Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Dream of Perfection 2


It would seem that the dream of perfection, to this writer at least, is fundamentally romantic in origin.  I realise that using this term is anachronistic because the dream or even drive to perfection existed for many centuries before "romanticism" per se as a term was invented.  A good friend and former confrere of mine one Rev. Pádraig Daly, O.S.A. used always tell us Augustinian students (I was in the Augustinian Order for three years from 1983-6, but never took any serious vows) that the thrust to monasticism was essentially a Romantic urge.  Pádraig knew also that he was using the term "Romantic" anachronistically, though I understood his point.

The monastic urge is truly Romantic.  Let me firstly define this term.  The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Alan Bullock and Oliver Stallybrass, eds., Fontana Books, 1977) defines Romanticism thus:

"In the Arts generally and in Philosophy , an overwhelming international tendency which swept across Western Europe and Russia at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, in reaction against earlier Neo-Classicism, Mechanism and Rationalism...an assertion of the primacy of the perceiver in the world he perceives; hence theories of the imagination as such are central to it...[It] is usually held to have originated in French (especially Rousseau) and German (notably Herder, Kant, Fichte, Schelling) thought...to have spread to England and then to America." (opus citatum, pp. 548-549)

To put it simply, one finds that periods which stress the primacy of the rational are followed by periods which stress the ascendancy of the emotions. In reaction to the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment the Romantic movement was born.  It stressed strong emotions such as trepidation, horror, awe before the great works of nature, a new sense of the importance of the individual, a deep appreciation of intuition and the beginnings of an understanding of the unconscious which Freud would later exploit to the full.  Romanticism then, while not denying the importance of the rational, reached beyond it to explore the irrational and the non-rational elements of life.  Hence, there is a new appreciation of the exotic, one might even say the weird.  We get the rise of the Gothic novel with the likes of such writers as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) etc which exploited this new concern for the really horrific and frightening.  Artists, writers, musicians, composers and explorers came to the fore.  We get a new sense of the importance of the individual person and the importance of the individual imagination in interpreting the world for him or herself.  Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism.

To finish this post I wish to return to one of my favourite English Romantic writers, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the quintessential philosopher of English Romanticism and the friend and collaborator with William Wordsworth. (1770-1850)  As well as being a philosopher he was an accomplished poet, a great critic and an excellent editor of journals.  Added to that, he was a committed walker and mountain climber - typically Romantic!   Coleridge's mind was constantly bombarded with intuitions and ideas.  He was essentially a creative genius who ruled nothing out as grist for his writer's mill.  I feel and believe that Coleridge was possessed of a singular desire towards perfection, which I have described both in my last post and at the start of this present one. At the university of Cambridge he was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey.  Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon to be abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehanna River .  This was almost a sort of "religious community" though obviously with a more artistic impulse, but it was based on the ideal of sharing everything in common.  The idea in pantisocracy was that all the members of the commune would share in the government of it.  Coleridge once said that his young mind had early "become habituated to the vast" because his father used bring him out walking late at night to view the night sky.  He was thus open to seeking and searching for the "unity behind the multeity" as he called it - the One God or Force behind all of nature.  One could cogently argue that this urge is akin to the mystical urge as is found in the great mystics of the Catholic tradition and indeed those of the Protestant traditions, not to mention those gurus in the Eastern traditions of meditation.

All of the foregoing paragraph suggests a desire for the perfect, or even more romantically conjures up dreams of the perfect - dreams which bathe themselves in the very waters of Utopia.


Can any piece of art capture the dream of perfection better than Rodin's famous and most beautiful piece of sculpture - The Kiss? I took this photograph October 2007 while visiting my friends Mat and Isa in Paris.

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