Sunday, 27 November 2011

Who Killed the Romantic?

When I was younger, my friends and I use to sit at Denny’s till dawn solving the world’s problems over bottomless coffee and French fries. Nothing unusual about this. People have been doing it for centuries. The Son’s of Liberty use to meet in the pubs of Boston to formulate revolution, students in Parisian cafés did the same. The Salons of France, the Coffee Houses of Britain, and yes, even the American Denny’s restaurant chain all served as meeting grounds. Today, we have the internet. I would wager that 99% of all the world solving ever conducted amounted to nothing. But then there’s that one per cent.

This is the story of a group of friends, a bunch of rich college students with affluent and powerful parents, who changed the world, and it all started with regular meetings at a friend’s house in central London. Or perhaps I should describe them as co-conspirators to a murder – a murder I suspect that they would admit to with pride were they alive today. The victim here is the Romantic.

Apologies to my long-term readers, but I have to bring the others up to speed.

By Romanticism, I am referring to the zeitgeist, or temporal culture, of the era from 1776 to 1929. Historians have different methods of chopping-up history into manageable chunks from movements, to periods, to eras, to ages and providing different reasons for their choices and different labels. Sometimes it can become a nightmare of semantics.

In the early 20th century the world changed. Some people say the old world ended with World War I, whereas I say it ended with the on-set of the Great Depression in 1929, but either way, something changed. During the 1920’s it had become fashionable to refer to this new era as “the Modern”. Culturally, the so-called Moderns were those girls who shorn their long tresses into Louise Brooks style bobs and entered the urban job market leaving their corsets behind.

The Modern was the new world labelled by the very people who lived it. The problem here is that it’s not easy to see your own age in context. Since the 1950’s we have been in the Atomic age, the Rocket age, the Computer age, and the Information age. It has become fashionable since the late 1960’s to say that we live in the Post-modern, thanks to Michael Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard.

Here’s where the semantics problem kicks in. The word Post-modern originated in the early 20th century among philosophers who saw the 19th Century, or the Romantic Era, as “the Modern”. Even those philosophers seeking to understand the cultural revolutions of the late 1960’s identified the Modern according to 19th Century terms. What they appear to have missed is that the cultural shifts of the 1960’s were simply a widespread manifestation of what began in the 1920’s. So really, what we call “Modern” is really “Post-modern”, and what we call “Post-modern” is actually nothing new.

The key to understanding the shift from the Modern (Romantic) to the Post-Modern is in understanding the different zeitgeists involved between what was and what is now. The thing about culture is that it is difficult to truly see and understand when you are in it.

When I was about nineteen I was philosophising to a friend in a pub telling him how the world works. He said to me, “You were born and raised in Los Angeles; this isn’t the world. You need to get out.” He was right. We all have a hidden cultural bias that affects our perceptions. This also applies to zeitgeist as a sort of temporal bias. We are children of our age and that cultural perspective influences our cognition as a bias.

Important cultural elements are often simply taken for granted as fact, if they are even noticed at all. But the zeitgeist is just as important to understand when looking at a time period as understanding a culture when looking at a contemporary group of people. The zeitgeist, or as Rousseau saw it, the General Will, drives the culture forward.

To illustrate, in 1834 the concept of socialism emerged. The idea was canonised by the perpetually unemployed Karl Marx and the rich kid Frederick Engels in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto, but it soon became out-dated. Many of the legitimate concerns raised in the book were already on the road to recovery. As a consequence despite socialists and socialist groups popping-up throughout the remainder of the Nineteenth Century nothing ever came of it. The soil was not fertile for this particular ideology. It took seventy years for a government based on Marxism to emerge in 1917.

As the expression “An idea whose time has come” illustrates, the conditions have to be right for an ideology to take root and flourish. When one looks at the 1927 campaign for the US presidency, the American Socialist Party only received 6% of the vote, but within fifty years every one of their economic platforms became law. The Twentieth Century was ripe for socialism. It’s time had come because the zeitgeist was favourable to it.

Bearing this is mind; it can be argued that the zeitgeist produced people who in turn drove the zeitgeist. Socialism emerged at a time when the industrial revolution was still largely negative, faded when conditioned improved, and then re-emerged when the old Romantic zeitgeist became severely wounded by the First World War.

In the post-war years, Europeans blamed the Romantic zeitgeist for World War I and its devastations, so they chose to completely reject it. Classical Liberalism that defined the previous century was replaced by two great political forces. International Socialism, known as Communism, and National Socialism, known as Fascism.

But the true end of Romanticism was the Stock Market Crash of 1929. This was portrayed as the failure of free market capitalism. During the 1930’s it appeared as though the two socialist camps had it right. They prospered while the rest floundered. So countries like the United States and Britain, former bastions of Romanticism, embraced central government economic planning and thus crossed the Rubicon into Socialism, albeit in the form of a “mixed economy” seen as the best of both worlds, but over time the socialist aspects of this mix became dominant.

This is why I make the distinction between the Modern Romantic Era and the Post-modern Socialist Era. A shift occurred in the zeitgeist that was begun in World War I, identified and encouraged in the 1920’s, institutionalised in the 1930’s, and became the accepted cultural norm in the 1960’s.

If we mark the end of the Romantic period as 1929, we find that as the generations grew old, died, and were born, the first generation born into the new socialist zeitgeist were the children of years after World War II. For them, the previous Romantic zeitgeist was a myth but one fashioned by the very people who killed it. They learned that it was a dark time of classism, poverty, child labour, disease, slavery, inequality, genocidal imperialism, robber barons, and sexual repression. They were taught to despise their grandparents and love their enlightened and progressive parents. The cultural revolutions of 1968 were a reaction against Modernity (Romanticism) in favour of the Post-modern Socialism that they were raised to believe in.

So who killed the Romantic? It takes more than a handful of people to change a zeitgeist, especially if the ground is not fertile for such a change to occur, as illustrated by the slow growth of socialism. However, there was a small group of people who have demonstrated enormous influence over the zeitgeist as people over the past century have elevated them to a position where we might call them the founding parents of the Socialist Era. This was the Bloomsbury Group.

What does the Nineteenth Century British nobility and Spider-man have in common? They both subscribed to the belief that with great power comes great responsibility. The children of the British elite were raised to see themselves as responsible for the well-being of the nation, through politics, academics, economics, or even the arts. Furthermore, they had to set an example to the rest of society.

This lasted for many generations until the coming of the Great War. If your parents participate in a colossal fuck-up, it is very difficult to respect them let alone value their guidance. During the 1920’s in Britain a new form of nobles emerged who denounced the responsibility of their class and decided to play instead. The represented a fundamental shift from knowing what is true because your choices have a profound effect on others to knowing what I feel is true because it has a profound effect me.

Of course this is not how it was presented. The philosopher G.E. Moore summed up the Bloomsbury ethos: "one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge". On the surface, I might agree with this statement, however it is a recipe for solipsism and ego.

Romanticism is all about the individual; however it also recognises that the individual lives among other individuals with whom they must trade values to promote their existence. If I was to say that my pleasure comes first, whether that pleasure is derived from love, art, or study, then I am denying certain facts of life, like the need to make a living or the considerations of the consequences of my pleasure.

The amazing thing about the Bloomsbury Group is the way the members can be seen as representative of the key forces of the Socialist Era. For example, in Virginia Woolf we have the Feminist archetype, Lytton Strachey gives us revisionist history, John Maynard Keynes gave us the economic model for the era, Roger Fry gave us modern art, and E.M. Forster would provide the biased social narrative in literature.

Collectively they represent what today we might call hippies. They all met at college, had left-leaning politics, despised anything before their birth as part of the old order including the idea of the nation-state, they came from wealthy upper-middle class backgrounds and yet despised middle-class values, they promoted free-love and all had sex between them, and then upon reaching adulthood exerted a profound social influence.

Virginia Woolf wrote that the modern world began when Lytton Strachey saw a stain on the dress that her sister Vanessa was wearing and asked, “Semen?”. Woolf’s intention here was to illustrate the new openness concerning sexuality, but the passage reveals more. If I could assume the Victorian approach, the stain would be recognised without judgement but not mentioned for fear of embarrassing Vanessa. The truly sexually enlightened would recognise the stain, but not mention it because it was no big deal, as it might as well be a mustard stain for all they cared. What we have here is self-conscious sexual openness conveyed in a certain smugness compounded by the shear solipsism to declare this incident to be the birth of modernity for all of Western Civilization.

One’s native culture is largely imperceptible. It exists as a sort of background music ever present but rarely noticed and experienced in the vague sense of mood. A zeitgeist operates the same way. There is only a collective sense or mood.

The post-World War I zeitgeist created the Bloomsbury Group and allowed their influence to thrive. In this sense the zeitgeist creates people in order to perpetuate itself. In 1921, Sigmund Freud published, Beyond the Pleasure Principle where he outlined the concept of the Pleasure Principle as the drive to satisfy psychological and biological needs in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. The opposite of this is the Reality Principle in which pleasure is deferred for a greater outcome. He associated one with childhood and ego and the other with adulthood and personal responsibility. By defining the Pleasure Principle Freud essentially defined the primary driving force of the post-Romantic era as embodied in the Bloomsbury Group and then all who followed in their wake.

The Pleasure Principle was also invoked by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR, marketing, advertising, and political propaganda, his 1928 book, Propaganda, was the playbook for the Nazi Party. To simplify his approach, Bernays sold products and ideas by linking them to people’s desires. The BBC produced an awarding winning documentary in 2002 about Bernays called, “The Century of the Self”. A more accurate title would have been, “The Century of the Ego”.

In his essay, The Rage of Virginia Woolf, Theodore Dalrymple observes:

In her descriptions of this class, self-pity vies with snobbery. Her reply to the philanthropist who requested a donation to buy evening clothes for professional women vibrates with outrage that the daughters of educated men should find themselves in financial difficulties (which, in her view, should properly belong only to social inferiors). “Not only are we incomparably weaker than the men of our own class,” she writes to the eminent lawyer; “we are weaker than the women of the working class.” “Economically, the educated man’s daughter is much on a level with the farm labourer.” “Society has been so kind to you [the educated men, one of whom is her interlocutor], so harsh to us [the daughters of educated men, of whom she is one]: it is an ill-fitting form that distorts the truth; deforms the mind; fetters the will.” It must therefore be destroyed—presumably by those whose will has been fettered and whose minds have been deformed.

The passage reminded me of George Carlin’s take on Feminism:

I've noticed that most of these feminists are white middle-class women. They don't give a shit about black women's problems. They don't care about Latino women. All their interested in is their own reproductive freedom...and their pocketbooks.

A key feature of Modernism (Post-modernism) is the idea of destruction. Jacques Barzun touches on this in his book, Classic, Romantic, and Modern. Traditional and established virtues, values, ideas, and education must be destroyed to allow for the new world we envision. We see this feature repeatedly in Progressivism.

As Dalrymple observes from Virginia Woolf from her book Three Guineas where she gives her answer to the request for a donation to a women’s college in Cambridge.

“No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan. . . . [T]herefore the guinea should be earmarked ‘Rags. Petrol. Matches.’ And this note should be attached to it. ‘Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows [before, presumably, being burned to death] and cry “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”

Apparently, the college “should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them” or be burnt to the ground.

Her Bloomsbury fellow Lytton Strachey has been singled out by two authors that I have read, Jacques Barzun and Matthew Sweet (Inventing the Victorians), as dealing the death blow to Romanticism with his book, Eminent Victorians in which he presents his biased view as history. That in itself is no crime, but the book proved to be very popular and influential in creating the modern preconception of the Victorians as hypocritical, stodgy prudes.

Today, the word Victorian is used in two contexts. One to describe heavy-handed moralism, as in “we need a return to Victorian values”, and the other to describe a bleak period of white male oppression against women, children, the poor, and minorities. Both characterisations are false. However, if your desire is to move forward you must first discredit all that came before you by burning the bridges.

I call this “the end of history” where people act as if nothing of value preceded their own time except when taken as a sort of pastiche for the sake of personal entertainment. In America, the past is seen as nothing more than a bunch of old white guys dominating others. This simplistic, arrogant, and self-centred approach fosters ignorance, and in ignorance there is bliss (or so says the fool).

The final member of the Bloomsbury Group that I would like to touch on was John Maynard Keynes. When I write of the Socialist Age in which we live, I am not referring to Marxism. Rather to the notion of economic and social central planning. The Socialist mind believes that the purpose of government is to control society and to take care of it members. In contrast, the Romantic mind sees the government as a sort of night watchman who makes sure everyone plays nice but provides no specific central plan.

The economic theories of Keynes laid the foundation for the modern mixed and centrally planned economies. In terms of macroeconomics, Keynes wrote the modern playbook. It would be foolish to say that Keynes himself was as driven by the pleasure principle and solipsism as were his Bloomsbury fellows, however I find it interesting that his economic theory encourages both the pleasure principle and solipsism.

This is not the place to go into his general theory, but I will touch on a few points. A key feature of Victorian values was the idea of thrift. It was seen as important to accumulate savings. Keynes calls this the paradox of thrift in which by saving money there is less money circulating in the economy and when less money is in the economy, then the economy declines. So the paradox is that we save money as security against hard times, but the act of saving money creates the hard times.

Keynesian economics encourages spending. This can be personal spending or government spending. All that matters is that there is money in the system. This is a recipe for driving the Pleasure Principle of mass consumption and of course government waste. The downside is of course debt. Despite the Keynesian stimulus packages as the governments currently pump money into the economy in hopes of keeping the economy vibrant, the only result is greater personal and governmental debt.

So who killed the Romantic? Was it the failure of Classical Liberalism at the onset of World War I? Was it the failure of Capitalism in the Great Depression? No. Both are innocent of the crimes for which they have been historically accused.

It has been said that it is impossible for a third party to break-up a stable relationship. According to this line of reasoning, any relationship divided by an interloper was destined to die anyway. I have read that the key to a stable relationship is mutual respect. Let’s call it faith. The relationship ends when one party stops believing in the relationship.

After the Great War and during the Great Depression people stopped believing in the Romantic. The zeitgeist shifted from a focus on individuality to a focus on ego. Normally, I would describe this as a shift from individualism to collectivism, but that is not wholly true. Society is a concept. You can point to an individual, but you cannot point to “society”. As a concept, every person has their own idea and feelings regarding the nature of society and what is best for society. This is often the product of ego.

I would like the blame the Bloomsbury Group for killing the Romantic. However, they would not have been successful if people had not lost faith in the Romantic. Virginia Woolf’s rich, white female peers wanted her to be right. Lytton Strachey’s readers wanted to see Victorians as he portrayed them. People and their governments wanted Keynesian economics. As Edward Bernays understood, people want their desires to be fulfilled, even if it is just a mirage.

Besides, Romanticism is not dead. Rather is it slowly being starved in the attic like some embarrassing old relative hidden from public view. I would like to think that it will return, but the current zeitgeist is not ready for it.

I read recently a comment made by an actress in period dramas who mourned the end of chivalry, but her comment illustrated that she did not understand the true meaning of the word and wrongly used it synonymously with the word gallantry. Instead she referred to the heightened respect for women as meaning chivalry.

An up-to-date definition of chivalry is “an ethical use of strength”. So this old-fashioned heightened respect for women observed by this actress is in fact a demonstration of kindness by the strong (men) towards the weak (women). We cannot return to the age of chivalry as a culture without accepting the premise that women are the weaker sex that must be cared for and treated as special because of it. When chivalry does not come from a position of strength then it is no more chivalry than paying taxes is charity. Now, women have to walk through the muddy puddles just like men do – as equals – and yet they still expect special treatment.

We live in an artificial reality largely disconnected from the previous Romantic zeitgeist where some people long for what was but do not recognise the inconsistencies between then and now. To embrace Romanticism is to reject the Post-modern world and to treat it with the same contempt that the Bloomsbury Group showed to Romanticism. So, for example, this means rejecting the Feminist premise that men and women are equal. This is not to say that one gender is superior to another but rather accepting that they are different and therefore cannot logically be equal any more than saying that an apple is equal to an orange aside from both being fruits.

Ultimately what unifies and distinguishes a culture, whether you label it an age, an era, a nation, a club, a tribe, a subculture, or a nation-state, is a number of largely unconscious assumptions about the nature of reality. Upon these premises are built the values, virtues, and vices that define a people as a recognisable unit.

In fiction, particularly in Science Fiction, there is this trope of “the Others”. They are those beings who are not us. In Nineteenth Century fiction, the Others were usually savages, in either Africa or America, portrayed as unsophisticated, superstitious, and emotional. In Twentieth Century fiction, the Others were cold and calculating aliens or machines.  The Others illustrate cultural difference, not only in the Us versus the Others within the story, but also how we have changed from the pragmatic and utilitarian Victorians to the sentimental Post-moderns who value ego over self.

You see, it’s not about emotion versus reason. All emotion is subjective. It’s personal. Championing emotion as a values and a virtue is to champion not feelings in general but personal feelings and therefore ego. Rationality on the other hand endeavours to be as objective as possible, thus making it more universal and less egotistical as the Self seeks equilibrium with other Selves regardless of personal feelings that get in the way.

The novelist, L. P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The Romantic Era is dead. It was killed not by a handful of spoiled upper-class students in Bloomsbury. It was killed by the General Will as the zeitgeist shifted away from the values and virtues of the Romantic Era towards those of the Socialist Era. The Bloomsbury Group simply facilitated the change and gave it voice.

This is not to say that Romanticism is dead. Simply that it is no longer a gift bestowed from one generation to the next in large proportion and taken for granted as just the natural way of things. The Romantic is now something that must be aspired towards and fought for against a zeitgeist that hates, fears, and misrepresents it as either folly or political incorrectness. Romanticism is no longer an unconscious product of social programming but a conscious decision to adopt and defend the general premises upon which the values and virtues of this cultural period in history were built.

When I was younger my concept of the Romantic perhaps would have been typified by a work done by of the Romantic poets. Today, I believe that I have a better grasp of the subtleties and premises involved to present the Romantic zeitgeist not in the light of its dawn but in the wisdom of its twilight.

The poet and novelist that I have in mind was always a favourite of mine and I was surprised in the 1990’s when I was told that he had been banished from the university curriculum due to his political incorrectness, thus depriving future generations of his works. I have read comments on this particular poem where people spoke of this as an evening prayer. Perhaps in the Church of the Romantic where Romanticism is a conscious ideological choice, it is.  So long as people continue to make that choice, then Romanticism is never truly dead.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!