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.

History, Fables, Richard III, and a Patron Saint Day

Narrative poetry, prose, and paintings that tell us about history are constructed in order to teach, persuade, and instruct, and thus they have a very close relationship to poetry, especially the fables and epic poems.

That at least is what Sir Francis Bacon wrote in “The Advancement of Learning” published in 1605. I wonder if he was considering how Elizabethan narratives were actively legitimizing Elizabeth I’s right to rule.  The Tudors were lionized. The Plantagenets, be they Yorks or Lancasters, were demonized.  Shakespeare’s Richard III was considered by those who watched it to be absolutely faithful to reality. Now we know, thanks to uncovering Richard III’s skeleton when digging and constructing a car park, that his scoliosis was pretty minor, and he was in no way the twisted hunchback the play portrays him. His personality was said to mirror his physical appearance.  Another exaggeration? A downright lie?  It is possible.

I think it’s quite fascinating that Sir Francis Bacon clearly sets out a “social construction of history” (which is just a hair away from “social construction of reality”), and anticipates much of the rather earth-shattering philosophical shifts of the 1960s and 1970s.

I love Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (published in 1626 after his death), which includes the notion that scientists and knowledge-workers are “merchants of light.” “Light” is science or “natural philosophy” – he says it so well that there is no reason whatsoever to elaborate.  I just love it.

I’ve been trying to replicate the way I used to write in the mid to late 1990s with little or no success.  I have just changed.  I’ve been digging through old journals and I feel depressed that I no longer have the ability to write anguished and philosophically vexed poetry or prose poems.  I’ve been writing a lot, but it has been with a view to clarify rather than obfuscate.  If I’m obfuscatory, it’s unintentional, whereas it was intentional before. I was obsessed with “limit experiences” and mystical dark nights of the soul.  Now I am not. I fear aging and lack of mobility.


You found another way to say it.
    I did not.
    Your words were pink, dusty cantera pulled from an impossible quarry
        a fountain? a statue of St. Michael? A grape-strewn pillar?
            my eye sees none of those possibilities
            hoofbeats clattering at dawn

Four colonial baroque churches San Miguel El Alto
    rosy pink cantera walls and stunning domes
    industrious, proud, peninsulares married amongst themselves

        now after centuries, the same dark eyes, distinctive noses
        slim hips, long lives
            preserving the Spanish heritage
                Patron Saint days in September
                bullfights and blood in the sand
                    music in the streets
                    Spanish pan dulce supplanting tortillas

Tonight, at the edge of the largest church
        a thin young man ascends the “castillo”
        the hand-built fireworks frame
                gangling legs spider up the wire-frame ladder
                half-smoked cigarette burning like a red eye
                    he touches the tip to the fuses
                    fiery kisses that could kill

The Castillo and the Cathedral divine light
 golden lamps and showers of sparks
    Virgin Mary, sacred hearts
        flying crowns, rocketing to heaven
        or the oblivion of night

            Faith, faith, holding my hands in unconscious prayer
            no one ever will be burned

A tuba, a trumpet, and a hoarse whisper of Bruno LaTour
    “nothing is real any more”
            nostalgia? sadness?

            or the belief that this night only
           and only this night

                fiery chthonic heart
                illuminating this stop on the Camino Real
                    colonial road from the mines of Zacatecas
                                   to Mexico City

       is real
        as if anything ever were real

Today was a game day. I was exhausted and took a three hour nap. I did not bother to check the score. Now I will make a trek across town and visit my dad. I may eat part of a grapefruit before I set out.