M.A.R. Habib

Originally, the term “Romantic” had referred to Mediaeval romance and tales of adventure; its connotations extended to what was fictitious and fantastic, to folklore and legend, as well as to the dazzling and rugged sights of nature. Romanticism, as we understand it, was a broad intellectual and artistic disposition that arose toward the end of the eighteenth century and reached its zenith during the early decades of the nineteenth century. The ideals of Romanticism included an intense focus on human subjectivity and its expression, an exaltation of nature which was seen as a vast repository of symbols, of childhood and spontaneity, of primitive forms of society, of human passion and emotion, of the poet, of the sublime, and of imagination as a more comprehensive and inclusive faculty than reason. The most fundamental literary and philosophical disposition of Romanticism has often been seen as irony, an ability to accommodate conflicting perspectives of the world. Developing certain insights of Kant, the Romantics often insisted on artistic autonomy and attempted to free art from moralistic and utilitarian constraints, as expressed in the centuries’ old formula, deriving from the ancient Roman poet Horace, that literature should both please and instruct.

It was in the fields of philosophy and literature that Romanticism — as a broad response to Enlightenment, neo-Classical and French Revolutionary ideals — initially took root. In general, this period can best be seen as one in which the major upheavals such as the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolutions, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, along with the growth of nationalism, impelled the bourgeois classes toward political, economic, cultural and ideological hegemony. It was their world-view — broadly, rationalist, empiricist, individualist, utilitarian, and economically liberal — which dominated the thought and practice of this period, and which spawned various oppositional movements such Socialism, anarchism, cults of irrationalism and revivals of tradition and religion. Romanticism cannot be placed within any set of these movements since it effectively spanned them all.

A question that might fruitfully be addressed here is the complex connection of Romanticism to the predominating bourgeois world-views. As writers such as Plekhanov, Marcuse and Hobsbawm have pointed out, it is too simplistic to view Romanticism in any of its expressions as a straightforward reaction against the prevalent bourgeois way of life. Some of the Romantics, such as Blake, Wordsworth and Holderlin, initially saw the French Revolution as heralding the dawn of a new era of individual and social liberation. Schiller and Goethe in their own ways exalted the struggle for human freedom and mastery of knowledge. Shelley, Byron, Heine, George Sand and Victor Hugo were passionate in their appeals for justice and liberation from oppressive social conventions and political regimes. Underlying nearly all Romantic views of literature was an intense individualism based on the authority of experience and, often, a broadly democratic orientation, as well as an optimistic and sometimes utopian belief in progress. Moreover, the Romantics shared Enlightenment notions of the infinite possibility of human achievement, and of a more optimistic conception of human nature as intrinsically good rather than as fallen and theologically depraved. In all these aspects, there was some continuity between Enlightenment and Romantic thought.

However, many of the Romantics, including some of the figures cited above such as Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, reacted against certain central features of the new bourgeois social and economic order. Appalled by the squalor and the mechanized, competitive routine of the cities, as well as by the moral mediocrity of a bourgeois world given over to what Shelley called the principles of “utility” and “calculation,” they turned for spiritual relief to mysticism, to Nature, to Rousseauistic dreams of a simple, primitive and uncorrupted lifestyle, which they sometimes located in an idealized period of history such as the Middle Ages. Wordsworth held that the poet should emulate the “language of real life;” both he and Blake and Coleridge exalted the state of childhood and innocence of perception, untainted by conventional education; and many Romantic writers — in tune with growing nationalistic sentiments — revived primitive forms such the folktale and the ballad. Nature, for the Romantics, departed from the conception of nature held by neo-Classical writers such as Pope, for whom the term signified an eternal unchangeable and hierarchical order of the cosmos as well as certain criteria for human thought and behavior. Pope=s view had been influenced by notions deriving from Newton of the universe as a vast machine, as well as by Christian providential notions of nature surviving from the Middle Ages. For the Romantics, Nature was transfigured into a living force and held together as a unity by the breath of the divine spirit. It was infused with a comprehensive symbolism resting on its profound moral and emotional connection with human subjectivity. Coleridge referred to nature as the “language of God.”

Perhaps the most fundamental trait of all Romanticism was its shift of emphasis away from Classical objectivity towards subjectivity: in the wake of the philosophical systems of Fichte, Schelling, and above all, of Hegel, the worlds of subject and object, self and world, were viewed as mutually constructive processes, human perception playing an active role rather than merely receiving impressions passively from the outside world. Such an emphasis placed a high value on uniqueness, originality, novelty, and exploration of ever expanding horizons of experience, rather than the filtering of experience through historically accumulated layers of tradition and convention. The emphasis on uniqueness is amply exemplified in Rousseau’s Confessions which both in its very form asserts the value of the confessional mode, of private experience, and in its content places great value on uniqueness and particularity rather than typicality and conformity. Moreover, the self which is exalted in Romanticism was a far cry from the self as an atomistic (and economic) unit as premised in the political and economic philosophies of bourgeois individualism. The Romantic self was a profounder, more authentic ego lying beneath the layers of social convention, a self which attempted through principles such as irony to integrate the increasingly fragmented elements of the bourgeois world into a vision of unity. And it was primarily the poet who could achieve such a vision. In general, the Romantics exalted the status of the poet, as a genius whose originality was based on his ability to discern connections among apparently discrepant phenomena and to elevate human perception toward a comprehensive, unifying vision.

The most crucial human faculty for such integration was the Imagination, which most Romantics saw as a unifying power, one which could harmonize the other strata of human perception such as sensation and reason. It should be noted that Romanticism is often wrongly characterized as displacing Enlightenment “reason” with emotion, instinct, spontaneity and imagination. To understand what is at issue here, it is necessary to recall that much Romantic thought took Kant’s philosophy (which itself was not at all Romantic) as its starting point, notably his distinction between phenomena and noumena, his treatment of imagination, and his establishing of a relative autonomy for the category of the aesthetic. Kant’s relation to Enlightenment thought was indeed ambivalent inasmuch as he attempted to establish the limitations of reason. However, Kant declared that the categories of the understanding applied throughout the phenomenal world; his notion of the noumenon is merely a limiting concept and its actual existence is nothing more than a presupposition of morality and free will. He had, moreover, viewed imagination as a mediating principle which reconciled the deliverances of sensation with the categories of the understanding. The Romantics, like Hegel (who himself was certainly not a Romantic), placed the noumenal realm within the reach of human apprehension, and often exalted the function of imagination, viewing it as a vehicle for the attainment of truths beyond the phenomenal world and beyond the reach of reason alone. But they did not attempt to dismiss or discard the findings of logic and reason, merely to place these within a more embracing scheme of perception. Hence Coleridge saw the secondary imagination, peculiar to the poet, as a unifying power which could reconcile general and concrete, universal and particular. Shelley even saw imagination as having a moral function, as a power enabling the self to situate itself within a larger empathetic scheme, as opposed to reason which expressed the selfish constraints of the liberal atomistic self. Hence the relation between Romanticism and the mainstreams of bourgeois thought, which had risen to hegemony on the waves of the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial Revolutions, was deeply ambivalent. Our own era is profoundly pervaded by this ambivalent heritage.

This ambivalent connection of Romanticism to bourgeois thought operated through both the notion of imagination and the equally archetypal notion of Romantic irony. The ancient Roman authors Cicero and Quintilian had followed the Greeks in defining irony as a form of dissemblance whereby a speaker_s intention differed from his statements. This broad definition of irony remained in currency through late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Neo-Classical era. Both the French Encyclopedie of 1765 and Johnson_s Dictionary reiterated the definition of irony as a figure of speech in which the meaning undermines or opposes the actual words used to express it.

It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that irony rose in status from a mere rhetorical device to an entire way of looking at the world, becoming, in the guise of Romantic irony, an index of a broad philosophic vision. The emergence of this change is usually dated to Schlegel_s Fragments of 1797, which accords irony an epistemological and ontological function, seeing it as a mode of confronting and transcending the contradictions of the finite world. The theorizing of irony in this direction was furthered by numerous writers including Heine, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. At the core of irony as formulated by most nineteenth century thinkers was a Romantic propensity to confront, rather than overlook, the obstinate disorder, contingency, flux and mystery of the world. In this sense, an ironic vision accepts that the world can be viewed from numerous irreconcilable perspectives, and rejects any providential, rational or logical foreclosure of the world_s absurdity and contradictions into a spurious unity. Yet such Romantic irony is not entirely negative: while it rejects the _objective_ order imposed upon experience or the world by religious or rational means, it seeks a higher transcendent unity and purpose, grounded ultimately in subjectivity. Modernist irony is seen by most theorists as a development of Romantic irony and as entailing a dual posture: a negation of prevailing values and institutions, and a helpless complicity with them. However, it diverges from Romantic irony in being more nihilistic, despairing over the possibility of transcending or changing the current state of affairs. Irony effectively entails a failed search for meaning and unity.

The “Romantic” metamorphosis of irony in the eighteenth century from a classical and mediaeval rhetorical device to an index of a metaphysical perspective was integrally tied to the broader social and political changes earlier invoked. The emergence and rapid theorizing of irony as a metaphysical perspective coincided with the era in which the hegemony of bourgeois interests and values was establishing itself not only in political life and economic practice but in philosophy, literature and science. Irony was essentially an idealistic reaction against the mainstream tendencies of bourgeois thought which attempted to define the world in terms of its own clear-cut categories, founded on rationalism, pragmatic efficiency, and an atomistic and utilitarian commodification of all the elements of the world, including the human subject. Underlying these tendencies lay the conviction that, in principle, knowledge, reason and science could extend their control over all aspects of human life.

The Romantic thinkers who embraced an ironic vision reacted against the reductively mechanistic, utilitarian and commercial impetus of bourgeois thought. Irony was a means of reinvesting the world with mystery, of limiting the arrogant claims of reason, of denying the ideals of absolute clarity and definition, of reaffirming the profound interconnection of things, and of seeking for the human spirit higher and more spiritual forms of fulfilment than those available through material and commercial efficiency. Yet irony as a very mode of reaction bore the imprint of defeat: it could merely voice subjective protests against colossal historical movements which were already in process of realization, protests which often floated free of any viable basis of institutional change. The Romantics were struggling against a world whose materialistic, pragmatic, utilitarian and scientistic foundations had already been laid since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Like the French symbolists after them, their only recourse was to an ironic vision which insisted that reality is not confined to the here and now but embraces the past or is located in a Platonic ideal realm. The connections between Romanticism and subsequent eras have been influentially examined by M.H. Abrams, Frank Kermode and others; as Marhsall Brown notes, crucial elements of both elitist modernism and populist postmodernism can be traced back to Romantic criticism;1 the rhetorical, textual and sceptical dimensions of Romanticism have been explored extensively by critics such as Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom and Stanley Cavell. Feminist approaches to Romanticism — advanced by scholars such as Margaret Homans, Susan Levin, Anne Mellor and Mary Jacobus — have attempted to rescue neglected female authors, examined the ways in which some of the Romantics exploited women, questioned the Romantic masculine obsession with self, and challenged what they have seen as the essentialist doctrines of Romanticism.