Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter III (Part 1)

(Pictured: Jean de la Fontaine) I am happy to present the first post of Chapter III 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.

CHAPTER III

ROMANTIC IMAGINATION (Part 1)

I HAVE already spoken of the contrast established by the theorists of original genius in the eighteenth century between the different types of imagination—especially between the literary and the scientific imagination. According to these theorists, it will be remembered, the scientific imagination should be strictly subordinated to judgment, whereas the literary imagination, freed from the shackles of imitation, should be at liberty to wander wild in its own empire of chimeras, or, at all events, should be far less sharply checked by judgment. It is easy to follow the extension of these English views of genius and imagination into the France of Rousseau and Diderot, and then the elaboration of these same views, under the combined influence of both France and England, in Germany. I have tried to show that Kant, especially in his “Critique of Judgment,” and Schiller in his “Aesthetic Letters” (1795) prepare the way for the conception of the creative imagination that is at the very heart of the romantic movement. According to this romantic conception, as we have seen, the imagination is to be free, not merely from outer formalistic constraint, but from all constraint whatever. This extreme romantic emancipation of the imagination was accompanied by an equally extreme emancipation of the emotions. Both kinds of emancipations are, as I have tried to show, a recoil partly from neo-classical judgment—a type of judgment which seemed to oppress all that is creative and spontaneous in man under a weight of outer convention; partly, from the reason of the Enlightenment, a type of reason that was so logical and abstract that it seemed to mechanize the human spirit, and to be a denial of all that is immediate and intuitive. The neo-classical judgment, with its undue unfriendliness to the imagination, is itself a recoil, let us remember, from the imaginative extravagance of the “metaphysicals,” the intellectual romanticists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and also, if we take a sufficiently wide view, from the Quixotic type of romanticism, the romanticism of action, that we associate with the Middle Ages.

Now not only are men governed by their imaginations (the imagination, as Pascal says, disposes of everything), but the type of imagination by which most men are governed may be defined in the widest sense of the word as romantic. Nearly every man cherishes his dream, his conceit of himself as he would like to be, a sort of “ideal” projection of his own desires, in comparison with which his actual life seems a hard and cramping routine. “Man must conceive himself what he is not,” as Dr. Johnson says, “for who is pleased with what he is?” The ample habitation that a man rears for his fictitious or “ideal” self often has some slight foundation in fact, but the higher he rears it the more insecure it becomes, until finally , like Perrette in the fable, he brings the whole structure down about his ears by the very gesture of his dream. “We all of us,” La Fontaine concludes in perhaps the most delightful account of the romantic imagination in literature, “wise as well as foolish, indulge in day-dreams. There is nothing sweeter. A flattering illusion carries away our spirits. All the wealth in the world is ours all honors and all women,” (1) etc. When Johnson descants on the “dangerous prevalence of imagination,” (2) and warns us to stick to “sober probability” what he means is the dangerous prevalence of day-dreaming. The retreat of the Rousseauist into some “land of chimeras” or tower of ivory assumes forms almost incredibly complex and subtle, but at bottom the ivory tower is only one form of man’s ineradicable longing to escape from the oppression of the actual into some land of heart’s desire, some golden age of fancy. As a matter of fact, Rousseau’s imaginative activity often approaches very closely to the delights of day-dreaming as described by La Fontaine. He was never more imaginative, he tells us, than when on a walking-trip—especially when the trip had no definite goal, or at least when he could take his time in reaching it. The Wanderlust of body and spirit could then be satisfied together. Actual vagabondage seemed to be an aid to the imagination in its escape from verisimilitude. One should note especially Rousseau’s account of his early wandering from Lyons to Paris and the airy structures that he raised on his anticipations of what he might find there. Inasmuch as he was to be attached at Paris to the Swiss Colonel Godard, he already traced for himself in fancy, in spite of his short-sightedness, a career of military glory. “I had read that Marshal Schomberg was short-sighted, why shouldn’t Marshal Rousseau be so too?” In the meanwhile, touched by the sight of the groves and brooks, “I felt in the midst of my glory that my heart was not made for so much turmoil, and soon without knowing how, I found myself once more among my beloved pastorals, renouncing forever the toils of Mars.”

Thus alongside the real world and in more or less sharp opposition to it, Rousseau builds up a fictitious world, that pays des chimères which is alone, as he tells us, worthy of habitation. To study his imaginative activity is simply to study the new forms that he gives to what I have called man’s ineradicable longing for some Arcadia, some land of heart’s desire. Goethe compares the illusions that man nourishes in his breast to the population of statues in ancient Rome which were almost as numerous as the population of living men. The important thing from the point of view of sanity is that a man should not blur the boundaries between the two populations, that he should not cease to discriminate between his fact and his fiction. If he confuses what he dreams himself to be with what he actually is, he has already entered upon the pathway of madness. It was, for example, natural for a youth like Rousseau who was at once romantic and musical, to dream that he was a great composer; but actually to set up as a great composer and to give the concert at Lausanne, shows an unwillingness to criminate between his fictitious and his real world that is plainly pathological. If not already a megalomaniac, he was even then on the way to megalomania.

To wander through the world as though it were an Arcadia or enchanted vision contrived for one’s especial benefit is an attitude of childhood—especially of imaginative childhood. “Wherever children are,” says Novalis, “there is the golden age.” As the child grows and matures there is a more or less painful process of adjustment between his “vision” and the particular reality in which he is placed. A little sense gets knocked into his head, and often, it must be confessed, a good deal of the imagination gets knocked out. As Wordsworth complains, the vision fades into the light of common day. The striking fact about Rousseau is that, far more than Wordsworth, he held fast to his vision. He refused to adjust it to an unpalatable reality. During the very years when the ordinary youth is forced to subordinate his luxurious imaginings to some definite discipline he fell under the influence of Madame de Warens who encouraged rather than thwarted his Arcadian bent. Later, when almost incurably confirmed in his penchant for revery, he came into contact with the refined society of Paris, an environment requiring so difficult an adjustment that no one we are told could accomplish the feat unless he had been disciplined into the appropriate habits from the age of six. He is indeed the supreme example of the unadjusted man, of the original genius whose imagination has never suffered either inner or outer constraint, who is more of an Arcadian dreamer at sixty perhaps than he was at sixteen. He writes to the Bailli de Mirabeau (31 January, 1761):

“The fatigue of thinking becomes every day more painful to me. I love to dream, but freely, allowing my mind to wander without enslaving myself to any subject. . . . This idle and contemplative life which you do not approve and which I do not excuse, becomes to me daily more delicious; to wander alone endlessly and ceaselessly among the trees and rocks about my dwelling, to muse or rather to be as irresponsible as I please, and as you say, to go wool-gathering; . . . finally to give myself up unconstrainedly to my fantasies which, thank heaven, are all within my power: that, sir, is for me the supreme enjoyment, than which I can imagine nothing superior in this world for a man at my age and in my condition.”

Rousseau, then, owes his significance not only to the fact that he was supremely imaginative in an age that was disposed to deny the supremacy of the imagination, but to the fact that he was imaginative in a particular way. A great multitude since his time must be reckoned among his followers, not because they have had certain ideas but because they have exhibited a similar quality of imagination. In seeking to define this quality of imagination we are therefore at the very heart of our subject.

(1) Quel esprit ne bat la campagne?
Qui ne fait châteaux en Espagne?
Pierochole, Pyrrhus, la latière, enfin tous,
Autant les sages que les fous
Chacun songe en veillant; il n’est rien de plus doux.
Une flatteuse erreur emporte alors nos âmes;
Tout le bien du monde est à nous,
Tous les honneurs, toutes les femmes.
Quand je suis seul, je fais au plus brave on défi,
Je m’écarte, je vais détrôner le sophi;
On m’élit roi, mon peuple m’aime;
Les diadèmes vont sur ma tête pleuvant:
Quelque accident fait-il que je rentre en moi-même,
Je suis gros Jean comme devant.

(2) Rasselas, ch. xliv.

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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