Thursday, June 23, 2011

Romanticism vs. Classicism revisited

Here is a sentence from F.L. Lucas's book The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (see previous post) that throws light on Goethe's "Romantic" tendencies: "The Odyssey seems to me ... a standing proof of the superiority of work that, with all its Romantic dreaming, yet maintains to the end Classic sanity and self-control." Lucas might seem to be talking about Goethe here, whom he quotes on occasion, mostly with that misleading judgment of Goethe's concerning the "diseased" nature of Romantic poetry.

The second chapter of Lucas's book concerns the "pasts" of Romantic literature, which he defines as a "dream-picture of life; providing sustenance and fulfillment for impulses cramped by society or life." This is the most prosaic thing Lucas writes in what is otherwise a fascinating excursus into ancient and modern literatures. In this chapter he begins with the Romantic tendencies of the Greeks, for instance, the imaginative nature of Greek mythology, which has "turned our heavens to a constellated tapestry of the stories of Orion and Andromeda and the rest." Indeed, as he writes, "few things are more romantic than 'classical' mythology."

At the same time, the Greeks did not fall prey to the excesses of imagination exhibited by Goethe's Jena contemporaries. As Lucas writes, the "Romantic" elements seen in classical writers, such as the golden bough by which Aneas gains entrance to the underworld in Virgil's Aeneid, "surprise, like strange plants sown by some wandering bird or wind in fields far from home." The ancients always had a guardian standing at the portals of the dream world to turn back shapes too fantastic. Of interest to me was the objections of Longinus to the fantastic elements of the Odyssey, which he thought made Homer less great. His objection to the shutting of the winds in a bag, or Circe's turning men into swine show, according to Lucas, "how over-wakeful and over-sober, here as always, is the Classic sense of fact!"

He goes on to talk about the Hellenistic era, in which the countryside of Theocritus looks forward to that of Wordsworth, and of the late Greek romances (The Golden Ass), in which the classical sense of reality and grasp of character have totally faded. The latter also characterize much literature of the Middle Ages, in which "Romance blooms everywhere, like the mistletoe in the orchards of Normandy." It was in the Middle Ages, before the modern attitude to the world was born, that imagination really ran riot. "Men believed what they read, and what they believed, they embroidered."

Lucas's exemplary case is Aucassin and Nicolette. Like Homer's Achilles, Aucassin will not go to battle because the woman he loves has been taken away. "But Homer hardly tells us how Briseis looked, or how Achilles felt for her. She remains in his hands a dazzling shadow -- 'fair cheeked,' 'like golden Aphrodite.' ... How vividly, by contrast, Nicolette looks out of her prison window in Beaucaire, or clambers down from it by her rope of sheets and towels!" Reading Lucas reminds me of why I first studied literature.

And, finally, another insight into Goethe, as Lucas writes of the reason for the "lasting triumph" of Greek literature: its balance of classicism, realism, and romanticism. Sappho writes, he says, with a heart of madness, but her hand does not shake. I think that describes Goethe, after his encounter with Italy, but this combination is lacking in 18th-century neoclassicism.

I had not encountered F.L. Lucas before a week ago, but he has a breadth as impressive as Curtius or Auerbach. And what an impressive oeuvre, both critical and literary.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Romanticism vs. Classicism

No matter how often one tries to pin down what Romanticism is all about, or the difference between Classicism and Romanticism (in the critical, not the historical, sense, since, as has been pointed out, many of the canonical Greek and Roman writers were deeply "Romantic"), one's ideas on this subject are always in the process of growing or taking on added dimensions. Some things you simply have to repeat to yourself over and over. For the most part, I think it is extremely difficult to transport oneself mentally to the era in which "Classical" standards reigned. Emotions, fantasy, inspiration, even egoism were all harnessed, encased in form or ritual or convention. Such restraint is evident today mostly in politics, in conservative thought.

I have been reading a slender but rich book on this subject by F.L. Lucas, from 1936, entitled The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal. Lucas is quite ecumenical, opening in highly satisfactory fashion by quoting a poem by Heine, the one beginning "Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam/ Im Norden auf kahler Höh." Besides English poetry, Lucas ranges widely into other European languages and is also not restricted to the turn of the 19th century. Not only Wordsworth and Chateaubriand, but also, e.g., Housmann and Baudelaire.

I think there is a connection between the rise of Romanticism in art and literature in the late 18th century and the sublime, on which I have posted frequently. The connection is the rise of taste and of individual "judgment" in the arts. Power passed from the former arbiters. Initially criticism sought to anchor judgment in reason, which was a universal human capacity, but in time there was a revolt against reason's seeming dictates. Lucas introduces charming figurative language to distinguish between classicism and romanticism. Of the former he writes, elliptically: "Grace, self-knowledge, self-control; the sense of form, the easy wearing of the chains of art hidden under flowers, as with some sculptured group that fills with life and litheness its straitened prison in the triangle of a pediment." Of the latter: "Remoteness, the sad delight of desolation, silence and the supernatural, winter and dreariness; vampirine love and stolen trysts, the flowering of passion and the death of beauty."

He then goes on to explore what the "psychological differences" between the two. Drawing to an extent on Freud, he writes of the reconciliation by the "art of life" of two conflicting forces: the instinctive impulse of the human animal versus the influences of other human beings, the latter of which become second nature, so that "A man not only likes or dislikes certain things; he likes or dislikes himself for liking or disliking them." Romanticism is an attempt "to drown this difference and liberate the unconscious life." Venturing an "Aristotelian definition" of Romantic literature, he writes: "a dream-picture of life; providing sustenance and fulfilment for impulses cramped by society or reality."

I am trying to fit Goethe in here, since there is so much that fits with Lucas's exposition, and I speak not merely of the Goethe of the Sturm und Drang years, when he was affected by Herder's ideas concerning the priestly character of primitive poetry and the delights of common, realistic detail. Lucas mentions the dependence of Romantic writers on inspiration and their disinclination to revise. It is true that Goethe went back and revised his early works, in particular The Sorrows of Young Werther, in the period when he was beginning to work against his Romantic tendencies and to exercise more control over his imagination. Otherwise, however, Goethe was not a great reviser. He simply added on, as in the case of Faust. He hated "correcting" -- or being corrected.

While Goethe recoiled from "fantastic" in the productions of contemporary German poets and their pilgrimages to the Middle Ages, he wrote much poetry set in distant times and places, the West-East Divan being the most prominent example. And "vampirine love": how about The Bride of Corinth? There is also something lacking in Goethe's other three novels, namely, a plot. Lucas writes of "the quiet sympathy a writer needs in order to observe and delineate characters other than his own or shadows of his own." Goethe, unlike Jane Austen, lacks that sympathy.

Goethe was, however, vigilant against excess, against the "airy-fairy." If he thought reality left much to be desired, he relentlessly came to terms with that lack. He was able to create beautiful poetry while wearing, as Lucas writes, "a stiff shirt front." A Romantic in the shape of a Classic.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"The figure under the carpet"

The phrase is from Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James. He uses other, similar figures of speech: e.g., "reading the reverse of the tapestry." The biographer's task is to get behind the mask that a subject presents in order to discover what Edel calls the "life myth" or "the inner myth we create in order to live." I suppose Edel was speaking of the subconscious or perhaps the unconscious of an artist. He indicates that we are not satisfied with the work that an artist presents us; we insist on figuring out the workings of his mind. I remember back in graduate school attending a lecture on Thomas Mann. Someone offered Thomas Mann's own opinion of a certain work, to which a young professor made the seemingly scandalous comment that Thomas Mann was simply one of many interpreters of Thomas Mann's works.

Autobiographies by writers and artists have also become suspect, though I have to admit that they seem to offer insight that the works don't, at least as far as the life goes, into the workings of the mind. One of my favorite books is Stephen Spender's memoir, World Within Worlds. Goethe's autobiography, Poetry and Truth, was much mocked in its own time by Romantic writers, on the grounds of its absence of "revelations" about the self. Still, I think it is a pretty fine "tapestry," to use Edel's term. The problem, I think, is reading too deeply into Goethe. He may have been more superficial than one has been led to assume. Or he may have been moved by other things.

I was thinking about this yesterday at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan (MOBIA), the last day of the exhibition Passion in Venice, which does not feature paintings of luscious Venetian females but, instead, of the mortified, crucified body of Christ, half-risen from his tomb, an iconographic motif known as The Man of Sorrows (or Schmerzensmann, according to Panofsky). This particular motif allowed artists to use all their craftsmanship to portray Christ as "the most despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). It is quite amazing how this one Biblical verse inspired so many artists of the most varying temperaments. At the same time, it is evidence that a small number of themes is all an artist needs. Goethe wrote somewhere (and I have to trace this) that subject is all important. Well, before the modern period the subject was given, and artists ran with it.

Goethe might have approved of some works in the show, but I suspect very few, especially not the depiction of the gory details. Goethe is notorious for wishing to avoid suffering. I would like to have seen his reaction when faced with Crivelli's gruesome rendering (in Philadelphia Museum of Art) of the Man of Sorrows. Look at Christ's left hand and see if you don't cringe. And all the blood dripping from his wounds in Michele Giambono's painting (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

While visiting Bologna in October 1786, Goethe saw works by Guido Reni, of whom he wrote:

While you are attracted by Guido's beatific intent, by his brush, which should have painted only the most perfect things that can be gazed upon, at the same time you want to avert your eyes from the disgustingly stupid subjects, for which there are no words bad enough, and thus it is throughout. We cannot get away from the dissecting room, the gallows, the abattoir, and the sufferings of the hero ... Nothing is there to suggest humanity! (Robert R. Heitner translation, p. 88)

By "hero" I believe Goethe is here referring to Christ or other religious figures. To my ears, such a term is harsh; it bypasses what has been considered the redemptive nature of Christ's suffering. Goethe is of course indicating that he thinks Western art took a wrong turn in terms of subject. I think Goethe's "life myth" is pretty evident. Part of our problem with Goethe is not taking him at his word.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Freedom of speech: its history

Well, it must be summer, because I have become lazy about posting. Here in Manhattan we are in "Hochsommer." I went out early this morning for a bike ride along the Hudson, trying to beat the heat. A nice river breeze. It's funny how the beginning of summer makes me think I have time to accomplish many things. One thing I have to do this summer is to give a talk, on August 4, on the history of freedom of speech at the New York Public Library. What I hope to get across in my talk is that the discomforts we are now experiencing in connection with speech -- especially the issue of "hate speech" -- were already present in the 18th century. Despite the claim that is attributed to Voltaire -- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" -- I can't think of a single philosophe who imagined that freedom of speech should apply to ordinary citizens.

Thus, Condorcet was not saying anything controversial when, in 1776, he defined public opinion as "that of the stupidest and most miserable section of the population." Condorcet was one of the godfathers of the French Revolution. And though freedom of opinion and the communication of ideas were included in the National Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (articles 10 and 11), Condorcet became a victim of the revolution, dying in prison in 1794 after having been a fugitive from the revolutionary authorities.

Rousseau's "general will" is a problematic concept, but one thing it is not is majority opinion. In fact, Rousseau was against debate and dissent, which indicated "the ascendence of private interests and the decline of the state" (The Social Contract, 1762). In the general will citizens should surrender their private interests and opinions, a surrender that happens in silence. The general will, he wrote, can only emerge from a popular assembly, "provided its members do not have any communication among themselves."

Most philosophes thought the government, with their assistance, should guide the public's minds. In their demands for "progress," the philosophes failed to see the emergence of a society of individuals who would be free to pursue their own self-interest, regardless of the claims of truth, and in the process produce the plethora of competing claims and viewpoints that characterize the public square today -- all the while managing to live together amidst the clash of conflicting opinions, without the society descending into the Hobbesian chaos so many philosophes feared.

Ordinary people in the West, where notions of individual freedom are something like second nature, manage to live amid competing opinions, even if many opinions offend their sensibilities. It is one of the prices we pay for living in a society in which we can go about our own business without the meddling of authorities. Unfortunately, too much "enlightened" opinion today would like things to be more orderly. Like the 18th-century philosophes, our 21st century commentariat is uncomfortable when ordinary citizens have different priorities. Thus, the commentariat's claim, like Condorcet in the 18th century, that the public is "stupid."

Picture credit: BLU