Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity

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Romanticism is a worldview that finds expression over a whole range of cultural fields—not only in literature and art but in philosophy, theology, political theory, and social movements. In Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre formulate a theory that defines romanticism as a cultural protest against modern bourgeois industrial civilization and work to reveal the unity that underlies the extraordinary diversity of romanticism from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century.
After critiquing previous conceptions of romanticism and discussing its first European manifestations, Löwy and Sayre propose a typology of the sociopolitical positions held by romantic writers-from “restitutionist” to various revolutionary/utopian forms. In subsequent chapters, they give extended treatment to writers as diverse as Coleridge and Ruskin, Charles Peguy, Ernst Bloch and Christa Wolf. Among other topics, they discuss the complex relationship between Marxism and romanticism before closing with a reflection on more contemporary manifestations of romanticism (for example, surrealism, the events of May 1968, and the ecological movement) as well as its future.
Students and scholars of literature, humanities, social sciences, and cultural studies will be interested in this elegant and thoroughly original book.
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Editorial Reviews

Enzo Traverso
This reflection on the various courses of romanticism [is like] a current of fresh air entering by surprise an elegant dining room designed by the most glacial of the fashionable architects, where for a long time the windows had remained closed.
Ventesimo Secolo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822327943
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2002
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Löwy is Research Director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Lecturer at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Robert Sayre is Professor of Anglophone Literatures at the University of Marne-la-Vallée.

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Read an Excerpt

Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity



Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2794-3

Chapter One

Redefining Romanticism


What is Romanticism? Apparently an undecipherable enigma, the Romantic phenomenon seems to defy analysis, not only because its exuberant diversity resists any attempt to reduce it to a common denominator but also and especially because of its fabulously contradictory character, its nature as coincidentia oppositorum: simultaneously (or alternately) revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, individualistic and communitarian, cosmopolitan and nationalistic, realist and fantastic, retrograde and utopian, rebellious and melancholic, democratic and aristocratic, activist and contemplative, republican and monarchist, red and white, mystical and sensual. These contradictions permeate not only the Romantic phenomenon as a whole but also the life and work of individual authors, and sometimes even individual texts. Some critics seem inclined to see contradiction, dissonance, and internal conflict as the only unifying element of Romanticism. However, it is difficult to take that thesis as anything but an avowal of confusion.

All these complications are compounded because since the nineteenth century we have beenin the habit of using the term "Romantic" to designate not only novelists, poets, and artists but also political ideologues (political Romanticism has been the object of numerous studies), philosophers, theologians, historians, economists, and others. In what sense do such diverse phenomena, located in such disparate spheres of cultural life, derive from a single concept?

The easiest solution seems to be to eliminate the term itself. The best-known representative of this approach (which goes back to the nineteenth century) is the American critic Arthur O. Lovejoy, who proposed in a well-known article that literary critics should refrain from using a term that lends itself to such confusion: "The word 'romantic' has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.... The one really radical remedy-namely, that we should all cease talking about Romanticism-is, I fear, certain not to be adopted." This approach may appear to be effective, but it strikes us as sterile. Indeed, it could be applied to almost any term in literature ("realism"), politics ("left"), or economics ("capitalism"), without increasing our knowledge in the least. Once purged of all its ambiguous terms, language would perhaps be more rigorous, but it would also be quite impoverished. The task of literary criticism-or of cultural sociology-is not to purify language but rather to try to understand and explain it. One of Lovejoy's arguments is the national and cultural multiplicity of the phenomenon. At the very most, one might speak of "Romanticisms," in his view, but not of a universal "Romanticism." Still, as one of Lovejoy's recent critics, Stefanos Rozanis, has observed, the multiplicity of Romanticism's literary expressions in various countries-as a manifestation of national and individual particularities-poses no more than a limited philological problem that in no way calls into question the essential unity of the phenomenon.

As Lovejoy himself predicted, the attempt to cure the Romantic fever simply by abolishing the term has not won support. Most scholars start from the more reasonable hypothesis that there is no smoke without fire. If Romanticism has been a topic of discussion for two centuries, if the term has been used to designate a variety of phenomena, then it must correspond to some reality. Once that point has been acknowledged, the real questions arise. What fire are we talking about? What feeds it? And why does it spread in all directions?

Another expeditious method for getting rid of the irritating contradictions of Romanticism is to dismiss them by attributing them to the inconsistency and frivolity of the Romantic writers and ideologues themselves. The most eminent representative of this school of interpretation is Carl Schmitt, the author of a well-known book on political Romanticism. According to Schmitt,

the riotous disorder [tumultuarische Buntheit, "tumultuous colors"] of the romantic is reduced to its simple principle of a subjectivized occasionalism, and the mysterious contradiction of the diverse political tendencies of so-called political romanticism is explained as a consequence of the moral deficiency of a lyricism that can take any content at all as the occasion for aesthetic interest. For the question of whether monarchist or democratic, conservative or revolutionary ideas are romanticized is irrelevant to the nature of the romantic. They signify only occasional points of departure for the romantic productivity of the creative ego.

It is difficult to believe that one can account for the political writings of such authors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Franz von Baader, or Friedrich Schleiermacher through their "aesthetic interest" or their "occasionalism"-not to mention a so-called moral deficiency. Schmitt emphasizes the "passivity," the "lack of virility," and the "feminine exaltation" (feminine Schwärmerei) of authors such as Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, or Adam Müller, but the argument reveals more about the prejudices of its author than about the nature of Romanticism.

Other writers, too, refer to the femininity of Romanticism-always pejoratively. This is the case, for example, with Benedetto Croce, who tries to account for some of the contradictions by highlighting the "feminine ..., impressionable, sentimental, incoherent, and voluble" nature of the Romantic soul. The same note is struck by the anti-Romantic (and antifeminist) author Pierre Lasserre, for whom "Romantic idiosyncrasy is inherently feminine." Romanticism everywhere manifests "the instincts and work of woman left to her own devices": that is why it "systematizes, glorifies, and divinizes submission to pure subjectivism." There is no point in dwelling on the superficiality and sexism of such remarks, which make "feminine" synonymous with moral degradation or intellectual inferiority and which claim to make consistency an exclusively masculine attribute.

In reality, for a great many students of Romanticism, the problem of contradictions (political ones in particular) does not even come up, because they strip the phenomenon of all its political and philosophical dimensions and reduce it to a mere literary school whose most visible features they then describe in greater or lesser detail. In its most trivial form, this approach contrasts Romanticism with "classicism." According to the Larousse du XXe Siècle, for example, "the term romantic is used for writers at the beginning of the 19th century who freed themselves from the classical rules of composition and style. In France, Romanticism embodied a profound reaction against the classic national literature, whereas in England and Germany it constituted the primitive background for the indigenous genius." The second hypothesis is also entertained favorably by several authors; for example, for Fritz Strich, Romanticism is the expression of the deepest innate tendencies of the German soul.

Other critics, without going beyond the strictly literary view of Romanticism, acknowledge the inadequacy of defining the movement by way of nonclassical rules of composition or through the national soul, and they attempt to find more substantial common denominators. This is the approach adopted by the three most famous North American specialists in the history of Romanticism: M. H. Abrams, René Wellek, and Morse Peckham. For Abrams, their diversity notwithstanding, the Romantics share certain values, such as life, love, liberty, hope, and joy. They also have in common a new conception of the mind, one that emphasizes creative activity rather than the reception of external impressions: the mind is a lamp giving off its own light, not a mirror reflecting the world. Wellek, polemicizing against Lovejoy's nominalism, asserts that the Romantic movements form a unified whole and possess a coherent set of ideas, each of which implies the others: imagination, nature, symbol, and myth. Peckham, attempting to reconcile the theses propounded by Lovejoy and Wellek, proposes to define Romanticism as a revolution of the European mind against static, mechanistic thought and in favor of dynamic organicism. Its common values are change, growth, diversity, the creative imagination, and the unconscious.

These attempts at definition-like numerous other, similar attempts-no doubt designate significant features that are present in the work of many Romantic writers, but they fail to deliver the essence of the phenomenon. In the first place, they appear completely arbitrary: why are certain features selected and not others? Authors make their own choices and sometimes revise their earlier decisions in favor of a new, equally arbitrary list. Peckham, for example, reconsidering his 1951 theory ten years later, notes that organicism was really a product of Enlightenment philosophy. It was simply a metaphysical episode of Romanticism, destined to be abandoned, because all the Romantic hypotheses are eventually rejected as inadequate. Romanticism is, in fact, a "pure assertion of identity" that cannot be given any specific and definitive orientation. As the self is the only source of order and value, Romanticism is fundamentally antimetaphysical. Unable to assign any content whatsoever to this self, Peckham's new attempt leads to a conceptual void and takes us back to the starting point-the tumultuous multiplicity of colors in the service of the creative ego cherished by Carl Schmitt.

Given the arbitrary nature of the choice of certain features, several critics try to sidestep the difficulty by creating longer and longer lists of common denominators of Romantic literature. The most extensive of these lists to date is one Henry Remak proposed in an article on European Romanticism in which he establishes a systematic tabulation of twenty-three common factors: medievalism; imagination; the cult of strong emotions; subjectivism; interest in nature, mythology, and folklore; Weltschmerz; symbolism; exoticism; realism; rhetoric; and so on. Once again, while acknowledging that these features are found in the work of many, or even most, Romantic writers, we still do not really know what Romanticism is. One could lengthen the lists indefinitely, adding more and more common factors, without coming close to solving the problem.

The chief methodological weakness of this sort of approach, based on an inventory of features, is its empiricism: it does not go below the surface of the phenomenon. As a descriptive glance at the Romantic cultural universe, it can be useful, but its cognitive value is limited. Composite lists of elements leave the principal questions unanswered. What holds everything together? Why are these particular elements associated? What is the unifying force behind them? What gives internal coherence to all these membra disiecta? In other words, what is the concept, the Begriff (in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of the term) of Romanticism that can explain the innumerable forms in which it appears, its various empirical features, its multiple and tumultuous colors?

One of the most serious limitations of most literary studies is that they ignore the other dimensions of Romanticism, its political forms in particular. In a perfectly complementary fashion-and following the rigorous logic of academic disciplines-political scientists often have a regrettable tendency to neglect the properly literary aspects of Romanticism. How do they approach the movement's contradictions? Historiographers of Romanticism often sidestep the difficulty by focusing exclusively on its conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary aspect while simply ignoring the revolutionary Romantic trends and thinkers.

In their most extreme form, which appeared above all during the Second World War era (understandably enough), these interpretations see the Romantic political ideologies specifically as a preparation for Nazism. However, while the Nazi ideologues were unquestionably inspired by certain Romantic themes, this influence does not justify rewriting the entire history of political Romanticism as a simple historical preface to the Third Reich. In a book significantly titled From Luther to Hitler, William McGovern explains that Thomas Carlyle's writings "appear to be little more than a prelude to Nazism and Hitler." How can Rousseau be included in this theoretical framework? According to McGovern, the absolutist doctrine of fascism "is little more than an expansion of the ideas first laid down by Rousseau." Other, similar works, like Peter Viereck's Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler, stress the Germanness of Romanticism: it was a matter of a "cultural and political reaction against the Roman-French-Mediterranean spirit of clarity, rationalism, form, and universal standards. Thereby romanticism is really the nineteenth century's version of the perennial German revolt against the western heritage"-a revolt that led "step by step" toward Nazism, during a complex century-long evolution. Obviously, for this type of analysis, the English and French (Western) Romantics cannot be considered "true" Romantics. And what can we say about the Jacobin and revolutionary German Romantics (Friedrich Hölderlin, Georg Büchner, and so on)? Their texts have to be viewed in their historical context (1939-1945), which was favorable to a unilateral perception of Romanticism in general and of its German version in particular.

Even more serious works, which do not try to explain everything in terms of the universal tendencies of the German soul, have a hard time resisting the temptation to assimilate Romanticism to prefascism. In a very interesting work devoted to the actual immediate precursors of Nazism in Germany (Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck), Fritz Stern connects these authors to what he calls "a formidable tradition": that of Rousseau and his disciples, who had criticized the Enlightenment as a naively rationalist and mechanical form of thought. In this context, he mentions pell-mell Carlyle, Jacob Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Many other historians, without going so far as to make Romanticism-especially German Romanticism-the breeding ground for fascism, present it only as a retrograde tendency. In France, this approach is represented in particular by Jacques Droz. His remarkable works on German political Romanticism locate quite precisely the global character of the phenomenon (its nature as a weltanschauung) and its critique of the capitalist economy, but he sees the movement in the last analysis as a reaction to the "principles of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquest," a reaction that aspires to restore medieval civilization, and that is unquestionably inscribed "in the counter-revolutionary camp"; in short, a movement that "expresses the old ruling classes' awareness of the peril that awaited them." This position leads logically to excluding Hölderlin, Büchner, and the other Romantics favorably inclined toward the French Revolution from the analysis; the Jacobin and prorevolutionary phase that many Romantic writers and poets went through remains an inexplicable accident. Referring to Schlegel, for example, Droz recognizes that his passage from republicanism to conservatism is "difficult to explain," and (adopting Carl Schmitt's thesis-which he himself criticizes as erroneous) he ends up attributing this to the poet's "occasionalist dilettantism."


Excerpted from Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity by MICHAEL LÖWY ROBERT SAYRE Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Redefining Romanticism
The Romantic Enigma, or "Tumultuous Colors"
The Concept of Romanticism
The Romantic Critique of Modernity
The Genesis of the Phenomenon
2. Romanticism: Political and Social Diversity
Outline of a Typology
Hypotheses for a Sociology of Romanticism
3. Excursus: Marxism and Romanticism
Rosa Luxemburg
Gyorgy Lukacs
4. Visages of Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century
Romanticism and the French Revolution: The Young Coleridge
Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution: The Social Critique of John Ruskin
5. Visages of Romanticism in the Twentieth Century
Romanticism and Religion: The Mystical Socialism of Charles Peguy
Romanticism and Utopia: Ernst Bloch's Daydream
Romanticism as a Feminist Vision: The Quest of Christa Wolf
6. The Fire Is Still Burning: From Surrealism to the Present Day and Beyond
May 1968
Contemporary Mass Culture
The New Social Movements
The New Religious Movements
The Contemporary Romantic Critique of Civilization
What Future for Romanticism?
Works Cited
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