Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Romance within the cultural evolution of human thought

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.

-William Blake

The significance of being Romantic

Much good music and poetry was produced by the rebellious Romantics of the 1800s. Even so, I have mixed feelings about the artists and philosophers of that era. On one hand, they railed against reason and the Enlightenment's worldview of the universe as an ordered, comprehensible place--both of which I'm rather fond of. On the other, their reaction against rationalism brought about the emergence of a new mass paradigm: a new widely shared way of seeing the world. That alone makes it worthy of studying in the context of humankind's ongoing cultural evolution--of placing it in the canon of tribal animistic worldviews; the humanism of the Classical Greeks and Romans, the city states of India, as well as Confucian China; the appearance of the monotheistic universalist paradigms of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, each with an ultimate prime mover and universal laws of human conduct; the emergence of the deist Enlightenment that shaped much of my homeland's views of human equality and the existence of natural laws that eventually grew into our present day concept of scientific theory.

The Romantic's rejection reason in favor of direct human experience eventually gave rise to influential groups such as the Lost Generation of the 1920s, the bohemians, beatniks, hippies, and provided influences which helped to shape the emergence of modern progressivism in in the US. It played a major role in the Culture Wars I grew up with during the 80s as well as the accommodation between reason and human heart that has been widely accepted from the 1990s to the present.

Fighting emergent totalitarianism

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

-Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" 

There is another reason why my feelings are divided about the Romantics. Namely because they were right to be worried where the ideology of reason was headed: towards an absolutist rationalist worldview devoid of human compassion. While the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment found a ready and moderate soil to take root in within the democratic traditions of the colonies that became the United States, the stony ground that was Europe in the throes of the industrial revolution grew extremist movements from the same seeds. First in Revolutionary France, where Reason became a cult that killed thousands if not tens of thousands, and later in the rise of totalitarian communism--an ideology in which absolute reason pushed aside all considerations of humane conduct and helped to create political systems that killed tens of millions across the globe.

Of course the Romantics had their own extremist successors. On the right wing side of the totalitarian spectrum, the founders of Italian fascism and German Nazism drew on the the Romantics of the late 1800s. Their deliberately constructed political aesthetics not only embraced (or twisted) the Romantics' general themes of primal heroism, the primacy of emotions over the intellect in the case of nationalism, and myth building, but also specific cultural works. Adolph Hitler drew inspiration from the penultimate opera composure of the Romantic Era, Richard Wagner, much as Mussolini and his fellow traveler were inspired by the Italian Futurists.

Still, it's very much worth taking the time to see Romanticism from the viewpoints of the men and women who formed its vanguard, as well as their intellectual descendants who ranged from pacifists to some of the most methodically violent people in human history. It's also worth considering its place as a secular paradigm alongside the humanist and rationalist worldviews, and if nothing else, it left us evocative poetry and powerful music.

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