Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich
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The author distinguishes between “Romanticism” and “Romantics.” The former was a circumscribed historical period beginning (in Safranski’s account) in 1769 with Johann Gottfried von Herder’s voyage from Riga and ending in the 1820s with E. T. A. Hoffmann and Joseph von Eichendorff. The Romantic era is the subject of the first half of the book. The “Romantics,” then, are the individual thinkers who carried on the tradition of Romanticism after the Romantic era was over: Romantics—down to the student rebels of the late 1960s—are the subject of the book’s second half. According to Safranski, the idea animating Romanticism from 1770 until the 1820s, and Romantics to the present day, is “that the beam of our awareness does not illuminate the entirety of our experience, that our consciousness cannot grasp our whole Being, that we have a more intimate connection with the life process than our reason would like to believe.”This is a reaction to the European Enlightenment, which is still strong and present. This is a counter-Enlightenment idea, but it comes about when Rationalism becomes overly strong and over-bearing, thus suffocating or quenching the spirit.
Now, it must be said that we all carry or court some romantic notions (some obviously more revealed than others), that not every part of our being, even the most rational of us, is informed by reason alone. Romantics believe in the use of emotion, and of feelings, which is excellent for art and the creative endeavors such as painting, music, fiction writing and dance. The music of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms is enjoyable and hauntingly beautiful; the writings of Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and Friedrich Holderlin can inspire us with its transcendent language and its search for deeper meaning. The landscape paintings of Carl Blechen, Joseph Anton Koch, and Caspar David Friedrich can place us in a dreamy state with their muted visions of nature.
This romantic feeling becomes problematic, even dangerous, however, when applied to the political realm, which succinctly explains the mindset of revolutionaries and extremists. The reality is coloured by what could be, which in most cases (perhaps all) requires the use of violence to achieve; the finer sensibilities in art turn violent in the political arena. It must be noted that both Marx and Engels were influenced by Romanticism and were indeed 19th-century Romantics. Their desire was to force personal destiny onto others; their personal desires lead to tragedy.
This view thankfully places me in the company of both the book’s author and reviewer, the latter who writes:
The author is sympathetic to Romanticism, when it remains in the aesthetic realm, as having the potential to enrich and fulfill a life and a world that would otherwise be sterile and superficial, a literal life and a literal world. The problem comes when Romanticism enters the political realm. Whereas the Romantic craves adventure, intense experiences, and extremes, successful politics depends on compromise, rational discourse, consensus, and achievement that is mostly partial and prosaic.I would recommend that you read the rest of this fine review as a brief introduction to the benefits and perils of taking on a Romantic view of life.
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