Monday, May 12, 2008

'Romantic' (continued)

'Romance' and 'realism' have always been very different words with generally incompatible meanings.

No one ever thought that the medieval romances described the adventures of historic personages—until Cervantes invented a character who is profoundly confused on just this point and made of him a new kind of hero in a new kind of book: not only the first novel but the first realistic novel. More realistic than what? More realistic than the romances that had been feeding the imagination not only of Don Quixote but of many earlier generations of readers. It is of the essence of Cervantes' novel that most of the people that Don Quixote meets know what he is talking about when he describes himself as a “knight errant”--they may not have actually read the romances he refers to (though some have) but they understand the Chivalric code that the Don lives by; they just don't think it's relevant to the lives that they and everyone else they know are living.

“More realistic than what?” Realism is relative: there's no such thing as 'absolute' realism. Is 'romantic relative, in the same way? I'm not sure.

The English tourists who 'discovered' the Swiss Alps in the 18th century may have been the first romantics. They thought those mountains were 'sublime'--a new word and idea invented or rather taken over from Latin for just this purpose. The peasants who actually lived there just thought these mountains were a nuisance—a difficult and dangerous part of the world to have been unluckily born in. No one had ever climbed these mountains for the fun of it—or just because they were “there” which is how foolish people now talk about the climbing of mountains.

Romanticism changed the way we think about mountains and nature. Those Swiss peasants woke up one day to find that their luck had changed thanks to the gods of history. Mountains and mountain climbing had just become profitable.

Those late 18th and early 19th century romantics could afford to contemplate nature—-wild, not domesticated nature; they had the money and the time; they were largely middle-class types and perhaps the first non-aristocratic leisure class.

Can we lay it down as a law of history then, that romantic ideas and attitudes are never (or almost never) invented by aristocrats or proletarians? Romanticism--like serious science, philosophy and art--is mostly a middle-class or bourgeois development?

Aristocracies are too smug or too anxious to think new thoughts—they pay others to do that for them. A famous line from a 19th century romantic poem, Axel, by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam—in fact the only line the poem is famous for—says in all seriousness of the life devoted to the religion of Art that the hero, Axel, and his lover propose to lead, “As for living, we'll leave that to our servants.” Axel as I remember is supposed by the scion of some noble family. The lives of peasants and proletarians, on the other hand, are too desperate for anything but survival.

One thing is pretty clear about the word 'romantic': if we want to understand what it means, we have to look at the ways it is used. (Any lexicographer could have told me that.) 'Romanticism' is another and different kind of story altogether.

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