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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Perhaps the best-known instance in the Romantic canon of the tormented, impassioned hero is Goethe’s Werther—paradigm of the besotted, melancholy intellectual whose “morbid hypersensitivity could find release only in language of intense passion.” The agonized eroticism of the sort depicted in The Sorrows of Young Werther was a pervasive feature of the literary and artistic canon: “Indeed,” says Blanning, “it might be said that Romanticism was institutionally erotic.” The fusion of Eros with a sacralized conception of art led, with the inevitability of a chemical equation, to the elevation of Eros to the realm of the aesthetic and quasi-religious, particularly among the German Romantics, for whom Romanticism was “the continuation of religion by aesthetic means.” Now those means had become as much carnal as spiritual, leading Schlegel to declare that “the rights of love are higher than the ceremonies of the altar.”

The idea of the pure individuality of genius as it resides in each artist found a parallel in the notion of the individuality of national cultural identity, in all its manifestations. Under the influence of Herder, as well as Rousseau, Goethe rejected all notions of artistic universals, laws, principles, or rules, proclaiming that “the only true art is characteristic art”—that is, art whose “influence arises from deep, harmonious, independent feeling .  .  . ignorant of everything foreign.” Largely swept away was the Enlightenment veneration of the classical ideals of artistic beauty: “All those characteristics derided by the classicists—irregularity, ornamentation, gloom, clericalism, transcendentalism—were now paraded as inspiring assets.”

So, too, in the realm of history: “The Romantics believed that the Enlightenment approached history from the outside, imposing on the past contemporary standards and a contemporary agenda.” For the German Romantics, the German language, German history, and (in retrospect, more ominously) the German Volk were unique repositories of purity and perfection:

The German language was unique, [Fichte] believed, because only the German language had remained pure. All the others had been polluted to a greater or lesser extent by their assimilation into the Latin culture of the Roman Empire. .  .  . For this reason, the Germans had a special mission to redeem mankind from the abyss into which it had tumbled.

Blanning’s further explorations of the impact of Romanticism on the European understanding of history and politics in the 19th century are illuminating, though necessarily abbreviated. And in his conclusion he touches briefly on the affinity between Romanticism and the various postmodernisms, explaining that absolute inwardness—the “central axiom of Romanticism”—will continue to play a role in the cultural conversation. What direction that conversation will take is unclear, but Blanning is surely correct when he says, “The Romantic revolution is not over yet.”

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.