Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Category: literature

Romanticism (June 15th 2012)

Thinks it is sad how the word ‘romantic’ has taken on the kinds of associations that it has over the past hundred years or so. It has come to be connected to a particular kind of ‘love’, narrowly defined, between two people, taken apart from a community, and turned in upon each other. First there is the individual, then there is the couple, and then, perhaps, a very small nuclear family. ‘Roman…ce’ or ‘romanticism’, with the tonnes of expenditure and consumer waste that it creates is part of the perpetuation of this structure.

‘If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.’
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

It is also bound up with fairy tales, and with archetypes that real human beings constantly fail to measure up to. Even where ‘romantic’ is taken in a wider sense than the common use, it is often used to refer to what is unrealistic, what belongs in some fanciful world that lies beyond or above our own, and has little to do with what is really going on. Hence we have the positive ‘Ooooh, he’s so romantic’, alongside the negative ‘Isn’t that suggestion / political programme / view of humanity rather romantic?’

The romantic movement in art and literature was concerned in many cases with the real situations of people, and with what was present and possible in reality. ‘Jerusalem’ was not a distant land, or a promise of the next life, but rather something that we could build right here if we were prepared to take up the fight.

Yes, there was a sense that life was more than immediate appearances, but the beauty and truth of life was immanent in the world, not removed from it. Blake, Wordsworth and co.’s romanticism was rooted in the earth, both in the appreciation of the natural world and in the political aims of improving the situation of humanity.

Similarly, romanticism was about love, but the love that it describes is at once more general and more specific than the ‘romantic love’ of hearts and flowers and candlelight. It was more specific because of the immanence of truth and beauty in the particular. Features of each person, each object of natural beauty, each situation, demanded a loving attention that could only be achieved through an openness and receptivity to what that particular had to offer.

At the same time, such attentiveness leads the romantic, at least in Wordsworth’s case, to an understanding of how nature operates on many levels, and how it has a unity as well as a particularity. For Wordsworth, human beings are part of this. This is why the romantic can embrace the ideas of individuality, originality and self-direction, while having a deep and serious account of the notion of human fellowship. Through loving things in their particularity, we can achieve something like the idea of agape. It is only through this attention to the particular, and not through imposing preconceived abstractions or theoretical models that this becomes possible.

This is not to speak out against the notion of ‘romantic love’ as we might usually understand it. I would be a fool to do that. Rather, it is to say that the sort of attentiveness that we can have to a particular person should both reflect and absorb the idea that we are situated in a world that nurtures and supports us. The reclamation of the romantic is personal, political and ecological.

Wordsworth and Nature (June 11th 2012)

‘Unlike the variegated, intense whirl of cities, the Lake District impressed on the mind just a few permanent objects, but ones that changed subtly with the weather, the seasons and the characteristic activities pursued at different times of year. Instead of meaningless differences, random variety and blank confusion, the setting of life in rural England conveyed a sense of order and permanence, …of change within stable and predictable limits. In this sense Renaissance Platonism lived on in Wordsworth’s poetry, with the Forms now drawn down from the transcendent realm and objectified in rocks, mountains, lakes and forests.’ ~ Lewis and Sandra Hinchman, ‘What We Owe the Romantics’ Environmental Values 16 (2007)I think that there is something in this, although the Platonism connection is a little peculiar. I think that the abandonment of the ‘transcendent realm’ identified here is precisely what distinguishes Wordsworth from the Platonists, and it isn’t at all clear what talk of ‘the Forms’ could mean, beyond talk of form.

I think on the whole what is said about Wordsworth here is dead right though. Personally, I experience this a lot less in dramatic landscapes like the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and a lot more in Norfolk, where the flat mercurial watery landscape quietly reflects every subtle change in the big open skies.

The lack of drama in these landscapes took me a while to get used to (I have a tendency to be more Shelley than Byron, more expressionist than impressionist in my rather overblown tastes) but the change in my surrounding landscape is concurrent with the development of my thinking over the past year. The East Anglian landscape, like Wordsworth’s poetry, forces you to be passively attentive to the land, rather than simply to venture into it as some kind of thrill seeker.