Wednesday 23 August 2023

A theory of Romanticism - Yes, it's needed (but we must frame our question properly)

It was the summer of 1976 that I first read Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), and first came-across what he described as the Classic versus Romantic division in world-views. 

The Classic was Pirsig's term for what was already termed The System (i.e. The Matrix, the Single-Global-Bureaucracy/ Mediaplex), or what I have here sometimes termed the Ahrimanic form of evil. The Romantic was the instinctive, impulsive, 

In ZAMM; Pirsig's proposed solution to the division was Quality; and I certainly gave Quality my best shot over the next years, and for a couple of decades. 

Quality did not work as a solution; and in practice was just a part of the Romantic side of the divide: inevitably Quality got overwhelmed, and over-written, by the Classic-System-Bureaucratic imperatives that were so much stronger and more persistent through the late-twentieth century onwards.  

Part of the problem was that Quality in ZAMM was tied to oneness metaphysics; (deriving from oneness). 

Another part of the problem was that Quality was pre-thinking thus non-thinking (so that as soon as one thought about Quality, Quality had gone...).

And part of the problem was that the Romantic was defined in Classic terms, such that the Romantic was made a time-less and abstracted set of defining attributes - and so, Quality was immediately captured by the Classic - where it could be enslaved (as in "Quality" management) and then killed with what the Classic mind regards as overwhelming reason (as in 2020, and by the Litmus Test imperatives generally). 

A further and decisive problem in ZAMM was the detachment of Romanticism from its Christian origins. Indeed; already from the early 19th century, and much more later, there was a turning of Romanticism against Christianity. 

But the Romantic can, and should, be seen as a phenomenon in time, in human history and in the lives of Men. 

Thus, Romanticism arose in the later 1700s and peaked over the following decades. 

Romanticism is usually described as having arisen as a reaction-against the rationalism and empiricism of the new era of science, epitomized by Newton, Descartes etc. Then; Romanticism is seen as re-emerging through the following centuries in response to new phases of increasing social organization, bureaucracy, state propaganda etc. 

For instance, there was a major resurgence of Romanticism in the 1950s (existentialism and the Beat Generation) increasing through the 1960s counter-culture; in response to the post-WW II Western social trends. 

And the Romantic phase of many individual Men, is likewise usually described as a reaction-against the pressures during adolescence to become absorbed into The System.

But Romanticism can be regarded as more than a reaction - and can instead be regarded as the emergence of something that ought-to-have-been the proper path of development - of society and of Men; something which keeps re-emerging (exactly because it was and is Man's proper destiny) but which keeps getting defeated, for various reasons.  

Thus, Romanticism is always time-related. It should therefore be seen as dynamic and developmental - a part of the life of people and peoples; and therefore we ought to resist trying to capture it in timeless and abstract definitions; which must distort and fatally weaken Romanticism, and will ensure it is again defeated. 

My ideas for saving and strengthening Romanticism - including a robust understanding of Quality, and restoring what I regard as the proper line of Man's developments - include:

1. Restoring the primarily Christian basis of Romanticism.

2. Putting Romanticism into a context of a pluralist (not oneness) metaphysics.

3. Always understanding Romanticism as 'in time', as a dynamic and developmental thing.

4. Making thinking (with increased - not diminished - consciousness, alertness, freedom - a stronger sense of the self) a focus of what is aimed-at in the Romantic experience. In other words: the archetypal Romantic 'religious experience' should be actively creative, and not passively contemplative.  


Crosbie said...

Dr. Charlton - it was an aside, but *is* there a connection between Pirsig's Quality and the quality of 'Quality Management'? Our time is characterized by artifacts of remarkable complexity and reliability, to an extent unimaginable fifty years ago (with no advance in underlying physical principles), and this in the context of otherwise extreme social dysfunction. In other ages it might be the *most* remarkable fact of the age. Pirsig died only a few years ago, but I wonder what he, or his younger self, would have made of these artifacts.

I couldn't make head nor tail of Pirsig's 'quality'. It *seemed* right but I was never able to think a single thought about it when I wasn't reading the pages of his book. On the other hand, 'Zen' (the book) gave me a permanent attitude towards technology which, while it hasn't made me rich, perhaps keeps me sane. It seems Pirsig was the only one who *noticed* our world was suffused with technology, and tried to draw out what that meant. Our technology since has become stranger and much more pervasive, of course.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie - I think there was *sometimes" an imagined or asserted link between Pirsig's Quality and QA management - I think it was a reason behind why the terminology was introduced. In the UK at least; QA was used as a way of increasing Ahrimanic bureaucratization under the ridiculous (but never called out) pretense of a kind of 'holism'.

I used to write 'academically' about this "quality management" subject at one time: e.g.

Crosbie said...

Thank you Dr. Charlton. That's interesting history, even if history of wrong ideas!