Romantic Rebellion in Art

If we take science we see cause and effect abound, but nowhere in there do we see freewill around. Freewill is invisible to the eye until the eye is liberated from objective science. The Romantic rebellion cuts through the formalism of science and reason into a deeper, mysterious reality. With the Enlightenment man was a rational animal. However, Romanticism wanted to make clear that reason wasn’t all. That there is something deeper that lies beneath the surface.

Fuseli Nightmare

Fuseli’s Nightmare

            Much of romanticism hinges upon the dark, brooding unconscious hidden from us under the light of day. In Fuseli’s Nightmare we get the sense of the mystery of the terrifying sublime. Why this painting became so popular for its time tells us something about its people’s unconscious pathos. Why does the horse look so terrified, and what is the imp thinking while sitting atop the woman’s chest, as it finger’s its chin, staring back at us? Is it thinking something dark and suggestively sexual? The lovely lady underneath is in something like a dream world. She is beautiful and unconscious and unaware of her surroundings and happenings. I wonder if she is able to breathe in her dream with that imp on her chest just as one has suffers sleep-paralysis and apnea—a terrifying nightmare indeed. Furthermore, is her dream as terrible as the painting depicts? The mysteries of the unconscious, revealed to us through the productions of art, break us free from the mechanical association of ideas and show that we are also governed by something more irrational, dark, and brooding than reason would ever yield. Romanticism begins to break the mirrored reflection of the self to get at something beneath the surface that science can’t possibly explain.

Fuseli Polythemus

Fuseli’s Polyphemus

            In Fuseli’s Polyphemus we see a great cyclops covering his one eye that Odysseus has blinded. Checking to see that no man passes by, Polyphemus, the cyclops, pets his goats as they exit the cave so that no man shall pass. However, cunning Odysseus and his men cling to the underbelly of the goats as Odysseus and his men sneak by unbeknownst to the cyclops. What does this painting portray? What will this cyclops’ world forever look like? He can no longer depend on his sense of sight, which science is so beholden to. So now he is forced to live in a reflective world of mystery and darkness. Now Polyphemus must feel terrified and hopeless as his hulking figure kneels down touching the backs of his animals.

Wandere Above the Sea Fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Take The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. In that painting we see turbid, turbulent, wild waters, and high mountain tops. It’s the depiction of nature as violent and wondrous, something to look upon and revere. The man in the painting is a lone individual, perhaps estranged by the city, an outsider. This lone man, unable to connect with others, is thereby vulnerable. Here his susceptibility to vulnerability is symbolized by the cane. It represents life’s pains and hurts, its blessings and its curse. It is this vulnerability that forces himself to look within himself, and look for that creative spark often found within the wavy-wavy waters of creativity inspired by nature. He is able to surpass reason and touch realities that the scientific eye fails to see. It’s the sensitive, vulnerable ones—the Romantics believe–that can see more clearly behind the veil of mystery. It’s the inner, subjective experience of feeling that is central to the Romantic doctrine.  These persons, with immense sympathy, are able to see and feel with great imaginability.”

“What is the role of the imagination in the Romantic rebellion?” Nausica innocently asked.

Blake took a sip of his coffee, took a deep sigh of relief and relaxation, I think because he sensed someone was authentically wondering.

“The imagination is an inspiring force, Nausica. With the imagination William Blake said that we, “can see a world in a grain of sand/ heaven in a wild flower.” See, as we get older we become more fixed in our thought patterns, our heuristics. It’s called “fixed functionalism”. It’s when we think more mechanistically in the world. William Blake here forces us to stretch our mind to see how the microcosm can be held in the macrocosm. Blake stretches our mind to wonder while wandering through the world. He believed that the single power of imagination alone makes a poet who is capable of making divine visions.  Shelley, a later romantic, contrasted imagination to reason. Keats believed that the imagination went back to an ideal world, a pre-established harmony man once had with the universe with Adam awaking from his dream and then looking upon Eve, Keats believed the imagination often protects and eroticizes the female form. However, how the imagination works remains elusive. Is It as John Locke describes, just an “association of ideas” that mechanistically connects simple ideas thereby composing complex ideas just as gravity effects matter, or is there some deeper force moving us within our unconscious psyche? Imagination plays a role in poetry, and an even larger role in Romanticism, because it tries to pull back at the veil of neoclassical art, poetry, prose, science and reason. Furthermore:

The evolution of the romantic stress on feeling as a means of effective insight may be characteristically illustrated by the increasing role assigned to sympathy in both the moral and aesthetic. It is one of the common tenets of English romantic criticism that imagination is capable, through an effort of sympathetic intuition, of identifying itself  with its object; and, by means of this identification, the sympathetic imagination grasps, through a kind of direct experience and feeling, the distinct nature identity, or “truth” of the object of its contemplation. (From Classic to Romantic Premises of Feeling, by Walter Bates, Pg. 131-32)

“What is the central component to Romanticism?” Daniel asked.

“In a word, wonder. The man of science, with his measuring compass, calculating a mechanistic world, hasn’t seen the world as it really is. The Romantics want to break us free from the formalisms of science and reason, and yes, even philosophy. To them, the irrational plays a role, and part of the irrational is emotional. It’s direct, and unquestionable. Whereas reason is always followed by a question, and yet always by another question. But one must wonder how we feel anything at all. Isn’t that a gift even at the saddest of times?

Feeling transcends reason. However, as it may be felt, it may not be explained. A similar parallel may be displayed in physics with energy. We know that energy has an effect on objects that surround it but what it actually is remains shrouded in mystery ultimately. We have many descriptions of what energy is, but once we dig deeper and deeper we can only guess. Feelings, like energy, exist, but they seem to be beyond our explanatory power.”


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