Saturday 16 February 2019

Romanticism and the hungering for 'depth' in life

From the age of about fourteen I became painfully aware of the shallowness of nearly-all of life - of human interaction; of literature, music and art; and especially of human aspirations. Thus I became a spontaneous 'romantic'.

I recognised the shallowness innately, by my boredom at the triviality of nearly-everything - but also in contrast to what I sometimes encountered in my reading, listening, and experience of landscapes and architecture. The clearest example was Lord of the Rings, which I read at this time - a world of exactly the depth I craved.

But the bulk and average of human interaction was by far the most frustrating shallowness. Even people who had composed deep literature or deep music; when I saw them interviewed on television would witter-away in the most superficial and glib fashion.

I wanted to be serious and earnest most of the time; but almost everybody else hated that kind of thing, and kept interaction rigorously a matter of small talk - with a permanent, reflexive under-cutting facetiousness added, especially when 'intellectuals' were involved.

(This facetiousness is a particular sin of English people.)

There were a few people with whom I could sometimes have what I termed a 'deep' conversation; and I would travel literally the length and breadth of the country to have such conversations - so starved was I.

And this has never really gone away. Nowadays - because of my family - I do not need general human interaction with the intensity and hunger of my adolescence; but I would - now as then - much rather be alone than engaged in the kind of (as it seems to me) chit-chat that constitutes pretty much the entirety of life for almost everyone*.

*Except when interspersed with emotionally incontinent sessions of shouting and weeping. If novels/ movies and TV are any guide; the pinnacle of human desire is to have a life consisting entirely of witty banter interspersed with sexual psychodrama.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, this yearning for something /other/ - which most people experience in adolescence - is yearning for God.

This is why nothing this-wordly can satisfy it; and if it seems that something /does/ satisfy it, it is a sign that something is wrong - that yearning for God has gone astray and fixed itself on a this-wordly object.

Most people waste this 'longing for Other' in one of the three ways:
-in alcohol, sex and other intoxications of various kinds; this is usual with, but not limited to, young people
-by becoming a leftist; wanting to build the 'other', heaven, in this world; with usual results
-finally, by becoming 'adult', people push this yearning to the background and try to cover it with various 'practical' matters

Unfortunately, I think that the romantic impulse (in general) is the combination of the first two ways; it is trying to dream up a this-worldly heaven, laconically said.
That is not to say there are no objects in this world that point to the Other, to God; but romantic impulse errs in that it tries to embrace the object instead of continuing to God.


Bruce Charlton said...

@LC - Yes, that is historically the way that Christianity went after Coleridge and Blake showed a third path - excluding Romanticism and making itself materialist-in-practice. So, from the early 1800s (eg Byron, Shelley) there has been a choice between anti-Christian Romanticism or Chistian-anti-Romanticism. (Or mainstream anti-Christian materialism.) This is what (especially) Owen Barfield clarified, and for which he offered the different path of Romantic Christianity, which depends on different metaphysical assumptions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - PS. If you want to learn this stuff, you will have to work at it: everybody else does.

Epimetheus said...

I was thinking today that the two topics one mustn't talk seriously about in polite company - religion and sex - were precisely the vectors used to bring down the West.

Jack said...

I had similar perceptions when I was an adolescent. But trying to look at them honestly and objectively now, I think they were a mix of perceiving a real problem in the world AND a reflection of the psycho-emotional pain I was in because of my particular circumstances - poor, single-parent home, other problems. I have to wonder to what extent I would have had this perception of this world if I had had a happier childhood. In other words, to what extent am I perceiving THE world rather than MY world?

Regarding Christianity, I recently read The Church Impotent by Leon Podles, which examines how Christianity became anti-masculine. If Christianity were taught to young men as a romantic vision of the world - a vision of the world as a battlefield on which good and evil are at war, and we must choose sides - I think it would have far more appeal. It would provide the depth and seriousness that we crave. (The scene in American Sniper in which the hero's dad teaches him about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs is a good example of this.) It would make life more real, and more meaningful. As it stands now, young men seek out this feeling from video games, while the culture teaches them to regard everything in real life with cynicism, derision, and dismissal. No wonder they are even more screwed up than I was.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I had a very happy childhood - and I don't think Romanticism has any strong relationship to circumstances; it is more a matter of character, disposition.

"If Christianity were taught to young men as a romantic vision of the world - a vision of the world as a battlefield on which good and evil are at war, and we must choose sides" - That is an important idea; but only half of Romanticism - the other half is that this insight (knowledge) must come from within, from personal experience. And this is why the churches have (mostly) failed.

The Romantic will, usually, react against an attempt to impose an external framework of values on the basis of an external authority which the Romantic will usually regard as Not authoritative over himself. There needs to be a way of being Christian from our most significant personal experiences; and an explanation of why this is valid.

This is why I have come to believe that Romanticism requires a different basic understanding of reality (a different metaphysics) - its true implications are far more radical, much deeper, than generally understood.