Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Writing the Self: Chapter 7 Rousseau and Romanticism (Now things get interesting...)

Chapter 7 is titled, "Rousseau and Romanticism". Heehs begins the chapter describing the shifting perspective of the Enlightenment, and he positions Rousseau as a major mark on this philosophical timeline: “Kant was the intellectual zenith of the Enlightenment, Rousseau the bridge between the Enlightenment and Romanticism” (97). In regard to how those two movements ended and began, Heehs explains how the enlightenment was a time of reason, but as everyone knows, core values such as faith, are difficult to toss out. Ironically, Kant, and many others, during the Enlightenment aimed to “reason” through how to keep their faith in an age of science. Kant asserts that while abstracts such as God, can never be be fully known, humans should live as though these abstractions exist. This sort of hedged bet seemed to occur at the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism. Heehs explains, “these two movements-- one seeking universal principles, the other encouraging individual self-expression- together laid the groundwork for the modern Western world” (97).
Rousseau is interesting because he was both a champion of the Enlightenment with his contributions to the Encyclopedie, but he also refuted the idea that progress in the arts and sciences would “lead to improved human society” (97). Basically, Rousseau contends that man is essentially “good”, but institutions have made him “bad,” which is a thread essential in Romanticism. Even Rousseau's Confessions aim to show that his “bad” qualities or shameful actions are actually based on good intentions, so his personal writing differs from Augustine, for example. The transformation, or conversion narrative, is unnecessary as Rousseau is already enlightened.
Of course, this “inner light” (very much enlightenment) in every human “takes precedence over scriptural revelation and priestly meditation” (Heehs 100), and it is this “follow your heart” mentality that still permeates the Western world today.
Heehs then examines the beginning of the English Romantic movement. Writers such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and of course the esoteric Romantic, William Blake, helped shape what Western romanticism is all about: the individual, nature, the divine creation of imagination and the potential for greatness (genius or "God", really) in the common man. With these attributes in mind, it is no wonder that the poet was held in high regard. The poet was not only a creator, but to many like Keats, the poet was a creator of self. The possibilities were explosive. 
The chapter ends with a nice summary of the impact of the English Romantic movement, and I think it's worth a long quote here: “Before Romanticism, it was taken for granted that human nature, human values, human interests were fixed quantities. The Romantic creators showed that this was not so. Human beings could change their natures, decide their values, determine their aims. This altered the whole idea of what constituted a self and radically changed the relationship between self and society” ( 112).  
Here's where things take take a pretty permanent turn, folks. If Romantics saw themselves as self-creators, then the modern diary, as we know it (or even social media for that matter), is a pretty Romantic notion. Reading a diary, viewing the edits and the second thoughts, shows that self-writing is a tool for perpetually creating and re-creating the self.
One of my goals is to look at American Romanticism and the diary genre, so this chapter served me well as a refresher on the beginnings of the movement across the pond. A "Romantic" characteristic concerning self that is more discussed in American Romanticism is isolation, or more specifically, solitude, and Heehs will most likely pick this up in an upcoming chapter.

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