Unbridled Romanticism

In Chapter 5 of The Roots of Romanticism Isaiah Berlin considers what he terms ‘the final eruption of unbridled romanticism’.

Berlin says that Friedrich Schlegel, himself a part of the movement, named three vital components of this movement: Fichte’s philosophy, the French Revolution, and Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister.

Fichte’s philosophy

The innovation which Fichte and his ‘glorification of the active, dynamic and imaginative self’ brought to philosophy sprang out of Hume’s empiricism. Hume had said that he found it impossible, when he looked inside himself, to ‘perceive any entity which might justly be called a self’, and concluded that the ‘self’ was not a thing, but ‘simply a name for the concatenation of experiences out of which human personality and human history were formed’. Kant ‘made valiant efforts to recapture some sort of self’, but Hume’s notion was much more passionately accepted by Fichte. What Fichte argued was the one only becomes aware of the self when one meets some ‘kind of resistance’. There is a ‘me’ – something which can be objectively studied – but that is quite separate from the ‘I’ self which only becomes apparent from being impacted upon. The answer to the question as to how one could be sure that the world existed; how one could be sure solipsism was not true; was to be found when there was a clash between you and what you wanted: ‘In the resistance emerged the self and the not-self’. This radical philosophy asserts that….

The world as described by the sciences was an artificial construction in relation to this absolutely primary, irreducible, fundamental datum, not even of experience, but of being.

From this comes ‘the whole vast vision’ which proclaims that the only thing that is worthwhile is the ‘exfoliation’ of the self; its struggle and creative activity as it seeks to impose itself. When this is extended to the political sphere it can have very unpleasant implications, because the Church or State or class becomes ‘a huge intrusive forward-marching will’ trying impose itself on the world. In his political speeches Fichte claimed that only those who accepted the doctrine of  freedom are ‘the Urvolk, the primal people – I mean the Germans’, and all others are to be ‘excluded from the Urvolk, they are strangers, they are outsiders’ and ‘one would hope that one day they would be wholly cut off from our people’. Now Berlin says that Fichte did not mean just ethnic Germans and in his day only a tiny number of people heard his speeches, but nonetheless one can see how poisonous this doctrine could become.

‘The fundamental notion is not cogito ergo sum but volo ergo sum’.

A different course was taken by Fichte’s younger contemporary Schilling, who was to influence Coleridge, whose thought is little read because it is ‘exceedingly opaque, not to say unintelligible’. Schilling argued that the whole of Nature is alive and in a state of self-development from the unconscious rocks, through plant and animal life, to man who ‘begins to strive and becomes aware of what he is striving for’, which is God, who is the end of creative evolution. This doctrine had a ‘profound influence on German aesthetic philosophy’. If everything in nature is alive and we are simply the ‘most self-conscious representatives’, then the function of the artist becomes to ‘delve within himself’, and above all to delve into the ‘dark and unconscious forces which move within him’ and bring these to consciousness. It follows that, for art to be art, it cannot be simply based on knowledge or copying – it must have what we admire in nature: ‘power, force, energy, life, vitality’.  This is a ‘fundamental romantic, anti-Enlightenment doctrine’ and it goes back, via its stress on the unconscious, to Herder and his admiration of folk culture.

Out of ‘Fichte’s doctrine of the will and Schelling’s doctrine of the unconscious’ came the Romantic obsession with symbolism. Berlin writes…

Let me try and make it as clear as I am able, although I do not claim to understand it entirely, because, as Schelling very rightly says, romanticism is truly a wild wood, a labyrinth in which the only guiding thread is the will and mood of a poet.

There are two kinds of symbols….

  1. Conventional symbols. These are simple: the symbol means a certain thing and operates according to rules. Traffic lights are a classic example.
  2. Non-conventional symbols. Here a symbol is something that can only be expressed symbolically. To take the traffic lights: replacing a green light with a sign with the word ‘Go’ on it would be quite satisfactory. But for this second type such a substitution is impossible. Symbols of this type include national flags or songs or a phrase like ‘England expects every man to do his duty’: what is meant by England here? Clearly not a geographical, political or sociological definition. It is something nebulous. It is not just a matter of arousing emotion because a sunset can do that, but a sunset is not a symbol. So what are these things symbolic of? These Romantics argued that it was symbolic of something of which the whole was ‘literally infinite’ and therefore only to be conveyed by symbol and allegory [I find this argument unsatisfactory as least far as the England example is concerned as I believe you could and should analyse the phrase – and resist it!]. This relates to the notion of depth and profundity and how this differs from the beautiful – these thinkers believed there was a value in incomprehensibility.

Out of all this concern with the unsayable and unattainable come two phenomena which have been present in 19th and 20thC thought and feeling. The first is nostalgia – this arises from the fact that as the infinite cannot be exhausted, we will never be satisfied. So all the strange, exotic writings full of symbol and allegory are attempts ‘to go back’ to the mystical unknowable ‘home’ from which everything derives. This is absolutely opposite to the Enlightenment belief that there is a ‘particular form of life and of art, of thought and of feeling, which was correct’. For the Romantics there are no correct answers. Berlin cites the story of the cynical critic who asked Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘But Mr Rossetti, when you have found the grail what will you do with it?’ – the Romantic answer would have been that the Grail was unrecoverable but one’s life should still be a search for it [I am rather with the critic!].

The second phenomenon is paranoia. One version of Romanticism is optimistic which feels that by connecting with our true selves and destroying the rules/obstacles/codes which prevent this we will ‘soar to greater and greater heights’: the pessimistic version says that while we seek to liberate ourselves ‘the universe is not to be tamed in this easy fashion’, and there is always something to prevent us. In its crudest from this is seen in conspiracy theories where history is controlled by malign forces such as the Jesuits, Jews or Freemasons. At a more sophisticated level there are impersonal forces as represented in Hegel’s statement that ‘The spirit cheats us, the spirit intrigues, the spirit lies, the spirit triumphs’ – the spirit being that of history. This paranoia accumulates to  a height in Schopenhauer and Wagner and climaxes in 20thC writers like Kafka.

In this way the romantics tend to oscillate between extremes of mystical optimism and appalling pessimism, which gives their writings a peculiar kind of uneven quality.

The French Revolution

In Germany one result was, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, an outbreak of national feeling. But more important was the fact that the failure of the Revolution to achieve its goals attracted attention not to the triumph of reason, but to irrationality, violence, the power of individuals – ‘the poetry of action and battle and death’. The question was asked as to why the Revolution failed and one of the answers which Romanticism provided was that there is some hidden force which prevented it – ‘human nature’, ‘the dark forces of the unconscious’ or whatever. This fed into what Berlin calls theodicies, which attempted to explain this, including the Marxist and Hegelian theodicies [this reveals Berlin’s political bias since in reality Marxist history provides a perfectly rational explanation for the failure of the Revolution, albeit one which would not be acceptable to Berlin or many others]. The Revolution therefore buttressed both Romantic individualism and Romantic paranoia.

Wilhelm Meister

The romantics admired Wilhelm Meister for two reasons…

  1. Because ‘it was an account of the self-formation of a man of genius’.
  2. Because of the ‘very sharp transitions’ within the novel: from sober prose to ecstatic poetical accounts of various kinds. This latter the romantics saw as a way of blowing up reality, of liberating us, which is the purpose of art.

Goethe himself did not regard this as a valid analysis. He had an ambivalent relationship with his romantic contemporaries; grateful for their admiration (even adulation), but suspicion of their artistic qualities and their philosophy. Late in his life he said ‘Romanticism is disease and classicism is health’, and Berlin calls this his ‘fundamental sermon’. Critically ‘the general tendency of Goethe is to say that there is a solution’ and this is ‘essentially that of order, self-restraint, discipline and the crushing of any kind of chaotic or anti-legal forces’. For the romantics that was ‘absolute poison’. They not only preached but practised free love. The book which encapsulated their views was Lucinde (1799) by Schlegel : Berlin describes this as ‘a pornographic novel of the fourth order’, but its importance was in its attempt to describe ‘ a free relationship between human beings’.

Much more interesting in literary terms in breaking down conventions were the plays of Tieck which used post-modern devices, and the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann which demonstrate the ‘transformability of everything into everything’.

 ‘The general proposition of the eighteenth century, indeed of all previous centuries, as I tirelessly repeat, is that there is a nature of things, there is rerum natura, there is a structure of things. For the romantics this was profoundly false.’

This Romantic art is the precursor of Dadaism, surrealism, the theatre of the absurd etc.. The idea is to ‘confuse reality with appearance’ and to produce a sense of the ‘absolutely unbarred universe’ where people can do as they please, even if only temporarily [I wonder about Tristram Shandy as a fore-runner here?].

The final weapon in the unbridled romantics armoury was ‘romantic irony’ – whenever you see anything which is living by the rules, whether it be a social group, a poem, an institution then you should ‘laugh at it, mock it, be ironical, blow it up, point out that the opposite is true.’

These two elements – the free untrammelled will and the denial of the fact that there is a nature of things, the attempt to blow up and explode the very notion of a stable structure of anything – are the deepest and in a sense the most insane elements in this extremely valuable and important movement.


3 thoughts on “Unbridled Romanticism

  1. ellenandjim

    Brilliant, Nick. You bring so much together following Berlin. I have only this sort of footnote: what you say about Fichte’s philosophy, the new definition of what makes a self and the validation of individual visions, as well as the idea of nature as perpetually in formation is found in Ernst Cassirer’s great trilogy, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Cassirer sees romanticism (its roots) implicit in the development of intellectual thought in the 18th century.

    What you probably knew resaid probably crudely, but I thought I’d mention Cassirer to you.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen – and thanks for bringing Cassirer to my attention : I am afraid that I had never heard of him, but his work sounds absolutely fascinating.

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