The historian Tim Blanning and the critic Jonathan Bate discuss the place of Romanticism in contemporary culture with the Editor of Standpoint, Daniel Johnson
From left to right: Jonathan Bate and Tim Blanning (Photo: Eliza Beveridge)
Daniel Johnson: I thought we might begin at the end. In the last sentence of your book (The Romantic Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £14.99), Tim, you say, “The Romantic revolution is not over yet.” What is the significance of Romanticism now, how useful an idea is it and in what sense is it a persistent force in our culture?
Tim Blanning: Oh dear, it was meant to be a smart way to end the book. You come to the conclusion and you’re desperately trying to find a way to end the beastly thing and that’s what popped into my head. But there is sense in it too. Once the Romantic revolution had taken place, and an expressive aesthetic had been established, there was really no going back. Taking another revolution, the industrial revolution, once the division of labour had been established as a principle of economic activity, it was never going to go away. Similarly with the Romantic revolution, once the idea of an expressive aesthetic is established then it is never going to go away.
DJ: Jonathan, do you agree with Tim that Romanticism is a useful term to use, not just for the narrow period around 1800?
Jonathan Bate: I agree with Tim and indeed some of his predecessors who have written about the movement that it is the most enduring change of cultural attitude and perception in the history of the modern West. The ways in which Romanticism is still alive today are actually much more to do with cultural attitudes in general, rather than artistic forms in particular. There aren’t actually that many Romantic painters or Romantic poets, as such, around today. But you just have to look at our fascination with biography, the way every week you’ll open your Sunday newspaper and among the major reviews is a biography. Related to that, the cult of celebrity is something that really takes off in the late 18th century — it’s to do with the development of the press, developments in the theatre and, above all, in the idea of “the individual” as the starting point when thinking about art and creativity. But all sorts of other aspects of modern life still seem to be absolutely infused with Romanticism. I’m a great beach person and the notion that the seaside is a place that you go for health, for relaxation for your holidays, was an innovation of the Romantic period. John Keats’s residence in Margate and then on the Isle of Wight was crucial to his development. Equally, the idea of walking in the mountains, taking a sense of spiritual sustenance from the sublime, is something that emerges with Romanticism. That then leads into one of the things I’m particularly interested in, the ways in which modern attitudes to do with the relationship between society and the environment are so strongly shaped by Romanticism. If you think of the Lake District as a phenomenon, most of the land is owned by the National Trust, and the Lake District is defined — in terms of planning — as a National Park. You can trace the origins of both the National Trust and the National Parks system directly back to Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes.
DJ: But nearly all the things you’ve just mentioned as “Romantic” had existed before. Let’s take biography — we have Dr Johnson on poetry or Vasari on painters. There is a long tradition of biography and specifically of biography of genius that goes back long before Romanticism. Similarly with attitudes to nature and the sublime, we can go back to Burke and beyond. How original were the Romantics since most of these themes had been touched on before?
TB: What emerges is not just biography but autobiography — and that is something that I think does come out of Romanticism. There had been autobiographies before, St Augustine’s Confessions for a start, but once Rousseau had written his Confessions then a whole new world had opened up. Famously, Goethe said that all his publications — and his collected works run to 147 enormous volumes — should be viewed as one great “confession”. Rousseau has an incredible amount of credit or blame, whichever way you look at it, to be ascribed here. Rousseau’s style of “confession” is really something quite different — truly revolutionary.
JB: I agree with that. The term autobiography is new in the Romantic period. Yes, there had been biographies before but there is a fascinating distinction between the kind of biography that Dr Johnson wrote in his Lives of the Poets, which he was working on in the 1770s, and the biography of Johnson that James Boswell wrote, just a decade later. Johnson is interested in moral lives or exemplary lives, whereas Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is an idiosyncratic, quirky, fragmented text. I see it as a Romantic text. Boswell is a Romantic in a way that Johnson isn’t.
TB: True, and it’s warts and all. Of course Boswell wrote an autobiography, including his very interesting and active sex life.
JB: Rousseau’s Confessions are not confessions in the Augustinian spiritual sense, but confessions in the sense of revelations of the inner life — as Tim says — warts and all. Then you get a series of English texts, of which the most famous is Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, where the idea of the writer revealing their full self, including that sense of them as a subversive or transgressive self, is new and in a way damaging. The illusion that rebellion for its own sake and drug-taking are somehow an essential part of being human, that’s something that really begins with the Romantics. You can trace a lot of the damaging indulgences of modern culture back to that.
TB: The idea that if one writes about oneself one’s got to write something interesting, is a terrible fallacy. I’m sure we could think of some autobiographical works which aren’t very interesting because there wasn’t very much interesting going on inside whoever was writing it and he or she didn’t have the literary skills to produce it anyway.
DJ: Isn’t this sort of self-revelation also very artificial? Take Goethe, for example: he writes wonderfully about his feelings and yet if we didn’t have the conversations recorded by Eckermann, we would hardly know him at all. There was a sort of mask-like front that he put on of the great man of letters which, in its way, is every bit as impenetrable as the great cultural figures of the past, say Shakespeare.
TB: Goethe does reveal a great deal about himself. After all, he wrote a very long autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, where you can find out an awful lot about him, and his Italian Journey, both the, so to speak, spruced-up version, which he published subsequently and the raw material from which it came. There is also a great deal about him in his letters. You talked earlier of the emergence of the public, and that had led to a change in the way in which these self-consciously great men and women were regarded because people wanted to know a lot about them. So there was a market out there for everything that Goethe wrote. Also, people wanted to know what he looked like. It is a change of attitude and it doesn’t just come from a cultural revolution, there’s a social and an economic revolution going on, a revolution in communication, which becomes cumulative. This results in a man like Goethe, who after all, lived for a very long time — he was born in 1749 and didn’t die until 1832 — becoming very well known.
JB: Letters are a very interesting phenomenon because it must be in the Romantic period for the first time that you begin to get artistic figures, well-known figures, writing letters in the knowledge that there was a very good chance that those letters would be leaked or sold to the press. This was a great worry of Byron’s. He knew there was a chance that everything he wrote would be sold or stolen and subsequently published. So the distinction between the private and the public sphere collapses there. For someone like Byron, there is no privacy.
TB: You never know how much they are thinking of posterity when they are writing their letters. I can take another archetypal Romantic figure, more Romantic, in fact, than Byron: Wagner. Twelve thousand of his letters have been found, and they are still finding more, and some of them are very long: there’s a letter to August Roeckel on The Ring of the Nibelung written in 1854 which runs to 8-9,000 words — characteristically Wagnerian. You just don’t know when he sits down to write a letter whether he’s thinking, “This could well be finding its way into a collected correspondence one day so I’d better watch what I’m saying.”
DJ: That’s really my point, that precisely at the moment when self-revelation becomes a virtue in an artist, inevitably it also becomes immediately stylised. So in European culture in general, and German culture in particular, the idea of Wagner was for a very long time a fake one. He’s presented as the composer as hero, in the Carlyle sense. The true Wagner was a much more complex and in many ways a much more unpleasant man, but that side of him was not generally known until much later — except by those who knew him, Nietzsche perhaps.
TB: There were plenty of people to say that he was a very nasty piece of work during his lifetime just in the same way as there were plenty to say that he was absolutely wonderful. Wagner is that kind of person, who divided his contemporaries at the time and continues to divide people today. He’s just a personality so strong that he inevitably has that kind of effect.
DJ: But if we hadn’t had this cult of the personality then could Hitler have, as it were, enlisted him — along with other figures such as Goethe — in the way that he did?
TB: This is quite an interesting phenomenon and I think this does come with Romanticism. The Romantic heroes, the artistic heroes, are the first artistic creators to have not just admirers but fans; they have a following, they have a cult. I suppose there had been a cult of Michelangelo but with the Romantics there is a cult of Byron, a cult of Beethoven, a cult of Wagner. The relationship between public and the artist is quasi-religious.
JB: It’s so interesting because the cult of Shakespeare is something that actually emerges in this period. It begins to take off with Garrick, partly in furtherance of his own career, who launches this idolisation of Shakespeare. The key moment of the idea of Shakespeare as a cult object occurs in the 1790s, where there’s this extraordinary story of a young man called William Henry Ireland, who starts forging Shakespearean artefacts. Boswell goes down on his knees and kisses the document that Ireland has forged because he thinks he’s in touch with something that has come directly from the hand of Shakespeare. That sense of the cult of the artist, whether it’s a fan of Byron in the present or Shakespeare as a cult figure from the past, is bound up with the sense that Romanticism is a form of secular religion. Once you begin to have the whole Enlightenment critique of the established church and the cult of the saints, you see the emergence of a cult of artists instead. So you have objects of veneration, whether it’s a lock of John Keats’s hair or a bit of wood supposedly from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree.
TB: There is something else about Shakespeare that comes out quite clearly from your book on the subject (Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination, OUP) and that is that Shakespeare is adopted as a national figure; he’s not just a cultural hero, he’s a national hero. And for very obvious reasons: the speeches from Henry V, Richard II and so on. That helps to explain why it was in the 18th century, with English nationalism and possibly British nationalism too — but that’s a fraught territory where we oughtn’t to tread today — that Shakespeare emerges as a cult figure who can be paraded as someone who sums up all the quintessential virtues of the English nation.
JB: One of the respects in which I very much agreed with the argument of your book was the assessment of when Romanticism begins. Academics are always interested in when movements end and with questions of origin: when can you say Romanticism begins? There have been lots of different arguments about that. To me the two crucial starting points are the work of Rousseau, a book like Emile — the book on education which starts the whole idealisation of child-centred learning, which was then banned because of its irreligion. The other starting point would be the cult of Ossian, the discovery of Fingal’s Cave; the idea, which emerges in the 1760s, that maybe British culture has some kind of Homeric bard figure. The great paradox of Romanticism is surely that on the one hand it is to do with individualism and on the other hand it’s very closely bound up with nationalism.
TB: Yes, just so. There’s a tension there between the individual and the group. I don’t think that’s so very surprising. Certainly no German, raised on a diet of dialectics, would find that surprising at all because once the Romantic artist has, as it were, gone inside himself and has stripped down everything which is inherited or comes from outside, and it’s all just down to the inner voice, the inner light within, it’s a bleak and lonely place. So not surprisingly they reach out redoubled with enthusiasm for some kind of collective haven within which they can seek refuge. The nation, especially for the Germans, and to a lesser extent the Italians later, presented itself as an obvious place in which to find a collective warmth.
JB: Then there’s this extraordinary paradox about the way this develops politically. Clearly you can trace the line from Romantic nationalism through to the Nazis. But at the same time, if you think about a figure like Heine — who was a friend of Marx’s in 1830s Paris — or the Young Italy movement, that Romantic line could be traced through into the Communist Manifesto.
TB: Yes you can, that’s certainly true. Where I have a bit of a problem with Heine is that his attitude to Romanticism was rather like Byron’s. They have this in common that they are detached, they are deeply ironic, and so consequently they are prone to making self-disparaging remarks in which they distance themselves from what they identify clearly as a Romantic culture. So Heine wrote quite a lengthy piece warning the French in particular — he was living in Paris as an exile at the time — against the dangers of German Romanticism, warning them that out of all that stuff about witches and hobgoblins and the night and the darkness pretty ugly things could come. In many respects he’s really very prescient: it was after all Heine who said that where they burn books, they’ll be burning people next.
DJ: That’s an aspect of Romanticism which we shouldn’t ignore — that it was in many ways a violent reaction against the French Revolution and the egalitarian ideals that that stood for, just as it was also a reaction against the industrial revolution and the utilitarianism that emerged from that.
TB: I don’t think it’s actually so much a reaction against the French Revolution because the dates and the timings are all wrong. I think it’s a reaction against the Enlightenment which is then intensified by a reaction against the French Revolution. I think Jonathan and I agree in this respect at least that we see it coming from the middle decades of the 18th century, before the French Revolution was even a cloud as big as a man’s hand. Rousseau, who is so important in all this, has this kind of Pauline moment in 1749 when he’s on his way out to Vincennes. As he writes in the Confessions and elsewhere, the scales suddenly fell from his eyes and he realised that what his enlightened philosophe colleagues thought, that reason was leading to the emancipation of humankind, was doing the reverse: it was leading to a new kind of tyranny. Garlands of flowers were being heaped on chains.
JB: One figure that I really wanted to see you fitting into the pattern, who you didn’t talk about at all, was the Marquis de Sade. In terms of that idea of a radical critique of the Enlightenment, and of the sense that modern notions of sexual freedom can be traced back to Romanticism, de Sade is an interesting, almost deeply influential figure.
TB: Well, mea culpa, I certainly should have done. Should it ever go into another edition I will make sure there is a paragraph or two, complete with some spicy quotes from the divine Marquis. I wonder how influential he was though, actually. I think he becomes very influential once his works were freely available in the 20th century and, so I understand, very influential on psychologists and psychiatrists. But do you think he was actually influential on the Romantics? I know more about the German Romantics than the English Romantics, but I can’t actually think that de Sade is often referred to, not least because it was so difficult to get hold of the most outspoken and extreme books — Philosophy in the Boudoir or Juliette.
JB: The influence was more of an idea of what he had written and what he had done and what he had stood for than actually a direct reading of the texts. Justine did circulate but his influence was more at the level of a sort of perception of what he represented and what he stood for. The key area where that influence comes through is actually in the gothic novel. A figure like Matthew Lewis, who wrote The Monk, the bestselling, most scandalous of the gothic novels, saw himself almost as an English de Sade. So in a way there is a sort of similarity to Byron in the sense that the cult of Byron and what Byron represented is actually curiously at odds with what a lot of Byron’s work is like. Byron gives you the great image of the Romantic artist, the artist as rebel in exile but he’s often writing in rhyming couplets in the style of Alexander Pope, and he’s deeply critical of Wordsworth and English Romanticism.
DJ: But isn’t there another strand in Romanticism, which is just the opposite? A strand that says inventing morality for ourselves is deeply wrong. You mention Wordsworth, but there is a deeply religious strain as well, Chateaubriand, Novalis, people who are basically saying, let’s go back to the Middle Ages when at least they knew what was wrong and what was right. So how does that work? Romanticism seems to embrace both extremes, the Christian and the satanic.
TB: In many respects the Romantic revolution was a religious revival. And if one’s looking for the origins — and again we go back to Rousseau — then one finds that very often it’s this emphasis on the inner light. This comes out again and again in Rousseau’s Confessions. He says if anything is to have validity it has to come from the inside, it’s got to be the inner inspiration, the inner light; it’s got to be true. Incidentally, I scribbled a note right at the beginning of this conversation when we were talking about where Romanticism contributes to present-day culture, that one of these axioms of value in modern culture is integrity, originality and spontaneity. All these things come out of Romanticism. That certainly takes us back to the notion of religious experience. If a religious experience, as the Romantics saw it, and as their religious precursors saw it, or an ethical act is to have any value, it must come from the inside, must be self-determined and cannot be performed because the Ten Commandments tell you to. It mustn’t be as a result of an external injunction. It’s got to come from the inner light. Again and again we’re back with the Germans. When looking for the origins of a German proto-Romantic experience it comes from Pietism, from that movement of the late 17th century with its emphasis on the need for an inner light, a personal conversion experience which has nothing to do with institutions and dogma. There are equivalents, of course, in every other part of Europe: certain forms of Jansenism in the Catholic Church, with Methodism and certain elements of Nonconformity in the English-speaking world, the Great Awakening for example. I think that religion is right in there. It’s another reason why I have problems including Byron as a fully paid-up member of the Romantic movement.
JB: The fault line then comes with the question: to what do you attribute a quasi-religious feeling? For me the great example of this is Coleridge, who wrote a poem called A Hymn Before Sun-Rise in the Vale of Chamouni, which is actually, like many of Coleridge’s works, a free translation from the German — it’s based on a poem by a German Romantic called Friedrich von Braun. Coleridge writes as he’s looking up at Mont Blanc, “Who would, who could be an atheist in such a valley of wonders?” So it’s a revival of natural religion: the sublime of the mountain takes you to God. When Shelley stayed in the same hotel in the Vale of Chamonix, he wrote in the visitors’ book, Percy Bysshe Shelley — Atheist. Clearly a reply. In his poem, Mont Blanc, he has the same feelings of sublimity in response to the mountain, but for Shelley that’s just coming from within, it’s not from God. So the feeling of the religious sublime is there but it’s just a question of whether you attribute it to a God who’s out there, or whether it’s a product of human minds’ imaginings. That’s where the fault line comes.
DJ: Let’s bring politics into this. Again, you have the passionate feelings aroused by the French Revolution, then by Napoleon, and then again, a new wave in 1848 which catches up people like Wagner for example, but many others such as Heine who, we mentioned, see Romanticism as essentially reactionary. How does that work? It’s both atheist and religious, both, as it were, left- and right-wing.
TB: I don’t think it’s very atheist. One can overdo these contrasts. I wouldn’t say Shelley was an exception but if you lined up all those Romantics on one side of the room who believed in some form of God and on the other side of the room the atheists, the latter group would be seriously outnumbered.
DJ: Although they use the word God sometimes in a very subjective way, don’t they? Can you really say that Goethe believed in God? Perhaps a kind of pantheism.
TB: It’s possible to have a Christian pantheism, of course. Wordsworth surely is a Christian pantheist. And it’s possible to have non-Christian pantheists, those who believe in some sort of transcendental realm, who in other words are not materialists. Going back to the politics, this is a very interesting phenomenon and I don’t think it’s actually anything to which a simple answer can be given. Let’s take the French Romantics. Given that the official ideology and culture of the revolution was classicism, and then that is continued — or perhaps perverted — by Napoleon, if you were against the revolution and particularly if you were opposed to Napoleon, then there was a natural tendency, compulsion even, to adopt the alternative: Bourbon restoration, Bourbon royalism. You can see that in virtually all the early French Romantics, the most important of them of course being Chateaubriand, who wrote The Genius of Christianity among other things. That is then propagated and encouraged by the great Madame de Staël, who was, as it were, a transmitter of German Romanticism into the Francophone world. But once the Bourbon restoration has taken place in 1814 and decisively in 1815, you can almost see someone like Victor Hugo beginning to shift from Right to Left. They start off as conservative, clerical royalists and then as the awful nature of Louis XVIII and more especially of his brother Charles IX after 1824 becomes apparent you can see them shifting Left. So by the late 1820s Victor Hugo is a fully paid-up member of the liberal opposition. France is an interesting example of a swing from Right to Left. It’s much more complex in the German world.
JB: It’s rather different in England because the aesthetic and the political become so closely intertwined in later English Romanticism. I would regard the key figures in the late-19th-century development of Romanticism in England as being John Ruskin, William Morris and A. C. Swinburne. It seems to me, particularly thinking about the political spin on Romantic medievalism that you get through Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and William Morris’s form of Romantic idealism, it’s an aesthetic and political movement at the same time.
DJ: Surely, the main movement in early Romanticism in England is rather from Left to Right. Obviously there are exceptions like Hazlitt and so on.
JB: That’s where you get this inter-generational parricide, as it were, in English Romanticism. You begin with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey and the circle around Godwin and Wollstonecraft, all welcoming the revolution — Wordsworth actually famously being there in Paris, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” But then as the revolution turns to the terror, and then particularly with the extinction of the Swiss republic, the first generation of Romantics turn against the revolution, they see it as destroying rather than bringing liberty. So by the time you get to the Regency period in England and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey have all moved to the Right and Coleridge goes on to become one of the most formative conservative thinkers in a book like On the Constitution of Church and State. That’s where the younger generation of Hazlitt, Shelley, Keats and Byron react against the first generation and are trying to carry forward radical ideas. Think of Shelley’s reaction to the Peterloo massacre, for instance.
TB: The war is very important. It’s something of a watershed: 1793 comes and in January Louis XVI has his head chopped off — a pretty big shock — then war with revolutionary France follows. Anyone who has any illusions about the French Revolution bringing a new world of humanity and brotherly love were certainly very rapidly disillusioned by the events of the 1790s so the war has a big impact.
JB: And then by the time that the Pope crowns Napoleon as Emperor, Wordsworth says this is like a dog returning to its vomit.
DJ: That’s the moment that Beethoven switches, isn’t it?
TB: Yes. Beethoven’s a very interesting case. He can be seen in a way as a weather vane of attitudes towards politics. I don’t think he was political. Again, here’s someone very much influenced by Schiller; his primary concern was always aesthetic. Not just in the world of music but also in the German-speaking world Beethoven was regarded as the great mould-breaker. The real turning point for him was the Eroica. The Eroica has very little to do with Napoleon, and everything to do with Beethoven’s inner turmoil, precipitated by sexual frustration and by his growing deafness. So it could be argued that the Eroica is the most revolutionary work that had been created in music until that point. So you’re quite right, Beethoven does either tear up or score out the name of Napoleon Bonaparte on the score, that’s certainly true. He was deeply disillusioned by Bonaparte turning out to be just another power-crazed politician. But he also, and we can trace this quite well because after he’d gone deaf he wrote down answers to questions which were presented to him in written form, still doesn’t have a carefully articulated political programme, but his instincts remain liberal. Certainly he could be identified as a man of the Left in his social and political attitudes, critical as he was of the Habsburg regime. But then there’s a very interesting book by an American musicologist called Stephen Rumph (Beethoven After Napoleon: Political Romanticism in the Late Works, University of California Press), which suggests that Beethoven becomes more conservative as he grows older — as many of us do.
JB: We don’t want to fall into the Romantic way of reading that describes all works of art simply by the emotional or the sexual state of the composer. Isn’t the crucial thing about the Eroica really to do with the innovation of form, that sense of breaking the formal mould? In Beethoven’s first two symphonies you can see a continuity with Haydn and Mozart, whereas was it Wagner that said that those opening chords of the Eroica were the beginning of modernity?
DJ: Wagner was a very good critic. He saw Beethoven, as it were, as his own precursor.
JB: Shattering classical forms, whether we’re talking about music or painting or poetry is a key aspect of Romanticism — the fascination of the fragment and the fragmentary as a form, for example.
DJ: To what extent do you think that the younger generation today can easily connect with these Romantic aesthetics? Are we going through a Romantic phase ourselves now?
JB: I notice with my students that they don’t have that immediate visceral, passionate engagement with Romantic poetry that those of us who were perhaps closer to the 1960s — a very Romantic era — have. When I was at school and university in the 1970s existentialism and ’60s radicalism were still living forces. There seemed to be a continuity back with Romanticism but it seems to me the mode of so many younger thinking people today is irony.
TB: My experience is rather different from yours, Jonathan. For many years in Cambridge, I taught a course on Wagner, not on his music, but looking at Wagner’s works through the eyes of an historian, and looking at German history through Wagner and his works. The undergraduates’ response was in the majority extremely enthusiastic. They could get inside Wagner’s world really quite easily. Wagner would have been thrilled to have learned that the myth of The Ring, for example, had applications just as valid in the late 20th or early 21st centuries as in the middle of the 19th century. Not least because in his music and his texts Wagner had so much to say about the way in which the modern world in its rationalism had explained, understood and then exploited nature.
That, in part, is what The Ring of the Nibelung is all about: how the understanding, explanation and discovery of scientific laws leads to the exploitation and rape of nature. There have been important revivals of Romantic works in other genres too, so for example the greatest of the German Romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich, who was forgotten for decades after his death, is very much flavour of the moment.
DJ: Quite a lot of what people think of as Romanticism now has been reduced to little bite-sized chunks, and the full radicalism and intellectual complexity of Romanticism is often omitted. Do you not feel that Romanticism has been almost Bowdlerised?
TB: At one level it clearly has, in that Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Mist will pop up now on biscuit tins in Germany, and appear on jigsaw puzzles and so on, and has been vulgarised and turned into kitsch, if you like. On the other hand, the most powerful message of Wanderer above the Sea, and indeed in all of Friedrich’s paintings, is that there is a transcendental dimension, to gain entry into which is deeply rewarding. And one way of doing it is through the contemplation of Friedrich’s paintings — that was his intention. As one of his contemporaries said, “Looking at Friedrich’s paintings is like looking at a man praying.”
DJ: If you take away the religious and intellectual background to Romanticism, what have you got left? I wonder how easy it is for us to think ourselves back into their mental world.
JB: It’s such a fascinating and complex period, the early 19th century, that to think oneself back into all the aspects of it is very difficult, because the moment you emphasise one dimension you leave out another. We’ve said nothing about the importance of the abolition of slavery, and the centrality of the abolition debate to the writing of so many of the Romantics in England. A hero like Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolution — these were absolutely central at the time, but many discussions about Romanticism seem to forget about that.
TB: That’s a very good point and one needs to move East across the Channel, where both of those things were important, but where one could also include the whole Philhellene movement that bound Romantics right across Europe.
JB: One aspect of Romanticism where there is a lot of interest at the moment is the fascination with the East, with Romantic Orientalism. There’s the fascinating story of this guy William Jones, who got interested in Hindu culture, an interest in comparative religion, an idealisation of aspects of Hinduism, for instance vegetarianism — these were very important parts of Romanticism, and they do seem to strike a chord with younger people today.
DJ: That’s very true, and the whole environmentalist movement, and so on.
JB: Yes, what in one of my books I call Romantic ecology.
DJ: Although there’s something much more attractive about the Romantics’ ideas about nature and so on than what it has now become. In many ways we’re missing the real point of a great deal of the Romantic aesthetic, because we’ve turned these things into ideologies, haven’t we?
JB: But that’s where Tim’s point about the critique of the Enlightenment and his reading of The Ring returns, because where there is a direct line between Romantic ecology through to the modern Green movement is that sense that the great advances of the Enlightenment have a downside, and that comes with the desecration of nature.
TB: One interesting and attractive notion which comes out of the Romantics (and more specifically from Herder) is the idea of cultural relativism, summed up best in Ranke’s celebrated dictum that every age is immediate to God. In other words, one shouldn’t think of the Middle Ages as being something lower down on a scale of progression which has led to the glories of the present day. Any period in the past should be understood from the inside out, and that is a constant theme of Romanticism, so that one shouldn’t use the criteria and values of the late 20th century and apply them to 12th-century Brabant. If one can paraphrase that slightly, which Herder did, every culture is immediate to God; every culture has its own peculiar characteristics. What Herder wanted was that those peculiar characteristics should not be marked and ticked off according to a set of enlightened criteria of whether they’re irrational or not, but should be understood from the inside out on their own terms. So cultural relativism doesn’t support the notion that one should go and invade country A because they don’t have the benefits of Western liberal democracy and force them down their throats, which is why I think it makes an appeal to the present-day generation and has relevance for them. There is a contemporary political message to come out of this as well as an aesthetic and cultural message, and that is why Romanticism in this sense remains relevant, and remains attractive — at least, attractive to me.
DJ: What I would counter to that is that Ranke says “Immediate to God”, so he took it for granted there was a God, and that we more or less agreed about which God. He wouldn’t have questioned the basic principles of Western civilisation, would he? Not that he or any of the Romantics would have disparaged Oriental cultures or other cultures, but what seems to be different today is that even the most fundamental assumptions of Western civilisation can no longer be taken for granted. The horrors that we’ve seen over the last century would have been unimaginable to Romantics, wouldn’t they?
TB: Where I take issue is that the Romantics were not living in a cuddly teddy-bear sort of world. Anyone who had first-hand experience or even second-hand experience of the horrors which had been perpetrated in Paris during the Terror, and particularly during the September massacres, was well aware of the terrible things that lurked down there. Of course they couldn’t have imagined the vastly greater horrors that were perpetrated by Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, not least because they weren’t aware of the technological developments that would make those horrors possible. But they knew what a human being was capable of doing to another human being.
DJ: You mention the abolition of the slave trade. Would the Romantics have said that it’s fine for other people to have slavery, but we won’t? What worries me about today’s form of cultural relativism is that it excuses things we would never accept for ourselves when we see them happening elsewhere in the world. And that’s something which I think the Romantics wouldn’t accept.
JB: Absolutely, and the key text here is Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam, which is a searing attack on the inequalities and tyranny within Islam. He’s obviously partly doing that as a veiled attack on Christianity, but he’s done his research about fundamentalist Islam.