Romanticization provides an ideal, but misleading, view of the world. Unfortunately, we see not simply a romantic notion, but a dangerous human illusion.
The Emergence of the Romantic
After the collapse of Rome, Europe plunged into the Medieval, the Dark Ages. With increasing social, bureaucratic, and commercial sophistication – ironically aided by the Black Death – the Renaissance blossomed and lay the foundations for the modern world.
Soon after, that blossoming led to an appreciation of blossoming itself, in the Romantic Period. The word ‘romantic’ refers to the ‘romance languages’. Romantic tales were originally those written in a vernacular tongue rather than Latin, hence the name.1)In modern French, a novel is un roman. These typically described chivalric love, i.e., ‘ideal’ love.
Which is the problem with the Romantic period. The Romantic thinkers and artists emphasized human individuality, and the importance of emotions over rational/scientific analysis; and they argued that the whole was more than the sum of its parts. Those considerations have validity, but romanticization is but one short step away from idealization, from imagining that something is pure and perfect, or that purity and perfection are even possible.
The Romantics opposed scientific reductionism in favor of their ideal romanticization, which caught them in their own intellectual trap. The ideal itself is a reduction, a human extraction and distillation which allows us to mentally analyze the flood of sensations that we experience. We might ‘know’ that there is a beautiful tree in our yard, and recognized its tree-like attributes: trunk, roots, bark, limbs, twigs, leaves. We might have some idea of its shape and location, and perhaps of its individual peculiarities: a broken branch here, a prominent root there, a lopside left from pruning or the weather.
But we still know very little. The finest artist, not even the photographer, can catch the totality of the tree; and she certainly cannot catch it as the wind blows, the sun moves, and the seasons roll. Beyond that, there are the aspects of the tree that we cannot easily experience: the complex physiological and chemical makeup, and the environmental stresses and opportunities that shape it. Our ideal of a tree is limited to a rough remembered outline, an abbreviated sense-impression that the Romantics valued, one which we can only contemplate, but not comprehend.
Trees are exposed to the constant danger and death that all living things face, and to which most of them succumb. When the Romanticist walks through nature, examining only his sensations and emotions, he misses the rational reality that is not sensed, but which must be true. He misses the Malthusian and Darwinian imperative: life is a struggle to survive. And most living things fail.
The Hidden Horror
Because, of course, the Romanticists were products of the comfortable classes. They viewed nature, and the seemingly happy peasants and livestock who lived within it, from a distance. And they only saw them during good weather, which meant times of sufficiency for everyone.
How many of the Romanticists ever bothered to inquire about the peasants’ lives, visit their shacks, observed them in the depths of winter, when there was not enough food, fuel, clothes or warmth? How much disease, starvation, and death did the Romanticists miss, in the nature around them, and in the homes of their fellow humanity?
One of the more important Romantic writers was Sir Walter Scott. He wrote of the idyllic ideals of warfare, even though the briefest consideration shows war to be the greatest horror humanity sees. It’s an important point about romanticization: when you respond to what you feel, not what you think, horror can result. Mark Twain blamed the Civil War, the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, on Scott’s romanticization of battle.
Out of Sight…
The drive-by observations of the Romanticists were totally off the mark.
Nevertheless, their approach is a typical response from humanity. What we do not see, what we do not feel, is not true. If we do not personally witness or experience suffering and death, then we assume it is not there. And so we blithely drive past the pain and death that occur throughout the world, and even in our own communities.
And because of that, we ignore the constant pain and death that often lurk around each corner, awaiting all of us.
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: IV, Destruction, courtesy of Wikipedia.
William Blake, 1808, Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve. Public domain.
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|1.||↑||In modern French, a novel is un roman.|