It is quite amazing how things follow on from each other. Our quilt got pissed on by one of our cats, and the time came today to wash it. Too big for a domestic washing machine, so I had to go to the public launderette where there is a machine big enough for quilts. Once the money is fed into the machine and the button pressed, the process takes half an hour. I naturally took a book with me, Bernard M.G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism, Cambridge 1985.
Half an hour is just enough to skim through chapter 1 on Romanticism, idealism and religious belief, which I needed to read again after nearly thirty years. Like modern Existentialism, itself a late form of philosophical Romanticism, Romanticism does its best to escape definition. It can be seen as analogous with “negative” theology as often expressed by Eastern Orthodox scholars. God cannot be defined, only set apart from what he is not. Romanticism is conventionally opposed to classicism. It is essentially a “temperament” or a kind of personality, seen in terms of known historical personalities: Pope and Racine are classicists, whereas Shelley and Victor Hugo are seen as Romantics. It escapes from even the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, for some of the Romantics read this world view into Plato and even Christ. We have this from Oscar Wilde:
Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation.
Some of the other Romantics interpreted Christ’s personality and mission in this kind of light. Schlegel went much further and characterised the entire Christian era as Romantic. The idea is exciting, but is it true?
The early nineteenth century is generally seen as the most important era of the Romantic movement. It extends to earlier and later periods. I am inclined to see twentieth-century existentialism as an extension of Romanticism, just like some of the sub-cultural movements in the 1960’s. Many of the themes extend into some contemporary sub-cultures like the Goths.
Reading the chapter reminds me of the dialogues in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which revolves around this very contrast of classicism and romanticism.
The Romantic prefers ‘imagination and constructiveness’ to ‘analysis and criticism’, and teaches ‘the appreciation of every standpoint’ and ‘sympathy even with that which repels’.
I recommend Reardon’s book as a good introduction to the philosophical dimension of Romanticism.
As I drove home with the wet quilt in the back of my van, I went past one of those little shops where people can get tattoos and piercing. They also sell metal body ornaments and printed tee shirts. I was lucky to be in slow traffic to get a really good look. The two young men seemingly running the establishment were standing outside smoking cigarettes and sporting their own art. I was taken back to my article of yesterday.
A couple of comments arrived, which I have deleted together with my response to the first. The first comment was of someone bragging about his tattoos, to which I responded by asking the rhetorical question of whether he was “taking the mickey”. This followed a little research of the name contained in the e-mail address. He took great exception to what he perceived as an accusation of insincerity or lying, and offered to send photos of his tattoos. The thought came into my mind that I don’t mind what other people do to themselves when they are adults and compos mentis. What I do find objectionable is that such people want to exhibit themselves and impose their message – in exactly the same way as billboards, commercials on TV and cold calls on the telephone. Opinions about tattoos are very diverse. That much is obvious even in Christian circles.
The quilt is now drying on a line in my kitchen…