Daily Archives: September 22, 2010

Romantic Aesthetics: Wordsworth and Baudelaire

Romanticism connected the sentiment of passionate love to artistic expression perhaps more closely than any other literary movement by describing both as the undistorted expression of intense and genuine emotion. Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” applied not only to a new understanding of art, but also to a new understanding of human identity. In this succinct phrase, Wordsworth had challenged Neoclassical assumptions about the role of the artist and of art, the kind of audience art should affect and the values it should propose.

Each word chosen by Wordsworth is significant. If poetry is spontaneous, then it no longer needs to be guided by the rigid codes of Neoclassical art. If it’s an overflow springing from the artist’s imagination, then the artist is the most important part of the poetic process, since he’s the source of the overflow. If poetry expresses powerful feelings, then its representations of how feelings are produced and of their contexts–in nature as well as in emotional bonds of friendship or love–will affect how society perceives emotion. If the object of poetry is to express the poet’s powerful feelings, then the he or she is defined as someone with internal, psychological and emotive qualities rather than primarily in terms of his social position. If reality is conveyed through the poet’s imagination–and transformed by the poetry–then what matters most is not how accurately the poet conveys that reality, but rather how he or she distills it through his or her style, rendering it evocative, interesting and moving. Literature and poetry become above all else an expression of human emotion, and that emotion connects the modern self to the artistic medium of expression.

Perhaps it is this causal link between art and human emotion that contributes both to the splendor of Romanticism and to its vulnerability. For Modernist and Postmodernist writers would attack precisely these intimate connections between human identity, emotions and their poetic and passionate expressions. They suggest that it’s naïve and unfounded to assume that true emotions are the basis of human nature, that such a nature exists at all, that even if it exists, it can be communicated without distortion and, most importantly, that art should have anything to do with such lived experience. The Modernist valorization of women’s fashion and of the dandy, for example, offers a striking example of the assumption that it may be, in fact, the artificial constructions of art that guide the conventions we assume to be natural in life. Once human identity becomes freed from our understanding of nature, the expression of emotion, poetic or not, can no longer make direct claims to sincerity and authenticity. The expression of emotion may be just rhetorical or imitative rather than conveying what we truly feel.

Yet should we be so thoroughly convinced of the way Modernism and postmodernism describe the connection between emotion and art as opposed to the models offered by Romanticism? Is the link between emotion and art necessarily unfounded and naïve? To begin exploring this question, I will examine briefly two bookmarks of the Romantic movements: Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, the theoretical blueprint of Romanticism and excerpts from Baudelaire’s Salon de 1846, which inaugurates the beginnings of modernity. In so doing, I will emphasize the relevance of Romantic aesthetics today, hinting at the hidden continuities between the Romantic movement and current intuitions about the connection between emotion and art.

In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth elaborates what would become known as the underlying premises of British Romanticism. Although not systematic enough to be called a theory or philosophy of Romanticism, and although it speaks primarily of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s own poetry, this preface nonetheless sets the tone, in an eloquent and thoughtful manner, for the vaster and diverse Romantic movements which would follow. Furthermore, if as readers seasoned by the postmodern critiques of Romanticism, we expect Wordsworth’s aesthetics to be naïve, when reading the Preface we are pleasantly surprised. There’s nothing simplistic about Wordsworth’s model of artistic expression. At each step of describing the aesthetic process, Wordsworth is careful to emphasize its complexity. He does, indeed, mention not once, but twice that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet we must unpack this dense statement to see what it means. For not only does the author not assume art to spring directly from emotion, but also he does not conceive of its expression and impact upon readers in a naïve manner.

In the beginning of his essay, Wordsworth declares that “the principal object proposed myself in these Poems is to choose incidents and situations from common life” (392). His choice of subject is already original because it rejects the Neoclassical rule that poetry should focus primarily upon extraordinary events and characters. Wordsworth transforms not only the choice of subject of art, but also, and more fundamentally, the manner of its representation.

As we are aware, Neoclassical art had a mimetic orientation, in that it viewed art as an imitation of aspects of the universe. The key vehicle for this kind of imitation was visual: a picture was viewed as best approximating the object it imitated. Poetry was supposed to imitate painting by focusing upon visual imagery that produced a mental picture of the object it represented in the mind of the reader. Horace’s Ars Poetica, written in the first century B.C., and particularly his phrase ut pictura poesis, was interpreted by seventeenth-century authors as establishing a parallel between the two arts. However, no matter how hard they artists tried and how they were, neither pictorial nor written art could perfectly reproduce its object. In fact, all that could be claimed was that the artistic representation was like its object, or an analogue of it.

As M. H. Abrams observes in The Mirror and the Lamp, Neoclassical defenders of art solved this problem (of the gap between image and reality) by arguing that art is not an imitation of nature, but rather a selective and improved representation of its real or ideal essence. The representation is not less than the object it is supposed to depict, but on the contrary, better: hence the French phrase, la belle nature or beautiful nature. The objects represented are improved by the artist’s technique and craft, which in turn are perfected by the rules that govern his or her particular art form. In addition, the purpose of art as imitation was to elevate and instruct its readers; to please while also edifying them. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of objects represented by Neoclassical art: 1) objects of sense-perception (things we can see); and 2) objects of thought, such as the concepts of virtue and justice, whose representation was allegorical.

Wordsworth famously describes the radical transformation of both art and artist. He chooses as the object of art what he calls ordinary situations and men. Even more importantly, in his preface the artist takes on a new and more important role than ever before. In fact, the notion of the artist’s special sensibility and extraordinary talent elaborated earlier by Kant and emphasized by Wordsworth would become one of the key features of Romanticism. Unlike in the Kantian elaboration of artistic genius, however, Wordsworth’s description of the poet does not mystify the process of artistic creation. Wordsworth depicts that which has become a commonplace assumption about art ever since his Preface: namely, that the artist neither fully invents the fictional world he or she creates nor mirrors it exactly as is. Instead, artists and poets “throw over them [real people and events] a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (Preface, 392).

When art no longer serves the purpose of representing a world created by God and of conveying its meaning to others, the artist assumes a double nature. On the one hand, he’s a created, fragile being in a world which appears to be forsaken by the divine. On the other hand, he’s a creator of extraordinary beauty and true meaning. These paradoxical features would outlast the movement of Romanticism. The (post)romantic artist is therefore both infinitely small and infinitely powerful; a finitude aspiring to the infinite. It’s no accident then that critics who study Romanticism speak of a ladder of love similar to the one we find in Platonic thought, especially in the Symposium. Romantic artists, poets and writers select details from ordinary life and infuse them with special significance, beauty and meaning. As in Plato’s transcendental moves, Romantic artists and writers begin with the particular—contingent events and human beings—and aspire to render them universal or, in Wordsworth’s own formulation, “interesting by tracing in them… the primary laws of our nature” (392).

Through his talent, the artist manages to convert a flood of accidental details into something readers will find essential; into some kind of lasting meaning. Wordsworth seems aware, however, that to speak of conveying an “essential nature” and meaning through art risks converting aesthetics into a form of rational knowledge. Although the Romantic poet may strive to capture some kind of truth about the human condition, as we have already observed, he does not aim at a strictly mimetic truth (where art strives, imperfectly, to imitate the universe as created by the divine) nor at a strictly rational one (whereby art provides knowledge in the same way that mathematical proofs or scientific experiments do). Which is why Wordsworth hastens to add that the source of creativity is not reason, but rather passion. Artists at once discover and create what he calls “the primary laws of our nature” by cultivating an emotive disposition “chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (392).

Wordsworth places emotion at the very center of human creativity. He places value not upon raw and immediate reactions to concrete circumstances, however, but upon feelings recalled and evoked in moments of quiet contemplation. As the contemporary writer Jean Rouaud would later say by way of analogy, the (post)romantic artist is not the being creating natural flowers, but rather the florist arranging them in an elegant vase, contemplating their beauty calmly in light of its aesthetic arrangement of forms and potential impact to move and please viewers. With this analogy in mind, we’re now ready to consider Wordsworth’s famous definition of the poetic process:

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” (393)

We have already noted that if Romantic poetry aims to convey some kind of essential truth, it’s an anthropocentric one, not one that mirrors a divine vision and creation. Furthermore, we have observed that this truth differs substantially from scientific claims. So what is the nature of specifically aesthetic knowledge? And what is the process of its transmission and verification, if it eludes scientific and even rational scrutiny? Given the fragility of aesthetic knowledge, and, furthermore, given its anthropocentric nature, Wordsworth and other Romantic poets and writers would attempt to establish its tenuous foundations upon aesthetic sensibility. The foundation of art is the exceptional talent of the artist to convey beautifully and movingly essential aspects of the human condition. In turn, its only measure of success is the attunement it finds in generations of readers. For as Wordsworth suggests, the poet “shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated” (400).

Art’s truth—and power—consists of its ability to capture a contingent meaning which may not be everlasting, but which touches us with its very contingency. This truth emerges, on the side of the artist, in a kind of séance that combines what may be called, before its time, subconscious thought and what Wordsworth calls processes of volition. For Romantic writers, the poetic process entails a creative recollection of one’s own feelings “So that it will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure”(400).

Aesthetic emotion, or what could also be called passion, connects every point on the route to artistic creation. An intense yet calm contemplation, the evocation of feelings, ignites the creative process. Through carefully selected words, the poet must be able to move readers, but once again not to raw emotions, but to aesthetic sensibilities that give both purposeless pleasure and a sense of meaning. The power of art, in turn, is only tested by time. It has no other true standard, for only the accumulated responses of readers can give it lasting value. But the question still remains: If Wordsworth aims at a contagion of aesthetic feelings and sensibilities from poet to readers through poetry, then why must he appeal to a higher, universal standard of truth? In other words, if the goal of art is emotive and aesthetic—to move through beauty—then why does he insist that the poet must express a human essence and meaning? The poet addresses this question by connecting Romantic art to truth, or, more generally, aesthetics to epistemology:

 “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alone into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.” (401)

As much as Wordsworth makes the power of Romantic art dependent upon the transmission of aesthetic emotion from real artist to real readers, he also wants to remove it from such sociohistorical contingencies by describing it as something that is measured by its own internal criteria and dependent upon nothing else. To do so, he depicts aesthetic truth in terms of the essence of the Romantic artist, a sensitive creator who captures “the beauty of the universe” and “the dignity of man” without any transcendental measure. He leaves us with a paradoxical vision of the artist which I call postromantic because we continue to find traces of it today: one aspiring to convey meaning without faith in either its objectivity or universality; one aspiring to move readers, but at the same time indifferent to the vicissitudes of their tastes; one which abandons the quest for an objectively verifiable truth only to engage in a process of intense contemplation of an elusive human essence which even the Romantic poet no longer fully believes exists.

Later Romantic writers and poets, including Charles Baudelaire, would realize how difficult it is to hold on to the epistemological rhetoric of truth when one is speaking of aesthetic beauty. For early Romanticism had presented more questions than it answered: In what ways can the truth of emotion and beauty be verified if not by generating a kind of consensus in viewers and readers? And even if, by a kind of magical Kantian subjective universal response, readers do indeed experience the same reaction to art and poetry, what does agreement have to do with truth? Can truth exist only in an anthropocentric context, without reference to higher standards? Couldn’t human beings agree and still be wrong?

Sidestepping these problems, the late Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire returns art to the domain of aesthetics. Art, he suggests, is all about beauty, not truth. In the Salon of 1846, he declares:

“Each century, each people having possessed its own expression of beauty and morality – if we mean by Romanticism the most recent and modern expression of beauty – the great artist would therefore be –for the reasonable and passionate critic – the one that unites to the aforementioned condition, naiveté –the most Romanticism possible.” (Salon de 1846, Oeuvres Complètes, 642).

So far it seems as if Baudelaire depicts beauty not as an attunement among author, text and implied reader, but rather as an attunement of poetry with its times. A work of art is one that best captures the feel of its epoch with elegance and pathos. The validation of art necessarily depends upon a social network of readers and critics who institutionalize that artistic perspective; who perceive it as in step with, and even ahead of, its times. Art is at once Romantic and modern, as Baudelaire puts it. While describing art as dependent upon the historical contingencies associated with artistic value, however, Baudelaire also agrees with earlier strands of Romanticism that the artist is the gifted creator of a timeless and abstract ideal:

“Romanticism lies neither in the choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in the manner of feeling… For me, Romanticism is the most recent and up-to-date expression of beauty… The one who says Romanticism says modern art – which is to say intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite — expressed by all the resources of art.” (Salon de 1846)

Baudelaire thus returns to Wordsworth’s image of the artist as a double figure: created in a world deprived of certainty; creator of beauty and meaning through art. External consecration does not suffice, however, to determine the quality of art. Like Wordsworth, Baudelaire is not fully prepared to abandon the artist to purely sociological standards. Hence his famous conception of art as doubled itself: as an intertwinement and juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the eternal, of passing fashion and timeless beauty:

“All forms of beauty contain, like all possible phenomena, something eternal and something ephemeral—the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty doesn’t exist, or rather it’s nothing but an abstraction culled from the general surface of diverse forms of beauty. The particular element of each beauty comes from the passions, and as we have particular passions so we have our beauties.” (Salon de 1846, 687)

In alluding to the eternal dimension of art, Baudelaire confronts the same problem as Wordsworth: by what standards can we judge an aesthetic object as eternal when we, ourselves, are only human; when the artist who created it, though perhaps more talented than ordinary human beings, is just as fallible and mortal as the rest of us? In “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe,” Baudelaire answers this question quite compellingly. He begins, like Wordsworth, by describing the creative origin and impact of poetry in a Platonic manner, as a “ravishment of the soul” (202). In other words, art is a process that transmits, by a kind of magical contagion or entrancement, the contemplation of passion rather than pure emotion itself. What is the aim of this aesthetic contagion? Nothing but the powerful feelings and impressions it provokes.

As we have seen, Baudelaire not only disassociates art from morality—as Wordsworth had in transforming the Neoclassical vision of art—but also from epistemology, or the discourse of truth. Poetry may make us more sensitive and sympathetic to other human beings, and it may even teach us something about human existence, but that is only incidental to it, not its central goal. “Poetry cannot,” the author insists, “except at the price of death or decay, assume the mantle of science or morality; the pursuit of truth is not its aim, it has nothing outside itself” (204). So what is poetry then? Baudelaire responds:

“It’s this admirable, this immortal instinct for Beauty that leads us to consider the earth and its spectacles as a correspondence with the Sky. The insatiable thirst for everything that is otherworldly and that reveals life is the living proof of our immortality.” (Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, 598).

Baudelaire’s vision of poetry brings us to the threshold of what I call postromanticism: meaning a presentation of Romantic values and assumptions that remains plausible, and even intuitive, in modern times. Accepting the artist’s double nature as creator of lasting beauty and created in a world without certainties, Baudelaire abandons the hope of proving the eternal value of art. Yet he still desires to claim it as an intuition, a hope. Baudelaire’s modernist vision of Romanticism can be described as a powerful current that splits into two principal directions.

One direction would be pursued by Modernist and especially postmodernist artists and writers. This is the direction that postmodern theory has made most visible during the past thirty years. Beginning, as did Baudelaire, with the assumption that the beauty of art is not measured by any identifiable standard of truth or meaning, modernist and postmodernist authors would go so much further than the poet in dismantling –and showing the dangers of– all traces of the universal from aesthetics. Once such criteria are removed, drawing qualitative distinctions among artistic objects and even between artistic and utilitarian objects becomes a matter of purely socioeconomic considerations. Thus we reach, as many maintain, the death of beauty and the end of art.

By way of contrast, what I call postromantic writers and artists take late Romantic assumptions similar to Baudelaire’s to a different conclusion. If there’s no higher measure of art’s beauty and illumination, then the creative endeavor is all the more challenging, titillating and despairingly powerful. Postromantic poetry and art plausibly intertwine a passionate longing for the absolute with a sense of skepticism, and even hopelessness, towards the possibility of ever grasping it.

Claudia Moscovici, from Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

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