Right but Repulsive or Wrong but Wromantic?

Dreamers express our feelings but then betray us all

Liberty Leading the People; Eugene Delacroix, 1830

One of the many paradoxes about our frightening culture wars is that western society, which constantly congratulates itself on being the acme of rationality and freedom, has in fact abandoned reason for emotion and freedom for coercion.

We can see this on display all around us. It’s in the baleful grip of identity politics, based on the dogma that people’s feelings trump objective truth. It’s in the witch-hunts against ideas or opinions which dissent from approved left-wing positions. It’s in the widespread following for loopy conspiracy theories, whether against the Jews or politicians said to be inflating the dangers of Covid-19 purely to seize control of people’s lives. 

It’s in the widespread support for Black Lives Matter as an “anti-racist” cause, whereas it is in fact an anti-white, anti-west revolutionary movement. It’s in the widespread support for Extinction Rebellion as a campaign to “save the planet” from man-made global warming, whereas in fact there’s no reputable scientific evidence that anything is happening to the climate that diverges from warming and cooling patterns over the millennia while Extinction Rebellion is an anti-west, anti-capitalist revolutionary movement. And so on, and on.

A new series on BBC2 by Sir Simon Schama, The Romantics and Us, tells us correctly that our current trends aren’t new but have roots in the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was a revolt against convention and authority, elevating the rights of the individual and downplaying reason in favour of emotion and sensibility.

As I wrote in my Times column today, Schama is characteristically spellbinding. Leading us on a tour of magnificent paintings, and with some wonderful readings of sublime poetry, he outlines the often remarkable ways in which the ideas of some two centuries ago sound like the signature motifs of the modern era.

He starts with the 1830 painting by Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, which became the poster symbol of the 1968 student uprising in Paris. This painting depicts a woman personifying liberty leading people over a barricade while bearing aloft the Tricolour, the flag of the French Revolution where he suggests Romanticism began.

As Schama observes, the painting is suffused with the same Romantic passions for liberty, sexual equality and the rights of man that were to be championed by the Marxist soixante-huitards two centuries later. Those students covered the streets of Paris with revolutionary art, churned out by the Ecole des Beaux Arts where Delacroix had studied. A key slogan was “l’imagination au pouvoir”, or “all power to the imagination” — the Romantic belief that the world could be remade through creativity and passionate emotion.

This belief animated not just painters such as Delacroix but a galaxy of 18th and 19th century writers, poets and musicians — some of whom inspired creative artists of the sixties and still so do even today.

William Blake, for example, who used his poetry and drawings to target the industrial world’s dehumanising obedience to reason and extol in its place the dominance of passion and the imagination, inspired beat poets and rock bands in the 1960s while lines from his poems sprang up as graffiti all over London. And as Schama demonstrates, his poetry trips off the tongue even of some today’s young rap artists.

Shelley wrote his blistering poem The Mask of Anarchy in protest at the 1819 massacre of Peterloo, when a crowd in Manchester demanding human rights was attacked by armed militiamen. Wordsworth, in his great poem Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, celebrated nature as a way in which he could “see into the life of things” and connect to both memory and the rest of humanity. 

But Schama doesn’t trace the Romantic movement back to its origins. And that might explain why he ignores their legacy in today’s ideological witch-hunts.

As he does acknowledge, the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality morphed into the Terror with its bloody toll of those considered to be “enemies of the people” who went in huge number to the guillotine. 

But the reason that revolution went so badly wrong was because it was rooted in the French Enlightenment. And that had characteristics very different from the Enlightenment in England and Scotland.

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed in her book The Roads to Modernity, the 18th and 19th-century cult of Romantic sensibility was associated in Britain with conscience. Beauty was associated with generous behaviour, poetry with moral truth.

It was only the British Enlightenment, though, where compassion was viewed as social virtue. In France, the Enlightenment wasn’t so benevolent. 

In his novel Emile, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, a founding father of Romanticism, identified compassion as a form of self-love. Not surprisingly, the contemporary Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith recognised that Rousseau’s morality was no more than a device for obtaining power over others.

And so no surprise either that the thinking of Rousseau, who extolled the natural world, the tyrannical notion of the “general will” and who wanted to “force” people to be free, spawned eventually the German Romantic movement from which developed both communism and fascism.

The reason for this great difference over compassion and morality is another thing that Schama doesn’t mention. Unlike British Enlightenment thinkers, for whom the exercise of reason went hand-in-hand with Biblical morality, French Enlightenment thinkers were viscerally hostile to religion. 

Detaching reason from the morality of the Bible, they therefore junked its principles of truth, justice and compassion. Instead of regarding mankind as the pinnacle of divine creation, they enshrined man as a god. Human reason was thence deployed in the service of self-interest. The cult of the individual became introspective, subjective and then irrational.

By contrast, Britain’s Enlightenment thinkers married reason and feeling. Edmund Burke, whose protest against the French revolutionary terror cemented him as the father of conservative empiricism, also wrote that poetry, painting and other arts were suffused with sympathy for the plight of others. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith placed the highest priority on “fellow-feeling” created by compassion, sympathy and benevolence. It was “altogether absurd and unintelligible,” he wrote, “to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason”.  

Today’s orthodoxies, however, the heirs to Romanticism and the French revolutionary sans-culottes, are all militantly hostile to Biblical morality. Which is why they are self-centred, heartless and turn truth and reason inside out. 

Schama doesn’t acknowledge this. He doesn’t trace any line of descent to today’s “cancel culture” and the dictatorial denunciation of any idea deemed to contradict progressive wisdom — even though such coercive moralising is surely so reminiscent of the French revolutionary Committee of Public Safety. 

Despite today’s demonisation, harassment and expulsions of academics and others who transgress the diktats of “woke” culture, the one contemporary visual image the series conjures up to illustrate the Jacobins’ concept of “enemies of the people” is the Daily Mail headline which used that phrase to damn the English judges who passed a ruling deemed unhelpful to Brexit. 

The train of thought here is that Brexit was bad because it was about nationalism – and nationalism, created by Romanticism, is either bad or very bad. Its very bad side leads to fascism; its less bad side is, apparently, just “nostalgia” for a vanished culture giving rise to an unassuaged sense of belonging. 

So references to nationalism are illustrated by flashed-up images of Donald Trump, Hitler, Nigel Farage and migrants in boats. 

Schama does acknowledge the human need to belong to a group, to identify with a particular tribe, culture, set of myths or traditions. However, he says, if the aim of the Romantics was to connect us with the deeper truths of what we all are, their purpose was not to divide us but remind us that despite all our differences the ultimate goal is universal harmony.

That sounds unexceptionable. But then he presents, as the counterpoint to Parry’s great patriotic hymn Jerusalem (with words by William Blake) being belted out by pre-Covid (and pre-woke BBC) audiences at the Last Night of the Proms, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – the signature tune of the EU, whose very existence is predicated on erasing the individual cultures to which people yearn to belong.

The paradox is that universalism divides us; it’s only if we feel secure in what we are that we can reach out to others. The Romantic movement didn’t invent love of country, or the passion for national independence created by the desire to live according to one’s own culture free of invasion or oppression. 

It wasn’t “nostalgia for a vanished culture” which led millions to vote for Brexit or propel Donald Trump into the White House. It was the ancient, deep-rooted and universal desire to defend the right to be what we are, and to share that identity with others with whom we can make common cause.

The series gives rise to an unspoken question. Since Romantic idealism almost always ends in failure or results in the opposite of its professed ideals, why does it continue to attract so many dreamers to its world of fantasy? 

It’s probably because it nevertheless articulates what we all most deeply share: feelings such as grief, longing, love or intimations of mortality. Moreover, the imagination is indeed a potent source of human sympathy. So Romanticism seems generous and inclusive. Which is why the grim realism of some who stand against it is so unappealing. But often, they alone stand against tyranny. The dreamers betray us all.  

As Sellar and Yeatman put it in their immortal 1066 and All That, people in the English civil war were either “Right but Repulsive” or “Wrong but Wromantic”.  

So why has Schama romanticised Romanticism? Because he himself is a Romantic. Which is why, through his great gifts as a teacher and communicator, his series is a source of enchantment. The heart leaps at his account of  “thoughts that lie too deep for tears”, even though the head may shake in sorrowful reproof.

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