Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter III (Part 2)

(Pictured: Friedrich von Schiller) I am happy to present the second 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 2)

It is clear from what has already been said that Rousseau’s imagination was in a general way Arcadian, and this, if not the highest, is perhaps the most prevalent type of imagination. In surveying the literature of the world one is struck not only by the universality of the pastoral or idyllic element, but by the number of forms it has assumed—forms ranging from the extreme of artificiality and conventionalism to the purest poetry. The very society against the artificiality of which Rousseau’s whole work is a protest is itself in no small degree a pastoral creation. Various elements indeed entered into the life of the drawing-room as it came to be conceived towards the beginning of the seventeenth century. The Marquise de Rambouillet and others who set out at this time to live in the grand manner were in so far governed either by genuine or by artificial decorum. But at the same time that the creators of le grand monde were aiming to be more “decent” than the men and women of the sixteenth century, they were patterning themselves upon the shepherds and shepherdesses of D’Urfé’s interminable pastoral “l’Astrée.” They were seeking to create a sort of enchanted world from which the harsh cares of ordinary life were banished and where they might be free, like true Arcadians, to discourse of love. This discourse of love was associated with what I have defined as intellectual romanticism. In spite of the attacks by the exponents of humanistic good sense (Molière, Boileau, etc.) on this drawing-room affectation, it lingered on and still led in the eighteenth century, as Rousseau complained, to “inconceivable refinements.” (1) At the same time we should recollect that there is a secret bond between all forms of Arcadian dreaming. Not only was Rousseau fascinated, like the early précieux and précieuses, by D’Urfé’s pastoral, but he himself appealed by his renewal of the main pastoral theme of love to the descendants of these former Arcadians in the polite society of his time. The love of Rousseau is associated not like that of the précieux with the intellect, but with the emotions, and so he substitutes for a “wire-drawn and super-subtilized gallantry,” the ground-swell of elemental passion. (2) Moreover, the definitely primitivistic coloring that he gave to his imaginative renewal of the pastoral dream appealed to an age that was reaching the last stages of over-refinement. Primitivism is, strictly speaking, nothing new in the world. It always tends to appear in periods of complex civilization. The charms of the simple life and of a return to nature were celebrated especially during the Alexandrian period of Greek literature for the special delectation no doubt of the most sophisticated members of this very sophisticated society. “Nothing,” as Dr. Santayana says, “is farther from the common people than the corrupt desire to be primitive.” Primitivistic dreaming was also popular in ancient Rome at its most artificial moment. The great ancients, however, though enjoying the poetry of the primitivistic dream, were not the dupes of this dream. Horace, for example, lived at the most artificial moment of Rome when primitivistic dreaming was popular as it had been at Alexandria. He descants on the joys of the simple life in a well-known ode. One should not therefore hail him, like Schiller, as the founder of the sentimental school “of which he has remained the unsurpassed model.” (3) For the person who plans to return to nature in Horace’s poem is the old usurer Alfius, who changes his mind at the last moment and puts out his mortgages again. In short, the final attitude of the urbane Horace towards the primitivistic dream—it could hardly be otherwise—is ironical.

Rousseau seems destined to remain the supreme example, at least in the Occident, of the man who takes the primitivistic dream seriously, who attempts to set up primitivism as a philosophy and even as a religion. Rousseau’s account of his sudden illumination on the road from Paris to Vincennes is famous: the scales, he tells us, fell from his eyes even as they had from the eyes of Paul on the road to Damascus, and he saw how man had fallen from the felicity of his primitive estate; how the blissful ignorance in which he had lived at one with himself and harmless to his fellows had been broken by the rise of intellectual self-consciousness and the resulting progress in the sciences and arts. Modern students of Rousseau have, under the influence of James, taken this experience on the road to Vincennes to be an authentic case of conversion, (4) but this is merely one instance of our modern tendency to confound the subrational with the superrational. What one finds in this alleged conversion, when one looks into it, is a sort of “subliminal uprush” of the Arcadian memories of his youth, especially of his life at Annecy and Les Charmettes, and at the same time the contrast between these Arcadian memories and the hateful constraints he had suffered at Paris in his attempts to adjust himself to an uncongenial environment.

We can trace even more clearly perhaps the process by which the Arcadian dreamer comes to set up as a seer, in Rousseau’s relation of the circumstances under which he came to compose his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.” He goes off on a sort of picnic with Thérèse into the forest of St. Germain and gives himself up to imagining the state of primitive man. “Plunged in the forest,” he says, “I sought and found there the image of primitive times of which I proudly drew the history; I swooped down on the little falsehoods of men; I ventured to lay bare their nature, to follow the progress of time and of circumstances which have disfigured it, and comparing artificial man (l’homme de l’homme) with natural man, to show in his alleged improvement the true source of his miseries. My soul, exalted by these sublime contemplations, rose into the presence of the Divinity. Seeing from this vantage point that the blind pathway of prejudices followed by my fellows was also that of their errors, misfortunes and crimes, I cried out to them in a feeble voice that they could not hear: Madmen, who are always complaining of nature, know that all your evils come from yourselves alone.”

The golden age for which the human heart has an ineradicable longing is here presented not as poetical, which it certainly is, but as a “state of nature” from which man has actually fallen. The more or less innocent Arcadian dreamer is being transformed into the dangerous Utopist. He puts the blame of the conflict and division of which he is conscious in himself upon the social conventions that set bounds to his temperament and impulses; once get rid of these purely artificial restrictions and he feels that he will again be at one with himself and “nature.” With such a vision of nature as this it is not surprising that every constraint is unendurable to Rousseau, that he likes, as Berlioz was to say of himself later, to “make all barriers crack.” He is ready to shatter all the forms of civilized life in favor of something that never existed, of a state of nature that is only the projection of his own temperament and its dominant desires upon the void. His programme amounts in practice to the indulgence of infinite indeterminate desire, to an endless and aimless vagabondage of the emotions with the imagination as their free accomplice.

This longing of the highly sophisticated person to get back to the primitive and naïve and unconscious, or what amounts to the same thing, to shake off the trammels of tradition and reason in favor of free and passionate self-expression, underlies, as I have pointed out, the conception of original genius which itself underlies the whole modern movement. A book reflecting the primitivistic trend of the eighteenth century, and at the same time pointing the way, as we shall see presently, to the working out of the fundamental primitivistic contrast between the natural and the artificial in the romanticism of the early nineteenth century, is Schiller’s “Essay on Simple and Sentimental Poetry.” The poetry that does not “look before or after,” that is free from self-questioning and self-consciousness, and has a child-like spontaneity, Schiller calls simple or naïve. The poet, on the other hand, who is conscious of his fall from nature and who, from the midst of his sophistication, longs to be back once more at his mother’s bosom, is sentimental. Homer and his heroes, for example, are naïve; Werther, who yearns in a drawing-room for the Homeric simplicity, is sentimental. The longing of the modern man for nature, says Schiller, is that of the sick man for health. It is hard to see in Schiller’s “nature” anything more than a development of Rousseau’s primitivistic Arcadia. To be sure, Schiller warns us that, in order to recover the childlike and primitive virtues still visible in the man of genius, we must not renounce culture. We must not seek to revert lazily to an Arcadia, but must struggle forward to an Elysium. Unfortunately Schiller’s Elysium has a strange likeness to Rousseau’s Arcadia; and that is because Schiller’s own conception of life is, in the last analysis, overwhelmingly sentimental. His most Elysian conception, that of a purely aesthetic Greece, a wonderland of unalloyed beauty, is also a bit of Arcadian sentimentalizing. Inasmuch as Rousseau’s state of nature never existed outside of dreamland, the Greek who is simple or naïve in this sense is likewise a myth. He has no real counterpart either in the Homeric age or any other age of Greece. It is hard to say which is more absurd, to make the Greeks naïve, or to turn Horace into a sentimentalist. One should note how this romantic perversion of the Greeks for which Schiller is largely responsible is related to his general view of the imagination. We have seen that in the “Aesthetic Letters’’ he maintains that if the imagination is to conceive the ideal it must be free; and that to be free it must be emancipated from purpose and engage in a sort of play. If the imagination has to subordinate itself to a real object it ceases in so far to be free. Hence the more ideal the imagination the farther it gets away from a real object. By his theory of the imagination, Schiller thus encourages that opposition between the ideal and the real which figures so largely in romantic psychology. A man may consent to adjust a mere dream to the requirements of the real, but when his dream is promoted to the dignity of an ideal it is plain that he will be less ready to make the sacrifice. Schiller’s Greece is very ideal in the sense I have just defined. It hovers before the imagination as a sort of Golden Age of pure beauty, a land of chimeras that is alone worthy of the aesthete’s habitation. As an extreme type of the romantic Hellenist, one may take Hölderlin, who was a disciple at once of Schiller and of Rousseau. He begins by urging emancipation from every form of outer and traditional control in the name of spontaneity. “Boldly forget,” he cries in the very accents of Rousseau, “what you have inherited and won—all laws and customs—and like new-born babes lift up your eyes to godlike nature.”

(1) Nouvelle Héloïse, Pt. ii, Lettre xvii.
(2) Rostand has hit off this change in the Balcony Scene of his Cyrano de Bergerac.
(3) Essay on Simple and Sentimental Poetry.
(4) The Life of Rousseau, by Gerhard Gran, is written from this point of view.

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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