Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Effortless Romantic Genius. — “One may note, as I have said, even in the early figures in the movement a tendency to play to the gallery, a something that suggests the approach of the era of the lime-light and the big headline. Rousseau himself has been called the father of yellow journalists. There is an unbroken development from the early exponents of original genius down to cubists, futurists and post-impressionists and the corresponding schools in literature. The partisans of expression as opposed to form in the eighteenth century led to the fanatics of expression in the nineteenth and these have led to the maniacs of expression of the twentieth. The extremists in painting have got so far beyond Cézanne, who was regarded not long ago as one of the wildest of innovators, that Cézanne is, we are told, ‘in a fair way to achieve the unhappy fate of becoming a classic’. Poe was fond of quoting a saying of Bacon’s that ‘there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion’. This saying became known in France through Baudelaire’s rendering of Poe and was often ascribed to Poe himself. It was taken to mean that the stranger one became the nearer one was getting to perfect beauty. And if we grant this view of beauty we must admit that some of the decadents succeeded in becoming very beautiful indeed. But the more the element of proportion in beauty is sacrificed to strangeness the more the result will seem to the normal man to be, not beauty at all, but rather an esoteric cult of ugliness. The romantic genius therefore denounces the normal man as a philistine and at the same time, since he cannot please him, seeks at least to shock him and so capture his attention by the very violence of eccentricity.
     The saying I have quoted from Bacon is perhaps an early example of the inner alliance between things that superficially often seem remote — the scientific spirit and the spirit of romance. Scientific discovery has given a tremendous stimulus to wonder and curiosity, has encouraged a purely exploratory attitude towards life and raised an overwhelming prepossession in favor of the new as compared with the old. Baconian and Rousseauist evidently come together by their primary emphasis on novelty. The movement towards a more and more eccentric conception of art and literature has been closely allied in practice with the doctrine of progress — and that from the very dawn of the so-called Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the havoc that has been wrought by the transfer of the belief that the latest thing is the best — a belief that is approximately true of automobiles — from the material order to an entirely different realm. The very heart of the classical message, one cannot repeat too often, is that one should aim first of all not to be original, but to be human, and that to be human one needs to look up to a sound model and imitate it. The imposition of form and proportion upon one’s expansive impulses which results from this process of imitation is, in the true sense of that much abused word, culture. Genuine culture is difficult and disciplinary. The mediation that it involves between the conflicting claims of form and expression requires the utmost contention of spirit. We have here a clue to the boundless success of the Rousseauistic doctrine of spontaneity, of the assertion that genius resides in the region of the primitive and unconscious and is hindered rather than helped by culture. It is easier to be a genius on Rousseauistic lines than to be a man on the terms imposed by the classicist.”

Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919), pp.63-5.