Hegel and the Romantic Movement

Hegel and the Romantic Movement

First I should apologize for the long interval from my last post, which has been spent in converting, rewriting and updating web-pages to free pdf ebooks: Verse Writing, Literary Theory, A Background to Critical Theory, amounting to a rather unbelievable half million words, all available from Ocaso Press at http://www.ocasopress.com.

Now to the post. I have been reading Jerry Muller’s admirable book on the origins of capitalism, or rather how capitalism has been analyzed, defended and extended by generations of European thinkers. {1} In his chapter on Hegel, Muller identifies the Romantic notion of freedom, which plays a large part in Modernist and Post-modernist writing. He says:

‘In this Romantic conception, freedom is measured by ‘the extent to which it diverges from what is universally acknowledged and valid and manages to invent something particular for itself’.

That divergence from the socially valid and acknowledged is just what so much of contemporary poetry attempts, and explains, I fear, why so little of it is readable, or has anything worthwhile to say. Artistic independence has become an indulgence, a novelty for novelty’s sake, and that novelty has turned its face away from what counted as art before. Most contemporary poems don’t ‘work’ because they fly in the face of millennia of practical experience, what has been found to be best by centuries of trial and error. Such poems are ‘interesting’ to begin with, but become tedious in bulk, and in a world where ‘anything goes’ and no poem by an established name is better than another by an equally established name, all have to be marketed as luxury goods are – i.e. by a conspiracy of appealing irrelevance, without price wars or negative advertising. Hence the uniformly bland and unhelpful reviews, which tell us nothing about the quality of the work, or often its inherent subject matter. Sophisticated but empty word-spinning is what most come down to, particularly in the more ‘prestigious’ literary journals.

Hegel was not against individual freedom. He worked hard to found the Prussian state on rational principles where men (including Jews) were treated equally before the law – i.e. in opposition to the Junker class (nobles) who wished to reassert the old social order under the guise of a natural paternalism. But he did not regard someone who remained a slave to his passions as a free person. Individuals live in societies and are therefore not entirely able to please themselves. ‘A good life’, he asserts, ‘is one in which we are formed by institutions into self-conscious individuals, and into responsible members of institutions that we value because we understand that in the long run they function to make us into the sort of people we want to be.’

If we substitute ‘traditions’ for ‘institutions’, we can see the high cost of Modernism and current experimental work. Our literary activities do not make us responsible for what we say, and do not make us into the people we wish to be. And because there is no socially responsible tradition to be built on, one craze quickly follows another. Like art critics defending museum purchases on the grounds of ‘importance of the movement’, pundits are continually delving into the entrails of theory to announce a new departure in writing. Indeed they must do in turning out their articles and books that will eventually gain them tenure at a ivy-league university. It is what can be read into contemporary poems that makes them valuable to academia, and not any intrinsic worth per se. Indeed, in seeing what academics select for poetry anthologies, {2} and turn out themselves as translations, {3} even the most charitable among us must wonder if the aesthetic sense has not been wholly extinguished by those long years of climbing the ladder of academic status.

Another gloomy post. Let’s hope your reviewer can soon put an end to these mordant reflections, and find something to capture his enthusiasm.

End Notes

1. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought by Jerry Z. Muller. Anchor Books, 2003.
2. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Chosen and Edited by David Lehman. O.U.P., 2006.
3. McClatchy, J.D. Horace The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Princeton Univ. Press, 2002.

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