Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter II (Part 3)

I am happy to present the third post of Chapter II 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.



It is especially important to determine a man’s attitude towards himself in this matter of awe and wonder, in other words to determine whether he is taken up first of all with that element in his own nature which makes him incomprehensibly like other men or with that element which makes him incomprehensibly different from them. A man, the wise have always insisted, should look with reverence but not with wonder on himself. Rousseau boasts, that if not better than other men, he is at least different. By this gloating sense of his own otherwiseness he may be said to have set the tone for a whole epoch. Chateaubriand, for instance, is quite overcome by his own uniqueness and wonderfulness. At the most ordinary happenings he exclaims, as Sainte-Beuve points out, that such things happen only to him. Hugo again is positively stupefied at the immensity of his own genius. The theatricality that one feels in so much of the art of this period arises from the eagerness of the genius to communicate to others something of the amazement that he feels at himself. René’s first concern is to inspire wonder even in the women who love him. “Céluta felt that she was going to fall upon the bosom of this man as one falls into an abyss.” [René, a novel written by Chateaubriand.]

In thus putting such an exclusive emphasis on wonder the Rousseauistic movement takes on a regressive character. For if life begins in wonder it culminates in awe. To put “the budding rose above the rose full-blown” may do very well for a mood, but as an habitual attitude it implies that one is more interested in origins than in ends; and this means in practice to look backward and downward instead of forward and up. The conscious analysis that is needed if one is to establish orderly sequences and relationships and so work out a kingdom of ends is repudiated by the Rousseauist because it diminishes wonder, because it interferes with the creative impulse of genius as it gushes up spontaneously from the depths of the unconscious. The whole movement is filled with the praise of ignorance and of those who still enjoy its inappreciable advantages—the savage, the peasant and above all the child. The Rousseauist may indeed be said to have discovered the poetry of childhood of which only traces can be found in the past, but at what would seem at times a rather heavy sacrifice of rationality. Rather than consent to have the bloom taken off things by analysis one should, as Coleridge tells us, sink back to the devout state of childlike wonder. However, to grow ethically is not to sink back but to struggle painfully forward. To affirm the contrary is to set up the things that are below the ordinary rational level as a substitute for the things that are above it, and at the same time to proclaim one’s inability to mature. The romanticist, it is true, is wont to oppose to the demand for maturity Christ’s praise of the child. But Christ evidently praises the child not because of his capacity for wonder but because of his freedom from sin, and it is of the essence of Rousseauism to deny the very existence of sin—at least in the Christian sense of the word. One may also read in the New Testament that when one has ceased to be a child one should give up childish things, and this is a saying that no primitivist, so far as I am aware, has ever quoted. On the contrary, he is ready to assert that what comes to the child spontaneously is superior to the deliberate moral effort of the mature man. The speeches of all the sages are, according to Maeterlinck, outweighed by the unconscious wisdom of the passing child. Wordsworth hails a child of six as “Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!” (It is only fair to Coleridge to say that he refused to follow Wordsworth into this final abyss of absurdity. [See Biographia literaria, ch. xxii.] In much the same way Hugo pushes his adoration of the child to the verge of what has been termed “solemn silliness” (niaiserie solonnelle).

To set up the spontaneity of the child as a substitute for insight, to identify wonder with awe, romance with religion, is to confuse the very planes of being. There would appear to be a confusion of this kind in what Carlyle takes to be his own chief discovery, in his “natural supernaturalism.” (1) The natural order we must grant Carlyle is unfathomable, but it is not therefore awful, only wonderful. A movement of charity belongs as Pascal says to an entirely different order. (2)

The spiritual order to which Pascal refers lifts a man so far as he perceives it out of his ordinary self and draws him to an ethical centre. But the Rousseauist tends, as I have said, to repudiate the very idea of an ethical centre along with the special forms in which it had got itself embedded. Every attempt, whether humanistic or religious, to set up some such centre, to oppose a unifying and centralizing principle to expansive impulse, seems to him arbitrary and artificial. He does not discriminate between the ethical norm or centre that a Sophocles grasps intuitively and the centrality that the pseudo-classicist hopes to achieve by mechanical imitation. He argues from his underlying assumption that the principle of variation is alone vital, that one’s genius and originality are in pretty direct ratio to one’s eccentricity in the literal meaning of the word; and he is therefore ready to affirm his singularity or difference in the face of whatever happens to be established. This attitude, it is worth noting, is quite unlike that of the humorist in the old English sense of the word, who indulges his bent and is at the same time quite unconcerned with any central model that he should imitate and with reference to which he should discipline his oddities. The idiosyncrasy of the Rousseauist is not, like that of the humorist, genial, but defiant. He is strangely self-conscious in his return to the unconscious. In everything, from his vocabulary to the details of his dress, he is eager to emphasize his departure from the norm. Hence the persistent pose and theatricality in so many of the leaders of this movement, in Rousseau himself, for instance, or in Chateaubriand and Byron. As for the lesser figures in the movement their “genius’’ is often chiefly displayed in their devices for calling attention to themselves as the latest and most marvellous births of time; it is only one aspect in short of an art in which the past century, whatever its achievement in the other arts, has easily surpassed all its predecessors—the art of advertising.

One needs always to return, however, if one is to understand the romantic notion of genius, to a consideration of the pseudo-classic decorum against which it is a protest. The gentleman or man of the world (honnête homme) was not like the original genius, anxious to advertise himself , to call attention to his own special note of originality, since his primary concern was with an entirely different problem, with the problem, namely, not of expressing but of humanizing himself; and he could humanize himself, he felt, only by constant reference to the accepted standard of what the normal man should be. He refused to “pride himself on anything”; he was fearful of overemphasis, because the first of virtues in his eyes was a sense of proportion. The total symmetry of life to which the best type of classicist refers back his every impulse, he apprehends intuitively with the aid of his imagination. The symmetry to which the pseudo-classicist refers back his impulses has ceased to be imaginative and has become a mere conformity to an outer code or even to the rules of etiquette; and so, instead of a deep imaginative insight, he gets mere elegance or polish. The unity that a purely external decorum of this kind imposes on life degenerates into a tiresome sameness. It seems an unwarranted denial of the element of wonder and surprise. “Boredom was born one day of uniformity” said La Motte Houdard, who was himself a pseudo-classicist; whereas variety as everybody knows is the spice of life. The romanticist would break up the smooth and tiresome surface of artificial decorum by the pursuit of strangeness. If he can only get his thrill he cares little whether it is probable, whether it bears any relation, that is, to normal human experience. This sacrifice of the probable to the surprising appears, as I said at the outset, in all types of romanticism—whether of action or thought or feeling. The genuine classicist always puts his main stress on design or structure; whereas the main quest of every type of romanticist is rather for the intense and vivid and arresting detail. Take, for instance, the intellectual romanticism that prevailed especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In the “witty and conceited” poets of this period the intellect is engaged in a more or less irresponsible vagabondage with the imagination as its free accomplice. The conceits by which a poet of this type displays his “ingenuity’’ (genius) are not structural, are not, that is, referred back to any centre. They stand forth each separately and sharply from the surface of the style (hence known to the French as “points”), and so arrest the reader by their novelty. Their rareness and preciousness, however, are intended to startle the intellect alone. They do not have and are not intended to have any power of sensuous suggestion. The Rousseauistic romanticist, on the other hand, so far from being “metaphysical” strives to be concrete even at the risk of a certain materialism of style, of turning his metaphors into mere images. Like the intellectual romanticist, though in a different way, he wishes to break up the smooth and monotonous surface of life and style, and so he sets up the cult of the picturesque. To understand this cult one needs to remember the opposite extreme of artificial symmetry. One needs to recall, for example, the neo-classicist who complained of the stars in heaven because they were not arranged in symmetrical patterns, or various other neo-classicists who attacked mountains because of their rough and irregular shapes, because of their refusal to submit to the rule and compass. When beauty is conceived in so mechanical a fashion some one is almost certain to wish to “add strangeness’’ to it.

(1)  This message came to him in any case straight from German romanticism. See Waltzel, Deutsche Romantik, 22, 151.

(2) “De tous les corps et esprits, on n’en saurait tirer un mouvement de vraie charité; cela est impossible, et d’un autre ordre, surnaturel.” Pensées, Article xvii. “Charité,” one should recollect, here has its traditional meaning—the love, not of man, but of God.

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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