Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter II (Part 5)

I am happy to present the fifth and final 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.



There is an unbroken development from the early exponents of original genius down to cubists, futurists and post-impressionists and the corresponding schools in literature. The partisans of expression as opposed to form in the eighteenth century led to the fanatics of expression in the nineteenth and these have led to the maniacs of expression of the twentieth. The extremists in painting have got so far beyond Cézanne, who was regarded not long ago as one of the wildest of innovators, that Cézanne is, we are told, “in a fair way to achieve the unhappy fate of becoming a classic.” Poe was fond of quoting a saying of Bacon’s that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” This saying became known in France through Baudelaire’s rendering of Poe and was often ascribed to Poe himself. It was taken to mean that the stranger one became the nearer one was getting to perfect beauty. And if we grant this view of beauty we must admit that some of the decadents succeeded in becoming very beautiful indeed. But the more the element of proportion in beauty is sacrificed to strangeness the more the result will seem to the normal man to be, not beauty at all, but rather an esoteric cult of ugliness. The romantic genius therefore denounces the normal man as a Philistine and at the same time, since he cannot please him, seeks at least to shock him and so capture his attention by the very violence of eccentricity.

The saying I have quoted from Bacon is perhaps an early example of the inner alliance between things that superficially often seem remote—the scientific spirit and the spirit of romance. Scientific discovery has given a tremendous stimulus to wonder and curiosity, has encouraged a purely exploratory attitude towards life and raised an overwhelming prepossession in favor of the new as compared with the old. Baconian and Rousseauist evidently come together by their primary emphasis on novelty. The movement towards a more and more eccentric conception of art and literature has been closely allied in practice with the doctrine of progress—and that from the very dawn of the so-called Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the havoc that has been wrought by the transfer of the belief that the latest thing is the best—a belief that is approximately true of automobiles—from the material order to an entirely different realm. (1) The very heart of the classical message, one cannot repeat too often, is that one should aim first of all not to be original, but to be human, and that to be human one needs to look up to a sound model and imitate it. The imposition of form and proportion upon one’s expansive impulses which results from this process of imitation is, in the true sense of that much abused word, culture. Genuine culture is difficult and disciplinary. The mediation that it involves between the conflicting claims of form and expression requires the utmost contention of spirit. We have here a clue to the boundless success of the Rousseauistic doctrine of spontaneity, of the assertion that genius resides in the region of the primitive and unconscious and is hindered rather than helped by culture. It is easier to be a genius on Rousseauistic lines than to be a man on the terms imposed by the classicist. There is a fatal facility about creation when its quality is not tested by some standard set above the creator’s temperament; and the same fatal facility appears in criticism when the critic does not test creation by some standard set above both his own temperament and that of the creator. The romantic critic as a matter of fact confines his ambition to receiving so keen an impression from genius, conceived as something purely temperamental, that when this creative expression is passed through his temperament it will issue forth as a fresh expression. Taste, he holds, will thus tend to become one with genius, and criticism, instead of being cold and negative like that of the neo-classicist, will itself grow creative. But the critic who does not get beyond this stage will have gusto, zest, relish, what you will, he will not have taste. For taste involves a difficult mediation between the element of uniqueness in both critic and creator and that which is representative and human. Once eliminate this human standard that is set above the temperament of the creator and make of the critic in turn a mere pander to “genius” and it is hard to see what measure of a man’s excellence is left save his intoxication with himself; and this measure would scarcely seem to be trustworthy. “Every ass that’s romantic,” says Wolseley in his Preface to “Valentinian” (1686) “believes he’s inspired.”

An important aspect of the romantic theory of genius remains to be considered. This theory is closely associated in its rise and growth with the theory of the master faculty or ruling passion. A man can do that for which he has a genius without effort, whereas no amount of effort can avail to give a man that for which he has no native aptitude. (2) Buffon affirmed in opposition to this view that genius is only a capacity for taking pains or, as an American recently put it, is ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration. This notion of genius not only risks running counter to the observed facts as to the importance of the native gift but it does not bring out as clearly as it might the real point at issue. Even though genius were shown to be ninety per cent inspiration a man should still, the classicist would insist, fix his attention on the fraction that is within his power. Thus Boileau says in substance at the outset of his “Art of Poetry” that a poet needs to be born under a propitious star. Genius is indispensable, and not merely genius in general but genius for the special kind of poetry in which he is to excel. Yet granting all this, he says to the poetical aspirant, bestir yourself! The mystery of grace will always be recognized in any view of life that gets at all beneath the surface. Yet it is still the better part to turn to the feasibility of works. The view of genius as merely a temperamental overflow is as a matter of fact only a caricature of the doctrine of grace. It suits the spiritual indolence of the creator who seeks to evade the more difficult half of his problem—which is not merely to create but to humanize his creation. Hawthorne, for example, is according to Mr. Brownell, too prone (except in the “Scarlet Letter”) to get away from the clear sunlight of normal human experience into a region of somewhat crepuscular symbolism, and this is because he yielded too complacently and fatalistically to what he conceived to be his genius. The theory of genius is perhaps the chief inheritance of the New England transcendentalists from romanticism. Hawthorne was more on his guard against the extreme implications of the theory than most other members of this group. It remains to be seen how much the exaltation of genius and depreciation of culture that marks one whole side of Emerson will in the long run tell against his reputation. The lesser New England men showed a rare incapacity to distinguish between originality and mere freakishness either in themselves or in others.

It is fair to say that in lieu of the discipline of culture the romantic genius has often insisted on the discipline of technique; and this has been especially true in a country like France with its persistent tradition of careful workmanship. Gautier, for example, would have one’s “floating dream sealed” (3) in the hardest and most resisting material, that can only be mastered by the perfect craftsman; and he himself, falling into a confusion of the arts, tries to display such a craftsmanship by painting and carving with words. Flaubert, again, refines upon the technique of writing to a point where it becomes not merely a discipline but a torture. But if a man is to be a romantic genius in the fullest sense he must, it should seem, repudiate even the discipline of technique as well as the discipline of culture in favor of an artless spontaneity. For after all the genius is only the man who retains the virtues of the child, and technical proficiency is scarcely to be numbered among these virtues. The German romanticists already prefer the early Italian painters because of their naiveté and divine awkwardness to the later artists who had a more conscious mastery of their material. The whole Pre-Raphaelite movement is therefore only one aspect of Rousseau’s return to nature. To later primitivists the early Italians themselves seem far too deliberate. They would recover the spontaneity displayed in the markings on Alaskan totem poles or in the scratchings of the caveman on the flint. A prerequisite to pure genius, if we are to judge by their own productions, is an inability to draw. The futurists in their endeavor to convey symbolically their own “soul” or “ vision”—a vision be it noted of pure flux and motion—deny the very conditions of time and space that determine the special technique of painting; and inasmuch as to express one’s “soul” means for these moderns, as it did for the “genius” of the eighteenth century, to express the ineffable difference between themselves and others, the symbolizing of this soul to which they have sacrificed both culture and technique remains a dark mystery.

An eccentricity so extreme as to be almost or quite indistinguishable from madness is then the final outcome of the revolt of the original genius from the regularity of the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century had, one must confess, become too much like the Happy Valley from which Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, sought an egress. It was fair to the eye and satisfied all man’s ordinary needs, but it seemed at the same time to hem him in oppressively, and limit unduly his horizons. For the modern man, as for the prince in Johnson’s tale, a regular round of assured felicities has counted for nought as compared with the passion for the open; though now that he has tasted strange adventures, the modern man will scarcely decide at the end, like the prince, to “return to Abyssinia.” I have already spoken of the rationalistic and pseudo-classic elements in the eighteenth century that the romantic rebels found so intolerable. It is impossible to follow “reason,” they said in substance, and also to shake one’s thirst for the “infinite”; it is impossible to conform and imitate and at the same time to be free and original and spontaneous. Above all it is impossible to submit to the yoke of either reason or imitation and at the same time to be imaginative. This last assertion will always be the main point at issue in any genuine debate between classicist and romanticist. The supreme thing in life, the romanticist declares, is the creative imagination, and it can be restored to its rights only by repudiating imitation. The imagination is supreme the classicist grants but adds that to imitate rightly is to make the highest use of the imagination. To understand all that is implied in this central divergence between classicist and romanticist we shall need to study in more detail the kind of imaginative activity that has been encouraged in the whole movement extending from the rise of the original genius in the eighteenth century to the present day.

(1) See essay by Kenyon Cox on The Illusion of Progress, in his Artist and Public.

(2) One should note here as elsewhere points of contact between scientific and emotional naturalism. Take, for example, the educational theory that has led to the setting up of the elective system. The general human discipline embodied in the fixed curriculum is to be discarded in order that the individual may be free to work along the lines of his bent or “genius.” In a somewhat similar way scientific naturalism encourages the individual to sacrifice the general human discipline to a specialty.

(3) See his poem L’Art in Emaux et Camées.

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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