“He discovered the fact that all romantics know—that adventures happen on dull days, and not on sunny ones. When the chord of monotony is stretched most tight, then it breaks with a sound like a song.”
I wrote a few weeks ago of my first experience with Romanticism in a German class on fairy tales. I wanted to return to the topic and expound upon it further, because it has become such a big part of my perspective.
Romanticism is something difficult to define, and perhaps means something a little different to each Romantic. Just from the word, Romanticism looks like the familiar word romance. They are indeed related, but the meaning behind the modern term romance has lost most of the original meaning. A romance today means a love story. But it actually includes the whole back story too—the devious villians, the heroic rescue of the damsel, the fairy tale setting. If you look Romanticism up in Wikipedia, you get:
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement… [that] emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature. It considered folk art and ancient custom to be noble statuses, but also valued spontaneity, as in the musical impromptu. In constrast to the rational and Classicist ideal models, Romanticism revived medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval in an attempt to escape population growth, urban sprawl and industrialism.
That is all true about Romanticism, but I still don’t think it captures the essence of it. The first moment I think I understood and felt a tie to Romanticism was a quote from a Romantic. This quote from Novalis is what Romanticism means to me:
The world must be romanticized. That is the only way to find the original meaning. To romanticize is to make exponential. The lesser self is identified with a better self through this operation… This operation is yet little known. When I give the mean a higher purpose, when I give the ordinary an air of mystery, when I give the known the characteristics of the unknown, the ending the appearance of the endless, I romanticize it. The opposite is true for the operation of the Higher, the Unknown, the Mystical, the Endless—these are related through a logarithmic relationship. It receives an ordinary expression.
Of course, I would only understand Romanticism in terms of a mathematical analogy, exponents and logarithms. Romanticism for me makes the ordinary into something deeply meaningful and beyond explanation. It leaves you with a sense of longing, of yearning for your heavenly home. It is a big part of my religious experience. It makes every moment of life into something of infinite worth.
This idea that ordinary things—perhaps some people would describe as boring things—was summed up beautifully by G. K. Chesterton in an essay on Byron:
There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defense of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.
We might, no doubt, find it a nuisance to count all the blades of grass or all the leaves of the trees; but this would not be because of our boldness or gaiety, but because of our lack of boldness and gaiety. The bore would go onward, bold and gay, and find the blades of grass as splendid as the swords of an army. The bore is stronger and more joyous than we are; he is a demigod—nay, he is a god. For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things; to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red as the first.
Something as monotonous as counting blades of grass! Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to do that, but the idea struck me. I realized that I would often find things boring. I was often one of the bored. I think being bored is one of the terrible symptoms of the day that we are doing something wrong. We need distractions. We play video games and watch action movies or look for adrenaline rushes. For me, it was books. Not a bad thing in themselves, but I got to the point where if I wasn’t reading, it wasn’t worth my time. As a teenager, I would bring a book to family gatherings, because talking to cousins and aunts and uncles was boring. What I didn’t realize was I was letting valuable moments go, because I labelled them as boring. I remember another moment. My mom had a large bucket of beans that she wanted us to snip. She would tell how her family would gather around a bucket of beans and snip them until they were gone. And they would just talk! To a teenager, that seems inconceivable. That is not worth my time. Now I realize how important these ordinary moments are. You can learn to appreciate your family members, you can build deep relationships. Romanticism made my long ten minute walk across campus every day into a time of reflection. It made me look forward to doing the dishes when I got home from work. Romanticism is about very ordinary things.
The Agency of Adventures and Romance
I’m not saying that a real adventure would startle a Romantic. A Romantic just doesn’t have to look very far for an adventure. I particularly liked this concept from Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades. The opening scene, the protagonist is very nearly killed while walking down the street. He manages to snag an address from the attacker’s pocket before he runs away, and it leads him to a very peculiar company. The rest is explained here:
“You are standing,” replied Northover, “in the office fo the Adventure and Romance Agency, Limited.
“And what’s that?” blankly inquired Brown.
The man of business leaned over the back of the chair, and fixed his dark eyes on the other’s face.
“Major,” said he, “did you ever, as you walked along the empty street upon some idle afternoon, felt the utter hunger for something happen—something in the splendid words of Walk Whitman: ‘Something pernicious and dread; something far removed from a puny and pious life; something unproved; something in a trance; something loosed from its anchorage, and driving free.’ Did you ever feel that?”
“Certainly not,” said the Major shortly.
“Then I must explain with more elaboration,” said Mr. Northover, with a sigh. “The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a great modern desire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hear of the desire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray. No the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and moving story is first written by one of the staff of distinguished novelists who are at present hard at work in the adjoining room. Yours, Major Brown (designed by our Mr. Grigsby), I consider peculiarly forcible and pointed; it is almost a pity you did not see the end of it. I need scarcely explain further the monstrous mistake. Your predecessor in your present house, Mr. Gurney-Brown, was a subscriber to our agency, and our foolish clerks, ignoring alike the dignity of the hyphen and the glory of military rank, positively imagined that Major Brown and Mr. Gurney-Brown were the same person. Thus you were suddenly hurled into the middle of another man’s story.
Now that is a fun story.
Romance and the Extraordinary
I think the most important thing I learned from Romanticism is that things are more valuable than I initially give them credit for. Like doing the dishes. This ordinary task (chore? The word makes it seem like a bad thing) is actually a chance to look out the window and enjoy the beautiful day. It is a moment to reflect on the events of the day and forget about my homework assignment due in tomorrow. And doing the dishes makes the meal prepared more special too.
It makes me value people more. Before, people were often just interruptions to me. Now, I realize they have their own stories and their own desires and problems. The “worth of [their soul] is great in the sight of God.” My brother is a friend and companion who went through many of the same challenges as me. I’ve only been married to my wife six months, but I have a whole lifetime ahead of me to appreciate and love her entire story. And kids will be another big adventure of their own. Even our challenges, though it sounds cliché, are valuable in their own right. I wanted to close with one last quote from Chesterton about challenges, limitations and trials:
But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we like very little. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over man things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at the bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they can make the adventures. The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance.