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.  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. 
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.
- For example: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/
- 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.