Friday, February 2, 2018

Getting Romantic: A Middlemarch Interlude

Welcome to your latest installment of “The Victorian Era by and for Nonspecialists.” If you find me wrong in any particulars – especially if you are a specialist! – please leave corrections in the comments section.

As we turn to the second half of book 2 next Monday, we are going to return to Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a spoiler to tell you that they’re going to bump into Will Ladislaw again. Remember Will? He’s the young man of artistic temperament with no particular goals. But understanding him – and maybe his and Dorothea’s interaction – requires understanding another cultural movement around this time: Romanticism.

Romanticism was, to put it very roughly, the artistic equivalent to Methodist emotionalism, but in literature, painting, even architecture. The movement in general is a conscious rejection of artifice in favor of nature, of cold rationalism (like the Utilitarians) in favor of mystery and the exotic; a belief that the imagination can create something truer than reality, a glimpse behind the veil of sense perception into the world of the transcendent/sublime. The movement had different variants in different parts of Europe. In Germany, for example, it was linked with mythology (think Wagner) as much as it was with nature. English romanticism was less nationalist-mythologizing. Rather, literature, poetry, and painting manifested the movement primarily in three themes: pastoralism (as a rejection of industrial modernity), exoticism/orientalism, and a fascination with the glories of past civilizations -- and, through their ruins, a fixation on the evanescent nature of even the greatest of human achievements. These themes also were reflected in architecture, where the fascinations were with both the gothic and the eastern, as symbols of mystery.

The movement also gave birth to a new type of artist: the "Romantic hero" (perhaps best personified by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their circle) is a genius who rejects worldly concerns and defies moral convention for their class in order to pursue higher truths. Like a certain young man we have met…


Amstr said...

Thanks for the quick and dirty overview!

One of my favorite manifestations of the Romantic ideal of harking back to past civilizations are architectural follies--newly built "ruins" in gardens. (Though there are definitely earlier examples as early as Renaissance gardens, and there are examples like Edinburgh's folly on Calton Hill that was originally designed to look like a full design based on the Parthenon, but is still incomplete because of a lack of funds in the 1800s.)

Percy Shelley's Ozymandias is a solid example of the Romantic sense of the fleeting glory of civilization:

I just went to the library today and checked out Eliot's Middlemarch (Reader's Guide) by Josie Billington (Continuum, 2008), and it's worth a look.

A few things I came across in the first ten pages:
-Eliot was primarily self-taught and had a mastery of Greek, Latin, and had done extensive study of European languages and lit.
-She first broke into the intellectual/writerly scene as a translator, primarily of German works that provided critical accounts of the Bible.
-She had already moved away from the Methodist evangelicalism of her childhood, and became more tightly bound to a secular humanism.
-Darwin! Origin of the Species was published in 1859, the same year as Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede (which is another good one)
-On secularization during the nineteenth century: "On the one hand, more chapels and churches were built than at any time before or since; the religious press flourished; millions of copies of tracts and sermons were published by religious societies; it was the great age of the communal hymn and theological questions and ecclesiastical controversies were the subject of intense debate. On the other hand, agnosticism or religious doubt replaced religious faith as the keynote of the age: industrial and technological advances encouraged materialist values and ambitions to supplant spiritual ones; developments in philosophy, the sciences and biblical studies threatened to undermine the very foundations of Christian religion and there was a general feeling that the century's soul had lost its way" (Billington, 4).
-re: Ladislaw's comment that Casaubon's search of the 'key to all mythologies' is a worthless pursuit: Billington cites as his inspiration "German historical scholarship on Christianity, which radically disputed the Bible's claims to be an authentic historical record" (5)--the same works that Eliot had translated.

The book is about a hundred pages, and is so far helpful (for me, at least).

Carrie said...

Part of what I found fascinating about these chapters was the variety of "true artists" and/or "true scholars" running about. We've been introduced to Casaubon as a "true scholar", but this is one of the first times we see him from another perspective as a sort of Don Quixote figure fighting fights that others think don't exist or aren't worth fighting. And somehow Will the professional dilettante—who has read German!—comes off looking like he understands more of how the world works than Casaubon and his Key to All Mythologies. On a related note, we see German Romanticism rejecting facts in favor of transcendence, but we also see hints of Ranke (or at least I did): German historical scholarship rejecting transcendence in favor of facts. The Germans seem important here, but they're not monolithic.

And I don't think it's an accident that these revelations of Casaubon's shortcomings occur in Rome, of which Eliot says (favorite quote alert): "...the very miscellaneousness of Rome, which made the mind flexible with constant comparison, and saved you from seeing the world's ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connection... Rome had given him [WL] quite a new sense of history as a whole: the fragments stimulated his imagination and made him constructive." Seems to me like Casaubon is trying to do #1—good intentions!—but he never gets to the "constructive" in #2. Whether or not Ladislaw can actually claim to be different I haven't figured out yet.