The Romantic in the Age of Enlightenment


The Romantic, that great 18th century, European invention, was born out of a guttural distaste for Enlightenment notions of science and rationalism. Romanticism was a disavowal of the modern world and its underlying values in favour of a nostalgic return to a naturalistic, beauteous past. An artistic revolt against the Industrial Revolution and its leaden collectivism.

Personally, I find myself happily confessing to being a Romantic. I am individualistic, an admirer of the arts of the past rather than the present, a flaneur of beauty, and consider myself capable of excess emotions when confronted by the dreamscapes of my own making. I also am un-fond of my contemporary world – at least on a visceral, aesthetic level.

I violently dislike social media culture, the cult of ugliness in art and architecture, the superficiality enabled by the internet and mass media, the bullying PC culture of the radical, post-modern left, and a sense that we are creeping towards an age of social-media theocracy.

Despite all that, my Romantic spirit creates a hard-to-resolve love-hate relationship with my times. I can’t help but be swept away by the miracles that have made our age – warts and all – unique in the annals of human history.

We live today in the safest, most prosperous, scientifically advanced age in the history of our species. Genocidal diseases like polio have been eradicated, cancer is no longer necessarily a death-sentence, tooth-ache is no longer a killer but a mere irritant, a vast portion of the world’s population has access to food and clean-drinking water and, despite what the media might show, the rate of extreme poverty is going down globally.

Apart from health we are also living in a time when war is on the ebb. Naturally, war will never go the way of the dinosaurs and be completely extinct. The best we can hope for is the situation we’re in now; war is no longer the norm or a natural way of resolving conflict. When we hear of a war starting out in the Middle-East or a civil war in Africa, we are shocked and appalled. This is very unnatural behaviour – thank the Enlightenment!

This represents a fundamental evolution in the human psyche. An evolution brought on – and still ongoing – not by the forces of Darwinian natural selection, but by the Enlightened course of cultural progress.

Through the writings of Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza, Montaigne and others and the science of Newton, Galileo and Darwin, we have raised to the altar of civilisation the better angels of our nature.

So, of course, I am grateful to be living in the 21st century and as much as I admire Classical art, I wouldn’t dream of catching a one-way trip on some Ryanair time machine back to the Ancient Greek world. Does that make me a hypocrite? It is one of way of looking at it. But another way of looking at it is fundamental to the question of Romanticism.

To be a Romantic, or a dreamer, as I prefer to label myself (the term is less politically charged), is to accept that there is still magic and wonder in the world, but not in a way that requires recourse to the superstitious.

I am very careful to distance myself from a certain breed of nostalgic atheists who, whilst denouncing organised religion and an interventionist god, still cling to the idea of the supernatural; thus they talk of ‘energy’, ‘aura’, the ‘mystical’, and these lost, shepherd-less sheep tend to make up the herd queuing up for the latest Gwyneth Paltrow fad.

That aside, I think, as a Romantic born happily into the post-Enlightenment, it is still possible to dream, to be carried by an excess of emotions, even to believe in magic, whilst still being a rational, scientific-minded intellect.

I’ll take an example that is close at hand to me right now. My wife is pregnant. Being pregnant is nothing new under the sun. Not for the species, anyway. Not in a collective sense. Pregnancy is a miracle for the individual. Scientifically, I have read books about what is happening inside her (I recommend Lewis Wolpert’s The Triumph of the Embryo) and when we go to hospital for scans, the doctors and sonographers, heirs of Darwin, happily explain the biology of what we’re seeing before us.

And yet – and here comes the Socratic mindset I think is necessary for the contemporary Romantic – no matter how well I understand the process, I am still loaded with questions no doctor or book can answer. I feel like a giddy child myself: how is it possible that that blurred, murky image will one day be a full-fledged human being? Did me and my wife truly make an entire human being? Is sex really that powerful?

Now, in scientific terms these are pointless, meaningless questions, purely because they are unanswerable. Therein lies the conflict between science and Romanticism. But I don’t think the two need to exclude one another. I know there are no answers to my questions. But I don’t need them. Those questions are simply a means for me to express the sheer wonder at the inexplicable thing before me. Inexplicable, at least, on an emotional level.

It is the equivalent of a poet climbing a mountaintop and gazing on the imperious view below, and finding exuberant verse the only means of expressing his wonder.

Science doesn’t, as Keats once claimed, ‘unweave the rainbow’. Rather it adds a new lexicon for the poet, artist, writer, composer. Science doesn’t take away the magic of pregnancy just because it explains it. Luckily, we are like children who, after being taught a maths equation ten times, still doesn’t get it yet enjoys the challenge of trying to figure it out.

Art, a subject near and dear to this writer’s heart, is another useful example. Science does an incredible job of explaining the neural connections and evolutionary exigencies that lead us to appreciating art. But when I was stood before Botticelli’s Venus the knowledge of the inner workings of my brain and my evolutionary past were irrelevant. All I could sense was a feeling of awe at standing before the most beautiful woman in the history of art.

There is, I feel, a certain sliver of laziness creeping through our times. There is a feeling of everything’s been done, see, look, the internet tells us so, and all is left is either rebellion or stagnation. Artists and political rebels protest against the status quo as they are apt to do; Duchamp made a urinal a work of art and the far-left wants to destroy the ‘patriarchal’ system in which they themselves live so comfortably.

We live in the age of iconoclasm. Why this is, I don’t think I am qualified to say. Though I would hazard a guess mired in existential philosophy and argue we are victims of our own success. Take away the toil and struggle so ingrained in humanity and you take away the need for elevated beauty. Why do I need to paint Venus when I can sit in an air-conditioned room, working on my laptop, making money without breaking a sweat, and eventually turning on to Netflix?

That is an overly simplistic answer, and I don’t at all feel that our age is bereft of Romance and adventure. I am a great admirer of the genuine travellers of today. Of course, not all travellers are equal. Some are travel bloggers. But there are those who genuinely say to themselves; I am bored with the safety of my surroundings and the modern age has opened up the rest of the world to me, so what am I waiting for?

I think the heirs of the likes of Goethe, Byron, Constable and others are the travellers of the modern world. I certainly don’t think it’s the artists of today.

There are a myriad other ways of being a Romantic in the post-Enlightenment world. Let the freedom of which we are the fortunate heirs be our lust rather than our gluttony. We are not only free in the social, economic and political sense, but also in the artistic sense. A child today, with all the knowledge available at his fingertips, can know more than Darwin ever did. That is the Enlightenment’s gift to the Romantic. Let’s appreciate that, appreciate that ours is a civilisation founded on the legacy of artistic beauty and the political will to freedom. For the sake of our future generations, let’s not rest on our gilded laurels.

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