Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.
What the Romanticists brought to art was the primacy of values, an element that had been missing in the stale, arid, third- and fourth-hand (and rate) repetitions of the Classicists’ formula-copying. Values (and value-judgments) are the source of emotions; a great deal of emotional intensity was projected in the work of the Romanticists and in the reactions of their audiences, as well as a great deal of color, imagination, originality, excitement and all the other consequences of a value-oriented view of life. This emotional element was the most easily perceivable characteristic of the new movement and it was taken as its defining characteristic, without deeper inquiry.
Such issues as the fact that the primacy of values in human life is not an irreducible primary, that it rests on man’s faculty of volition, and, therefore, that the Romanticists, philosophically, were the champions of volition (which is the root of values) and not of emotions (which are merely the consequences) — were issues to be defined by philosophers, who defaulted in regard to esthetics as they did in regard to every other crucial aspect of the nineteenth century.
The still deeper issue, the fact that the faculty of reason is the faculty of volition, was not known at the time, and the various theories of free will were for the most part of an anti-rational character, thus reinforcing the association of volition with mysticism.
In recent times, some literary historians have discarded, as inadequate, the definition of Romanticism as an emotion-oriented school and have attempted to redefine it, but without success. Following the rule of fundamentality, it is as a volition-oriented school that Romanticism must be defined — and it is in terms of this essential characteristic that the nature and history of Romantic literature can be traced and understood.
If man possesses volition, then the crucial aspect of his life is his choice of values — if he chooses values, then he must act to gain and/or keep them — if so, then he must set his goals and engage in purposeful action to achieve them. The literary form expressing the essence of such action is the plot. (A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.)
The faculty of volition operates in regard to the two fundamental aspects of man’s life: consciousness and existence, i.e., his psychological action and his existential action, i.e., the formation of his own character and the course of action he pursues in the physical world. Therefore, in a literary work, both the characterizations and the events are to be created by the author, according to his view of the role of values in human psychology and existence (and according to the code of values he holds to be right). His characters are abstract projections, not reproductions of concretes; they are invented conceptually, not copied reportorially from the particular individuals he might have observed. The specific characters of particular individuals are merely the evidence of their particular value-choices and have no wider metaphysical significance (except as material for the study of the general principles of human psychology); they do not exhaust man’s characterological potential.
The Romanticists did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man’s best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices.
Philosophically, Romanticism is a crusade to glorify man’s existence; psychologically, it is experienced simply as the desire to make life interesting.
Romanticism demands mastery of the primary element of fiction: the art of storytelling — which requires three cardinal qualities: ingenuity, imagination, a sense of drama. All this (and more) goes into the construction of an original plot integrated to theme and characterization. Naturalism discards these elements and demands nothing but characterization, in as shapeless a narrative, as “uncontrived” (i.e., purposeless) a progression of events (if any) as a given author pleases.
The value of a Romanticist’s work has to be created by its author; he owes no allegiance to men (only to man), only to the metaphysical nature of reality and to his own values. The value of a Naturalist’s work depends on the specific characters, choices and actions of the men he reproduces — and he is judged by the fidelity with which he reproduces them.
The value of a Romanticist’s story lies in what might happen; the value of a Naturalist’s story lies in that it did happen.
The major source and demonstration of moral values available to a child is Romantic art (particularly Romantic literature). What Romantic art offers him is not moral rules, not an explicit didactic message, but the image of a moral person — i.e., the concretized abstraction of a moral ideal. It offers a concrete, directly perceivable answer to the very abstract question which a child senses, but cannot yet conceptualize: What kind of person is moral and what kind of life does he lead?
It is not abstract principles that a child learns from Romantic art, but the precondition and the incentive for the later understanding of such principles: the emotional experience of admiration for man’s highest potential, the experience of looking up to a hero — a view of life motivated and dominated by values, a life in which man’s choices are practicable, effective and crucially important — that is, a moral sense of life.
Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man’s soul; its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out.
It is only the superficiality of the Naturalists that classifies Romanticism as “an escape”; this is true only in the very superficial sense of contemplating a glamorous vision as a relief from the gray burden of “real-life” problems. But in the deeper, metaphysical-moral-psychological sense, it is Naturalism that represents an escape — an escape from choice, from values, from moral responsibility — and it is Romanticism that trains and equips man for the battles he has to face in reality.
The (implicit) standards of Romanticism are so demanding that in spite of the abundance of Romantic writers at the time of its dominance, this school has produced very few pure, consistent Romanticists of the top rank. Among novelists, the greatest are Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, and, as single novels (whose authors were not always consistent in the rest of their works), I would name Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Among playwrights, the greatest are Friedrich Schiller and Edmond Rostand.
The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank (apart from their purely literary genius) is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness). They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character. Their characters are “larger than life,” i.e., they are abstract projections in terms of essentials (not always successful projections, as we shall discuss later). In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence — and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.
If philosophical significance is the criterion of what is to be taken seriously, then these are the most serious writers in world literature.
The archenemy and destroyer of Romanticism was the altruist morality.
Since Romanticism’s essential characteristic is the projection of values, particularly moral values, altruism introduced an insolvable conflict into Romantic literature from the start. The altruist morality cannot be practiced (except in the form of self-destruction) and, therefore, cannot be projected or dramatized convincingly in terms of man’s life on earth (particularly in the realm of psychological motivation). With altruism as the criterion of value and virtue, it is impossible to create an image of man at his best — “as he might be and ought to be.” The major flaw that runs through the history of Romantic literature is the failure to present a convincing hero, i.e., a convincing image of a virtuous man.
With the resurgence of mysticism and collectivism, in the later part of the nineteenth century, the Romantic novel and the Romantic movement vanished gradually from the cultural scene.
Romanticism is the conceptual school of art. It deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence. It does not record or photograph; it creates and projects. It is concerned — in the words of Aristotle — not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.