Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passion, Romanticism, and the Imagination

The conservative ideology that came up against Romanticism, and the revolutions that accompanied it, was in part inspired by the fear that the ‘people’ were going to becomes slaves to their passions. Men like Edmund Burke were terrified that the “swinish multitude” (as he refered to the people)  were inherently less civilized and if given the opportunity to release their passions then society would regress into chaos. Conservative ideologists believed that the events of France confirmed their worst fears as the terror shattered the country and thousands fell victim to the dreaded guillotine.  As a result of a conservative backlash, radicalism largely died out in Britain during the course of the 1790s as even the Romantics began to fear an expansionist France. Some radicals, like John Thelwall and William Hazlitt went to great lengths to point out that the Revolution was pushed into its terrible excesses by the pressure put on it by other European powers, and there is certainly some merit in this position. And of course, the conservative forces overlooked the fact that the so-called ‘civilized’ classes had always been and continued to be brutal and blood-thirsty, and their power was not based on the fact that they were civilized and controlled their passions but was founded in their sadism and selfishness. A Romantic might argue that it was the repressed and perverted passions of the ruling class that had always been the problem, and at some level I think this is true. I believe that a central core of Romanticism is the idea that if we are properly in touch with our passions we will be enriched and empowered rather than turned into slaves. If we can embrace our positive passions in the context of genuinely ethical and loving behavior,  we will enrich ourselves beyond our sometimes prosaic imaginations. Meanwhile, the conservative ideology continues to operate in the realm of egoism in which the positive passions are repressed and their exuberant energy is given over to destructive partisanship and  self-aggrandizement.

To thirst and find no fill - to wail and wander

With short unsteady steps - to pause and ponder - 

To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle

Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle;

To nurse the image of unfelt caresses

Till dim imagination just possesses

The half-created shadow.


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