Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Weaponized Romanticism

At the beginning of the 20th century, T. E. Hulme, in his great essay “Romanticism v. Classicism” defined Romanticism as “spilt religion.” It was religion unchanneled by any theology that acknowledged humanity’s proclivity toward evil and its debilitating effects: warped perception and stupidity. Instead, what Romanticism at its worst offered was a perpetual pantheistic liberation of the human spirit that was supposed to end in an epiphany, the individual’s identity with the cosmos at large. Hulme fingered “Lamartine, Hugo, part of Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Swinburne,” as examples, but landed on Hugo as the model of spilt religion in this contrast between “Classicism” and “Romanticism”:
What I mean by the classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas.

You might say if you wished that the whole of the Romantic attitude seems to crystallize in verse round metaphors of flight. Hugo is always flying, flying, over abysses, flying up into the eternal gases. The word infinite in every other line.
In short, Romanticism unhooked English literature from the concept of original sin, which according to G. K. Chesterton, “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” If challenged on the idea of original sin, I think Chesterton might have said with Joyce, behold history, the nightmare from which mankind is trying to awake. I do not go completely with Hulme about the Romantics. Like C. S. Lewis, I enjoy teaching and reading them, but Lewis also recognized that Romanticism was, in fact, spilt religion. He merely added that the water on the floor might be worth paying attention to. Lewis’s point was that Romanticism expressed a real joy, which was a fundamental part of reality, and that joy was the one thing in life worth pursuing. Lewis’s pursuit, however, was eventually guided by a religion which never lost sight of the inherent human tendency toward moral failure and political nightmare.

Chesterton and Hulme (less so Lewis, who saw it coming) might be surprised that the spilt religion of Romanticism has mainly filled the vial of therapy, and that the therapeutic ideal has invaded every facet of western culture, even the churches. We’ve been sold therapy as a kind of technologized Romanticism.

A quick walk through Barnes and Noble or a glance at the iTunes bookstore reveals very quickly how publishing has been overwhelmed by therapeutic Romanticism. You don’t have to go to the self-help or psychology sections to see it. Fiction is overwhelmed by it: tale after tale is tailor-made for Oprah’s book club, as people free themselves from alcohol, drugs, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, abusive bosses, abusive religions, miserable little towns — all or any combination of the above. Oprah herself, of course, both keyed into this cultural wave and pushed it, making herself the media queen of therapeutic Romanticism and, happily, billions of dollars besides.

A brief glace at’s book section yields the following:

On The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings, from The New Yorker:“When a catamaran accident leaves his wife in a coma he [Matthew King] must wake from his own ‘prolonged unconsciousness,’ reacquaint himself with his neglected daughters, and track down his wife’s lover. Meanwhile, his cousins are urging him to sell the family’s vast landholdings for development — to relinquish, in his eyes, the final vestige of their native Hawaiian ancestry. Hemmings channels the voice of her befuddled middle-aged hero with virtuosity, as he teeters between acerbic and sentimental, scoffing at himself even as he grasps for redemption.”

On The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks: “Inspired by the actual town commemorated as Plague Village because of the events that transpired there in 1665-1666, Brooks tells her harrowing story from the perspective of 18-year-old Anna Frith, a widow with two young sons. Anna works as a maid for vicar Michael Mompellion and his gentle, selfless wife, Elinor, who has taught her to read. When bubonic plague arrives in the community, the vicar announces it as a scourge sent by God; obeying his command, the villagers voluntarily seal themselves off from the rest of the world. The vicar behaves nobly as he succors his dwindling flock, and his wife, aided by Anna, uses herbs to alleviate their pain. As deaths mount, however, grief and superstition evoke mob violence against 'witches,' and cults of self-flagellation and devil worship. With the facility of a prose artist, Brooks unflinchingly describes barbaric 17th-century customs and depicts the fabric of life in a poor rural area. If Anna's existential questions about the role of religion and ethical behavior in a world governed by nature seem a bit too sophisticated for her time, Brooks keeps readers glued through starkly dramatic episodes and a haunting story of flawed, despairing human beings. This poignant and powerful account carries the pulsing beat of a sensitive imagination and the challenge of moral complexity. Forecast: Brooks should be a natural on talk shows . . . .” The heroine, Anna Frith, finally liberates herself from male dominance, patriarchal religion, and backwards-European science, by fleeing to the freedom of 17th-century Islamic northern Africa, where she comes under the tutelage of an Arabian physician! Well, Viking knows what sells.

That the purpose of novels is primarily therapeutic is put forward by New Yorker columnist Flora Armetta as one of the principle reasons for reading. It’s cheaper than psychotherapy. Reading becomes
a medical prescription of sorts. According to a post at Scientific American, people who have experienced loss or trauma may find healing if they are able to turn their life stories into a narrative that hangs together and makes sense. Recent research suggests that developing a story from the events in one’s life — not necessarily a story with a happy ending, just a true and “coherent story,” as opposed to a “fragmented” one — can bring real relief from depression and anxiety.

A psychotherapist (there’s an old-fashioned word for you), assumes that analysis is the best way to achieve this coherent story. This is not surprising, but it’s also not terribly appealing. It strikes me that literature can do a lot of the work for us, and do it much more enjoyably. If “fragmented” is a good way to describe some of the best modernist and postmodern novels (I’m thinking of everything from “Ulysses” to “To the Lighthouse” to “Beloved”), we can also turn to fiction for coherence. Consider the vast body of great writing that is precisely about the process that psychotherapy evidently provides: the attempt to narrate a life story as a means of understanding it.”
James Frey, the man who lied to Oprah, wrote a do-it-yourself therapy novel, creating the perfect Oprah Book club entry, A Million Little Pieces, in which he presented himself as the Byronic hero of addiction, so proud and courageous, he refused to concede personal responsibility for his drug addiction and rebelled against 12-step programs. Of course, Frey’s memoire was shown to be a novel in disguise, and a rather bad one at that. Oprah said she felt “duped.” Oprah, we all should feel duped. We used to produce writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Now we produce Romantic therapists who cast themselves as the anti-victims of a victimizing culture.

By themselves, these books might be taken as trivialities, cultural straws in the wind. But they represent a deluge that manifests itself in education and politics, where to be enlightened is to believe that everyone deserves the beatific vision, that technologized Romanticism, in the form of therapies of one sort or another, can supply it, and that politics can supply it en mass. The 20th century is a great testimony to the dangers of the toxic mix of nihilism and Romanticism, and we haven’t learned our lesson yet. Si se puede! On to the promised land!

To be out of faith with therapeutic Romanticism is to be a heretic. NPR’s odious Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me makes jokes about the stupidity of people in the Tea Party without spending a moment of satire on the less toilet-trained Occupy Wall Street. The Tea party just doesn’t get it: and what it doesn’t get is the Romantic worldview.

This leads to the paradoxical fact that the therapific vision is elitism for the masses, sainthood and superiority for all, except those small-minded businessmen who vote Republican. To dissent is to be a killjoy, or even worse, “insensitive.” Chesterton understood, way early in the game, the tendency of Romanticism to produce cultural elites. Commenting on Thomas Carlyle’s love of the aristocracy, Chesterton cautioned:
The weak point in the whole of Carlyle's case for aristocracy lies, indeed, in his most celebrated phrase. Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or anyone else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob.
The men who wrote the constitution and debated it in The Federalist Papers had a deep understanding of universal human moral failure. They tried to write a document that would protect us against ourselves. But the moral aristocracy has now grown to include perhaps the majority of voting Americans. Despite tough economic times and an Islamist threat which is still very much alive, we are living in the “circumambient gas.”  I don’t think we can stay there forever.
©2012 Craig Bernthal

This essay is also up at VDH Private Papers: Weaponized Romanticism

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