Romanticism and Modernism

Someone sent me a link to this most illuminating article.

Owen Barfield’s Critical Semantics: Diagnosing Modernity in History in English Words

I make my living by translating texts, substituting concepts in French by equivalent English ones, using the most appropriate words possible. Translating is not easy. Technical stuff needs ultra-precise translation with the right technical terms. Literary prose needs a much more supple approach, and is much more dependant on the translator being culturally “connected”. I have tried journalistic and advertising translations, and I have always done badly. I am not culturally connected with that milieu, and so I stick to technical stuff. It is safe, dull, but safe. I don’t make money out of the writing I like to do. That’s the way it is.

Words are important, but even more so are the concepts and ideas behind them. I have been speculating about the subject of Modernism, and what that word conventionally means and what it should mean. In the world of theology and churchmanship, we find a considerable amount of confusion between the various strands of late nineteenth century theology and world views and the authorities in Rome lumping them all together to create a nemesis to emphasise their orthodoxy, a heresy by the name of Modernism.

In reality, it is not possible to get any understanding of this question until one has looked at the history of philosophy and ideas since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, not only in theology but also in culture generally. This article is a review of a book that I have not read (but it needs to be read) about what I might be tempted to call a philosophy of language. There are sciences of linguistics and philosophy of language, so I make no original claim here. It is a question of world view and mentality, the way words change their meanings. Without such notions of linguistics, philosophy of analogy and knowledge of culture, we bash each other’s brains out for the use of words – reading the same word but understanding different concepts.

We need to take a step back from the words and look at the concepts. Is Modernism a “modern” mentality based on the Enlightenment idea of progress and rationalism? Is Modernism a new form of Romanticism reacting against mechanisation, dehumanisation, excessive rationalism and the erosion of the spiritual? That is the question we have to ask when we read papal documents from the 1900’s, whose intellectual honesty is questionable. I see just about nothing in common between Loisy and Tyrrell, though they were lumped together for the sake of opposing them against official Thomist orthodoxy. In reality, Tyrrell was a (neo) Romantic and not a modernist. As an Anglican, I’m not really bothered about what Rome says to judge its critics and adversaries, but the term is used in general culture and other religious contexts. Roman Catholic polemics have spilled over the walls of the citadel. Therefore, it has to be addressed in the present polemical climate opposing conservatism and liberalism / modernism. Very often, the extremes meet and traditionalists become modernists and those who were accused of modernism are in fact traditional(ists).

The Enlightenment undoubtedly brought many positive things like scientific discovery and a greater emphasis on reason to combat prejudice and obscurantism. There was undoubtedly a lot of abuse and inhumanity on account of “irrational” beliefs, like for example attributing disease and crop failure to witchcraft and other forms of scapegoating. The Enlightenment also brought large numbers of people to live in cities and be put to work in the new factories. For the first time, men began to be alienated from his roots. The “superstitious” ways of country dwellers gave way to the arts, philosophy and culture. Science led to scepticism. Man set himself above nature, and the result now is atomic energy and fracking! We are destroying our world – and ourselves. Going by the evidence, humanity is suffering from genetic degeneration (there are different scientific and pseudo-religious theories to explain it), and our species will eventually die like each one of us suffering from old age and disease. We just have to accept this truth and put ourselves in the hands of God.

What I find interesting about this article is how a precise point is identified. It opens our eyes. We humans are separated and alienated (alien meaning other) from everything else. We place ourselves above everything and believe that everything is for our use. Of course, the idea of that is read in Genesis. This manipulation of our world places man in a position in which he does not participate. Finally, the same process happens to our culture. We no longer participate in it. We look at paintings, listen to music, visit churches – but their meaning is gone. So-called “culture” is something that is controlled and paid for by mechanised bureaucracies, and are simply there for the consumer. Being called a “consumer” is also something that gets up my nose!

Historical study in ineffective at conveying any ability to understand the ancient and medieval world view. We have to make abstraction of all the influence we have suffered from modernity, ideas of progress and evolution of man’s right to everything and sense of entitlement. Ideas of humility, regeneration and amendment are foreign to our culture. It is of no wonder that no one understands the notion of sin. Our modern assumption is that our ancestors lived in darkness, and only we have light and objectiveness. This old and hackneyed assumption continues to be rehashed by well-known atheist career writers.

Self-consciousness… seems to have first dawned faintly on Europe at about the time of the Reformation, [but] it was not until the seventeenth century that the new light really began to spread and lighten.

We have discussed the self-consciousness of our aspiration to recover the old mentality and the notion of tradition. We are self-conscious about ourselves, all adoring our reflection like Narcissus. In the medieval world view, man was devoted to the other. Modern man is concerned for himself. Hyper-rationalism, leading ultimately to modern bureaucracy, was based on a kind of utopianism. A few words to describe it:

arrange, category, classify, method, organize, organization, regular, regulate, regularity, system, systematic

There are hundreds of other words too. We immediately recognise the culture of modern corporations and the way of having people work and think. I have done many translations on project management in industry and things like quality control. Factories mass-produce components for machines, and one can only imagine the boredom of men working on the assembly line. I have done it myself and stuck it out for a couple of months before finding a more “human” job in retailing. Humans themselves become machines, that is until such a time as a machine can be invented to take their place. Quality is ensured by “mechanical” means like the FMEA method (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) which is implemented mainly in the automotive industry. One cannot imagine anything less human! The less human it is, the more the product is rational and constant in quantity and quality.

It is a world that revolts me, but I make money out of it as so many others do. As a bureaucrat shuffles paper and vacuous concepts, I am brought to do the same thing. The more voluminous, the more words I can ratchet up on my monthly invoice! The Machine came in with the Industrial Revolution, and is not merely mechanisation in industry and manufacturing but the electronic high technology we are using in our computers and smart phones. There have been protests, but everything continues to go the same way.

The life of the spirit is gone together with our humanity. It seems that we have everything to fear in the future. We read about transhumanism, the stuff of science fiction and dystopia, the idea of mixtures of machines and human beings until you get machines mimicking humans like the Terminator. Is it a good thing to think – oh well, I just have another twenty to thirty years to go, perhaps less. What about our children and grandchildren? I suppose the early twentieth-century generation thought the same thing as they lived through the Nazi era and worried about their “silent era” and “baby boom” children.

What about restoring the spiritual life of man? Most strategies of evangelisation look to me to be moulded in the same mentality that runs factories producing car parts. The modern “mega-church” is exactly that. Its goal is political and ideological, a sort of right-wing version of what Marxism is to liberation theology. Roman Catholicism has also become a machine. It opposes “the absolute value and infinite potentiality of each human soul“.

As we read the article, we come to the notion of Romanticism, which is characterised by the notion of imagination, a rediscovery of the reality of the external world and begins to grasp that world as living rather than dead, as vital and spontaneous rather than as mechanistic and determinate. Romanticism looks to the notion of transcendence and regeneration. The Romantics, as all of us, were victims of the world that formed them. They were not perfect, but were on the right way, which is why we need to select the good points and separate the wheat from the chaff. Percy Shelley, like Lord Byron, must seem to have been very selfish and morally degenerate men – but that does not invalidate their deepest intuitions.

Our communion with the world is not only Christian but also Pagan. Nature is not soulless matter, but something living and full of meaning. The Romantics explored the world, navigated, climbed mountains and soared above the mechanistic determinism society tries to impose on all. This is why Romanticism seeks to see behind the construct of mechanisation and rationalism to rediscover the wealth of the forgotten medieval world. Medievalism sought another way of living and experiencing, of participating in creation. Romanticism is an attempt to open consciousness and to evolve spiritually.

I do not expect Romanticism ever to be more than a minority leaven. Otherwise, it too would be mechanised, rationalised and given its price tag. It would, like most “diseased” Christianity, cease to have any intrinsic meaning. We need to read authors like René Guénon, Nicolas Berdyaev, T. S. Eliot and Tolkien – not to become “fans” but to understand what they were looking for. We cannot escape the Machine entirely, but there are things we can reasonably do like live in the country, in intentional communities (which are limited from the modern influence to which they have to conform to survive), spend time in nature – whether sailing, cycling, hiking, mountaineering, etc. We necessarily become marginal and self-conscious, another part of the modern curse.

I think these considerations will clarify our use of the word modern and modernist. If it means the process of dehumanisation and rationalism I have described, there is not way it can be compatible with any kind of spiritual life, whether monotheistic or pagan. If it means an attempt to reinvigorate our parched desert of modernity with spirituality presented in a way that we can assimilate and accept it, that is another matter.

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4 Responses to Romanticism and Modernism

  1. Stephen K says:

    In one fell swoop, we can dispense and liberate ourselves from the often stultifying and oppressiveness of intellectual analysis of the spiritual dimension, and simply access it; jettison the self-absorption of religion’s fascination with its own mechanics, and simply experience the best it has to offer. Here is proof that heaven and angels exist.

    • ed pacht says:

      Um, Stephen, I’m a little confused here. Are you trying to banish the intellectual/rational faculties of humankind from religious discourse?

      “In one fell swoop, we can dispense and liberate ourselves from the often stultifying and oppressiveness of intellectual analysis of the spiritual dimension, and simply access it…”

      Is it wrong to think about and examine the actual content of our belief and practice, or is it all merely an asthetic, emotional, and/or mystical ‘experience’? I’m afraid I find such a concept to be more than a little off-putting, even frightening. Religion, at least in a Judeo-Christian context, has content, about which humankind is called to think. It is this objective substance on which the spirit builds genuine experience, and spiritual experience takes on real-world existence precisely when it intelligently examined.

      Yes, Libera does produce exquisitely beautiful music, as does much of the traditional Christian milieu from which the group comes, but this beauty is the vehicle for and the expression of the content of what they are singing. If the words are vapid, or even more if they are false, such beauty can in itself become stultifying, a mere appeal to empty estheticism, or perhaps even the vehicle of a false and damaging message.

      Yes, it is indeed possible, “in one fell swoop”, to rid oneself of substance and content, and to convert all ‘spirituality’ into a self-pleasing estheticism.

      I can see nothing better than this in what you wrote here, but I don’t believe you really hold to the radical anti-intellectualism that this post is presenting. Is there room in your religion for rationality and real content?

    • David says:

      Intellectual analysis is not the problem. The Patrisic writers and doctors did just that, but they did not have to contend with ultrascholasticism (side note: scholasticism is just fine if you use it in its proper context and don’t exclude every other theological approach) or rationalism. The heart and the mind each have their place and disposing of either one is a recipe for disaster.

      Here is something to consider: Heinrich Klee was considered a staunch defender of orthodox Christianity for his stand against rationalism. A few decades later, George Tyrrell was condemned for opposing overgrown rationalism in Catholicism.

      I can think of few things more anti-intellectual than the leviathan of the “anti-modernist” establishment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No, intellectualism and engaging the mind on matters of the faith is not the issue. Rationalism and rigid cookie cutter neo-Thomism is.

      “You should descend to your heart from your head… The life is in the heart, so you should live there. Do not think that this applies only to the perfect. No, it applies to everyone who begins to seek out the Lord.” – Theophan the recluse

      • ed pacht says:

        Right on! “ultra-scholasticism” is the one extreme, deifying reason at the expense of the heart. That is plain wrong. On the other hand, much of modern “spirituality” is very deliberate in rejecting reason and objective content and deifying subjective experience. This is also very wrong. Experience, even when it cannot be rationally categorized or described is a very real part of existence, BUT it must be evaluated, even judge, in the light of objective content by the use of reason. Reason, on the other hand, does little for the spirit unless it lead to experience beyond the reasonable. The Christian and Catholic faith, so far as I can see, is far beyond any of the others in striking the balance, providing the believer avoids the temptation to overbalance one way or the other.

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