A Few Thoughts on Romanticism

by Mark English

The great Romantic writer and statesman François-René de Chateaubriand is virtually forgotten today. The steak or the sauce named after him is still well-known, however. I can’t help feeling that this tells us a lot about our cultural priorities.

One of the things that Chateaubriand is known for (by the few who even recognize his name) is that in his later years he deliberately withdrew from the wider social and political world in which he had previously been a significant player. Chateaubriand’s last major work was called Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave). It was posthumously published in 1849-50.

A lot of writers have made a similar retreat from the world. Marcel Proust certainly did, cutting himself off from the fashionable world of which he had previously been a part, and – cocooned in his cork-lined bedroom – devoting himself to recreating in words not just the glittering surface but also the intimate personal realities of the world he had once known.

If you’ve got sufficient resources – material and intellectual – why not cut yourself off, especially if the contemporary culture is not to your taste? You could do worse. But there are different ways of doing it and different ways of envisaging such a move.

There’s no doubt that focusing too much on memories and reminiscences is unhealthy. It may also be a symptom, a sign of an aging brain and sometimes of incipient dementia.

In most cases of age-related dementia, old memories become more real than recent memories and more real even than many current realities. I have always suspected that Proust, great writer though he undoubtedly was, was suffering from a mild form of early-onset dementia, and this may have contributed not just to the general focus and direction of his work but also to the unusual vividness and color of his memories of earlier years. I won’t try to make the case here: it doesn’t matter, frankly. He wrote a masterpiece, and that’s what counts for us (and also, by all accounts, for him). His general health, it must be said, was never good, and deteriorated markedly after his mother’s death. But he certainly made good use of his 51 years.

Of course, just being cut off – for whatever reason – from the general flow of things can cause the focus to shift to memories and imagined realities. The brain needs narratives and, if social life doesn’t provide them, it will revert to memories or invention. The processes which occur in the creative writer’s brain are not totally dissimilar to this.

I am not suggesting that engaging in fiction or other forms of art is unhealthy or some kind of pathological activity. Narrative and invention are at the heart of how we think. Folktales and myths, for example, are an essential and intrinsic part of human culture, and news (fake or otherwise) and gossip are the lifeblood of ordinary social existence.

The Romantic movement, as well as precipitating some wonderful and radical ideas and works of art, also created some distorted and distorting myths with which we are still dealing. Many of our personal narratives are infected by these myths. I have written from time to time about (Romantic) political myths. [1] But I also have strong reservations about the Romantic notion of the creative artist. All too often this becomes a personal myth that entraps the individual (as it once did me).

Sometimes it is fairly harmless or may even, as in the case of Proust, lead to something worthwhile being produced; sometimes it’s just a time-waster; sometimes it degenerates into pathological forms.

This myth persists – albeit in a shallow and debased form – within parts of the education establishment in Western countries. The pursuit of “creativity” is often a cover for self-indulgent and cognitively vacuous activities (like school children with minimal language skills and virtually no knowledge of music being required to write their own original songs, for example).

One key element of the Romantic attitude is that there is a hidden “spiritual” (for want of a better word) depth which is obscured by the mundane realities of life but accessible to those with unusual powers of perception, such as the artist. What gives works of art their special value, then, is that they give expression to this deeper reality and make it available to a wider audience. Each of us has the potential to see through the veil of ignorance and illusion, but most need a little help – help such as art and artists may provide – to get to this point.

To an extent, I agree with this, but I don’t see it in Romantic or Platonist terms. The key insight which I have taken from a wide range of more or less literary reading is that we are, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “strangers to ourselves.” I take this to be an abiding truth about the human condition, and one which an exposure to the Western canon can drive home.

The fact is, we find it difficult to maintain a realistic concept of ourselves, and are more likely to have blind spots in this regard than in regard to our views about others. So – though this may seem counterintuitive – all too often others, even comparative strangers, see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

I came early to my convictions about personal narratives and self-deception, partly through personal experience and partly, as I say, through general reading. Only subsequently did I look at psychological research, and I was struck by how closely these research results matched the views which I had come to via completely different paths. Naturally this made me more confident in my views.

A great many standard works in the European tradition are focused on self-deception in one way or another. The classical tragedy, for example, is usually based around a worthy protagonist who has a flaw in his character or moral vision to which he is completely blind and which leads to his undoing. This basic pattern is replicated in modern literature, including many serious plays and novels of the last century-and-a-half. Of course, these more recent works are also influenced by an understanding of the importance of unconscious processing in the working of our brains. Not surprisingly perhaps, given their dependence on conscious and explicit reasoning, philosophers have often been slow to embrace this idea. Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most notorious example, but this general tendency is also very evident in analytic philosophy. [2]

So, while I reject the Romantic view of the artist as being a “seer” (or something similar), I happily embrace the idea that some people have deep, intuitive insights into human psychology, and the Western literary canon (in which I would include general prose works such as essays and lectures and the writings of people like Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Heidegger) represents a record of a progressive coming to terms with our expanding knowledge base as well as with the challenges posed by a technologically changing world.

Both the early French Romantics (like Rousseau and Chateaubriand) and their Teutonic counterparts are known for their focus on the natural world as a source of meaning and spiritual power. Platonistic, pantheistic or even animistic views were very common in the early 19th century.

Another common theme – arguably deriving from the Reformation but greatly expanded during the Romantic period – was the increased significance given to the individual’s feelings and experiences. Enlightenment was sought in direct experience or memory and introspection, rather than through shared activity or analytical thought. The previous age was characterized in the literary world by sophisticated wit and social satire. But the Romantics were not content to satirize their inherited culture: many of them wanted to reject it altogether because (as they saw it) it blocked attempts to get back in touch with deeper realities which were identified not with the traditional objects of religious devotion but rather with Platonic or neo-Platonic notions or – increasingly – with primordial natural forces.

One problem with primordial forces is that they are amoral. And this is basically why I (following Isaiah Berlin) see the Romantic movement as a watershed in Western history. Before that time, only scattered individuals saw into the abyss of a fundamentally amoral cosmos. But Romantic and post-Romantic thinkers and writers, working in the context of an intellectual environment marked by rapidly developing – and profoundly disruptive – scientific and technical knowledge, brought this realization to the attention of a much larger public. Such a view is now, for the first time in human history, taken as given in large sections of the community. It has become, as it were, common knowledge.

NOTES

  1.  For example: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/
  2. Willard Van Orman Quine used the advertising slogan of a paint company, “The surface is all,” as an epigraph for one of his books. He was being slightly provocative, however, and his general views are not inconsistent with a scientifically-informed view of language and thought. What he rejected was any strong form of Platonism and, by extension, the kind of Romanticism I have been describing which (like Wordsworth’s, for example) draws on Platonist notions.

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46 Comments »

  1. Mark, a few things:

    1. I never know quite how to take your “rejections” of various things. For example, in your second footnote, re: Quine. Does your “rejection” of Wordsworth style Platonism also suggest the rejection of Wordsworth? If so, I would say (a) that’s a shame, as he is a magnificent poet and (b) I’m not sure Wordsworth would *be* Wordsworth, without the Platonism you reject.

    2. While on the subject of Wordsworth, one thing that seems oddly missing from your account of Romanticism is the ways in which it was a reaction against the excesses of the Enlightenment and the environmental destructiveness of the Industrial Revolution that followed the Enlightenment and which was in many ways, a product of its rationalism.

    I suspect that unlike you, I see rationalism as being as dangerous as romanticism, when taken in its pure form, and view the two sensibilities/ways of thinking as essential to keeping one another healthily adulterated.

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  2. Lovely essay.

    A lot of writers have made a similar retreat from the world.

    If you’ve got sufficient resources – material and intellectual – why not cut yourself off,

    There’s no doubt that focusing too much on memories and reminiscences is unhealthy. It may also be a symptom, a sign of an aging brain and sometimes of incipient dementia.

    This brings to mind the phenomenon of outsider art – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art
    It is often accompanied by retreat, seclusion and obsessive concentration on their own vision of art, to the exclusion of other considerations.

    A local example I am familiar with is the Owl House of Helen Martins – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Owl_House

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  3. Mark,
    If you’ve got sufficient resources – material and intellectual – why not cut yourself off, especially if the contemporary culture is not to your taste? You could do worse.

    I think there is an important reason for doing a retreat, and that is to find self-renewal and not self-indulgence. With time, experience and knowledge we learn, gain in wisdom, and then finally become imprisoned in one world-view. The zeitgeist becomes our jailer. Our sensitivities and our perceptions become deadened by habit and custom.

    The midlife crisis is an instinctive rebellion against this state of affairs but it is a loose-cannon reaction.

    We need to retreat from the restraints and the confines of the zeitgeist so that
    – we can see anew,
    – our perceptions are sharpened,
    – our sensitivities are renewed.

    This can take the form of organised retreats, travel, a sabbatical, meditation or even long trail runs(my favourite retreat).

    Proust famously spoke out against travel when he said:

    the only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is

    I agree that seeing the universe through the eyes of others is an important source of renewal. However I think he was wrong about travel since travel enables us to see other parts of the universe through other eyes.

    My boss, the former director of IT at VWAG, insisted on the 3-5-7 rule. You may change your job after 3 years, you should change your job after 5 years and you must change your job after 7 years. These regular, cataclysmic shake-ups certainly compelled self-renewal.

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  4. Well written, as usual, and neatly constructed.

    Interestingly, Hegel gives the kind of isolationist Romantic described here a wicked thrashing in the section on Conscience in the Phenomenology, as someone so abstracted from society that no matter how pure their sensibilities, they were unable to act; and without action there can be no morality.

    I mention that because Hegel is often referred to as a ‘Romantic philosopher’ – as is his arch-critic, Schopenhauer. But although each might have leveled the charge against the other, neither would have recognized themselves in it. They did not see themselves in such terms (and the fundamentals of Romanticism discussed here were well known, although perhaps not labeled as such, since they had been floating about, especially in Germany, for nearly half a century before they wrote). No, they saw themselves as rationalists and true inheritors of Aufklarung.

    This leads me to remark a suspicion I’ve long held, that there is something in the Enlightenment that makes Romanticism inevitable – not as correction, or as reaction, or even as compliment, but as a natural development and continuation ‘under different means,’ so to speak.

    There is some sense of this in the final paragraph here, isn’t there? “But Romantic and post-Romantic thinkers and writers, working in the context of an intellectual environment marked by rapidly developing – and profoundly disruptive – scientific and technical knowledge, brought this realization to the attention of a much larger public.” One of my professors once described Romanticism as a necessary popularization of certain Enlightenment ideas; and another remarked that many Romantics, far from being mystically leaning Idealists, were, in their insatiable demand for experience, actually the most ruthless of empiricists.

    There’s definitely a sense that with both the Enlightenment and Romanticism – and the cultural and economic developments they inspired – some genie got out of a bottle; and I don’t think it’s getting back in there any time soon

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  5. There’s one more issue I wanted to address, Mark – the problem of creativity. It is a problem for me in a different way than it is for you (I am much more inclined towards encouraging creativity than you); but it is a problem for you as well.

    An ideology of creativity (and Romanticism has provided all the strongest terms for that) is essential to modern capitalism. This is true at the high end, in what George Will has described as the “creative destruction of capitalism,” wherein corporations develop new commodities for consumption, displacing older forms (thus sinking older businesses in the process). But it is also true at the low end.

    Instance: There are currently tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of musicians, creating for their local music scene, or auditioning for record labels, or posting their work on the internet. The vast majority of these are what can be charitably referred to as amateur, unable to achieve a survivable income with their creations. So this would seem to suggest that they are failures, parasites on the economic system. But that’s not the case. These musicians buy instruments, microphones, recording equipment, software. They allow advertisements on their websites and Youtube channels. They put together festivals where alcohol and food are sold (and illicit drugs, which feeds into an underground economy that eventually interfaces with the larger national economy). They are themselves consumers, since to maintain the hope of being on the edge of innovative music, they have to continue to buy as much recent music as their wallets can afford. Again, most of them will not realize their dreams; but every now and then a recording from this population will ‘go viral’ and get sucked into the mainstream of the music industry.

    Mark, we’re talking about billions of dollars. So even if your critique of ideology creativity were correct (and I see much truth in it, without agreeing with the whole of it), in order to alter the social impact of this ideology, you would not only have to re-educate hundreds of millions of people, you would also have to offer them an alternative economy.

    I admit I lean towards democratic socialism; but I almost never argue for it, because, in the present situation in the West, what would be the point.

    I know you’re suspicious of socialism; but part of the problem here is that Romanticism has provided us with a language that supports and enhances production, sales, and consumption that makes modern capitalism possible, given the technological innovations that have allowed a continual creation of new commodities. What is the alternative? I know the hope of the classical economists was that rational individuals would use their reason to determine their interests, make decisions derived from these, and thus move the markets of exchange in which these choices were communicated. That’s all balderdash. Modern capitalism feeds on desire, and generates desires through innovation and invention. Just as the Romantics feared it would (even while contributing the language that makes this possible).

    I’ve lately begun to think that history is a beast that always has us in its jaws; by the time we realize this, we are already swallowed.

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  6. Dan Kaufman

    “I never know quite how to take your “rejections” of various things.”

    You seem to be characterizing me here as some kind of inveterate naysayer. I don’t think this latest piece warrants such criticism.

    “For example, in your second footnote, re: Quine. Does your “rejection” of Wordsworth style Platonism also suggest the rejection of Wordsworth?”

    In that footnote, I was saying that Quine rejected that kind of Platonism, not that I did. Though I do reject it.

    As to your question as to whether this entails “the rejection of Wordsworth”, I’m not even sure what this means. Just because I happen not to share the metaphysical or religious beliefs of some writer doesn’t mean that I “reject” the writer.

    “… I’m not sure Wordsworth would *be* Wordsworth, without the Platonism…”

    Of course he wouldn’t. I take him as I find him – as I do any writer, or any thinker. In fact, I have raised a very similar point in relation to the way people often distort thinkers of previous eras by ignoring their religio-metaphysical commitments.

    “While on the subject of Wordsworth, one thing that seems oddly missing from your account of Romanticism is the ways in which it was a reaction against the excesses of the Enlightenment and the environmental destructiveness of the Industrial Revolution that followed the Enlightenment and which was in many ways, a product of its rationalism.”

    Two points. First, this is not supposed to be some kind of comprehensive account, just a few thoughts. Secondly, your interpretation is just that. Sure, there is evidence that that is indeed how many early Romantics saw things. William Blake? You also see this sort of view in Dickens.

    “I suspect that unlike you, I see rationalism as being as dangerous as romanticism, when taken in its pure form, and view the two sensibilities/ways of thinking as essential to keeping one another healthily adulterated.”

    I don’t quite see things in these terms. For one thing ‘rationalism’ is a term that can be used in very different ways. I am a rationalist in one sense of the word only. And I see Romanticism as a varied movement reflecting a range of characteristic ideas. Scientific ideas were often part of the mix, not just something to react against. So I question the dichotomy you are presenting (regarding which see also ejwinner’s first comment).

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  7. labnut

    Thank you.

    Yes, that “outsider art” phenomenon is pertinent to what I am saying. One question that comes to mind is whether this phenomenon existed prior to the Romantic period.

    “… With time, experience and knowledge we learn, gain in wisdom, and then finally become imprisoned in one world-view. The zeitgeist becomes our jailer.”

    The prison metaphor was used a lot by the early Romantics. I think I agree with the substance…

    “Our sensitivities and our perceptions become deadened by habit and custom…”

    This is true.

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  8. Mark: I was not trying to characterize you in any sort of general way. You often say that you reject things and it is not always clear to me what the extent of your rejection is. It was unclear here to me as well, which is why I asked it.

    It is all well to say that everything is varied and complicated and thereby reject certain characterizations of periods, but I think that ultimately it is counterproductive, making impossible some important comparisons and distinctions. The Romantic era is at least, in part, importantly understood as a rejection of the Enlightenment, as manifested in the French and Industrial Revolutions, and I think our understanding is worse, not better off, for saying that we cannot say this, because things are varied and complicated.

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  9. ejwinner

    Thanks. [Ah, I see that a second comment from you has now been posted. Will respond to it later.]

    “… Hegel gives the kind of isolationist Romantic described here a wicked thrashing … as someone so abstracted from society that no matter how pure their sensibilities, they were unable to act; and without action there can be no morality.”

    Or politics. Most of the early Romantics were supporters of the French Revolution, but the ones I know about rapidly became disillusioned with politics (or at least with radical politics). And, of course, there were some very political varieties of German Idealism.

    “… Hegel is often referred to as a ‘Romantic philosopher’ – as is his arch-critic, Schopenhauer. But although each might have leveled the charge against the other, neither would have recognized themselves in it. They did not see themselves in such terms (and the fundamentals of Romanticism discussed here were well known, although perhaps not labeled as such, since they had been floating about, especially in Germany, for nearly half a century before they wrote). No, they saw themselves as rationalists and true inheritors of Aufklarung.”

    Like Kant before them? He certainly didn’t *write* like a Romantic but he was very enthusiastic about Rousseau (who, again, can be seen both as an Enlightenment figure and as an early Romantic).

    “This leads me to remark a suspicion I’ve long held, that there is something in the Enlightenment that makes Romanticism inevitable – not as correction, or as reaction … but as a natural development and continuation ‘under different means,’ so to speak.”

    Yes.

    “One of my professors once described Romanticism as a necessary popularization of certain Enlightenment ideas; and another remarked that many Romantics, far from being mystically leaning Idealists, were, in their insatiable demand for experience, actually the most ruthless of empiricists… There’s definitely a sense that with both the Enlightenment and Romanticism – and the cultural and economic developments they inspired – some genie got out of a bottle; and I don’t think it’s getting back in there any time soon.”

    Yes the genie’s out. You talk about cultural and economic developments. I would want to highlight the significance of a particular set of cultural elements: 19th-century (i.e. post-Enlightenment) scientific developments, from the theory of evolution to thermodynamics and electromagnetism, etc..

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  10. Mark,
    One problem with primordial forces is that they are amoral … Before that time, only scattered individuals saw into the abyss of a fundamentally amoral cosmos.

    Much as I liked your essay I must disagree with you and say you are wrong on this issue. This is not a fundamentally amoral cosmos and to call it an ‘abyss‘ is more of the wrongness.

    It all depends on where you look. If you look at atoms, protons, neutrons, etc and their various arrangements, then of course they are amoral. But that is not an interesting statement because nobody expects atoms to be moral, so it is trivially true and not worth saying.

    Where should you look to find morality? The only part of this cosmos that can display morality is that part which is conscious, self aware and has higher cognitive functions. And when you look at that part of the cosmos you find it is deeply and intensely morally aware. It is absolutely not amoral, even if some of those parts are selective about where they extend their moral understanding.

    Underlying your statement is a background assumption that there is the cosmos and then there is us. No, we are an integral, natural part of the cosmos and our properties are therefore one of the constituent properties of the cosmos. Therefore the cosmos is not fundamentally amoral.

    We exhibit consciousness, purpose, meaning and morality, which have evolved out of the development of the cosmos. Therefore consciousness, purpose, meaning and morality are a natural, evolving part of the cosmos, since we are a naturally evolving part of the cosmos. You might reply that it is a trick, an accident, something that is so atypical that we should disregard it when assessing the properties of the cosmos. But we don’t really believe that. We think our Universe is possibly teeming with intelligent life which is why we devote so many resources to searching for it.

    When you call it an abyss but that is more evidence that you are selectively looking in the wrong place, possibly into a black hole. Redirect your gaze and look at homo sapiens on the third rock from the Sun and you see a rich, vibrant, purposive, meaning making, morally aware part of the cosmos, not an abyss.

    It has a great many moral defects and yet there is a clear moral arc in our development which slowly diminishes the moral defects. The cosmos is exhibiting purpose in us.

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  11. Dan-K,
    The Romantic era is at least, in part, importantly understood as a rejection of the Enlightenment, as manifested in the French and Industrial Revolutions, and I think our understanding is worse, not better off, for saying that we cannot say this, because things are varied and complicated.

    What you have said is very interesting. Is there a single, large explanatory thread running through those periods? I think there is, with two parts, a cause and an effect and it all centres around our deep, instinctive need for an enchanted view of the world, which originally found expression in the sacred.

    First the effect. Since the Industrial Revolution there has been a progressive loss of a sense of enchantment in the world. Romanticism was the first reaction, an attempt to restore the sense of enchantment by appealing to nature, and not the sacred, which had been displaced by the Enlightenment. But the spirit of utilitarianism, released by the Industrial Revolution, washed away the Romantic era. It is enjoying something of a revival in today’s growing awareness of nature.

    Stuart Kauffman’s book, Reinventing the Sacred, The Science of Complexity and the Emergence of a Natural Divinity, is another attempt to restore our sense of enchantment, He, instead of appealing to nature, appeals to the wonders revealed by science, as a way of restoring enchantment. JK Rowling, with Harry Potter, used literary means to restore a sense of enchantment. The phenomenal success of her Harry Potter books has shown how strong and deep is our need for enchantment. This can also be seen in the appeal of a whole menagerie of esoteric beliefs.

    But what really caused this loss of enchantment?
    Was it the Enlightenment with its elevation of rationality and the erosion of the sacred? I don’t think so. I think the cause was incredibly mundane. Something all-pervasive invaded the lives of all people after the Industrial Revolution and that was the vast plethora of mechanical devices. It profoundly affects every part of every person’s life. Every day our lives are made more effective by a huge variety of mechanical devices. You can hardly do anything without using some mechanical device.

    But why should this drain away the enchantment in our lives?
    These mechanical devices exposed every person directly to the world of causal determinism. Everything had an observable cause that produced a well determined effect. It was reliable, predictable and closed. This exposure has conditioned us to believe this was true of the entire world. This has displaced our enchanted view of the world.

    We have tried to restore our sense of enchantment by appealing first to nature, then to science, and now to the entertainment media, to esoteric beliefs and to the counter-knowledge movement, while some of us have gone back to its origins and find it in the sacred. But the spirit of utilitarianism prevails as a consequence of the huge effectiveness of our mechanical world. A pervasive ethos of moral consequentialism is the inevitable and unhappy result. It has reduced morality to the simple mechanics of the devices that rule our lives. It is a soulless, instrumental belief that licenses self-interest camouflaged by a selective determination of consequences.

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  12. Labnut wrote:

    First the effect. Since the Industrial Revolution there has been a progressive loss of a sense of enchantment in the world. Romanticism was the first reaction, an attempt to restore the sense of enchantment by appealing to nature, and not the sacred, which had been displaced by the Enlightenment.

    = = =

    I think this is right, though of course, not the entire story.

    I also think that your characterization of at least *a* reason for the loss of enchantment is also right, though again, it is not the whole story.

    And both accounts are very useful in understanding cultural and intellectual history, despite the fact that they are not the entire story. That was the only point I was trying to make.

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  13. Mark, thanks for the thoughts.

    I have a tiny, perhaps vacuous comment on a small portion of this, from a musician’s perspective. You wrote:

    “This myth [of the creative artist] persists – albeit in a shallow and debased form – within parts of the education establishment in Western countries. The pursuit of “creativity” is often a cover for self-indulgent and cognitively vacuous activities (like school children with minimal language skills and virtually no knowledge of music being required to write their own original songs, for example).”

    I assume by the “myth” (of the creative artist), you are referring to that trope that Beethoven exemplified: moody, alone (both physically and mentally- and sonically?), dark, brooding, brilliant. This Beethovenesque savant figure undeniably impacted music up until now (and for all time?). The brilliant and musically literate Brahms was afraid to write symphonies because of “Beethoven’s shadow,” as have been countless composers since the nineteenth century.

    Beethoven’s shadow has had far-reaching implications.
    1. The composer is the ultimate authority of his music- the performer’s only job is to obey the composer, and the most the performer can do is to -almost- play the music adequately. The performer can never improve on the divine intention of the composer.
    2. Composers should be fully-formed, musically-literate beings with a sprinkling of genius.
    3. Performers should not write their own music. Only composers can do that.

    … and on and on. The result is musicians who, like me, are comfortable rendering recreations that are imperfect, inauthentic replicas of what we hope a composer intended- and simultaneously, we are entirely musically illiterate when it comes to improvising and composing. Imagine being a painter and being limited to (poorly) copying Rembrandt. Imagine being a wordsmith limited to re-writing books that have already been written, but not being allowed to speak or write a new work. We all – all musicians, at least in my generation and prior – live uneasily in Beethoven’s shadow.

    My point: I agree with you that the Romantic trope has wrought harm in music (and here I’m unqualified to talk about other areas outside of music, so I’ll limit myself to that). But “school children” with “minimal language skills and virtually no knowledge of music” writing songs does not extend this trope; rather, *it resists it.* Imagine the power in a generation of artists who aren’t beaten down by the idea that they can never play a piece as perfectly as the composer intended, or performers who write idiomatic pieces for the instruments on which they are experts. Teaching children from day one that they, too, can write music (just as they, too, can write words or paint something from their own minds) is teaching them that they can easily step out from under the shadow of Beethoven and all of his Romantic contemporaries.

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  14. Labnut,

    Supposing the Universe really is teeming with intelligent life, do you find reason to believe an alien culture would share our moral values? If the likelihood is not then isn’t the cosmos, as a whole, amoral?

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  15. Dan-K,
    …it[disenchantment and a mechanical mindset] is not the whole story.

    Yes, I agree. When we try to make sense of complex events we inevitably abstract and simplify. And because we all do this differently we arrive at differing or competing accounts that necessarily leave out much.

    It is generally agreed that there has been a loss of enchantment, but does the loss of enchantment matter? I think it matters very much because it imperils a vital aspect of our nature, our creative instinct. We are one part cognitive, one part moral and one part creative. These three parts uniquely define our species and are what is most valuable about our species. Suppress one and we damage the whole.

    Enchantment is the process of more than entering into an unbounded world of thrilling possibilities but becoming totally immersed in it. This process liberates our creative imagination.

    Today we inhabit instead a double-minded, ironic ‘as-if’ world where we entertain the world of imagination(as-if) but keep the other foot firmly rooted in the world of rational scepticism(as-is) with a consciously ironic attitude. In fact we pride ourselves in this double-minded, ironic ‘as-is’ vs ‘as-if’ mindset but it is this that cripples our creative imagination. That is because creativity requires us to let go of what ‘must-be’ and instead to pursue ‘what-can-be’. When we do, we become enchanted by the unlimited world of possibility and the enchantment liberates our creative possibilities. But, if we have closed the door on enchantment by keeping one foot firmly rooted in the ‘as-is’ world, we cannot enter the creative world of unlimited possibility.

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  16. Ozarkpoppy,
    Supposing the Universe really is teeming with intelligent life, do you find reason to believe an alien culture would share our moral values?

    They would have moral values. That is the inevitable result of living in a collaborative society. And that is enough for my thesis that the cosmos is not a fundamentally amoral abyss, as Mark claimed.

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  17. Hi Mark, always well written, nice to read.

    Obviously I’ll have a different perspective on how much we don’t know ourselves, which we worked out in the previous thread. I would only add here that I think that much of life is learning about ourselves (as much as about the world). So there will be parts that we have not discovered yet, and agree with Nietzsche we can sometimes be strangers to ourselves… just not fundamentally strangers about everything and forever.

    I did learn of Romanticism as being a reaction to the Enlightenment, and tend to view it that way. But I like the perspective that you and Labnut have provided on their relation. I’m going to set my original view on hold. That said, while I agree with your negative view of Romantic myth in policy issues, on the personal level I kind of feel it is necessary. A friend of mine once told me a person has to have at least on vice… and I think that is true. There must be at least one strand of Romantic feeling or pursuit (sort of reckless) or there would be no motion in life.

    I agree with Labnut in having problems with any characterization of the universe is an amoral abyss.

    Its amorality is arguable. I think Labut is right that people are looking in the wrong place to judge the existence of morality if they are looking anywhere but conscious beings. Still, that there is no set, correct moral system for conscious beings, argues for an amoral nature to the universe (being the set of all conscious beings–the only beings that can have morality–in that universe). There is morality, plenty of it, but not one set one. And I would disagree with Labnut that we are moving toward some improved one.

    So let’s say it is amoral, in the sense that I just described… how is that an abyss? There is too much negative connotation in that. It trends toward nihilism. Such ascription is like calling a canvas bleak or a washout. It simply hasn’t been used yet, by the entities that make meaning to create something of meaning.

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  18. DB,
    There is morality, plenty of it, but not one set one … So let’s say it is amoral, in the sense that I just described

    In that case it is not an amoral universe. The fact that the kinds of morality may vary does not make it amoral. Only the absence of morality would make it amoral.

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  19. labnut

    You can take my point about “looking into the abyss” of an amoral cosmos as a direct statement about how things are or as an historical statement.

    Mainstream Western thinkers up until the 19th century generally saw the world as having been created by a god or demiurge and as having purpose and direction built in, as it were. I am making an historical point about a change in thinking about such things which occurred during the 19th century.

    I know the argument you are giving about us having purpose and being part of the cosmos. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are somehow “adrift” (or feel ourselves to be so) in a way that we weren’t before.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ejwinner

    “Modern capitalism feeds on desire, and generates desires through innovation and invention. Just as the Romantics feared it would…”

    Yes, the Romantics were generally anti-capitalist. But I’m not totally clear on what you are saying here, or how what you say is a problem for my position on creativity. I am talking about it in a more restricted sense, in terms of the individual and more-or-less *artistic* creativity. And I am not proposing a societal solution, just hoping to convince a few individuals to question the “myth”.

    But I’ll make a few broader (political) observations. It seems to me that Romanticism tends to “romanticize” politics. Politics becomes not just a boring necessity, but a means of fulfilment – or even salvation. This way of thinking has provided impetus for all sorts of revolutionary disasters, of the left and of the right. I know a bit about the extreme right in 20th-century France, and the Romantic elements are obvious. Do you know about Maurice Bardèche or Dominique Venner? Venner shot himself in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris not all that long ago.

    Beyond the socialism/capitalism thing, I have been trying to understand the system of money – and money creation – which seems to be at the root of our problems. This is an area – like the opposition to neoconservatism – where the left and the (non-neoconservative) right can potentially work together.

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  21. Margaret, thanks for coming in. I think I see what you’re saying. The bottom line seems to be that what I described as a “self-indulgent and cognitively vacuous” activity, you see as a liberating one! There seems to be just a *slight* difference of perspective here. 🙂

    Your reasoning is subtle and you have a depth of expertise in an area in which I have none. What you say is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of things in quite this way. You are forcing me to think more carefully about the precise nature of the Romantic myths I am criticizing.

    The attitude you have specified here relates to music and the inordinate respect granted to certain composers. The musician is seen primarily as a performer (of other people’s works), as an interpreter rather than a creator. Actually I see this as a conservative notion more so than a Romantic one. It is Romantic, of course, but it is “retrospectively Romantic”, a Romanticism frozen in time.

    On the other hand, your view of the liberating power of (encouraging) composition strikes me as more truly Romantic.

    And, by the way, those sentences from the essay which you quoted represented an intuitive reaction, and they were prompted largely by a particular case (two actually) with which I am familiar. The experience has been far from liberating for the two boys involved.

    I suspect that in the end it all depends on the details of how this kind of teaching is done, and also on the nature and capabilities and stage of development of the students concerned.

    But, more broadly, it also relates to really fundamental questions about one’s philosophy of education. This is a topic which I hope we will have opportunities to discuss further in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi Mark.
    What do you think of the Romantic notion of withdrawal from society (as distinct from merely withdrawing from society)? I see it as very often just an attention-seeking strategy. That’s what I think it was in Rousseau, and many others followed his lead. The strategy is to “withdraw” while making sure everyone in your peer group (the salons of Paris, or whatever) sees you in your outsider pose. The best way to do this is to write it up, as Rousseau did at great length in his Confessions. As he said there, rather disarmingly: “I should have liked society as much as anybody if I were not sure of always showing myself at a disadvantage”. As an outsider writing his own story from his rural hermitage he could control how he appeared — that is, he could put himself in a favourable light. Is this not typical of much Romantic posing?
    Alan

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  23. Mark,
    “looking into the abyss” of an amoral cosmos … I am making an historical point about a change in thinking about such things which occurred during the 19th century.

    Yes, I agree there has been a significant change in thinking and that many people, as a result, share this view. I think this is a mistaken view(for the reasons I have already given) but then mistaken views are commonly held. It is part of our Zeitgeist.

    “I know the argument you are giving about us having purpose and being part of the cosmos. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are somehow “adrift” (or feel ourselves to be so) in a way that we weren’t before.”

    Yes, I agree with this as well. I have been doing some work on depression and have found that it is becoming more common and affecting younger people. It is truly a devastating condition. Related to this there has been a marked increase in reported loneliness. At the same time narcissism has strongly increased. Student cheating and plagiarism is also becoming a serious problem. Young adults are reaching maturity later than ever before. I could go on and on.

    All these are indicators of what you said – “we are somehow “adrift” (or feel ourselves to be so) in a way that we weren’t before“.

    But why is this happening?
    1) rational skepticism, originating in the Enlightenment has elevated each person to be the final arbiter of his own values. It is a cognitive acid that is dissolving the value laden connective tissue of society.
    2) freed from, or rejecting societal guidance, the immature adult assembles his own pastiche of values. This is what Anthony Giddens has called the self-reflexive project of late modernity, resulting in the ‘pastiche-man’.
    3) the ‘pastiche-man’ becomes lonelier, more self-absorbed and experiences more conflict, because his values are more often in conflict with the values of others.
    4) liberated from the rather tenuous guidance of internal values of the individual, free market capitalism is becoming rampantly exploitative. If there is anything that is fundamentally amoral it is the free market economy. As a corporate management insider I have seen this first hand and it is worse than you think.

    But it is not all bad. During my stay in China I saw the beginnings of the recovery of religious belief after what was probably the most severe repression of religion in history. Churches and temples began to be rebuilt. Attendance began to grow. My own interpreter became a Buddhist. Her elder sister became a Catholic. I saw then that religious belief could not be destroyed.

    We need a belief in purpose, meaning, and goodness anchored in transcendence. We will always seek this anchor to our lives, in all sorts of places, though with varying degrees of success. Religion supplies this, which is why it can survive the worst ever repressions. It comes under attack, is suppressed, diminished or ignored, but then goes through renewal and recovery. It will always be like this.

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  24. dbholmes (and others)

    Thanks Dwayne.

    “There must be at least one strand of Romantic feeling or pursuit (sort of reckless) or there would be no motion in life.”

    So there was Romantic before the Romantic movement? Aren’t you broadening the definition here? What you seem to me to be talking about is the Dionysian spirit.

    I am talking about something more specific, a particular period and the huge influence (negative and positive) it had and continues to have.

    “I agree with Labnut in having problems with any characterization of the universe as an amoral abyss. Its amorality is arguable…”

    Whether it is or not, as I said in my reply to labnut, my main point is historical. The significance of the Romantic movement for me is that it is a major watershed, a kind of coming-of-age.

    I think our differing views on certain 18th-century thinkers might be in part explicable in terms of our different perceptions of Romanticism. I take it very seriously as a major watershed.

    “There is too much negative connotation in [the term ‘abyss’].”

    It is a bit rhetorical.

    “It trends toward nihilism. Such ascription is like calling a canvas bleak or a washout. It simply hasn’t been used yet, by the entities that make meaning to create something of meaning.”

    There is such a thing as a tragic vision. It predates Romanticism, of course. The Greek version was expressed in a broadly religious context. We know a lot about Greek and Roman religion. Shakespeare also had a tragic vision, but his world was one in which neo-Platonism had real power: the world was still full (or half-full) of magic.

    Our world – or at least my world, and the world of many, many people today – is not. People here have been talking about disenchantment (= Max Weber’s Entzauberung).

    You can see the world we are born into as a pristine page or a blank canvas. But it has characteristics and, to be frank, it looks pretty scary and “inhuman” to me – think of the basic processes of evolution, nature red in tooth and claw, and so on. By contrast those old bestiaries from centuries past promoted fairy stories, wishful thinking. Why should we expect non-human nature to reflect higher values in some way, you might reasonably ask. But my point is that our ancestors actually saw it like this.

    It’s not surprising that many of us feel the loss of a (in broad terms) religious view of the world. Some still believe in some kind of religious view. But I can’t. And all I’m saying is that – though some people are quite content in this disenchanted world, a lot of us are not. We feel ill at ease, cast adrift. (This might be a better metaphor than the ‘abyss’.)

    If there wasn’t a problem, why would people like Stuart Kauffman (mentioned by labnut) have to write books to convince people (general educated public) to feel “at home” in the universe? Many very significant thinkers didn’t/don’t feel “at home”. Heidegger was one.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Hi Alan

    “What do you think of the Romantic notion of withdrawal from society (as distinct from merely withdrawing from society)? I see it as very often just an attention-seeking strategy. That’s what I think it was in Rousseau, and many others followed his lead… As an outsider writing his own story from his rural hermitage he could control how he appeared — that is, he could put himself in a favourable light. Is this not typical of much Romantic posing?”

    No doubt. But the whole notion of withdrawing is different today. There is face-to-face interaction and then there is social media, and then the sort of thing we are engaged in here. People write articles (not here, I think) about their traumatic (or otherwise) experience of closing their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Is this the new Romantic-hermit “posing”?

    Your comment brought to mind the strange case of a former colleague of mine – an *ultra* Romantic (self-consciously so) – who had a personal crisis and resigned his job, left his wife and became a Serbian Orthodox monk (though his background was Anglo). Last I heard he was somewhere in the Egyptian desert. A pose? Yes and no. He was a *real* Romantic. Lovely man. Very scary stuff. Might do a piece on him.

    Your comment made me wonder if you had someone (I mean, an acquaintance) in mind…

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  26. Mark,
    And all I’m saying is that – though some people are quite content in this disenchanted world, a lot of us are not. We feel ill at ease, cast adrift. (This might be a better metaphor than the ‘abyss’.)

    Willard Van Orman Quine used the advertising slogan of a paint company, “The surface is all,”

    Lady Bracknell said: “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces

    Consider the following alternative scenarios:

    A. Walking in the mountains I ascend a kloof (ravine) and stoop to sip some water cascading over the boulders.
    B. I open a tap in my kitchen to fill a glass of water.

    A. I carefully stalk a Kudu and, with a well aimed shot, bring it down. I carve up the carcass.
    B. I stalk through the aisles of a supermarket and select a shrink-wrapped cut of lamb.

    A. Ensconced in a cave in the mountains, I collect some firewood, light a fire and cook my food over its glowing embers.
    B. I turn on the hot plate of my stove to cook my lamb chop.

    A. Warmed by the flickering light of the fire in the cave we engage in banter, exchange heart felt narratives and give supportive encouragement.
    B. In the cold light of the television we listen passively as we are force fed with canned narratives.

    What does this mean?
    A. At one time we lived a ‘thick’ life were actions were dense with meaning and connections. Doing was a process of participatory involvement where things were seen in the connected context of nature.

    B. This has been replaced by the thin surface of function. Meaning, connection and context have been replaced by mechanical functionality. Water, food and heat arrive without participatory involvement.

    We have lost the sense of participatory involvement with the world that supports us. This world has become concealed by a surface and the world is, for us, a surface, lacking depth, meaning and context. And now we are placing people behind another surface, that of a small glass screen.

    In this world of surfaces we see mainly ourselves. Where is the meaning in that? What anchors us?

    Liked by 3 people

  27. The “acquaintance” I had in mind really was Rousseau — and why Diderot and Hume and many others found him impossible. But I was also thinking of Coleridge, a Romantic who, I think, did not self-dramatise himself as an outsider.

    I look forward to your monk’s tale.

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  28. Hi Mark, that was a very useful reply. I would have had less issues with “cast adrift” than “abyss”.

    “So there was Romantic before the Romantic movement? Aren’t you broadening the definition here? What you seem to me to be talking about is the Dionysian spirit.”

    First, while my own vices may be “Dionysian” what I was talking about was not simply “vice” in the sense of hedonism. I was using vice in the sense of moving away from virtuous action, usually through some sort of reckless excess. While that can be hedonistic, normal virtues can become vices when taken to excess. And I think many if not most people cling to something they value (identifying with it) and pursue even at high cost. An example of vice beyond pleasure seeking would be someone like Bruce Wayne/Batman. To me that character is highly Romantic in aspect, pursuing justice (or vengeance depending on story) at all costs no matter its impact on the quality of the rest of his life. Donning that cape and running into the night, is his vice.

    So I might be widening the definition slightly, but I don’t think too broadly. Here I may be stepping past my knowledge base, but let me go for it anyway.

    My understanding of the Romantic era works with yours in the sense that it was a specific period and yes it led to what may be considered a “watershed” moment in Western culture. And yes, it did lead to trepidation in many (I’ll get to that later). However I don’t think Romantic characters or beliefs found within it are isolated to that period. We can look back (or across to other cultures) and find people or thought that might fit the general concepts found in the Romantic era. No, they are not actual figures or thought that is part of that era, but share common/important elements. Its kind of like identifying people or thought as “scientific” even if it existed well before science or established concepts of scientific method existed.

    Part of the reason I feel this way is that to me Romanticism was a return to a prior way of living/feeling, having freed itself from rational consideration (a reaction to the Enlightenment) using in some sense the rebellious spirit of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment era thinkers threw off shackles to their rational enquiry placed by specific religious thought/doctrine. Romantics threw off the rest of the shackles (one could say to their spiritual enquiry). Though I guess I should say “external shackles” as they seemed to place new ones on themselves.

    Maybe I’m wrong but I took Nietzsche to be the culmination of that trend, from Enlightenment, through Romanticism, to announce that hey we are now free of everything, what are we going to do about it?

    “It’s not surprising that many of us feel the loss of a (in broad terms) religious view of the world. Some still believe in some kind of religious view. But I can’t. And all I’m saying is that – though some people are quite content in this disenchanted world, a lot of us are not.”

    I just do not believe that a world without a religious view is somehow disenchanted. As some skeptic pointed out an atheist only doubts one less religion than any devout religious person. And having known religious people that can’t celebrate Halloween, or read books or see films with talking animals, or enjoy Harry Potter… yeah their world is a lot less enchanted than mine.

    To me there are other wonders, or things that feel wondrous. And I don’t see where knowing that some of it is not external (not existing without human minds) makes it less wondrous or enchanted. As Dumbledore said (perhaps not exact words) “Just because it is in your head, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

    This of course does not help people that feel something has been lost or is lacking.

    To me the Universe is what it is, a resource for us to make what we want out of it (within certain bounds). Its the nutrients to make a sandwich. A sandwich is not going to be your friend or give your life meaning. For that you have to look to yourself and other people.

    It makes me wonder if people feel “cast adrift” (in a very negative sense) because they approach the Universe considering themselves isolated individuals (that is feeling like such), hoping to find from the Universe what they are not getting from others. That what they are truly feeling is “cast adrift” from society?

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  29. Hi Labnut, I really liked your last comment, but disagreed with the last line of your comparison…

    “A. Warmed by the flickering light of the fire in the cave we engage in banter, exchange heart felt narratives and give supportive encouragement.
    B. In the cold light of the television we listen passively as we are force fed with canned narratives.”

    While rhetorically interesting, I think that B seems to imply television or modern entertainment is problematic. Even in the cave people likely listened passively to stories told by others. And today, people talk during or after what they watch TV/movies/etc.

    I mean what is the alternative you are suggesting on this part (as compared to the rest which was more obvious)?

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  30. DB,
    Thanks.

    While rhetorically interesting, I think that B seems to imply television or modern entertainment is problematic

    That line was symbolic for all kinds of media consumption. The 2016 Nielsen report showed that the average American spends 8.79 hours per day consuming media:
    https://www.recode.net/2016/6/27/12041028/tv-hours-per-week-nielsen

    This consists of Live TV; DVR, Radio; DVD/Blu-Ray; Game console; Multimedia device; Internet on PC; App/Web on smartphone; App/Web on tablet. Live TV was the largest part – 4.3 hours per day.

    The total time spent this way is steadily increasing year on year. This is a dramatic and remarkable change from what was true 50 years ago. This is time taken away from direct interaction with other people. Loneliness has increased from between 10 to 20 % to between 40 and 45%. It is likely to increase further.

    Loneliness is a strong contributing factor to depression and suicide. Early mortality from all causes is increased by 26%. Lonely people develop distorted views of life and are more likely to make irrational decisions.

    Perhaps the most damaging thing of all is the way it harms narratives and values transmission. I will deal with that in my next comment.

    There is a good side to this. We are, in many respects, better informed. We are more efficient because we have faster access to better knowledge. The increased knowledge is a powerful stimulus.

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  31. DB,
    It makes me wonder if people feel “cast adrift” (in a very negative sense) because they approach the Universe considering themselves isolated individuals (that is feeling like such), hoping to find from the Universe what they are not getting from others. That what they are truly feeling is “cast adrift” from society?

    Good insight. That is an important part of it.

    Like

  32. Dwayne, I accept much of what you say but I want to respond to a couple of points (especially now that labnut has also come in on the “cast adrift” question).

    “… while my own vices may be “Dionysian” what I was talking about was not simply “vice” in the sense of hedonism.”

    I may be misunderstanding you, but normally the notion of the Dionysian is seen to go way beyond hedonism. (More like a chaotic life-force, so it seemed to fit your requirements.)

    “As some skeptic pointed out an atheist only doubts one less religion than any devout religious person. And having known religious people that can’t celebrate Halloween, or read books or see films with talking animals, or enjoy Harry Potter… yeah their world is a lot less enchanted than mine.”

    I think perhaps the word “enchantment” and its cognates are getting in the way here. I see a big difference between a serious belief in a personal God or in a providential force and the sorts of beliefs or fancies or superstitions which tend to accompany (and outlast?) these more basic and serious beliefs. Likewise, Puritanical restrictions on certain leisure activities are unfortunate and misguided, but I think we need to focus on the overall worldview.

    “It makes me wonder if people feel “cast adrift” (in a very negative sense) because they approach the Universe considering themselves isolated individuals (that is feeling like such), hoping to find from the Universe what they are not getting from others. That what they are truly feeling is “cast adrift” from society?”

    It’s not only the socially-isolated who have these feelings. Of course, you build meaning out of your relationships with others, but *there are limits to this*. In a sense, no matter how loved you are, you suffer alone (pretty much); and you die alone.

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  33. Dan

    “I reject both of these statements. Strongly.”

    Well, this is the way I see it. If you assume that death is the end, it is confronting in a unique way. In at least one significant sense, you can’t really ‘share’ another’s death (though I guess a suicide pact comes close).

    I would have thought that a significant part of Western literature is a meditation on death.

    Heidegger talked a lot about death. My view aligns with his, I think. I know he is not one of your favorites. I have lots of reservations about him too, but I think he got some important things right.

    At the very least, this general view of death is widely held. No doubt our respective views have been influenced by our respective backgrounds and cultural affinities, but I don’t know whether these or other personal factors or intellectual convictions are the decisive factor here.

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  34. Dan-K,
    I reject both of these statements. Strongly.” in reply to “you suffer alone (pretty much); and you die alone

    I have some sympathy for Mark’s statement arising out of my own experiences.
    On two occasions I came very close to death after being stung by bees. On both occasions considerable resources were mobilised to first rescue me and then treat me. Family and friends rushed to help and support. Memorably, the nursing staff of Intensive Care formed a circle around my bed to hold hands and pray for my survival. Fine doctors bent their skill to bring me back from the brink.

    In this sense we are part of a wonderful, warm, caring and supportive community and therefore not alone. And yet, in another sense I was very alone. I was alone in a dark, grey world of intense suffering and struggle where no-one could reach me. There I was truly alone in my struggle. It was only when I emerged from that struggle to start recovery that I discovered I was the centre of this intensive exercise to save my life that I realised I was not alone.

    Then when I tried to talk to my family I found there were no words to convey my experiences and there was no way for them to understand my experiences. They saw the surface of my suffering but could not comprehend the inner truth of my suffering. It was a strange paradox where I was cosseted in the warmth of my family’s love and yet felt alone in my struggle.

    This inner loneliness of the moment of struggle is what I think Mark meant.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Hi Mark, it’s possible that I am wrong about the full meaning of Dionysian, and would tend to accept that you have better knowledge of that sort of thing. However, while I would consider the Batman a Romantic figure, I would not consider him Dionysian at all. If a chaotic life-force I tended to view Dionysians as ecstatic, not melancholic, grim, and obsessive with order. And my use of “vice” would rope in the latter as well as the former.

    Regarding enchantment, people seem to have different takes on it. It is often used by the religious to imply atheists are not as able to accept (or consider) worldviews that contain supernatural elements, and I don’t think that is true. We do not hold that any such worldviews are true, and may be skeptical, but that does not mean they would be unacceptable (given evidence) and can’t be considered at all (if not for testing than for enjoyment and social enrichment). A “serious belief” in one worldview that contains a specific god (or gods) has to be just as stifling to “enchantment” as that term is employed against atheists.

    If the idea is simply that there is more there, something beyond what we see. Then yes there is *one* enchanting idea, a religious person might hold, which would be absent from the universe an atheist accepts.

    But even if that is true, I’m not sure how they get out of the suffering and dying alone part which you have described. Any God has to be as present or absent from a person in those moments, as any other living being a person might wish they could share those moments with. Especially in Abrahamic faiths, while one might have a relationship with God, the presence of that God (in the Universe) is neither guaranteed nor necessarily comforting. In some way, they simply have a few more beings they are isolated from.

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  36. Hi Mark, I forgot to add that I realize it is not simply the socially isolated that had such feelings. I’d have to make a longer argument, but basically humans in the West had been emotionally prized apart from human society in a way by the nature of Christian belief. Human society was corrupt. Life was awful. Only the after-life promised something better, communion with a perfect spirit. When those fantasies were cut off, people who were not prepared (or rather indoctrinated with the idea that society is corrupt, and earthly life somehow deficient) found they suddenly had nothing to cling to. And were emotionally cutoff from society.

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  37. DB,
    I’d have to make a longer argument, but basically humans in the West had been emotionally prized apart from human society in a way by the nature of Christian belief.

    Gosh! I strongly challenge that statement. Quite the reverse is true. Christianity has promoted more and closer involvement.

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  38. Hi Labnut (and Mark), while I understand what Labnut is talking about, and (since Mark has liked Labnut’s comment) presumably Mark’s position, I’m still not getting where having religious belief necessarily gets one out of that situation.

    Scorcese’s latest movie in a sense gets to that very point. Beyond once having the main character hear a voice, which by then seems clear is his own creation, all of the many characters’ horrific suffering and dying is done alone. It is a problem that many faithful suffer through and have to struggle to maintain belief because/in spite of. From some accounts even Mother Theresa wavered due to this sort of thing.

    Heck, even Jesus cried out “Why have thou forsaken me?”

    Given that we are finite and not omniscient, everything we experience is in some sense isolated. Whether that means “alone” is kind of up to the person, regardless of their religious belief. While some have felt spiritual presences in dark times which gave them comfort, others have experienced people they know and love, or things they know and love, and so are not “alone”.

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  39. Hi Labnut, I’m not sure how you are going to challenge that claim. The preaching of Jesus was to leave family and society to join him. The church was later made paramount, with basically the same concept. Original sin entails that the world is fallen and lesser, that things made by people are corrupt. And when we get to Protestantism, even the clergy fall as wicked.

    There is no joyous, positive view of the world (as it is), and there is a longing for something beyond which is better.

    Note, I said emotionally prized apart, I did not say that they did not move to act or have concerns about the world/human society. Those are two very different things. The former means emotionally disconnected (not deriving primary sustenance from) society.

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  40. “I’m still not getting where having religious belief necessarily gets one out of that situation.”

    It doesn’t necessarily. But obviously if you believe in an all-powerful and loving God and/or in the possibility of some kind of happy existence after death, you have a certain ‘psychological advantage’ in facing death.

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  41. Hi Mark, that part I agree with. It is the promise of something better, later that grants the advantage. It was the “alone” aspect I was having a problem with.

    Intriguingly, I knew a girl that was a devout Christian who was certain she was going to hell. It was bizarre. But this feeling gave her some license to behave badly in this world because she was going to hell anyway. Yet, of course, she could continue preaching hellfire at everyone else for their wrongdoings. Whatta world.

    Like

  42. DB,
    The preaching of Jesus was to leave family and society to join him.

    No, emphatically not. You have fallen victim to the typical cherry picking of atheists who refuse to consider the entire body of teachings and their context. Metaphorical language was used to urge total commitment to him. For example, he said to them “let the dead bury the dead“. No-one has ever thought that Christ literally intended them to leave the dead unburied. In Jewish society that would have been a heinous crime. In the same way family was an all important bond in Jewish society. So when Jesus said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple” he was using metaphorical language to bring across the need for strong commitment. Jesus was using a well known rhetorical tactic by comparing the commitment of performing the unthinkable with the commitment necessary for being a Disciple. His listeners understood this and therefore his enemies, the Pharisees, never rebuked him for this.

    The clue to this understanding is his use of the word “hate”. Throughout his ministry Christ was preaching love, tolerance and forgiveness. The literal interpretation of “hate” is completely inconsistent with the consistent message of Christ. Therefore its use was metaphorical and not literal.

    The early Church understood this very well, and never, ever did they expect Christians to leave their families. In fact the very opposite was true. They were taught to honour their father and their mother. They were taught that marriage was sacrosanct. They taught the care of families. To this day births and wedding anniversaries are the occasion for jubilant joy. I always love the part where some couple come forward to the altar to be blessed and congratulated on reaching some amazing wedding anniversary. The congregation will break out in spontaneous applause. There cannot be the slightest doubt that family is all important to the Church and has always been and to maintain the opposite flies in the face of history and reason.

    The clue to the proper understanding of that passage is this part – “he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.“. The key word here is ‘disciple’. In this context it meant the immediate band of followers who journey with him through Palestine. They necessarily left family behind. That band grew larger as they journeyed throughout the Roman world, spreading the message of Christ. This meaning was later enlarged to mean the Priesthood but its use was never extended to the body of believers in the Church.

    Quite frankly I think your interpretation is of the bizarre kind that one would only find used by militant atheists. The rest of us just shake our heads.

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  43. DB,
    I said emotionally prized[sic] apart, I did not say that they did not move to act or have concerns about the world/human society.

    What does ’emotionally prised apart’ mean? A few short years ago I converted to Catholicism after a lifetime of atheism. I came to it with fresh eyes, intensely curious about this strange new world. I listened intently and observed closely while I analysed their rituals, practices and teachings.

    Never, ever did I sense any feeling of being emotionally prised apart. Your statement really puzzles me.

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  44. DB,
    There is no joyous, positive view of the world (as it is)

    Once again I can only shake my head. The religion I discovered was one of great joy.

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  45. Hi Labnut, you may need to cool down a bit and re-approach what I said. I understand that religion is important to you and you get defensive when you think it is under attack. What I said to Mark was not an attack, and you have gone on to read meanings into my later statements that clearly are not there.

    “A few short years ago I converted to Catholicism after a lifetime of atheism. I came to it with fresh eyes,”

    Perhaps this explains things, newbie 🙂

    If you wish to compare our relative religious history I was raised in a Christian family (Protestant, with some Catholic in the extended family) in a very Christian belt around Chicago; spent my junior to high school years in very Christian townships (one so Christian conservative that sale of alcohol was illegal, and where Billy Graham has his college and center for evangelism); I attended churches and received confirmation at a church (after prerequisite study); then attended a Christian-affiliated University smack dab in the Bible Belt where I had to take religious coursework (and did so, studying the Bible).

    So when someone says something like this to me…

    “You have fallen victim to the typical cherry picking of atheists who refuse to consider the entire body of teachings and their context”

    … I’m pretty certain they didn’t understand what I was talking about, or are part of some denomination which considers interpretations outside of their own as “atheist”.

    I *am* an atheist. One could say I was born as one, in that I never had the feelings that religious people claim to have, and the teachings (across denominations) never made much sense (factual sense) to me. In fact, all the Abrahamic faiths *feel* utterly alien to me. But having grown up surrounded by it, inundated by it, en-cultured by it, proselytised to about it, and instructed in it, well… I sort of took some elements of its worldview as a base, as legitimate possibilities that maybe I just wasn’t ready for yet (a kind of quasi-deism). While I am no historical scholar on the subject, I have certainly spent enough time studying Christianity and being tested on aspects of it by ministers that I am not wholly ignorant (even if forgetful over time) about it.

    Ironically, my atheism was cemented, any lingering idea that “legitimate possibilities” existed died, while studying the Bible under the tutelage of a very kind, very knowledgeable minister.

    So please… never try to pull this kind of argument with me again. I’m not the stereotypical atheist you think I am. We might disagree on something related to teachings, history, or effects on society, but you will see that as much between highly educated theists, as you will theist vs atheist.

    “The religion I discovered was one of great joy.”

    This was the grand tip-off that you did not understand what I was discussing. I said: “There is no joyous, positive view of the world (as it is)”… where you get that as saying there cannot be “great joy”, I don’t know. Now maybe you have some rogue Catholic order I am unaware of, but I doubt it is a materialist, naturalist faith (sans deity and after-life) which preaches YOLO, and the world was not created toward any end so let’s make the best we can of it to build a great future (as we see fit) because there is only us and now.

    My initial comment (which you took exception to) was about the feeling of being “cut adrift”, when religious beliefs about the Universe fell away. I had suggested that the “cut adrift” feeling was *from society* and not *the Universe*, and that applied to those that were engaged with society as much as those that were socially isolated. The argument is that Abrahamic concepts (especially Christian) about the nature of the world (and society), worked to manufacture expectations about the world (and society) that made such things seem lesser, inadequate. If the most important thing in life is your personal relationship with a caring God, which involves avoiding material concerns as they are distractions (temporal, sins), with an eye toward an eternal life in a paradise empty of the ills of the world you are in… well the world we are in does get cast as a bit temporal, ill, sinful, and so makes one a bit emotionally distant from it. And so when the supernatural concepts/expectations of the world drop away, one is left with what?

    It’s like finding yourself having to share a small island with an estranged ex-spouse. You may not be alone, but you will be lonely all the same.

    “In this context it meant the immediate band of followers who journey with him through Palestine. They necessarily left family behind. That band grew larger as they journeyed throughout the Roman world, spreading the message of Christ. This meaning was later enlarged to mean the Priesthood but its use was never extended to the body of believers in the Church.”

    In the discussion of his teachings, I was specifically talking about his building his followers. I probably should have been more specific. The idea it never extended beyond the priesthood after establishment of the Church (which was my next statement) in any form is false. Again you can start with Jesus as a model and what he did and so what people aspire to and revere. He left society to meditate in the desert. He was an ascetic, and the tenets are generally ascetic. Isolation and asceticism is thought to be good and helps bring you closer to truth/God/perfection, while becoming mired in secular concerns and hedonism does not.

    It is a bit rich to hear you claim the above, given that a friend who was once an active, bright, funny singer (popular at concerts) who was on the verge of commercial success, gave that all up in the name of the Catholic faith and now can only be talked to through a gate, sometimes. She had to cut off family and friends for a year. Now she does what is best. She prays, all day. And suffice it to say, *she* is not a priest.

    “What does ’emotionally prised[sic] apart’ mean?”

    I don’t know, what does “prised” mean? Oh oh yes, maybe I could look it up. Like say in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary and see it is spelled “prized”. It appears you want to equally pretend the spelling of a word your language (presumably British English: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prise ) is the only valid one? Sorry, but I get a bit miffed at spelling/grammar nazis that try to make others look stupid by such pretentious methods… especially when they are wrong.

    Hopefully the above was informative and we will have more productive discussions elsewhere. Seriously, not sarcastic, you are smart and a good writer.

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