HISTORY OF IDEAS Romanticism – Free Ebook

Romanticism is one of the most important historical events of all time. Unlike a lot of what gets called history, romanticism isn’t a war or a piece of technology or a political event. It refers to the birth of a new set of ideas. It is about a mindset and a way of feeling. Romanticism began in Western Europe in the mid-18 century, in the work of artists, poets and philosophers. And it subsequently spread all over the world. Changing how millions of people look at nature, children, love, sex, money and work. We are all now more or less in some aspect of our sensibilities romantics. Romanticism is best understood as a reaction to the birth of the modern world and some of its key features: industrialization, urbanization, secularization and consumerism. What follows, are some of the central moments in the history of romanticism: The Marais, Paris, May 1762. The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes a book about the raising of children: “Emile” or “On Education”. It contains diatribes against the oppressive world of adults. And praises the natural goodness, spontaneity and wisdom of little children. It is at points extremely anxious to get mothers to breast-feed their offspring. The first sustained argument for this practice in western civilization. The world around Rousseau is growing ever more, rational, scientific and technologically based. It is increasingly sensible, planned, sterile and bureaucratic. Against all of these, Rousseau emphasizes the child, the original rebel, the representative of everything that is pure, unschooled and outside of adult discipline. It is the seat of creativity and genius. For the first time in Western history, glamour is directed not at the attainment of reason and adult self control, But at the freedom from tradition and the natural, innocence and the sweetness of the child. Brook Street, London, August 1770 A precocious 17 year old poet called Thomas Chatterton downs some arsenic and ends his life in a tiny attic apartment. He kills himself because no one wants to publish his poetry which is concerned with beauty and wisdom. And because his uncomprehending family are applying pressure for him to become a lawyer. A cult soon grows up around the young beautiful poet with shoulder length chestnut hair. He becomes an emblem of something that will become very important for romantics: the idea of the sensitive, doomed person often an artist rejected by a cruel, vulgar world. Chatterton stands at the head of a long line of romantic heroes that will stretch from Byron to Keiths to Van Gogh, and eventually all the way to Jim Morris and Amy Winehouse. Romanticism borrows from Christianity. The romantic hero is a secularized Christ like figure. The loser who is in truth deeply noble in the eyes of the few who understand. Leipzig, Germany, 1774 The German author Goethe publishes the quintessential romantic love story: The Sorrows of Young Werther. It tells the story of a passionate doomed love affair between a young poet called Werther and a beautiful clever young woman called Charlotte. Unfortunately for Werther, Charlotte is married. So the love is impossible from the very start but that doesn’t stop Werther, a dreamy and practical young man who loves the arts above all else. Like chatterton, Werther is under pressure to have a sensible career and join bourgeois life but he can think of only one thing: The impulses of his heart. Eventually Werther can’t take it anymore and kills himself but rather than condemning him as a lunatic and a hothead, Goethe one of the founding fathers of Romanticism directs all our sympathies towards Werther. We are supposed to be on his side admiring his passionate and entirely impractical attitude to love. The book becomes the most popular novel of a generation. Three million copies are printed. Napoleon declares it the greatest work of European literature and it dramatically changes how many people think of love, privileging dramatic outpourings of feeling over more traditional rational concerns for class lineage and money. For a romantic it’s always right and Noble to follow your heart. The disastrous results that follow aren’t any argument that just proof of how desiccated and heartless the so-called adult sensible world can be. Madrid, spain, 1798 The artist Francisco Goya produces one of his most iconic images titled “The Sleep of Reason Brings out Monsters”. It captures a quintessential romantic interest in the limits of reason and the power of the irrational over humans fragile minds. To be romantic is to have sympathy for madness and to hold an almost vengeful attitude towards bombastic claims as to the triumph of rationality, science and logic. The Lake District, England, December 1799 A young English poet called William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy move into what set to become one of the most famous residences in the history of English literature: Dove cottage in Grasmere on the edge of The Lake District. Here they will spend the next nine years and Wordsworth will write some of the greatest poetry in english language, celebrating something that’s very under threat: the natural world. He will write about daffodils, oak trees, clouds, butterflies and rivers and his work will charm and seduce Europe. Within a generation their will in Wordsworth own estimation be more tourists than sheep in The Lake District. Most importantly, running through Wordsworth poetry is an abiding hatred for everything mechanical and industrial. When many years later a railway line threatens to pass through the Lake District Wordsworth and his followers do everything they can to have the train, a symbol of Wordsworth hated technology rerouted. To be a romantic is to take the side of nature against industry. It is to prefer a daffodil to a viaduct, to a tree to a factory. At the moment when huge swaths of Britain are being covered in the often monstrous new cities that are making Europe rich, Wordsworth the quintessential romantic speaks up for the natural and a simple life. Niagara, United States, September 1829 The American painter Thomas Cole paints one of his most characteristic images of the mighty Niagara Falls with a couple of Native Americans in the foreground. Cole makes his name as a painter of sublime scenes, vast landscapes of the American interior showing nature at its most dignified and impressive. Man looks lost and puny by comparison. This too is a typical romantic attitude, for romantics don’t believe in God but they go in search of the emotions one might once have had around religion and locate them in a big wide-open spaces of nature. To be a romantic is to find relief from the pressures of competitive city life in the sort of natural grandeur that transcends all human achievements and concerns. Westminster, London, April 1847 14 years after some fairly incompetent officials destroy the British parliament with fire, a new building reopens designed by a rising star architect: Augustus Pugin. Oddly even though the building is new It is made to look old, very very old, medieval in fact. It is full of suits of armor and seated angels. When the architect Pugin defends the building he argues that is building is Noble because it harks back to his country’s pre-industrial past, before it grew obsessed, he is careful to add with money or technology. It begins a cult of the Middle Ages, a big theme and romanticism which identifies in the world of knights and castles, a nobility that is thought missing from the factories and shopping arcades of the modern world. Saint-Germain, Paris, May 1863 The French poet Charles Baudelaire writes a prose poem celebrating an unusual character whom he calls a flâneur, a stroller or loafer. A casual wanderer who has no particular job to go to and just spend this time observing busy street life of a modern city, threading his way through the crowds, strolling instead of rushing, sampling people’s conversations and creating narratives for others lives. Baudelaire, a typical romantic admires the flâneur’s playfulness and lack of practicality. This person isn’t a waste of time. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a job for Baudelaire he is a prince, unlike the boring wage slaves rushing to the new offices of capitalism. Le Havre, April 1891 The french painter Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti, hoping to escape everything that is artificial and conventional. He lives in the Pacific South Seas on and off for the rest of his life, drawing young Native women looking relaxed and natural without anything on. They are in his eyes evidence that civilization is what has made a sick, A core romantic belief. The Romantic movement has permanently changed our sensibilities as the world has grown ever more technological and rational romanticism has come to stick up for the irrational, the untrained, the exotic, the childlike and the naive. There is naturally something a bit adolescent and immature within Romanticism. But then again it can be something rather heartless, cold, dogmatic and arrogant in many aspects of modernity. one hopes this isn’t going to be the end of the story that we may in the future learn to soften the worst side of modernity through the best sides of romanticism, in order to create a more evolved alternative, what one might term: an age of maturity.

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