The Magazine

Breaking the Mold

The Romantics as precursors to the Modern Age.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By PETER LOPATIN
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Noting the familiar charge against the scientific method—which is to say, against Newtonian science—that it “could explain everything but understand nothing,” Blanning adumbrates the many forms this indictment took: Coleridge said those he had known “who have been rationally educated [are] marked by a microscopic acuteness, but when they looked at great things, all became blank and they saw nothing.” Heinrich von Kleist complained that “all Newton saw in a girl’s heart was its cubic capacity and in her breast just a curved line.” August Wilhelm Schlegel asked, “What can a poem prove?” In his Prologue to Faust, Goethe, speaking to God through Mephistopheles, mocks Reason:

The little earth-god still persists in his old ways,

Ridiculous as ever, as in his first days.

He’d have improved if you’d not given

Him a mere glimmer of the light of heaven;

He calls it Reason, and it only has increased

His power to be beastlier than a beast.

Against the coldness of Reason and its pretensions to understanding, the Romantics “stressed the need to escape from the arid factual world of appearances and enter the interior realm of the self.” That self, of course, was not that of the ordinary man but of the artistic genius who would “set the pace as the role model, not just for fellow artists but for all society.” Thus would the cult of genius come to the fore as a characteristic feature of Romanticism: Unbound by tradition, rules, or external restraints of any kind—certainly not those of the “philistine public”—the genius is animated and impelled only by the force of his passion and imagination. The Romantics saw artistic genius as partaking of the divine, and art became “sacralized”—elevated to the status formerly held by religion: “It was only when the last external restraints were cast aside,” writes Blanning, “that the creative artist could break out of the mimetic cocoon and achieve full independence as a high priest of an aesthetic religion.”

In a melding of the cult of genius with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s conception of music as the most Romantic of all the arts (“since its subject matter is infinity”), Beethoven, Paganini, and Liszt attained heroic status in their own lifetimes. It was rumored of Paganini that he “had captured the Devil in his sound box or that he had made a Faustian pact with the Devil, sacrificing his soul in return for matchless skill.” And Liszt, departing Berlin in 1842, left “in a carriage pulled by six white horses, accompanied by a procession of thirty other coaches and an honor guard of students.” For the first time, great artists had not only admirers but fans.

As Blanning examines in some detail, a complication of Rousseau’s call to inwardness is that what lies within is as likely to be dark as light, as much a nightmare as a sweet idyll: “What [Rousseau] found inside himself was a witches’ brew of emotions, neuroses, and paranoia.” Whether in the dark eroticism of Henry Fuseli’s paintings or in the later works of Goya (“a pre-Newtonian world peopled by cripples, criminals, whores, monsters, devils, witches, magicians, and lunatics doing unspeakable things to one another”), the Romantic imagination was aroused by the power of the dark and the carnal. In music, the dark side can be discerned in the way in which the motif of night—in the form of the notturno or Nachtmusik—was transformed from “a cheerful piece to be performed usually by wind or brass ensemble as background for an al fresco summer festivity” to the more introspective and melancholy yearning of the nocturnes of Liszt and, especially, Chopin. And in Schubert’s later song cycles night has become frozen, stormy, and barren, a bleak landscape in which the unnamed hero wanders in the consuming misery of his unrequited love.