Isaiah Berlin: Romanticism – The First Attack on Enlightenment

Editor’s Note: These are very good and thought provoking lectures. In particular, I was fascinated by Berlin’s description of the 18th century aesthetic in the second video (13:00). The 20th century Modernist aesthetic is the exact opposite.

Isaiah Berlin describes the dawn of Romanticism between 1760 and 1820.

The following excerpt comes from 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.”

Notice how strange and utterly unlike the Zeitgeist of the Romantic era was compared to the Zeitgeist of the Modernist era which began around the beginning of the 20th century.

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14 Comments

  1. Great post. I think Berlin, being a liberal in the broad sense of the term, sees Romanticism more for how it differs from modernity and the current state of affairs than for how similar it really is.

    You could check out Carl Schmitt’s Political Romanticism; it offers a great counter-argument to Berlin and instead lodges the Romantic movement in the post-Revolutionary process of liberalization. The primacy of the individual in politics, further secularization, etc. The dualities that Berlin is talking about, the apparent contradictions, are for Schmitt attempts to reconcile these new post-1789 liberal ideals with the aesthetic and spiritual majesty of tradition.

  2. Interesting, but what was Cecil Rhodes? Nelson and T.E. Lawrence appear to be Romantics, but what of the late Victorians? P.H. Fawcett, Fred Burnham, Jameson. What about a (nationalist, romantic) Boer War hero like Smuts or Botha who ended up fighting for the (universalist) Empire in WW1 and then World Government/League of Nations? I don’t think borders between epochs and people can be that clearly defined.

    • Weren’t those men consumed with the desire for power? They sought to expand the empire with which they aligned themselves, while gaining glory for themselves.

      • Nelson and Lawrence, although loyal servants of the (British) Empire, did not seek to expand it. P.H. Fawcett, Fred Burnham, Jameson and Rhodes were certainly glory-hunters and empire-builders: but were they Romantics? Smuts and Botha started out as Romantic nationalists; Smuts eventually became Churchill’s deputy in WW2, they both rejected the Germans’ appeal to blood-and-soil romanticism. I don’t think any of these great men are easily categorized.

  3. It’s a Jewish take on European man’s Sehnsucht. Dried out, cynical Semites cannot be expected to live it, much less understand it.

    • Why have we not yet learned from our history that prolonged Immersion in the musings of an academic jew will yield toxic effects, subtle or delayed though they may be, on the Aryan mind?

  4. the Jew (((Berlin))) hates the Romantics because the so-called “enlightenment”

    let the Jews out of the Ghetto. Romantics are

    Jew-wise.

  5. A personal take on the ‘Romanticism of the period 1760-1820 is that is was deeply rooted in the Human Spirit.

    In it’s best form we see it in the rise of vapid The Gothic Novel, with Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ giving rise to a genre which would turn truly profound in it’s kings in Lermontov, Baudelaire, and, above all Edgar Allan Poe – a literary genius, probably without peer.

    Perhaps it is in musick where we see this early Romanticism best demonstrate itself, for, beginning with the remarkable Sturm & Drang pieces of Carl Phillippe Emmanuel Bach, the period culminates in the peerless symphonies, sonatas, trios, and quartets of Beethoven and Schubert.

    If you have ever heard the opening movements of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, as conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1943 or that of Bruno Walter’s Unfinisht Symphony by Schubert, you see the triumph of God speaking, and speaking personally to you, through White European culture in a way that has no correllary anywhere else in the history of Mankind.

    The works of Poe, Schubert, and Beethoven are, in and of themselves, a justification for all the troubles that comes with manifesting as a soul in this mortal sphere.

    In the end, when some in my circle of family and friends have asked me what it is that I object to so in Civick Nationalism’s carelessness of having an endless number of non-Whites manifest in practically every Western Country I have answered that it is this : ——- I do not wish to cut the VSOP liqueur of the White Races with flat soda water and tainted gin.

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