It is difficult for someone like me to separate the study of literary movements from pursuing a deeper understanding of the classical works of Western literature. I have realised that prolonged exposure to the canonical works will eventually require concepts of art history and literary criticism. In other words, a deep passion for the works of authors such as Byron, Shelley, and the Brontë sisters does not only translate to appreciating romantic verses and expressions but also understanding what Romanticism is as a literary movement. This strong relationship of art and criticism provides me with only the perfect reason to attend the lecture of Dr Mark Raftery-Skehan, an associate professor from the Department of Philosophy at the Ateneo De Manila University, on French Romanticist Literature at Ayala Museum last March 23.
After hearing what a scholar like Dr Skehan has to say about the subject, one can easily observe that Romanticism has been widely misinterpreted and misrepresented by both the pseudo-experts and pretentious breed of writers. I do not intend to assume a pompous tone, but I feel nothing apart from sheer annoyance whenever I encounter a self-proclaimed romantic who cannot even draw inspiration outside from either his idealized lover or his recent breakup. Dr Skehan closed his lecture with a warning about what will happen if romantic works are overly romanticized: when the principles of Romanticism are overdone or mishandled, it may lead to the characteristics of poor, saccharine, and self-indulgent art.
I consider it a direct affront to romanticism when people think it is nothing more than about red roses and blue violets. The history of this influential aesthetic movement is as dramatic as what it represents, and it certainly deserves better regard. And while Dr Skehan’s lecture focused on romanticist works in France, his insights did not lack explanations on how everything was conceived.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has my respect as the founding father of French Romanticism, primarily because every single concept he managed to introduce as a writer became the basis of how a romantic work is defined. During the lecture, we studied an excerpt from Rousseau’s Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker). One passage highlights the principal philosophy of romanticism: ‘Here I am thus alone on this earth, having no brother, no close friend, no society other than my own. But I, detached from them as from everything, who am I myself? This it[sic] remains for me to find out’. This monologue is a classic example of the romantic approach to literature, which prompts the interrogation of the self by the self. It captures the essence of romanticism, stressing it is really about the emotional interiority of men and its expression. And while expressing our sentiments can get melodramatic at times, the origin of romanticism does not suggest it has to be a required element.
Due to the strong resemblance of the Shakespearean invention of self-overhearing, as posited by Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University, and Rousseau’s concept of self-interrogation, I asked Dr Skehan during the open forum if there are studies that categorically indicate the French author was in fact influenced by the English Bard. Dr Skehan was honest to admit that self-overhearing is a foreign concept for him. But he offered some insights on how Shakespeare and Rousseau may be similar and different in terms of portraying man as a thinking moral entity. (I have to admit though that his academic prowess in philosophy made his answer to my query more complex than enlightening. But I always like cerebral ideas so I really don’t mind.)
If Rousseau acts as the undisputed pioneer of the romantic movement in 19th Century France, François-René de Chateaubriand has to be the master in presenting romanticism through impressive forms of metaphors. Subjective expression is an operative term in the language of romanticist literature, and this is what Chateaubriand capitalised in. He made use of nature as his inspiration in narrating the chronicles of the human soul and successfully returned to man the right to declare his feelings free from the influence of the yester-eras (e.g. Renaissance). Chateaubriand also deserves credit for using the subjective expression in incorporating Christian views in art. His argument, according to Dr Skehan, is less concerned about claiming Christianity as the truth but about Christianity as an individual human experience. In this way, Chateaubriand was able to treat religion not as a rebuttal of Enlightenment anti-superstition critique but as an emotional appeal.
I was already articulate in my compliments for Victor Hugo as an author even before I attended the lecture. My friends would know how much of a Hugo supporter I am, particularly because of how his seminal work Les Miserables changed me as a person. But my already huge respect for the French novelist was taken to a whole new degree after I learned about his contribution to the history of Romanticism. Hugo is the brave artist who proved that romanticism is not always about the beautiful, but can also relate to what is grotesque and dark in nature. He revolutionized the artistic landscape by giving an ex-convict, a prostitute, and a deformed bell-ringer the chance to be the source of inspiration in creating romantic literary works.
Hernani, ou l’Honneur Castillan suggests Hugo is not a fan of the Poetics, violating the prescribed elements of a tragedy by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He bent some classical rules which opened up Romanticism in a way which made it more inclusive and boundless.
Gustave Flaubert, who also happens to be one of my literary heroes like Hugo from 19th Century Europe, is another author discussed in the lecture. I baptize Flaubert with an epithet ‘the sarcastic romanticist’ because of his flagrant mockery of the romantics in his novel Madame Bovary. It follows the story of a woman named Emma who developed a saccharine view of the world by reading romantic books. Her highly romanticized outlook in life led to her tragedy, which also caused damage to all the people around her. Flaubert is a hybrid of a romanticist and a realist who embodied a caveat concerning the hazards of too much lyricism. His greatest contribution perhaps is not advocating for Romanticism, like all the authors I have mentioned, but providing readers with a reality check. Flaubert is the link that connects the age of Romanticism and Realism, while his Madame Bovary is the transition itself.
Even the most influential literary academicians would agree that there is no single way to define Romanticism. Based on everything Dr Skehan said, it is easier to tell whether a piece of art is a bad type of Romanticism than classifying it as a romantic work in the first place. This article has the intention of broadening the perspective of people in appreciating romantic works. Contemporary writers, who are too melodramatic and gets inappropriately more sensitive by the minute, are making the indelible mark of Romanticism in our culture look cheap.
Romanticism is more than just about two lovers kissing. In its core rests stories of self-discovery, soul-searching, the metaphors of nature, and the vindication of the grotesque and sublime. It will do modern artists good if they will learn to embrace the other facets of the aesthetic movement that taught us how to communicate with our soul first before talking to the world.