I often ask myself why people around us often seem sad and bored, especially young people, and especially in Europe. One thing I have discovered when reading about Romanticism is how similar many aspects of our time are to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Romantics denounced the same things as we do today: the dark satanic mills and extreme financial difficulties of countless people, victims of pitiless capitalist economics. The years following the French Revolution were also a period of materialism and spiritual emptiness. In the upper classes, a certain spiritual ailment reigned. It was called in French the Mal du Siècle, inability to live in one’s time. It was a kind of boredom and melancholy, something between acedia and clinical depression.
Victor Hugo described it in Les Travailleurs de la Mer – “La mélancolie est un crépuscule. La souffrance s’y fond dans une sombre joie. La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste“. Melancholy is a sunset. Suffer melts into dark joy. Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.
We often find this sadness among the artists and writers of those days when Napoleon’s France and George III’s England were still at war, when the map of Europe was being redrawn. The individual feels unable to relate to society and revolts against a political system that crushes the artist. We feel a feeling that there is no past and no future. Alfred de Musset wrote On ne sait, à chaque pas que l’on fait, si l’on marche sur une semence ou sur un débris. Each time we take a step, we don’t know whether we are treading on a seed or debris. It is surprising to find as much in the way of nihilism in those days as now among our post-modern young people. We can hardly mention Musset without also bringing up Chateaubriand’s René.We find many of the same themes in Delius’ opera Fennimore and Gerda.
We doubtless find the same spiritual emptiness and apathy to beauty as in those days two hundred years ago. The parallels are the same between the rationalism of the eighteenth century and our own atheism, the industrial revolution to the development of the same thing today.
Two hundred years ago, it was the period of Romanticism, when some reacted through moroseness and others through art and beauty. It was a sort of “counter-enlightenment”. I am sceptical about “counter” movement as with the Counter Reformation (and the Reformation). Apart from the moroseness of some, I see a great amount of energy and unity in a movement of extremely diverse personalities over a long time scale. Romanticism is a consequence of the French Revolution, and many of its proponents had a wide range of conservative and progressive views.
We find many inner goals in this movement, namely a Platonic notion of beauty, spiritual freedom and creativity, the ideas in later Russian philosophers like Berdyaev whom I have admired for many years. There is a notion of freeing the heart and emotions from the dictatorship of reason. Romanticism and its era in the early nineteenth century reflect many of the things we think, feel and say today.
There are many popular subcultures evoking ideas of Romanticism, and I see strands of continuity. We should try to live fully in our own times (we cannot live in any other) but with many of the more positive and constructive ideas Romanticism had to offer in its own time. It is a world view with which I sympathise.
To provide lines for comments, I would like to put out several ideas with which some of us might identify:
- A reaction against the intellectualism of the Enlightenment, against excessively rational theology and thought,
- A reaction against the rigidity of social structures protecting privilege,
- A reaction against the materialism of an age which, in the first stirring of the Industrial Revolution, already shows signs of making workers the slaves of machinery and of creating squalid urban environments.
- A response to emotion and the ‘heart’ more than reason, the desire for mystery rather than clarity of concepts, the primacy of the conscience and the person over social conventions and demands, perhaps underpinning many of the cultural characteristics of the 1960’s.
I also recommend an attentive reading of this article.
They felt that, for human beings, it was our own day-to-day living that was the centre of our search for the truth. Reason and the evidence of our senses were important, no doubt, but they mean nothing to us unless they touch our needs, our feelings, our emotions. Only then do they acquire meaning. This “meaning” is what the Romantic movement is all about.