36. On Romanticism

І. Introduction

Few people can say exactly what ‘Romanticism’ and ‘romantic’ are. The latter word is altogether vague. There are ‘romantic themes’. There are ‘romantic circumstances’. There are explanations of Romanticism as a new religious worldview. Yet it is difficult to give a general definition of ‘romantic’. This is not surprising because Romanticism is not a theme, a circumstance, or a religion. Romanticism is the cult of inspired creativity, its essence is the fire, not the dishes that are cooked on this fire. In the glow of this fire we can discern what subjects it illuminates most brightly: these are its themes. In what conditions it most readily flares up: these are its circumstances. What world-view it most strongly fuels: this is its religious meaning. To speak of Romanticism, we must look at it from within, from its centre, that is, from its inspiration.

‘Romanticism’, says the Brockhaus’ dictionary, ‘can be understood on the one hand as a well-known poetic mood, and on the other hand as a historical phenomenon characteristically expressed in the European literature of the first half of the 19th century. The essence of the romantic mood is elucidated by Bielynsky in his articles on Pushkin. “In its deepest and most essential meaning’, says Bielinsky, ‘R. is nothing else but the inner world of a man’s soul, the innermost life of his heart. In the human breast and heart lies the mysterious source of R.: feeling, love is a manifestation or action of R., and that is why almost every person is a romantic’.

Bielinsky’s definition may be good, but it is too vague. Romanticism is undoubtedly in connection with the ‘inner world of the human soul’, but at the same time it is more than just ‘the life of feeling’.

Romanticism, we will say, before going into details, is not just a ‘feeling’ but one of the possible philosophies of creativity. The basic premise of this philosophy is that creativity  ‘out of the mind’ is of little or secondary value in comparison with creativity, the meaning and purpose of which the creator himself, beginning the work, may not clearly understand. Intentionality, systematic construction are opposed to involuntariness, unexpectedness, and the natural growth of thought.

II. Difficulties of definition

The more one looks at Romanticism, the less certain are its limits. In the end, all the fertilising trends in 19th century culture seem to be romantic trends. Perhaps this view is not false.

Romanticism gave modernity all or almost all of its mental armoury.

Modernity’s favourite ‘unconscious’ was discovered by the romantics. Freudianism, however, is not the heir of Romanticism, because in every depth (including the unconscious) Romanticism found the complexity, whereas Freud finds only scraps and shreds.

The notorious ‘historical thinking’ is also a product of Romanticism. With one clarification: if Romanticism saw in all things Development instead of motionless Being, then only Hegel attributed moral value to every novelty that appears as a result of development.

The difficulty of defining Romanticism and the romantic, which caused the Brockhaus’ dictionary to limit itself to Bielinsky’s vague and sentimental opinion, is also due to the fact that Romanticism is an alphabet, not a message. The romantic method can be filled with any content. The belief that man and the world are the results of the organic growth of unconscious unities is quite romantic in origin, although it has nothing of the fiery, self-conscious revelation of personal creativity, which was the worldview of the true romantics. With this belief in unconsciously self-conscious unities, unconsciously generating life, reason, soul-life — Romanticism has given modernity perhaps its most dangerous and intellectually harmful weapon. Harmful and dangerous because it allows us to close our eyes to any personal origin, to causes and purposes, limiting ourselves to the statement of ‘eternal development’ as if it were a property of these unconscious unities. Romanticism — nothing more, nothing less — gave science the religion it still professes.

Some romantics glorified culture and the complexity of inner life. Others gravitated towards ‘Populism’ (in the Russian sense) and simplification. Why is this so? Because from the romantic point of view it is completely indifferent whether one enjoys one’s soul in simplicity, gazing ‘at Nature’s beauty at one’s will’, or in complexity, refining one’s mind. The emphasis here is on the pleasure derived from communion with one’s soul. In my opinion, the pleasure of complexity is greater. But this is a matter of taste.

The enjoyment of one’s own soul is already spoken of by Sénancourt in ‘Oberman’ (1804):

‘It is characteristic of the deeply feeling heart to draw far more pleasure from itself than from the pleasures given by external causes’.

Romanticism is all about the inner man. The Gospel (which is romantic in a certain sense) is also all about the inner man, as we will discuss below.

Romanticism is a way of feeling or sentiment, as there may be a way of thought. If their way of feeling is the same, different Romanticisms can have different contents.

The romantic needs to be in communion with nature or with his own inner fire, because the key word of Romanticism is rootedness, belonging to something deeper and more original than the mind with its games. Of course, as stated above, this rootedness can also be found in, say, national cultural soil.

Pushkin is perhaps the only Russian contemporary of the romantic movement who could feel it, not only superficially imitate it. And maybe there was even more Romanticism in him — as a revelation of native creativity — than in Baratynsky and Lermontov. Romanticism is the eroticism of the soul life; the fascination with the inward; the mind contemplating and feeling at the same time. I would say that Pushkin had all this.

III. The revelation of the soul life

The romantics, strange as it may sound, revealed to the European his soul. Everyone who passes by the way of discovering his own soul, passes by the way of Romanticism.

Here I must correct my own misconception. I thought that 19th century literature’s loving attention to the individual was a Christian phenomenon. However, having considered Romanticism and its influences more closely, I am beginning to think that the Christian world itself was not so attentive to the individual. This attentiveness was one of the consequences of the upheaval wrought by the romantics. This upheaval, in brief, was expressed in the transition from the old formula: ‘literature edifies and educates’ — to a new formula: ‘literature most fully expresses the personality’.

The romantic principle is personal and creative. Attention to the inner man is not a radical Christian trait in the 19th century, but a romantic trait, originally, perhaps, Neoplatonic (through indirect influences). The European Christian of earlier times, before the 19th century, was not so fond of reflecting on his inner life. The age of steam turned out to be, by chance, also the age of the soul.

The first question of Romanticism is the question of creativity, or by internal connection, of the creative soul. The romantic comes face to face with his inner revelation. Seeing the shining source of creativity in his soul, he understands creativity and the soul religiously.

Romanticism is always not without mysticism — an engagement with something greater. This mysticism can be the mysticism of inspiration (the most frequent case), the mysticism of state and nationality.

The romantic is always in the presence of a kind of Supreme Being: his own soul. The external and rather casual ‘I’ is balanced by the romantic’s hidden, mysterious inner half, which knows secrets. Romanticism is just about communicating with that half.

Romanticism is a hieroglyph pointing inwards, and with a variable meaning. Borrowing the word from algorithmic languages, it can be called a pointer to something outside of it. What’s it about? It’s all about inspiration. In other words, Romanticism is the revelation of the inner world. Romantic worldview is the opposite of what one writer (Charles Blackie) called externalism, i. e., the belief that all the bad and all the good are outside of man, and his soul is only an empty vessel waiting to be filled. The romantic is always turned to his centre. The life of a romantic is a romance with his own soul.

Further it must be said that the romantic is not at war with thought and consistency. Romanticism does not mean disorder and nonsense. It chooses, however, that thought and sequence which, without submitting to any externally imposed system, grows or springs naturally from a hidden subterranean channel.

This orientation towards the centre is the ‘inclination of the soul’ by which Romanticism is recognised. With the same ‘inclination’ the content of the mind may be different. ‘Out of the treasure of his heart’ each one brings out his own.

The romantic is in love with his soul and makes dates for her on a blank sheet of paper…. Romanticism is erotic, or it doesn’t exist. As a consequence, one cannot be a romantic without feeling a deep soul life within oneself (but there can be a contrived Romanticism; Alexander Herzen was such a false romantic, under the influence of his Natalia). In other words, the ‘romantic’ worldview is conditioned by a certain mental make-up, a certain kind of ‘creative act’, as Ivan Ilyin would say. People who know only reasoning creativity must see in the ‘romantic’ only a pretence.

Romanticism feels the mystery behind things. Its condition is enchantment; enchantment requires charms. Mere enthusiasm, as in, say, Bradbury’s ‘Dandelion Wine’, does not yet produce romance if there is nothing behind the perceived world. Bradbury counterfeits romance; he is really just an enthusiastic rationalist for whom there is nothing on the other side of the world.

IV. A passage on inspiration

The personality does not own its creative act; on the contrary, the creative act owns the personality. This kind of ‘possession’ cannot be counterfeited. The romantic writes involuntarily — though of course the fool also writes involuntarily, and the former must be distinguished from the latter. The second involuntariness is the involuntariness of labour and effort, i. e. the inner labour and effort of thought. Hordes of those who write ‘obscurely and limply’, as Pushkin said about Lensky — evidence that the revelation of self-lawful creativity is not given to everyone, one should be born with it, it should be brought up, and for the majority only imitation of external forms taken by the fruits of inspiration is available.

Who writes by inspiration — follows the flow of thought. The idea of ‘organic’ development, the growth of creativity from the subsoil is natural for those who know inspiration.

Inspiration is a ‘gift’ that can only be received, and its source is beyond our power. However, there are purely technical ways to approach that source. The daemon of inspiration can be baited. A flawless way to lure it is to have a conversation with a blank sheet of paper. A white sheet of paper has the ability to summon thoughts, just as people have sometimes the ability to summon spirits. Gennady Barabtarlo speaks convincingly of the advantages of writing by hand:

‘Every real writer knows, or at least feels, the subtle but unbreakable connection between the mode of expression (in its highest forms) and the right hand with a writing tool in three fingers. Only the manuscript is original, not the typescript. Strictly speaking, no masterpiece in prose, let alone poetry, has ever been or can ever be written except by the right hand. You can compose or “write” all sorts of things on Remingtones and Macintoshes (I am not talking here about reprinting a revised manuscript, that is a common thing), which is done in general, but nothing can be created in the highest artistic ranks by this indirect method: handwork is different from machine work.’

Perhaps he is right, and the combination of hand and paper is indeed formative, not merely accidental. The person writing with his hand is not merely ‘expressing opinions’ but is thinking with that hand, if I may say so, driving the pen while the thought flows down his right hand onto the paper.

Inspiration has its ‘phases’, its stages. Before the thought comes a vague excitement, not the thought itself, but a sense of its possibility. An even earlier stage is the chill of fruitful solitude. The third stage is the actual outpouring of thought onto paper. Some of these stages can be climbed at will.

Like love, inspiration cannot be experienced at will. Like love, inspiration can be sought.

V. Romanticism and religion

But let us return to the description of Romanticism. Is it connected with religion? Yes and no.

What is directed towards the soul is bound to be religious. The deeper we delve into ourselves, the more meaning we find, and religion is precisely the belief that life is meaningful. Romanticism, however, is not directly connected to any religion.

Romanticism is inseparable from the belief in the meaningfulness of life. For a romantic, the world is a promise and a prologue to something else entirely. The romantics’ faith is not actually pantheism (‘World = God’), as some say. It is the belief that the world is a meaningful whole.

Romanticism is not just a reaction against blind rationalism, it is also the response of a deep and creative soul to the crisis of Christianity. Thinking man, starting from the end of the 18th century, cannot be ‘just a Christian’ without facing insurmountable contradictions, and on the path of faith and creativity becomes a romantic.

(By the way: the same attempt to continue religious life where the former religious paths are closed or seem to be closed, was Russian Freemasonry, and with it Novikov’s Pietism. That Pietism, a clever and serious movement, almost the only positive movement we have taken from the West, has died out in Russia in its infancy, can only be regretted).

One could even say that Christianity at its decline was disintegrating into Romanticism and Socialism — two mutually exclusive principles, one of which sees the source of all values within man, the other outside.  [1]

It must be said that at the dawn of Christianity, its boundaries were also in contact with the boundaries of the romantic realm. Since the Gospel is directed to the soul, it is romantic. ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ is the oldest romantic manifesto.

The romantic component of Christianity is not the least of the reasons for its success. Along with the undoubted cult of old age (up to the idea of the Deity as the ‘Ancient of days’), Christianity had a spring of youthful ideas. The New Testament is in no small measure a collection of romantic poetry. Had it not been so, no young men and maidens would have responded to its call. But this is not the poetry on which the Church could be founded.  The cult of old age, hierarchy, the idea of God as a heavenly Caesar — all these are more appropriate for the Church than the light and poetic words of the Gospel about the tender soul, gained and lost, eternally calling to itself. Church Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion of the Kingdom. Its universe is ordered and governed by the wise King. Monarchism here is internal, not from the desire to please the earthly power. (This is why ‘democratic Christianity’ looks pale: it has no internal basis.)

The rich, fruitful Greco-Roman culture, which had been creating for a thousand years ahead, had its own time of weakness and poverty, and it was at this time that Christianity struck it. Its arrival was not an accidental eclipse of the pagan sun; like a real eclipse, it was historically justified. By it the ancient world was paying for centuries of barren rationalism, on which alone life could not be founded. A romantic reaction came: Christianity. Of course, according to the law of action and reaction, it did not simply supplement reason with intuition, but abolished it, and for a long time.

The Old Testament, ‘cancelled’ by the New Testament, was also rational and materialistic. When the West first heard of Judaism, it understood it as a philosophical sect. It is no coincidence that it was the Old Testament that inspired the Reformation as the path to atheism. As far as we can tell, the old religion of the Jews, before it got into the Pentateuch (not so ancient as it would like to appear) experienced a kind of ‘purification’ in the Reformed spirit, which weakened its warmth. Where there had been shrines to Jehovah and his Asherah, and sacred groves, and temples to lesser gods, there remained a doctrine dry and intolerant.

VI. Romanticism as a reaction

‘Reaction’, in the lightweight jargon of our time, is synonymous with obscurantism. In the true meaning of the word reaction is counteraction; the counteraction by which all strong, fierce unilateralism is punished. The capacity for reaction is a sign of the health of an epoch. Our time is incapable of reaction, it is painfully permissive of any one-sidedness, in its own words — ‘tolerant’. Tolerance is the inability to counteract.

Cultural and social life is always an alternation of action and reaction. Any one-sidedness is punished by the pendulum swinging to the opposite side. The flabby retention by a culture or society of the form it has been given indicates an inability to react, i. e. a loss of elasticity. The Romanticism of the early 19th century, a straightening of mind and feeling after flat-rational oppression, is akin to the Russian ‘straightening’ of the 1890s and beyond after our ‘Populism’ and Utilitarianism. Perhaps something similar can be said of evangelical Romanticism. The religion of the Old Testament is quite utilitarian, if not downright materialistic: ‘Keep the rules and you will be rewarded with wealth, livestock, and offspring’.

Romanticism is the spiritualisation of a world devoid of deity by materialism. And the fiercer and drier, if I may say so, was the local rationalism, the more consistently and brightly did the fire of Romanticism flare up. The driest firewood was gathered, of course, by the efforts of the German Reformation…

From the fact that Romanticism is a reaction to the rationalist domination, a curious conclusion follows. Russia did not know this domination before 1860 — 1890s, therefore, the ground for a real, not imitative Romanticism was not prepared before the end of this time. And then came the ‘Silver Age’. The last Russian cultural upsurge, which coincided roughly with the reign of Nicholas II, was essentially romantic, a reaction to the materialist domination. On this romantic rise Russia went under the snow.

The romantics revealed to the European his soul. 20th century — the decline, the eclipse of Romanticism with the subsequent elimination of the human soul. Of course, not in the objective sense (you can not deprive a person of his soul at the will of the ‘party’), but in the sense of conscious experiences of soul activity. This area has been completely extinguished, hidden from view, and now, at the beginning of the 21th century, is considered non-existent (except for purely medical phenomena). Modern man has ‘neuroses’ and ‘psychoses’, but no developed and deep soul life.

The 20th century was a century of counter-romantic reaction in the East (in Russia) and a slow decay of romantic thinking in the West. In Russia there was a return to the moralising and rational worldview of the 18th century (‘religion is a conscious deception’, ‘the meaning of art is the education of morality’). It was different in the West. On the one hand, Freudianism finished the leftovers from the romantic table (the power of the unconscious; internal, underground, non-conscious development). On the other hand, an adamantine-hard, ‘only-right worldview’ was being developed, which did not recognise any variation, and which spoke on behalf of science. However, the early Russian ‘new order’ borrowed from the West or created the same worldview with the same claims to truth — at least in the scientific environment, where it lived and reproduced independently of the ‘only true’ and ‘all-powerful’ teachings of the party.

The same phenomena, however, can produce quite different reactions. The domination of a kind of ‘Classicism’ in Soviet Russia did not awaken anything like Romanticism. On the contrary. From ‘the poet’s business is to educate and teach’ there was a transition to ‘the poet’s business is to entertain and corrupt’. Apparently, a centripetal romantic reaction requires a personality, and there was no personality at all.

Romanticism is the soul’s response to a mechanical worldview. To have this answer, the poet must be conscious of himself, live a soulful life, in general — not to be a cynic. An empty personality, capable only of giggling and laughing, is not suitable for this. To rebel in favour of the soul, one needs the experience of soul life. A person who has been affected by Socialism is weaned not only from this word, but also from the experiences behind the word.

VII. Counterfeits or errors

Romanticism knows the mysticism of creation and the revelation of the creative soul. That is why it cannot be put on like a glove: the one who wants to be a romantic takes the vague feelings of the creator for the seal of style, and he himself writes vaguely (‘obscurely and limply, what we call Romanticism’, as Pushkin said).

Romanticism is for the strong. For the one who does not feel the inner fire — only languor, pretence remain. The sense of the soul’s presence cannot be counterfeited if it is not present. A true romantic always feels this presence. ‘Romanticism’ of an empty soul, without inner fire — gives only a strain, a search for sharp sensations…

The temptation, the main substitution of Romanticism is to pass off as a string of thoughts following internal development, consistent, interconnected, not forced by any artificial ‘system’ but forming a natural system — a string of nonsense, arbitrarily invented ‘out of the mind’. Romantic creativity, like rational creativity, is logical and internally non-contradictory, but its unity is of a different (‘organic“) nature, it grows rather than being built.

Romanticism is, in a sense, the ability to hear — and trust — whispers. The romantics’ love for secluded, especially so-called “poetic’ places is due to nothing else than the fact that in these places the inner voice is more audible. The perversion of Romanticism — the preference of graveyards and moonlit nights to all other places and times, taken as an end in themselves, while they are only convenient conditions for the inner life of the spirit. The condition of creativity in such a poet becomes the content. ‘Graveyard poet’ thinks that only the ‘elegiac’ state of mind is romantic, whereas in fact any realised and deeply experienced state of mind is so. Again: Romanticism is not the content, but the method.

Romanticism, fading, turns into ‘romanticness’. In this field Bielinsky’s definition can be accepted without restriction. This ‘romanticness’ in Russia, from Alexander Grin to Paustovsky and to the ‘Komsomol romanticness’ of the 1980s, was characterised by the absence of inner content, with a certain — all the more pleasing to the reader because it stood in contrast to the official Soviet soullessness — indefinite warmth of feeling. This ‘romanticness’ was almost unknown in Russia before 1918. I think its development was favoured by the general soullessness, dryness and cruelty of the literary (and indeed general cultural) landscape under the ‘new order’. Already in the late 1920s, the Brotherhood of the Bright City addressed its adherents with these words:  [2]

‘You who have learnt the yearning of the plantain — to be on all paths everywhere — at the road, but never knowing whether you are on the road — here is the blue star of the cornflower I give you, let it guide you.

In the blue glow of the star of the Brotherhood, all paths merge into a stream, and in it are innumerable streams.

The stream is one, but beware of the adverse current, follow the blue star of the Brotherhood, it will lead you to the Bright City.

For the blue stars of cornflowers bloom on the gold of rye fields’.

These are the prettinesses without beauty, the vague warmth in the absence of content, with which our romantics in the Komsomol sense will feed until the very end of the ‘new order’. Then the same prettinesses and the same feeling of vague involvement in something greater will flow into the games of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ admirers…

Now that we have mentioned this ‘sense of belonging’, it should be said that in ‘romanticness’, along with the ‘spring excitement of the heart’, there is also a shadow of content: the same sense of belonging to something greater, mysterious, which is mentioned above. Here we can recall Nicholas Riazanovsky, [3] who equated Romanticism with pantheism — for the sake of the romantic desire for everything secret and absorbingly attractive:

‘God, love, poetry and night are one and the same all-embracing organic synthesis’,

the ‘Universal Unity’, of which, according to Ryazanovsky, the romantics dreamed of merging with. Ryazanovsky exaggerates, but this shadow of attraction to something Greater (which may be one’s own soul, may be religion, may be erotic love, may be the Motherland) falls over all Romanticism.

[1] Socialism resembles Christianity in its predominance of moral attitudes towards things, but differs from it in its worldly values. Its forms may be diverse. The ‘chosen people’ are found in the oppressed class, in the offended nation, or even, as I have said more than once, in the persecuted people of the ‘third sex’. What is most important here is the suffering position of the ‘chosen people’. The moralistic worldview focuses on the persecuted, perversely interpreting the evangelical ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. ‘Righteousness’ is discarded as unimportant; it is exile, persecution, that is made the basis of holiness. Socialism, in a way, is Christianity inattentively read — or Christianity read by a left-wing admirer of Hegel, one might say.

[2] Mikhail Artemyev. Brotherhood of the Bright City. Vozrozhdenie, no. 2237, 18 July 1931.

[3] Nicholas Riasanovsky. The Emergence of Romanticism.

Timofey Sherudilo.

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