Romanticism; a piece composed for a concert of German Romantic Music


This essay is the author's original contribution to an evening of Lieder organised by the Pimlott Foundation

Jane O'Grady
30 September 2012

Romanticism – lightning flashes, storms, ruined castles, the forest, hunting-horns, knights and ghosts from ancient legends; wild love and wilder despair, rugged mountains, waterfalls, the elusive, tantalising blue flower, tremulous nightingales, death.

Romanticism is a reaction against the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had emerged in cosmopolitan Paris and London, Romanticism from the small states in Germany. It was impatient with urbanity, doubtful that the clear light of reason would enable all humans universally to converge on a common truth. Surely reason is too rigid a structure for the rich amorphousness of reality, and universalism too monolithic!    Romanticism trumpets emotion as against reason, it lauds what is natural and untamed above the constructed and artificial; relishes embodied particularity, mystery, the dark. And sings the wonders of the wild.

Where we all went wrong, said Rousseau, was when someone first enclosed a plot of ground, asserted ‘this is mine’, and persuaded others that it belonged to him (the encloser) rather than to everyone. That was the start of civilisation, yet civilisation, rather than being the nurturer of virtue, stifles it -- humans began to be competitive, conformist, cunning, sham. The original sin was obedience, not disobedience. But now -- out of the garden into the forest!

The Enlightened had liked to see nature as measured and law-like (‘God said let Newton be and all was light’). Until the late 18th century, travellers, when their coaches trotted through hilly terrain, would pull down the blinds so as not to see ‘Nature’s pudenda’, the craggy hills. Now the blinds go rattling up. Wilderness is pined for now that it is dwindling. Once frightening, its very fearfulness is lovely now that it is being so efficiently conquered and cleared away. Romantics revel in their fear; worship nature as wild, unpredictable, anarchic, dark; try to lure back savages and hobgoblins.  

Away with laws and decorum, said Goethe. Why, he demanded, does the torrent of genius so rarely flood and thunder and overwhelm the soul? The answer, he said, is obvious. On either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen, who dam and dig channels to ensure that their summerhouses, tulip beds and cabbage patches will not be washed away. His hero, the young Werther, un-dams the channels, breaks the rules, loves illicitly, and shoots himself. (In all the German states young men wore Werther’s colours (yellow and blue); some even copied his suicide.)

The self, the untrammelled self, becomes the key thing. The touchstone for truth is not the rules of rationality which apply universally, but my own integrity, my natural intuitions, whatever is proved upon my pulses. Goethe talked of the ‘all feeling’, the enraptured sense of being one with nature, but in spinning this web of unity in which I become part of nature, at the same time nature itself is made part of me.

On the pivot of Enlightenment and Romanticism, the great Immanuel Kant invited us, rather than assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, to suppose instead that objects must conform to our knowledge. Fichte went further. ‘The self posits itself, and by this act of self-assertion it exists.’ Not only that, but also :- the I posits the not-I, it creates the world. (‘Himself as everything! How does Frau Fichte put up with it?’ asked the poet Heine.) Schopenhauer wrote that the world is my representation, that I do not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth. But if the world is my world, how does everyone else fit in?

For Schopenhauer, the world -- reality -- is Will. Not conscious will but an aimless, insensible striving which crystallises into life-forms and living creatures, and which congeals into bodily organs. The will-to-grasp is reified in what we perceive as the hand, the will-to-walk as the foot, the will-to-procreate as the genitals, the will-to-know as the brain. Will is the force that both buffets, and blows through, us, a convoluted moebius curve in which we know ourselves less than we know the objectified things we see. While ‘consciousness is the mere surface of our mind, and of this, as of the globe, we do not know the molten interior, only the crust.’ We act first, and only afterwards give a plausible, rational explanation of why we have done what we did. The intellect is a lame dwarf carried on the shoulders of strong blind giant.

But music, Schopenhauer thought, ‘is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole Will as the world itself is. …. A composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the deepest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a sleep-walking spiritualist tells us truths she can have no conception of when she is awake.’

Reason, according to Romanticism, is a fraud, ‘a stuffed dummy which the howling superstition of unreason has endowed with divine attributes’ (said Hamann), a dream from which we need to wake up. We are, in fact, ‘certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination’.    But isn’t reason the best we can hope for? Can we safely dispense with at least the assumption that it works? Is feeling a sufficient guide to truth and goodness?

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. Romanticism has a dark undertow. Lightning flashes, storms, ruined castles, wilderness, ancient legends, glory, blood, soil, the volk, death.

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