prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, I wonder what delight it would have been if the patrician Goethe had met his contemporary the plebeian Blake. They would have understood each other perfectly, in a deep sense, because they recognised that an opposition to the world of Newton's sleep had to be grounded not in mere sentiment (however loudly expressed) but in a renewed imaginative vision, endowed with a deep coherence where intellect marries heart.

Be this as it may, it is an admirable and illuminating survey - I especially appreciated the sections on Goya and Turner and a recognition of their individualistic but deeply felt engagement with the religious and a sound contrast between 'scepticism' and 'atheism'. We all ought to be sceptics about our presumed understanding of religion (and its wider practice) but that should never invalidate the depth of our actual commitment.


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