Sunday, April 7, 2013
Romanticism, Shelley and the rise of the teenager
Romanticism has left three catastrophic legacies that have contributed towards the decline of western civilisation - the cult of Nature, the cult of self-pity and the cult of feeling.
The Romantics had a remarkably silly view of Nature - sentimental and hopelessly idealised. Nature was seen as a kind of atheistic Garden of Eden in which cute little furry animals frolicked happily and people lived as noble savages until civilisation arose. The Romantics were the first Europeans to indulge themselves in self-hatred and hatred of their own civilisation. If only Nature had been let alone! The fact that animals in a state of Nature live lives of constant fear and misery never occurred to the Romantics. They simply ignored unpleasant things like reality.
The self-pity, which has now become the outstanding characteristic of our culture, can be seen quite clearly in the sordid lives of Byron and Shelley. Shelley took things even further than Byron. His whole life was a flight from responsibility and an indulgence in selfish pleasure. But of course being a Romantic he still managed to be miserable. He championed free love, and treated the women in his life appallingly, leading at least two to take their own lives. Shelley was in many ways the first teenager, and he remained a teenager until his death. He displayed the combination of self-pity and arrogance and of selfishness and starry-eyed idealism that have become such characteristic features of the modern teenager.
The third dismal legacy of Romanticism is the cult of feeling. The Romantics were suspicious of reason. Thinking can be hard work! They decided that it was unnecessary to think - all one had to do was to feel. We’ve seen what that has done to our society.
Shelley again provides a telling example. He cultivated the image of the sensitive poet who courageously denounced injustice. His political ideas were naïve and adolescent but that didn’t matter. They were based on feelings, and that’s what counts.
Shelley was one of the first examples of the arty champagne socialist, a type that is all too familiar to us today.
The various isms that have blighted our civilisation since the 19th century - socialism, atheism, feminism and environmentalism - were all part of the baggage left behind by the Romantics. Again Shelley provides a fine example - his second wife Mary was the daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley was an atheist, a socialist and a vegetarian. He managed to be equally irritating on all these subjects.
Shelley was the James Dean of the early 19th century. He was the first whining obnoxious teenage rebel. Romanticism did not encourage one to grow up. It instead encouraged a self-indulgent wallowing in phony emotion. In this respect it has been the most influential of all movements in art and literature, and its influence is today stronger than ever.