Sunday 26 March 2023

The double-edged sword of romanticism

Romanticism began to arise in the minds of Men from about the middle of the 1700s, in Western Europe - and has spread from there. What romanticism arose from, was Man's new awareness of himself and the world.

In other words, romanticism was a development (or an 'evolution') of human consciousness. 

But there was a double-edged quality to romantic consciousness. 

Men became aware of the wonderfulness of nature, and of the achievements and potential of their own thinking - but also of opposite tendencies. 

With romantic consciousness; at times, for moments or bursts, life seemed raised to a higher level. Various names were given such experiences: Sehnsucht, ecstasy, epiphanies, religious experiences, mystical insights, joy, peak experiences... these episodes were noticed, described and pondered for the first time.

There seemed to be a possibility that these best-of-times might be insights into ultimate reality; and might therefore become continuous and permanent - or, at least, frequent and long-lasting. 

Thus romanticism often led to great optimism, happiness, and the sense of potential for a larger and better life and world. 

However; there was the other edge to the sword of romantic consciousness; which was that - in practice - these periods of romantic ecstasy were brief and infrequent, could not be aimed at and achieved directly - and the opposite conclusion soon began to emerge that they were delusional. 

The everyday reality for everybody for most of the time (and, apparently, for some people all of the time) was of mundane consciousness; of life as commonplace, dull, shallow - pointless, purposeless, meaningless...

Society was so heavily-stacked against romanticism, that the most intensely romantic individuals often felt themselves to be 'outsiders' (to use Colin Wilson's term). And, even under the best imaginable social conditions; Man's life is unavoidably pervaded by change, decay, pain and disease

And, no matter what the degree of attainment was achieved; every life is always terminated by death. 

The contrast between what seemed possible, and what was actually attainable, led to existential angst, to a cynicism that often led to despair - and was fought-against by seeking either for selfish hedonic oblivion, trying to blot-out awareness of failure and futility. Or by seeking an end to all conscious suffering in chronically self-destructive behaviour, and by suicide (whether deniably-sought, or actively-committed). 

Romanticism was therefore a mixed-blessing at best, a curse at worst. Yet, because romanticism was a consequence of the development of consciousness, it could neither be suppressed nor ignored. 

Romanticism changed everything... Yet, there was and is no 'answer' to the possibilities and problems of romanticism within the bounds of this world.

On the one hand, we now have many experiences that create yearnings and expectations for a higher form of life; on the other hand, we cannot achieve these yearnings and expectations in our actual lives; due to the many social, psychological and physical (i.e. ultimately entropic) constraints of this world.  


The simple answer requires that we take-into-account a personal life beyond this life; and an afterlife that incorporates those romantic experiences of this life. 

In different words; we need to regard the romanticism of this mortal life as learning experiences directed at full attainment in an eternal life to come

Then, but only then, can we cope-with and learn-from our own romanticism; and render romantic experiences into a positive and inspiriting development of Mankind. 


bruce kendall said...

I had these moments only a few times growing up. I was between the ages of 6 and 12 when these moments took place, they came out of nowhere, lasted about a minute or two and went away, I was always outside in "nature" when these moments happened and was not particularly focused on anything when they happened. I have always remembered them and thought about the super clarity that came with these moments, You are the Only person to ever have addressed this "phenomenon" and I am intrigued by your observations. I have never been able to achieve these moments as an adult.

Bruce Charlton said...

Well, I can't take credit. I had the moments too, but did not have a word or concept until I read Colin Wilson's The Outsider, and then his book about Abraham Maslow. CS Lewis called it Joy in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, and he referenced Novalis who called the experience Sehnsucht.

SanSaba1 said...

I experienced one of these moments a few years ago which led me read several different authors and which is how I eventually stumbled on this blog. The fleeting nature of the romantic imaginative experiences used to bother me, but one thing that helped me was studying the concept of emanation as described by earlier church figures. Emanation is now the best way I can describe my metaphysical beliefs, and it has helped me reach a point of steadiness to these romantic imaginative experiences also they still come and go. I think maybe the key differences is when I had these before without a genuine spiritual metaphysics, these experiences were a phenomena that I didn't understand but just struck me momentarily and went away. Now, such experiences fade much slower, and parts of me is able to linger with it. I find myself prioritizing this contemplation now and it brings me great joy, but it also draws a very strange contrast to the everyday world and further points to something deeply wrong the hearts of people.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SS - For me there is a vital distinction between the wrong idea that the meaning of life is that we are meant to live our mortal life in this romantic state; and that the meaning of life is to learn-from our spiritual experiences in an eternal context.

It seems clear that we ourselves (our mortal selves, on earth) and creation more generally are not designed for permanent Peak Experiences - and in attempting to make that so, we are fighting our own natures and that of the world.

SanSaba1 said...

Yes, I think you are right about this. Chasing after peak experiences is a fault that many fall into, namely many in the new age movement. A wholly Christian life includes finding peace without these experiences. This is where Biblical wisdom comes in. Also it makes me think of St. John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul, is could be seen through the view of finding faith and peace without any peak experiences.

I feel it's still worthwhile to seek peak experiences with some deliberation, but it should be done so with a spirit of love, not chasing after them or attempting to possess it.