Saturday, May 10, 2008


Was anyone in the U.S. reading Fichte? A ridiculous question, surely, but it makes a point: romantic self-assertiveness would have been an absurdity in this huge, dangerous and largely lawless land. Law was what was needed, not people strutting around claiming to be above or beyond the law. (As free autonomous individuals, they made their own laws.)

But I think there is a deeper reason for the irrelevance of European romanticism in America. Romanticism is anti-bourgeois and implicitly aristocratic (despite the paradoxical fact that romanticism is a purely bourgeois invention). “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” says Wordsworth, and middle-class getting and spending is what makes modern economies work. It is also a succinct account of the treadmill that Hobbes defines with a kind of god-like irony as “felicity.” A life-time on that treadmill doesn't leave you much time for the felicities of Art, to say the least, and for that the middle-classes who ought to have been pitied were despised. To be 'bourgeois' was to be beneath contempt, an insect. But America had no aristocracy partly because it hadn't had time to develop one but mainly because an aristocracy requires a lot of land and a peasantry that has to live on it and work it because it has no other choices. An aristocracy, in other words, requires a feudal system of land ownership and management—which only existed in the slave states. An aristocracy based on slavery was a hard thing to romanticize in egalitarian America; in Europe it was easy, which is one reason though not perhaps the main reason, why the Europeans tended to side with the south during the Civil War—or The War Between The States as it was referred to by those who refused to admit that it was all about slavery.

The French Revolution, which at bottom may have been about feudalism, made it easy to romanticize aristocracy.

Artists, who tended to think of themselves as natural aristocrats, despised the bourgeois whose tastes in art were naturally conservative and conventional, and romanticized socialism: once liberated from the Hobbesian treadmill, they thought, everyone would have the time and capacity to appreciate the latest things in music and the arts.

You will have noticed, by now, how I tend to use the terms 'romantic' and 'romanticize', begging the question so to speak, i.e. assuming the very point that needs to be demonstrated. This is a bad habit of mine. The word 'romantic' ought not to be used as synonymous with 'unrealistic' as if the meanings of 'real' and 'realism' were not themselves in contention.

1 comment:

  1. The feudal aristocracy and the underclass both value machismo. Both value a society in which work is not rewarded and in which thought is rejected. How do they differ from each other? The aristocracy is descended from hooligans who have succeeded; the underclass is composed of hooligans who are failing day after day.

    Don Quixote was a hooligan. He failed day after day. Even the windmills he attacked defeated him.