The more I think about the question of Romanticism and the way this theme has popped up time and time again in history, the more I see it not as a movement or anything to promote in general terms, but rather something to identify in individual persons. The Wikipedia article on Romanticism is a good introduction to the various themes that make up this historical, philosophical cultural and psychological phenomenon.
I last read Bernard M.G. Reardon’s Religion in the Age of Romanticism when I was at Fribourg and prepared my contribution to a church history seminar on Félicité de Lamennais in a wider context of Liberalism. I have begun to read this book again after so many years. What is identified as Romanticism by historians of cultures is seen as its strongest in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. It experienced a “neo” revival at the very end of the nineteenth century, which lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Under its various facets, it is expressed in some modern sub-cultures like that of the Goths. I have always appreciated its manifestation in the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. Everything is linked.
I see Romanticism less as a movement or something to be promoted, but rather a kind of personality or temperament of persons living in any era of history, including our own. It is seen as a type of personality by some methods of psychological profiling, Enneagram for example. Romanticism as a psychological type profile is highly revealing. We find priority given to feelings and emotion, sensitivity and expression. The Romantic is idealistic, emotionally deep and compassionate. This is the artistic temperament which Oscar Wilde developed in his passionate letter to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol. This letter shows Wilde in his bitter situation of a prisoner and a pariah, a ruined man, but the thoughts are profound.
Many times, Wilde speaks of an artistic temperament, a quality in a person made to create and express. He sees the life of Christ as that of an artist – he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself. He identifies Christ with the Romantic kind of personality. For Wilde, the important aspect is the imagination, which is the sole secret of creation. And then – Christ’s place indeed is with the poets. His whole conception of Humanity sprang right out of the imagination and can only be realised by it. What God was to the pantheist, man was to Him. This imagination would not only give a fount of creative energy but also an infinite capacity for compassion with less fortunate people.
Individualism is another characteristic of Romanticism, not one of atomisation and selfishness as in our consumer society, but one of being oneself rather than behind the mask of another person. The immanence of God’s kingdom is an aspect we will find in Wilde as in the “modernism” of Fr George Tyrrell. The Romantic notion of individualism would perhaps equate with Jung’s notion of individuation – a person becomes himself through a process of self-discovery, asceticism and work. It is the search for self-knowledge and there for knowledge of God – Gnosis. Wilde puts it in a nutshell – Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. It takes guts to be ourselves.
He contrasted the romance of the middle ages with the dreary classical Renaissance, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. Is this not the very message of Lent, following the spirit and not the mere letter of God’s law? The difference is defined by the relationship between reason and feeling – fides et ratio. In Wilde’s mind, we have the vital contrast between compassion and the treasuring of love over the ostentatious shows of charity Victorian philanthropists showed to justify themselves in their unimaginative convention. In that, human nature has not changed over the past hundred years! Knowledge is something other than the simple acquisition of information with the inability to assimilate and interiorise it.
But it is when he deals with a sinner that Christ is most romantic, in the sense of most real.
How is this? I see it as the capacity for empathy and love, instead of the desire to make people conform to conventions blindly and uncritically. Christ was not interested in reforming people, but healing them from the inside out. As Wilde castigated the Victorian Pharisee, he comes out with the most radical ideas:
There were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since. I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi.
What was so special about St Francis of Assisi? One aspect of Romanticism is its ability to see things at their roots. What is important is not specific artistic skill or belonging to an elite, but an attitude in life. Knowledge of God is accessible to all those who have humility, which Wilde and I would interpret as true self-knowledge in what is good as well as our sins and weaknesses. In a certain way, Romanticism is our quest for innocence.
The Romantic is more deeply and subtly aware of his emotions than many others, but typically is not narcissistic in the sense of being insensitive to the needs and feelings of other people. Empathy is not missing as in the case of the sociopath. Nostalgia is also a characteristic of this kind of temperament, which can lead to melancholy and mal du siècle. Few things are more distasteful than what is mechanical, dull, commonplace, vulgar, ugly, banal or in bad taste. The Romantic is also capable of excessive introspection and dark thoughts. The shadow or the “dark side” is always present.
I see no sign in Wilde or the Romantics of the early nineteenth century to attempt to recruit others and acquire them to their world view. If some kind of “movement” came together, it would be by like-minded persons of this temperament coming together. In my experience, just trying to get something together, anything, is doomed to failure. Romantics are not leaders and organisers. Romantics just are – and usually live their lives alone and on their own terms. Seen under this aspect, Romanticism is a characteristic of some human beings in any age and cultural framework, including our own. It comes to the fore by reaction against opposite temperaments and cultural developments. At this level, I find many parallels between the Romantic era, the neo-Romantic era of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth and now. We react against the dehumanisation of man, excessive rationalism, consumerism and mechanisation, conventions, collectivism and all the things we lament about. We simply want to be human beings and have the freedom to think and live outside the box.
Such a view gives me another view of Christianity as a faith, a way of life and a religion. Christianity transcends institutional churches as it does over dull orthodoxies and respectabilities. I probably have more in common with the “neo-romantic” temperament than with the original characters of the Napoleonic era. There was a downside. It escapes rational definition.
The word Romanticism means so many things, between precise historical eras, cultural characteristics, philosophies and the psychological dimension. It is said that modern Existentialism is a development of Romanticism. Try understanding Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and Wojtyla! As a form of philosophy, Romanticism is opposed to classicism, but classicism is not easy to define either. Different artists and authors had their own definitions or evasions of definition. Another difficulty is the extreme diversity within the “movement” of religious opinions, from Liberal Catholicism that developed into modern Ultramontanism to scepticism and atheism.
Classicism is perhaps defined by its sense of order and harmony. For Romanticism, striving and struggle are of the essence. Reality is no longer seen as static but dynamic. Here we see the famous dialectical view of history of Hegel and the cleavage between Scholastics and Modernists. The Romantic goes more for imagination and constructiveness than for classical analysis and criticism. For all its mysticism, the Romantic soul is weighed down by the pessimism of Byron and Chateaubriand, the notorious mal du siècle. The quintessence of Romantic melodrama is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein written in 1816 as volcanic ash from Indonesia deprived the planet of its summer. Romanticism was very critical of treating religion as science. Let experience replace apologetics and proofs of this and that! Idealism is very much a product of German Romanticism.
Another less fortunate side of Romanticism was in the hands of Liberals like Prosper Guéranger, Félicité de Lamennais and others of that school so frowned upon by Gregory XVI. In the wake of the French Revolution and the spiritual vacuum it left behind, Romantics yearned for tradition, and with it, authority. The parallel movement in England gathered around Newman and Pusey in Oxford. It is a paradox that the individualism of Romanticism sought infallible authority. Joseph de Maistre was one of the most outspoken “proto-ultramontanists”. Lamennais broke with the Gallican tradition and appealed to the Papacy, which would respond by calling his plea for separation of Church and State madness. In the end, Lamennais broke with Catholicism and any form of Christianity. The Oxford Movement, almost by telepathy, developed along the same lines. Some converted to Roman Catholicism and others developed Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England. Since those days, many lessons have been learned.
I have mentioned the “dark side”, which is the condition of every human being, the myth of Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus. The contemporary Goth movement, successors of the Punk Rockers of the 1980’s, has seized this dark and stormy side of Romanticism. There is much negativism, introspection and even a demonic tendency. We return to the mal du siècle and the modern-day acedia, a sense of boredom and depression, sometimes a desire for death with or without thoughts of suicide. Some of these malaises would later come under the care of Freud and Jung following the same theme of individuation and self-knowledge.
I recognise some of these tendencies in my own life and how I can only be sceptical about the optimism of others. Optimism and daring are things to be learned to compensate for our spiritual ills. I have found a considerable amount of wisdom and guidance in the writings of Jung, because he, unlike Freud, understood the spiritual nature of the soul. I have had much work to do in my life, as I have known about my Romantic tendencies in various manifestations for nearly all my life.
As a trait of personality, when it occurs in young men, it comes over strongly and is expressed in almost an obsession for mystical and liturgical traditions in Catholic or Orthodox Christianity. I don’t think I have ever found it in women, though many of the old Romantic novelists and writers were women like Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley. Romanticism is not the same thing as sentimentalism!
As a priest, I am certainly well placed to help clarify the thoughts and self-awareness of others of the same “type” of personality. I don’t live like in the early nineteenth century, or any time other than my own. I live in the midst of people of our own times. Some things reassure and other things are frightening. I see the end of conventional parish ministry, at least as far as I am concerned. Many non-Romantic priests find Romantics difficult to understand and easily accuse us of wanting to be in a different historical era in some kind of fuzzy illusion as to the reality of that time. Perhaps modern psychiatry has its names and categories, but is still in its infancy as a science, if indeed it is a science.
I think that any attempt to create a Romantic “movement” would be unhealthy, but I think that these tendencies need to be recognised in people, understood and channelled into the arts and the notion of the religious vocation. This is definitely a sorely needed pastoral calling.