The 19th century in European history is almost always labeled
Age of Progress--and with good reason. I talked to you before the
midterm about the tremendous achievements in science and technology
made in that century--and also, the seeming progress of a different
sort. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Europe was
relatively peaceful. The Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War
were not nearly as devastating as earlier wars like the Thirty Years'
War. Further, national unification in places like Germany and Italy,
the spread of representative government, and the economic expansion
brought about by laissez-faire economics made it seem like things were
on track to get better and better and better.
It's no wonder, then, the the 19th century was an optimistic
and age in which there was a great deal of faith in inevitable human
progress. That belief in progress was reflected by most 19th
century thinkers, artists writers, and musicians. Yet it is not
at all clear that what some of these people considered progress was
necessarily a good thing after all.
The dominant European artistic movement in the first part of the 19th century, Romanticism, is a good example of the 19th centuries faith in progress--and what might go wrong when "progressive" ideas are carried a bit too far.
Romanticism developed in large part as a reaction to the 18th
century's over-emphasis of reason. Romantics thought
that real progress came, not through reason, but through
the release/expression of our emotions. For the Romantic,
nature was good, and man's natural impulses were good. What
was bad was that which was artificial, that which inhibited
the emotions and destroyed nature.
Particularly this was so for the type of individual the Romantics called the genius. The restraint of one's natural impulses was bad in general, but for the genius in particular, restraint of natural emotions and instincts was bad.
Now what was the result of all this emphasis on the love of nature, the expression of our deepest emotions, and the removal of artificial societal restraints? First of all, some of the most impressive works of art, music, and literature ever created.
In music, the Romantic movement produced Chopin, Wagner,
Tschakovsky, Liszt, Schumann, Schubert, and any movement that
produces a musician like Chopin has to be doing something right!
Romantic music really does affect our emotions. What to create a
feeling of excitement? Use something like Rossini's William Tell
Overture. Want to create a romantic mood? How about
Tschaikovsky's sleeping beauty waltz. Want a scary scene, a
sense of danger, or a sense of the mysterious? The Romantic
composers have plenty to offer.
In literature, too, the Romantic movement produced some
exceedingly impressive stuff. The novels of Alexander Dumas and
Victor Hugo, the plays of Victor Hugo and Goethe (sometimes) are
examples of just how moving the works of the Romantic writers can
be. Perhaps even more impressive, the works of the Romantic
Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Blake: writers who produced --some of finest
poetry in English
language, poetry that displays the whole range of human emotions.
There's Shelley's line, "I am Ozymandias, king of kings, look on me ye
mighty and despair," a line that expresses well the idea that all human
effort, even the greatest, eventually crumbles away to nothing.
Then there are Keats lines in Ode to a Grecian Urn, "Beauty is truth,
truth beauty--that is
ye know on earth or need to know" and "A thing of beauty is a joy
forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into
nothingness." Another Keats line ("But O for the touch of a
vanished hand, and
the sound of a voice that is still) expresses the longing for a lost
loved one about as well as it can be expressed.
The Romantic poets express feelings of sadness, joy, mystery, and--especially--the love of beauty and of nature: all expressed as well as the human tongue can manage. Very impressive.
In painting, too, the Romantic movement produced some very
impressive work. The paintings of John Constable,
Joseph Mallord Turner, Eugene Delacroix, and Theodore Gericault
discussed in class give us (respectively) the love of nature, the love
of nature with an appreciation of the power of human technology, love
of liberty and sympathy for the oppressed, and a greater sense of what
it is like to be caught up in a great human tragedy.
But the Romantic world view is a potential source of trouble. Remember, the Romantics viewed emotion as good, especially the greatest of all emotions, love. Now the idea that love was the most important thing of all is an old idea. The apostle Paul especially taught that love is the most important thing of all--but what the Romantics had in mind was not the agape love described by Paul but what the Greeks called eros--sexual love. The romantics regarded sexual love as the answer to all one's problems, the main thing in life.
Now this is plausible enough at first, and I suppose that most people have some times in their lives when this does seem to be the truth. But there are some real problems here. Suppose one finds the love of one's life and has that passionate love affair. Are all of life's problems over? Not by a long shot!
So most of us would conclude: well, maybe sexual love
isn't really the answer to all life's problems--but not the
Romantics. Sexual love
must be answer, they thought, and so, if this particular relationship
meet all my needs, then--well, I must have the wrong partner. And of
course the new partner
supplies everything you need to make life happy. Except that
he/she doesn't. And since sexual love must be the answer, the
problem must be, once again, having the wrong partner. So you
move on again. And by this time, of course, not only are your problems
not solved, they are getting worse.
Trying to find the happiness that constantly eluded them, the
Romantics found themselves constantly flitting from partner to partner.
It didn't make them happy--quite the reverse. I've told you
several times that one of the keys to human happiness is a
stable marriage--and the romantics deliberately chose not to
form stable marriages. The idea of confining sex to marriage was
bad, an artificial restraint. People should
need artificial contracts to hold them together. Well, maybe they
shouldn't, but, in practice, they do--and the Romantics, strong
emotions were, went through broken relationship after
broken relationship after broken relationship. And of course
the emphasis on emotion only made things worse. Because
what do you feel like when the love of your life leaves you?
Shooting yourself? Well, that's a natural impulse isn't
it? And the societal
taboos against suicide, the idea that suicide is a mortal sin?
Well, that's just an rtificial restraint on the emotions, so if you
feel like shooting yourself (or more likely drinking yourself to
death)--do it. I don't exaggerate: this
what really happened often enough among the Romantics. Goethe's play
"The Sorrows of Young Werther" had to be shut down by the authorities
because it touched off a wave of suicides by young men who, like
Werther, had lost the love of their lives.
The Romantic composers, artists, and writers often lived
miserable lives. Percy Shelley ran off with a 16 year old girl to
Scotland where they could marry without her parents' permission, left
her when she was pregnant with their 2nd child and took up with another
16 year old girl and gets her pregnant. His abandoned wife
commits suicide, so he is free to marry Mary (author of Frankenstein,
the way), but he tires of Mary and has an affair with her
stepsister--whom he shared with Lord Byron. Anyway, Shelley's
life--if not solitary--was nasty, brutish, and short: he was only 29
when he died. Byron was an even nastier piece of work in his
personal life, carrying on dozens of affairs with both men and women
until his own untimely death at 36. At least Bryon's death was
somewhat heroic: he contracted a fatal illness while working for the
cause of Greek freedom. Always seems sad in any case that people
who produced so many works of beautfy lived such ugly and unhappy lives
In the latter part of the 19th century, Romanticism began
to give way to another trend, Realism. The Realists believed that
human progress came through selfishness, an idea they derived from
Charles Darwin and his increasingly popular idea of natural
selection. Just as members of all other species improved their
species future by fighting tooth and claw for the own right to
survive and reproduce, so members of the human species would help human
progress by looking out for number one, being as selfish as possible.
The realists, then, believers in inevitable progress. Each individual,
although selfish to the core and looking
out for solely for his own interests, was at the same time
doing something that, in the long run, was good for the
species as a whole. The key to human progress, then, was simply
to act selfishly.
Now there is something a bit strange about this. Most of the time selfishness looks like it does far more harm than good. And the realists were no fools. They knew that, quite often enough, people acting selfishly brought about nothing good at all, either for themselves or other people. Why is this? The realists argued that this was because people simply did not know where their real interests lay. It wasn't the selfishness that was the problem: it was the fact that people often did not see, or at least did not see fully, the consequences of their actions. The key, then, to getting selfishness to work properly for the advancement of the human species was to get people to understand more completely the real consequences of their actions. What was needed was what they called "enlightened self interest."
Now how do you enlighten people? Education? Well, that's a start. But for realists it was the artists and writers who could do the best job showing people what reality was really like--and this was the task they took on themselves. Realist writers did their best to depict life as it actually is in their short stories and novels. They did their best to present realistic situations in their plays and paintings. Most frequently, depictions were of the seemier side of life--showing the affect of drunkeness, poverty, etc. They idea was that by showing these things, by showing unpleasant realities, people would face up to the true consequences of their actions. They would continue to act selfishly--but their selfishness would be directed along more constructive lines.
Interestingly enough, the realists believed that people would *have* to become better once they understood the true state of reality. They did not believe in free will. They believed that everyone simply took whatever course seemed most advantageous to them--and that once you showed them that the true advantage lay in acting well--they would have to do what's right.
Now the Realist movement did not produce the same kinds of
works that the Romantic movement did. The works of
the great "Realist" writers, people like Chernechevsky and
Gerhart Hauptmann, are often bleak and not always as entertaining as
they might be. But Realist
ideas have had a great deal of impact on modern world,
standing behind all sorts of reform movements. And many
people today still advocate the realist solution to problems.
An example of this: values clarification, with which some of you
And in literature (though not in the visual arts) Realism remains an
extremely important literary style.
In literature, Realism and Romanticism aren't always easy to
distinguish, and some of the greatest 19th century writers reflect
elements of both styles. Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Balzac and
other are sometimes called "Romantic Realists." Antother writer
the "Romantic Realist" tradition, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Dostoysky's first novel, Poor Folk, is a good example of his debts both the the Romantics and the Realists. It's a sentimental tear-jerker, combining a Romantic emphasis on emotion with a Realist depiction of life among some of the poorer people of Russia. But Dostoyevsky wanted to do more than just write. He joined a radical socialist movement that was determined to bring about major changes in Russian society. He didn't get very far. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death. A reprieve came just in time, but he still ended up in a Siberian prison. The experience changed him completely. He merged from prison a bitter man--but not so much bitter against the Tsar--bitter against the ideas that he felt were destroying him and those around him--the ideas of men like Hegel, Darwin, Comte, and the Realists.
And he began to write again--producing probably the
finest novels ever written: The Possessed, The Idiot, The
Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment. I really would
like to have had you read some of these books, but, unfortunately, they
average about 500 pages, and only a few of you would have bothered to
do the reading had I assigned it. So
instead, I assign a couple of shorter works, works in which his ideas
come across clearly
enough--thought not, perhaps as fully as in the longer novels.
Dostoyevsky, in a way, is a beliver in progress--but not like
Realists or the Romantics. Dostoyesky believes that true progress
comes when we do something about the evils of the human heart.
There used to be an old radio show: The Shadow. The announcer
would begin each episode with a question: who knows what evil lurks in
the hearts of men? And the answer would come: the Shadow. I
think there is a better answer: Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky is the
great novelist of sin and redemption, a novelist who explores the evils
of the human heart and suggests what might be done to remedy those
"The Dream of Ridiculous Man," the first story I ask you to read, is a simple enough story. The nameless narrator describes a transforming event in his life-- a dream. But a dream that came about in a rather odd way. Before the dream, he had a meaningless, unhappy life--so meaningless and unhappy he wanted to kill himself. But he couldn't bring himself even to do that: he has no motivation at all for anything. But one day, he sees a star and decides: today's the day, the day I kill myself. Why? No reason at all. Dostoysact illogically. But something stops him, a little girl crying out about her mommy. He doesn't help her--but it bothers him that he doesn't. We shouuld this be? If he's going to be dead, what difference does it make whether he helps her or not? He decides he can't kill himself until he figures this one out. And while thinking it over, he falls asleep--and dreams.
And as he dreams, he gets some surprises. The first: he dreams that he has shot himself not in the head, as he intended, but in the heart. Dostoyevsky suggests to us that our real problems are heart problems, not head problems. Then another surprise: he's still aware of things. Suicide didn't end it all. And this annoys him--he wanted annihilation, to cease to be, for everything to cease to be: but it doesn't work that way. And then a pleasant surprise: taken to another world, where he is happy: where everyone is happy. Why? Because of advanced technology? No--simply because everyone loves one another. That, says Dostoyevsky would be a truly wonderful world.
But next comes the typical Dostoyevsky twist: the
Ridiculous Man ends up corrupting this marvelous new
world. Note the progress of evil:
This should sound familiar beacuse it's the basic sequence of
in the early chapters of Genesis.
But this is not the end of story. The Ridiculous Man wakes up
an answer: a simple answer that he thinks would solve the whole
problem. The answer? Love others as you love
the response to his message? People laugh at him.
Dostoyevsky's message: yes, there could be progress, we could lead happy lives. The answer is simple enough, but we just won't put it into practice. And if anyone tells us what the answer is and tries to put it into practice, if anyone truly tries to love others as themselves, we treat him like a fool, we mock him, and we ridicule him. And if that doesn't work, of course, we crucify him.