Sentimental Revolutions

Reading the Blanchot essay From Dread to Language gives me the feeling I get when I read existentialism: that this sort of writing is no more than the fag end of Romanticism. As such there is a a sort of highly decadent awareness of the refinements of Romanticism, such that an entire serious essay can explore the minuscule and rarefied space between dread and language, with meaning.

But the whole reminds me of what CS Lewis says in his ‘study in Medieval Tradition’ The Allegory of Love: that romantic love, originating at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc is one of ‘perhaps three or four’ ‘real changes in human sentiment’ in history:

There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming – to wipe out of our minds, for a moment, nearly all that makes the food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism. We must conceive of our world emptied of that ideal of ‘happiness’ – a happiness grounded on successful romantic love – which still supplies the motive of our popular fiction.

The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis

In this I think he is entirely correct. As anyone who has had to wade through this blog will know, I am very much a product of this Romanticism. I think in many respects it has been a great poison, a philosophical wrong turn, if it is meaningful to say that of something so long and deeply embedded and productive of so many things I love and of which I am made. I’m sure we would have found other poisons. Nevertheless.

My perception is that the self is now so heavily and transparently commoditised, and has, due to many forces, from the internet’s ability to allow people of common feeling and synthetically constructed identity to find each other, and from the increased questioning and exploration of gender and sexual identity, that we are coming out of a great tyranny of Romanticism and the Self, which is in the process of being liquidated. In this respect I feel like the opposite of the canary in the mine, more like a useless but sympathetic confessor of the old errors to the new generations: The Last of the True Romantics saying: ‘this is the nature of the gas which you must expunge so you may breathe and kill my confreres and the things I love’.

There will of course be a great deal of psychological suffering and social conflict born of this liberation. To lose the Self is suicidal – I mean that in a very compressed way of course – a way of saying entire edifice of psychological thinking is built round it. We should be thankful for yards Deleuze and Guattari have put in in this respect.

Apocalypses usefully describe the conditions of change by which the old world ends – oh fearful relativism! – and the new one begins.

This is not why I sat down to write this though. What other three or four ‘real changes in human sentiment’ do we think Lewis means? The word ‘sentiment’ must be relevant here. I might otherwise go for the turn from feudalism to global capitalism – Braudel memorably cites a 15th century(? iirc – i can never find the reference) muleteer on a road from one town to another as ‘the first capitalist’. Or the enlightenment and science coming out of the cauldron of the 17th century, again, the birth pangs of which are memorably collected in Paul Hazard’s wonderful La crise de la conscience européenne, 1680-1715.

But what are those real changes in sentiment (CS Lewis explicitly excludes Christianity’s role, at least in this formation of romance from the equation)? It feels like something must be coming from the industrial revolution, the sense of class belonging, the emergence of the middle class perhaps? Nothing so purely aesthetic as Romanticism though (oh yes of course it had its expressions within capitalism and colonialism). National identity perhaps?

Answers on a postcard.

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