Monday, September 30, 2019

Philosophical Foundations of Romanticism: A Quick Look

A philosophical definition of Romanticism is very useful when taking a look at the paintings, poetry, and novels of the Romantic movement. While Classicism was focused on the structure of the work, and emphasized tenets of balance, equilibrium and structure, Romanticism focuses on unity, transcendence, and the individuals perception and response.

F. W. J. von Schelling profoundly influenced artists, writers, and architects with his philosophical writings, which encouraged intense, subjective engagement with reality, and encouraged immersion in nature in order to achieve a transcendental experience. He argued that one can discover essential truths about reality, nature, and even one’s own identity by a close study of nature. In many ways, his work was a continuation of the kind of neoplatonism one might see in Renaissance writing such as Sir Philip Sidney’s “A Defense of Poesie.” 

For Schelling, the “absolute” was a union of the subjective and objective, which, in the case of painting and literature, makes subjective perception more important than the objective reality, in that the objective elements form a frame, or a scaffolding, while the subjective response is where the true meaning-making process takes place.  So, the agreed-upon common elements – the objective structure (in a painting, the elements, in a poem, the prosody) – provide the base and foundation. The meaning-making process is what occurs as the writer or artist adds aspects that trigger a response in the reader, and establish a kind of unity which elevates the reader to a comprehension of the larger, more universal concepts, and insights / knowledge. This moment is often characterized as “divine.”

Thomas Cole - romantic landscape with ruined tower
 Emmanual Kant’s writings about the concept of a transcendental ego, which builds knowledge from sensory perceptions which then are processed in a mind that has prepared itself with universal concepts and categories, has much in common with Schelling. In fact, one could look to Kant for an explanation of the mechanism at work in Romanticism. What are those categories or universals that we must learn and have in place in order to construct truly moving and timeless art?  What are the most effective perceptions for creating a sense of transcendental knowledge? How are they best communicated?  All these questions were addressed, and more, as more artists, writers, and philosophers embraced the new power that Romanticism gave them.

Romanticism was popular and powerful because it posited that individual interpretation mattered and was meaningful.  In fact, the more unique and individual your perception, the more valuable it might be in being able to tease out the ultimate meanings of life, the universe, the divine, and our relationship to it.

Core to the Kant and Schelling’s work was that the nature of reality, God, and existence itself could be understood through a close analysis of nature. Far from simply creating observations and filing them away in Aristotelian or Linnaean fashion, a Romantic (influenced by Kant, Schelling, and later Hegel) would let his or her mind make connections in juxtapositions, oppositions, and in extremes.  He or she would also seek the guidance of one’s emotions or produced mood to further structure meaning.

Romantic Landscape by John Trumbull
 While the freedom and individualism accorded the artist and the writer by means of Romantic philosophy and transcendental Romanticism were often euphoria-producing, the essential problem was in the evaluation of Romantic output. If you measure the value of a work by the way it makes you feel, the thoughts it triggers, and the insights that you personally experience vis-à-vis your own life experiences, then your evaluation is likely to be idiosyncratic and unique.

What is “good” in a world where standards are subjective?  Either one values something by the intensity of the sensation it produces, which could easily start to degrade itself into something degenerate, or it’s essentially assessed by consensus. In many cases, the supporters of Romantic work were patrons who were able to indulge their individual taste.

Since the value of Romantic writing was often measured in the level of “sensation” it produced, an entire genre of novels emerged.  Coming from the Gothic tradition, and known as “sensation” or “sensational” novels, the readers were drawn into dark webs of passion, secrets, hidden treasures, addictions, concealed evil intent, and the threat to innocents and the good. Wilkie Collins, Mrs. Henry Wood, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon were masters of the sensation novel.

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