25 April 2009

'Love of Life & Love of Death'

As far back as I can remember, I have found myself profoundly moved by the various expressions of the Romantic movement in art—long before I knew that term—to the point that my interest in and fascination with the subjects of that art early on became inextricably bound up with my perception of them through a Romantic lens. What I mean to say is that when in life I see a wild landscape and or a mediæval ruin, I immediately perceive it as a Romantic, or at least a ‘post-Romantic’, and certainly not as anyone of an earlier epoch would have done. Similarly, when I came across various Romantic artworks, such as Friedrich’s ‘Couple Gazing at the Moon’ (1807) above, or Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F# minor (watch a quartet play it here), or Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge (here), I felt these things resonate inside me like a familiar voice. So it’s long been interesting to me to read descriptions of or theoretical and critical references to the Romantic movement, because I feel someone is putting into words something about myself that I always found rather ineffable. Here is a wonderful such passage from Sir Isaiah Berlin’s Mellon Lectures of 1965, published as The Roots of Romanticism, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U, 2001), pp. 16-8:

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence, the maladie du siècle, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Dance of Death, indeed Death itself. It is Shelley’s dome of many-coloured glass, and it is also his white radiance of eternity. It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life, Fülle des Lebens, inexhaustible multiplicity, turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but also it is peace, oneness with the great ‘I Am’, harmony with the natural order, the music of the spheres, dissolution in the eternal all-containing spirit. It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles, hunting horns, elves, giants, griffins, falling water, the old mill on the Floss, darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. Also it is the familiar, the sense of one’s unique tradition, joy in the smiling aspect of everyday nature, and the accustomed sights and sounds of contented, simple, rural folk—the sane and happy wisdom of rosy-cheeked sons of the soil. It is the ancient, the historic, it is Gothic cathedrals, mists of antiquity, ancient roots and the old order with its unanalysable qualities, its profound but inexpressible loyalties, the impalpable, the imponderable. Also it is the pursuit of novelty, revolutionary change, concern with the fleeting present, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, past and future, the pastoral idyll of happy innocence, joy in the passing instant, a sense of timelessness. It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages. But also it is happy co-operation in a common creative effort, the sense of forming part of a Church, a class, a party, a tradition, a great and all-containing symmetrical hierarchy, knights and retainers, the ranks of the Church, organic social ties, mystic unity, one faith, one land, one blood, ‘la terre et les morts’, as Barrès said, the great society of the dead and the living and the yet unborn. It is the the Toryism of Scott and Southey and Wordsworth, and it is the radicalism of Shelley, Büchner and Stendhal. It is Chateaubriand’s aesthetic medievalism, and it is Michelet’s loathing of the Middle Ages. It is Carlyle’s worship of authority, and Hugo’s hatred of authority. It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, life étalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however, it is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair which the followers of people like Gérard de Nerval wore in Paris at a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Ernani, it is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds. It is the romantic hero—the rebel, l’homme fatal, the damned soul, the Corsairs, Manfreds, Giaours, Laras, Cains, all the population of Byron’s heroic poems. It is Melmoth, it is Jean Sbogar, all the outcasts and Ishmaels as well as the golden-hearted courtesans and the noble-hearted convicts of nineteenth-century fiction. It is drinking out of the human skull, it is Berlioz who said he wanted to climb Vesuvius in order to commune with a kindred soul. It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul’. It is, in short, unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular, in the paintings of nature for example, and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as an instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.

Obviously, there is much here that does not appeal to me, whether æsthetically, intellectually, or, certainly, morally. But there is also much that does appeal to me, but which I cannot reconcile with what I either know or believe after careful reflection to be true or good. For instance, the æsthetic ideas of Fr Pavel Florensky—with which I am primarily acquainted through Victor Bychkov’s The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1993)—and Photios Kontoglou—in Meetings With Kontoglou and Byzantine Sacred Art (both available here, from the Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies)—have convinced me to regard Romantic landscape painting as suboptimal art, and yet I still admire it! So anyway, consider this paragraph as an invitation to explain to me what is wrong with Romanticism, either in general or in its various expressions. You will find me an attentive and sympathetic audience!

I’ll conclude by sharing an interesting experience I had. I have known Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Mists’ (view it here, if you don’t know what I’m talking about) since I was perhaps 10 or 11 from a Bantam edition of Frankenstein (‘Couple Gazing’, above, was the cover art of the Bantam Dracula). Years later, in 2003 to be exact, I saw a scene wonderfully similar to it in the mountains of Epirus, on the road to Metsovo, when the car we were in emerged from a thick fog just before sunset. It was of course, impossible for me to view the scene except as an approximation of Friedrich’s painting.


Anonymous said...

Berlin's words certainly cast some light on you, Aaron. As someone who's watched you grow and take up your walk through life, I found much in this excerpt that I see in you.

And of course, I can't help but ask whether his words, somewhere there along where your heading on the left reads "My Blog List," aren't a quiet call for ... "more cow-bell"?


Aaron Taylor said...

You mean Nerval's lobster? I would definitely like to see more lobsters being walked about, especially in Edmond.

Aaron Taylor said...

Oh, okay, thanks for the clarification! On my screen, the line about Nerval's lobster was the one directly opposite the blog list. I forgot Berlin mentioned cow-bells!

123 said...

Couldn't Romanticism be considered an un-Orthodox yearning for the energies of God, or perhaps even the unenunciated experience of the energies of God 'Who is everywhere present and fillest all things'? Of course, it misses the boat often and mistakes the creation for the Creator, or honors the creation above the Creator, but the impetus seems to be Orthodox.

There is also that longing for the Garden. I have always loved the Orthodox view that Adam and Eve were born at dawn and fell by noon - they were children. Longing for youth has something of the Garden about it.

Romanticism is also a counter to scientism, the idea that science has (or soon will) figured it all out and it's just a matter of time before it's documented and a machine engineered to monetize it. Romanticism is a yearning for quantum and relativity and the unknown in the staid world of Newtonian physics and the Great Machine of Earth.

I take critiques such as Kontoglou's with a grain of salt. As to whether such aesthetics should be incorporated into the Church's life, I listen; insofar as they are objective judgments, I tend to ignore. Art is art; it is not right or wrong, it is either honest or dishonest. I find Romanticism (and Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art, etc.) to all be honest. As to whether they are scary, inhuman, etc. is a different question. It honestly lays bare what is happening in another's soul; our attraction to or revulsion from is also valuable to understand as an Orthodox Christian in the world, attempting to refrain from being of it.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Christopher. I agree with you that the Romantic impulse is probably Orthodox at root, especially when it is seen in the context of the Enlightenment. I also agree that Fr Florensky's and Kontoglou's critiques do not lead necessarily to the conclusion that the various later Western art movements are simply 'wrong'. I carefully chose that word 'suboptimal'. To make a long story short, I believe it's possible to recognise certain aesthetic/moral problems in a particular work or genre of art, but still appreciate them for what they are. They still, more or less, approach the ideal. Thus, I fully accept Fr Florensky's and Kontoglou's critiques, but since Kontoglou was in a situation where he was trying to fight xenomania among the Orthodox Greeks and reawaken them to the beauty of proper Orthodox iconography, it seems to me he should be forgiven for a certain strictness in his approach to the issue and a categorical quality to his expression. I think those of us in the West, for whom the Renaissance and Romanticism are unavoiadable parts of our heritage, can afford a bit more 'oikonomia' in dealing with these things, while still recognising the importance of those writers' aesthetic insights. Although it focuses on literature as opposed to visual art or music, this is one of the central arguments in my thesis.

123 said...

'Xenomania', I love it.

Even here, I wonder if even an academic differentiation need be made between aspects of Orthodoxy and aspects of culture. Sure, they can be intertwined. For instance, what is more Orthodox: Znamenny, Georgian or Byzantine chant? Is chant the most ideal medium for the services, or were these simply cultural take-overs? To what extent can a local custom be adapted and it not be simply a 'holdover' from a pagan or non-Christian past? I love Byzantine iconography, but the most popular Orthodox icon is not written according to these canons, i.e., Christ Pantocrator on Sinai.

Of course, I have always said that the ideal 'way' of becoming Orthodox is to take over a living tradition and try your hardest to emulate it in all its particulars. The reality is that we won't be able to emulate it fully thus giving rise to a new 'accent' in the tradition. Having to accommodate multiple living Orthodox traditions in one parish/diocese will also give rise to a new 'accent' as the riches of the various traditions are used, absorbed, interact, are retained and fall away.

At the same time, I have always appreciated St. Barsanuphius' thoughts on a Western style painting of two children crossing a bridge protected by their Guardian Angel. He found it very helpful personally, in his cell, and when confessing people; but he would never have it put up in the church. Musically similar is the place of St. Nektarios of Aegina's "O Unwedded Bride" which is beautiful, oft heard, but not a liturgical part of the services - at least not yet.

Any such things could be added to the tradition, but over time, and with discernment as to its effects, what it says over time and whether it holds up.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

The woods pictured above are "lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep". Two more cents on my new post linked below on Stoicism and Romanticism.

Aaron Taylor said...

Andrea Elizabeth> An apt quotation, to be sure!