Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter I (Part 4)

I am happy to present the fourth post of Chapter I of Irving Babbitt’s great work Rousseau and Romanticism (first published in 1919), in which the reader is introduced to perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of romanticism as a literary school ever penned. Babbitt (1865-1933) was a cultural and literary critic, serving as Professor of French Literature at Harvard. He and his friend Paul Elmer More (of Princeton) became the founders of the conservative literary movement known as the New Humanism. Babbitt was a pioneer in the study of comparative literature; his writing, as you will see, is notable for its clarity and perspicacity.




After this attempt to define briefly with the help of the Greeks the classical spirit in its essence we should be prepared to understand more clearly the way in which this spirit was modified in neo-classical times, especially in France. The first thing that strikes one about the classicism of this period is that it does not rest on immediate perception like that of the Greeks but on outer authority. The merely dogmatic and traditional classicist gave a somewhat un-Greek meaning to the doctrines of nature and imitation. Why imitate nature directly, said Scaliger, when we have in Virgil a second nature? Imitation thus came to mean the imitation of certain outer models and the following of rules based on these models. Now it is well that one who aims at excellence in any field should begin by a thorough assimilation of the achievements of his great predecessors in this field. Unfortunately the neo-classical theorist tended to impose a multitude of precepts that were based on what was external rather than on what was vital in the practice of his models. In so far the lesson of form that the great ancients can always teach any one who approaches them in the right spirit degenerated into formalism. This formalistic turn given to the doctrine of imitation was felt from the outset to be a menace to originality; to be incompatible, and everything hinges at last on this point, with the spontaneity of the imagination. There was an important reaction headed by men like Boileau, within the neo-classical movement itself, against the oppression of the intuitive side of human nature by mere dogma and authority, above all against the notion that “regularity” is in itself any guarantee of literary excellence. A school of rules was succeeded by a school of taste. Yet even to the end the neo-classicist was too prone to reject as unnatural or even monstrous everything that did not fit into one of the traditional pigeon-holes. One must grant, indeed, that much noble work was achieved under the neo-classical dispensation, work that shows a genuine insight into the universal, but it is none the less evident that the view of the imagination held during this period has a formalistic taint.

This taint in neo-classicism is due not merely to its dogmatic and mechanical way of dealing with the doctrine of imitation but also to the fact that it had to reconcile classical with Christian dogma; and the two antiquities, classical and Christian, if interpreted vitally and in the spirit, were in many respects divergent and in some respects contradictory. The general outcome of the attempts at reconciliation made by the literary casuists of Italy and France was that Christianity should have a monopoly of truth and classicism a monopoly of fiction. For the true classicist, it will be remembered, the two things are inseparable—he gets at his truth through a veil of fiction. Many of the neo-classicists came to conceive of art as many romanticists were to conceive of it later as a sort of irresponsible game or play, but they were, it must be confessed, very inferior to the romanticists in the spontaneity of their fiction. They went for this fiction as for everything else to the models, and this meant in practice that they employed the pagan myths, not as imaginative symbols of a higher reality—it is still possible to employ them in that way—but merely in Boileau’s phrase as “traditional ornaments’’ (ornements reçu). The neo-classicist to be sure might so employ his “fiction’’ as to inculcate a moral; in that case he is only too likely to give us instead of the living symbol, dead allegory; instead of high seriousness, its caricature, didacticism. The traditional stock of fiction became at last so intolerably trite as to be rejected even by some of the late neo-classicists. “The rejection and contempt of fiction,’’ said Dr. Johnston (who indulged in it himself on occasion) “is rational and manly.” But to reject fiction in the larger sense is to miss the true driving power in human nature—the imagination. Before concluding, however, that Dr. Johnson had no notion of the rôle of the imagination one should read his attack on the theory of the three unities [in his Preface to Shakespeare] which was later to be turned to account by the romanticists.

Now the three unities may be defended on an entirely legitimate ground—on the ground namely that they make for concentration, a prime virtue in the drama; but the grounds on which they were actually imposed on the drama, especially in connection with the Quarrel of the Cid, illustrate the corruption of another main classical doctrine, that of probability or verisimilitude. In his dealings with probability as in his dealings with imitation, the neo-classical formalist did not allow sufficiently for the element of illusion. What he required from the drama in the name of probability was not the “illusion of a higher reality,” but strict logic or even literal deception. He was not capable of a poetic faith, not willing to suspend his disbelief on passing from the world of ordinary fact to the world of artistic creation. Goethe was thinking especially of the neo-classical French when he said: “As for the French, they will always be arrested by their reason. They do not recognize that the imagination has its own laws which are and always must be problematic for the reason.”

It was also largely under French influence that the doctrine of decorum, which touches probability at many points, was turned aside from its true meaning. Decorum is in a way the peculiar doctrine of the classicist, is in Milton’s phrase “the grand masterpiece to observe.” The doctrines of the universal and the imitation of the universal go deeper indeed than decorum, so much deeper that they are shared by classicism with religion. The man who aspires to live religiously must no less than the humanist look to some model set above his ordinary self and imitate it. But though the classicist at his best meditates, he does not, like the seeker after religious perfection, see in meditation an end in itself but rather a support for the mediatory virtues, the virtues of the man who would live to the best advantage in this world rather than renounce it; and these virtues may be said to be summed up in decorum. For the best type of Greek humanist, a Sophocles let us say, decorum was a vital and immediate thing. But there enters into decorum even from the time of the Alexandrian Greeks, and still more into French neo-classical decorum, a marked element of artificiality. The all-roundness and fine symmetry, the poise and dignity that come from working within the bounds of the human law, were taken to be the privilege not of man in general but of a special social class. Take for instance verbal decorum: the French neo-classicists assumed that if the speech of poetry is to be noble and highly serious it must coincide with the speech of the aristocracy. As Nisard puts it, they confused nobility of language with the language of the nobility. Decorum was thus more or less merged with etiquette, so that the standards of the stage and of literature in general came to coincide, as Rousseau complains, with those of the drawing-room. More than anything else this narrowing of decorum marks the decline from the classic to the pseudo-classic, from form to formalism.

While condemning pseudo-decorum one should remember that even a Greek would have seen something paradoxical in a poem like Goethe’s “Hermann und Dorothea’’ and its attempt to invest with epic grandeur the affairs of villagers and peasants. After all, dignity and deviation and especially the opportunity for important action, which is the point on which the classicist puts prime emphasis, are normally though not invariably associated with a high rather than with a mean social estate. In general one should insist that the decorum worked out under French auspices was far from being merely artificial. The French gentleman (honnête homme) of the seventeenth century often showed a moderation and freedom from over-emphasis, an exquisite tact and urbanity that did not fall too far short of his immediate model, Horace, and related him to the all-round man of the Greeks (𝜅𝛼𝜆𝜊𝜍 𝜅𝛼𝛾𝛼𝜃𝜊𝜍). To be sure an ascetic Christian like Pascal sees in decorum a disguise of one’s ordinary self rather than a real curb upon it, and feels that the gap is not sufficiently wide between even the best type of the man of the world and the mere worldling. One needs, however, to be very austere to disdain the art of living that has been fostered by decorum from the Greeks down. Something of this art of living survives even in a Chesterfield, who falls far short of the best type of French gentlemen and reminds one very remotely indeed of a Pericles. Chesterfield’s half-jesting definition of decorum as the art of combining the useful appearances of virtue with the solid satisfactions of vice points the way to its ultimate corruption. Talleyrand, who, marks perhaps this last stage, was defined by Napoleon as ‘’a silk stocking filled with mud.” In some of its late exemplars decorum had actually become, as Rousseau complains, the “mask of hypocrisy” and the “varnish of vice.”

One should not however, like Rousseau and the romanticists, judge of decorum by what it degenerated into. Every doctrine of genuine worth is disciplinary and men in the mass do not desire discipline. “Most men,” says Aristotle, “would rather live in a disorderly than in a sober manner.” But most men do not admit any such preference—that would be crude and inartistic. They incline rather to substitute for the reality of discipline some art of going through the motions. Every great doctrine is thus in constant peril of passing over into some hollow semblance or even, it may be, into some mere caricature of itself. When one wishes therefore to determine the nature of decorum one should think of a Milton, let us say, and not of a Talleyrand or even of a Chesterfield.

Milton imitated the models, like any other neo-classicist, but his imitation was not, in Joubert’s phrase, that of one book by another book, but of one soul by another soul. His decorum is therefore imaginative; and it is the privilege of the imagination to give the sense of spaciousness and infinitude. On the other hand, the unimaginative way in which many of the neo-classicists held their main tenets—nature, imitation, probability, decorum—narrowed unduly the scope of the human spirit and appeared to close the gates of the future. “Art and diligence have now done their best,” says Dr. Johnson of the versification of Pope, “and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity.” Nothing is more perilous than thus to seem to confine man in some pinfold; there is something in him that refuses to acquiesce in any position as final; he is in Nietzsche’s phrase the being who must always surpass himself. The attempt to oppose external and mechanical barriers to the freedom of the spirit will create in the long run an atmosphere of stuffiness and smugness, and nothing is more intolerable than smugness. Men were guillotined in the French Revolution, as Bagehot suggests, simply because either they or their ancestors had been smug. Inert acceptance of tradition and routine will be met sooner or later by the cry of Faust: Hinaus ins Freie!

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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