Claudia Moscovici

Teaching Baudelaire: Edward Kaplan’s New Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil (1861) is known around the world as one of the most important collections of modern poetry. Influenced by Romanticism, Baudelaire (1821-1867) is not only an exquisite poet, but also one of the founders of modernism and the philosopher of modernity. Les Fleurs du Mal simultaneously evokes classic beauty and urban sensibility; true love and decadence; youth and decay; idealism and cynicism: all this and much more in one intoxicating bouquet of poems.

As contemporary as some these themes may be in the openness of our culture, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal can also seem daunting and distant to American students who may have little background in nineteenth-century French culture or may need some help decoding the nuances of Baudelaire’s rich vocabulary.

Professor Edward K. Kaplan’s new and exciting edition of Baudelaire’s poems  bridges the temporal and linguistic gap between American students today and nineteenth-century France. His European Masterpieces Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (Newwark, Delaware: Lingua Text, Ltd., 2010) includes a biographical and cultural introduction to Baudelaire and his times; translations of terms that American students are not likely to know, supplemented by a French-English glossary that offers more helpful translations of key terms. This accessible yet erudite edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, by a leading Baudelaire scholar and translator, will make Francophiles out of new generations of American students.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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November 29, 2010 Posted by | 19th century, Baudelaire, book review, Charles Baudelaire, Edward K. Kaplan, Les Fleurs du Mal, literary criticism, literature salon, modernism, Romantic aesthetics, Romantic poetry, Romanticism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Teaching Baudelaire: Edward Kaplan’s New Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil

The Postromantic Manifesto

Some artistic movements happen organically. The Impressionist and Fauve movements, for example, emerged naturally from the artists’ friendship and practice. The name and the aesthetic philosophy of Impressionism came almost as an afterthought, accidentally. Yet both the name and the concept stuck. An insulting word cast by an art critic about Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise became the seed that eventually gave this group of artists a recognizable image. Other artistic movements happen prescriptively. The Surrealists could not have been what they were without the philosophical structure and sometimes dogmatically narrow focus that the writer André Breton gave to their art. Today movements can come together in virtual space. The Internet connects artists from all corners of the world who would never have met, created together, seen that they share the same vision, become friends. This is how postromanticism happened. Before I met any of the artists, I had written about the aesthetic values contemporary art had lost and should attempt to recapture. I called that aesthetic “postromanticism” and posted it on the internet. Postromanticism as a movement, however, didn’t come into being until 2002, when one artist, the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, saw his art reflected in my words. Since then we have discovered dozens of artists who identify their art with our aesthetic vision. My book, Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, hardcover 2007, paperback 2010) introduces some of these artists and the postromantic movement. This brief essay will describe how it originated.

A logical way to explain the nature of postromantic art is to begin with its name. Surely with a name like postromanticism, this movement has something to do with Romantic art. Yet since we put the post- in there, it must also come after Romanticism and be contemporary in some way. Postromanticism is, indeed, primarily, but not exclusively, inspired by nineteenth-century Romantic art. Postromantic painters admire the art of Bouguereau, whose sensual, palpable images of angelic women and shepherd girls were eventually displaced by the less idealized style of the Impressionists. They also find inspiration in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, which shocked Victorian society only to stand the test of time as one of the period’s most interesting artistic legacies. Postromantic sculptors identify with the art of the sculptor Rodin, who revolutionized sculpture as the expression of passion, sensuality and emotion.

When I spoke to a journalist about postromantic art to offer an introduction to one of our collective exhibits, she raised several questions that were crucial to explaining this movement. She asked me: where is the “post” in postromanticism? What makes postromantic art original? What makes this group of individual artists scattered all over the world a movement? Here I will answer these questions.

1. Romantic in Inspiration

It’s relatively easy to point to the continuity between the Romantic and Postromantic movements. Like Romantic artists, the Postromantics capture human passion, sensuality and beauty in their works. They mirror and at the same time idealize visual reality. When you look at the sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto or Nguyen Tuan, you immediately detect the influence of Rodin. Similarly, Edson Campos’ paintings evoke the sensual purity of Maxfield Parrish and the allegorical narratives and elegance of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The postromantic artists, however, also incorporate other styles of art into their own. Which is why what renders them postromantic is not only the inspiration they find in the Romantic movement, but also the fact that like the Romantics, they privilege the expression of beauty, passion and sensuality in their art.

2. Original in Creation

The issue of originality is rather complicated. One might legitimately ask, how are these artists original when they clearly imitate styles of art that are at least two hundred years old? Moreover, haven’t modern styles of art—abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern installations, ready-mades, pastiches—displaced the tradition of art that imitates and idealizes reality? To explain why and how postromanticism is original, let’s see first what originality means. What makes art be original? As opposed to new? As opposed to a passing fad? As opposed to something that has mere shock-value?

The whole notion that art had to be above all else original began in the nineteenth-century, with the Impressionist movement. Artists such as Manet and Monet staked the value of art on its ability to go against the norms established by the Academy and the Salons. They presented reality in an entirely new way. As the famous French novelist Emile Zola explained, Manet and the Impressionists set the new standard for what makes art be artistic: originality, which implies not mere newness of style, but a relevant and revolutionary newness. A novelty, in other words, that is important to society. After Impressionism, modern art was perceived as provoking thought rather than only stimulating pleasure or emotion. And so art became, as the critic Arthur Danto puts it, increasingly conceptual.

Modern art—the trends of cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art and postmodern art—stakes its worth on establishing this relevant newness. However, contemporary art that continues the trends that began during the early twentieth-century can no longer take it for granted that they’re being new and relevant to their society. When Duchamp placed his urinal on exhibit in New York during the early twentieth-century, he was certainly shocking, not fully serious and arguably original. But anybody who does postmodern ready-mades and installations today will need to think critically about how his or her art is original. Doing what Duchamp did eighty years ago cannot be assumed to be cutting-edge nowadays. Similarly, when Jackson Pollock splattered paint on a canvas and helped establish New York as the epicenter of international art, he was controversial and original. Now the tradition of abstraction is eighty years old. Any artist who paints in an abstract style cannot automatically present his or her work as original, fresh and modern.

I haven’t yet established the originality of postromantic art, but I have shown that its competitors haven’t either. We’re all in the same boat. In fact, it’s arguably more new and different to find inspiration in styles of art that are three hundred years old than to imitate those that are fifty years old. Modernist trends are much more common and accepted by today’s artistic establishment. Does this mean that we should abandon looking for originality in contemporary art?

Absolutely not. Art today can still be original if it puts a new twist on whatever tradition in the history of art it follows and if it shows that this twist is still interesting and relevant to the society and culture of its own times. For art is even more about the public—promotion, sales, influence, consecration—than it is about the creative process and the individual artists.

To illustrate this point, I’ll borrow an analogy from the novelist and paradox-maker, Borges. Borges once wrote a story about an author, named Pierre Menard, who tried to rewrite the novel Don Quixote in the twentieth-century. Menard reproduced Cervantes’ text word by word. Yet from a certain perspective his novel was entirely different. When you transpose fiction into a whole new context, Borges illustrates, everything changes.

Cervantes was creating a whole new lay Spanish language that was unpretentious and easy to understand for his times. Writing in the same prose several centuries later, Menard, however, sounded stale and quaint to his readers. Furthermore, the social and religious assumptions Cervantes could take for granted, Menard had to learn with great effort by reading biography, history and learning the classical languages. Last but not least, while Cervantes’ novel fit with his context and established the tradition of novel writing, Menard’s Don Quixote stuck out like a sore thumb in the context of twentieth-century literature. By then readers were used to the train of thought style and fragmentation of modern fiction. In this context, a novel like Don Quixote seemed glaringly traditional. Borges’ story shows that art is never just its content, but is in large part a product of its social context. Writing and readers, art and the public, are inextricably intertwined. Which is why one can’t bring back the past exactly as it was even if one reproduces older styles down to their smallest details.

3. Sticking Out

Much like Menard’s twentieth-century version of Don Quixote, postromantic art deliberately sticks out against the background of contemporary art, so heavily dominated by modern and especially postmodern art. But postromantic art is not reactionary. Postromantic artists realize, as Borges’ parable illustrates, that bringing back nineteenth-century Romanticism intact would be an impossible goal. We do not wish to freeze any art movement in time.  Instead, postromantic artists preserve the best of tradition—by placing emphasis upon technical skill, beauty and passion—while still keeping up with the times—by using new media, being sensitive to our contemporary public and creating new styles.

I consider artistic movements to be not only chronological, or following one another in art history and then dissipating and dying forever. Rather, art is also, at the same time, “chronotopic” (to use Bakhtin’s famous formulation): new art is constantly fertilized by various former styles and movements, which it renews for its own context. Which is why you will discover postmodern pastiche mixed with a traditional techniques in the paintings of Edson Campos and David Graux and the use of new media—acrylics and fiber optic illumination—in the Rodin-like sculptures of Leonardo Pereznieto. Not to speak of the exquisite photography of Guido Argentini, which endows modern images with the beauty, immobility, expressivity and endurance of Romantic and modernist sculpture. In this balance between old and new lies our originality. We are new in our unique and harmonious combination of modern and traditional techniques. We are relevant in providing the sophistication critics seek with the beauty, passion and accessibility that the public prefers.

4.  The Postromantic Movement

Does the fact we’re original in some ways make us a movement? More generally, what makes something be an art movement? First, a movement has to include a significant number of artists, a group. Such a group needs to be formed by artists who have a reputation on their own, as individuals. Our movement, which has just begun to form, already includes dozens of artists from several countries, including Mexico, Brazil, the United States, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Romania and Italy. And we’re growing rapidly as more artists see the appeal of postromantic art.

Second, to be a movement, a group of artists has to propose some shared techniques and a cohesive vision. The postromantic artists do have that in common implicitly. My job as a writer is to help render what they have in common more obvious by articulating an aesthetic vision.

Third, and most importantly, a movement has to move. An art movement affects the public; is discussed by art critics and the media; adapts to society; is challenged and reacted against (otherwise it becomes complacent and stale); it spreads and mutates; is imitated or followed by other artists. We’re starting to meet this much tougher standard as well. The postromantic artists have had articles written on their art all over the world. They had several collective exhibits, including at the Biennale di Firenze, the art expo in Florence, Italy, where a section of the museum was devoted to postromantic art. However, what ultimately will make this movement move is you—our public and readers—for whom we paint, sculpt, photograph and write. It’s to you that we devote postromanticism, the art of passion.

Claudia Moscovici

Postromanticism.com


October 29, 2010 Posted by | aesthetics, art criticism, Claudia Moscovici, literature salon, literaturesalon, passion, postromanticism Claudia Moscovici, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, The Postromantic Manifesto | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Romantic Aesthetics: Wordsworth and Baudelaire

Romanticism connected the sentiment of passionate love to artistic expression perhaps more closely than any other literary movement by describing both as the undistorted expression of intense and genuine emotion. Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” applied not only to a new understanding of art, but also to a new understanding of human identity. In this succinct phrase, Wordsworth had challenged Neoclassical assumptions about the role of the artist and of art, the kind of audience art should affect and the values it should propose.

Each word chosen by Wordsworth is significant. If poetry is spontaneous, then it no longer needs to be guided by the rigid codes of Neoclassical art. If it’s an overflow springing from the artist’s imagination, then the artist is the most important part of the poetic process, since he’s the source of the overflow. If poetry expresses powerful feelings, then its representations of how feelings are produced and of their contexts–in nature as well as in emotional bonds of friendship or love–will affect how society perceives emotion. If the object of poetry is to express the poet’s powerful feelings, then the he or she is defined as someone with internal, psychological and emotive qualities rather than primarily in terms of his social position. If reality is conveyed through the poet’s imagination–and transformed by the poetry–then what matters most is not how accurately the poet conveys that reality, but rather how he or she distills it through his or her style, rendering it evocative, interesting and moving. Literature and poetry become above all else an expression of human emotion, and that emotion connects the modern self to the artistic medium of expression.

Perhaps it is this causal link between art and human emotion that contributes both to the splendor of Romanticism and to its vulnerability. For Modernist and Postmodernist writers would attack precisely these intimate connections between human identity, emotions and their poetic and passionate expressions. They suggest that it’s naïve and unfounded to assume that true emotions are the basis of human nature, that such a nature exists at all, that even if it exists, it can be communicated without distortion and, most importantly, that art should have anything to do with such lived experience. The Modernist valorization of women’s fashion and of the dandy, for example, offers a striking example of the assumption that it may be, in fact, the artificial constructions of art that guide the conventions we assume to be natural in life. Once human identity becomes freed from our understanding of nature, the expression of emotion, poetic or not, can no longer make direct claims to sincerity and authenticity. The expression of emotion may be just rhetorical or imitative rather than conveying what we truly feel.

Yet should we be so thoroughly convinced of the way Modernism and postmodernism describe the connection between emotion and art as opposed to the models offered by Romanticism? Is the link between emotion and art necessarily unfounded and naïve? To begin exploring this question, I will examine briefly two bookmarks of the Romantic movements: Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, the theoretical blueprint of Romanticism and excerpts from Baudelaire’s Salon de 1846, which inaugurates the beginnings of modernity. In so doing, I will emphasize the relevance of Romantic aesthetics today, hinting at the hidden continuities between the Romantic movement and current intuitions about the connection between emotion and art.

In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth elaborates what would become known as the underlying premises of British Romanticism. Although not systematic enough to be called a theory or philosophy of Romanticism, and although it speaks primarily of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s own poetry, this preface nonetheless sets the tone, in an eloquent and thoughtful manner, for the vaster and diverse Romantic movements which would follow. Furthermore, if as readers seasoned by the postmodern critiques of Romanticism, we expect Wordsworth’s aesthetics to be naïve, when reading the Preface we are pleasantly surprised. There’s nothing simplistic about Wordsworth’s model of artistic expression. At each step of describing the aesthetic process, Wordsworth is careful to emphasize its complexity. He does, indeed, mention not once, but twice that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet we must unpack this dense statement to see what it means. For not only does the author not assume art to spring directly from emotion, but also he does not conceive of its expression and impact upon readers in a naïve manner.

In the beginning of his essay, Wordsworth declares that “the principal object proposed myself in these Poems is to choose incidents and situations from common life” (392). His choice of subject is already original because it rejects the Neoclassical rule that poetry should focus primarily upon extraordinary events and characters. Wordsworth transforms not only the choice of subject of art, but also, and more fundamentally, the manner of its representation.

As we are aware, Neoclassical art had a mimetic orientation, in that it viewed art as an imitation of aspects of the universe. The key vehicle for this kind of imitation was visual: a picture was viewed as best approximating the object it imitated. Poetry was supposed to imitate painting by focusing upon visual imagery that produced a mental picture of the object it represented in the mind of the reader. Horace’s Ars Poetica, written in the first century B.C., and particularly his phrase ut pictura poesis, was interpreted by seventeenth-century authors as establishing a parallel between the two arts. However, no matter how hard they artists tried and how they were, neither pictorial nor written art could perfectly reproduce its object. In fact, all that could be claimed was that the artistic representation was like its object, or an analogue of it.

As M. H. Abrams observes in The Mirror and the Lamp, Neoclassical defenders of art solved this problem (of the gap between image and reality) by arguing that art is not an imitation of nature, but rather a selective and improved representation of its real or ideal essence. The representation is not less than the object it is supposed to depict, but on the contrary, better: hence the French phrase, la belle nature or beautiful nature. The objects represented are improved by the artist’s technique and craft, which in turn are perfected by the rules that govern his or her particular art form. In addition, the purpose of art as imitation was to elevate and instruct its readers; to please while also edifying them. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of objects represented by Neoclassical art: 1) objects of sense-perception (things we can see); and 2) objects of thought, such as the concepts of virtue and justice, whose representation was allegorical.

Wordsworth famously describes the radical transformation of both art and artist. He chooses as the object of art what he calls ordinary situations and men. Even more importantly, in his preface the artist takes on a new and more important role than ever before. In fact, the notion of the artist’s special sensibility and extraordinary talent elaborated earlier by Kant and emphasized by Wordsworth would become one of the key features of Romanticism. Unlike in the Kantian elaboration of artistic genius, however, Wordsworth’s description of the poet does not mystify the process of artistic creation. Wordsworth depicts that which has become a commonplace assumption about art ever since his Preface: namely, that the artist neither fully invents the fictional world he or she creates nor mirrors it exactly as is. Instead, artists and poets “throw over them [real people and events] a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (Preface, 392).

When art no longer serves the purpose of representing a world created by God and of conveying its meaning to others, the artist assumes a double nature. On the one hand, he’s a created, fragile being in a world which appears to be forsaken by the divine. On the other hand, he’s a creator of extraordinary beauty and true meaning. These paradoxical features would outlast the movement of Romanticism. The (post)romantic artist is therefore both infinitely small and infinitely powerful; a finitude aspiring to the infinite. It’s no accident then that critics who study Romanticism speak of a ladder of love similar to the one we find in Platonic thought, especially in the Symposium. Romantic artists, poets and writers select details from ordinary life and infuse them with special significance, beauty and meaning. As in Plato’s transcendental moves, Romantic artists and writers begin with the particular—contingent events and human beings—and aspire to render them universal or, in Wordsworth’s own formulation, “interesting by tracing in them… the primary laws of our nature” (392).

Through his talent, the artist manages to convert a flood of accidental details into something readers will find essential; into some kind of lasting meaning. Wordsworth seems aware, however, that to speak of conveying an “essential nature” and meaning through art risks converting aesthetics into a form of rational knowledge. Although the Romantic poet may strive to capture some kind of truth about the human condition, as we have already observed, he does not aim at a strictly mimetic truth (where art strives, imperfectly, to imitate the universe as created by the divine) nor at a strictly rational one (whereby art provides knowledge in the same way that mathematical proofs or scientific experiments do). Which is why Wordsworth hastens to add that the source of creativity is not reason, but rather passion. Artists at once discover and create what he calls “the primary laws of our nature” by cultivating an emotive disposition “chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (392).

Wordsworth places emotion at the very center of human creativity. He places value not upon raw and immediate reactions to concrete circumstances, however, but upon feelings recalled and evoked in moments of quiet contemplation. As the contemporary writer Jean Rouaud would later say by way of analogy, the (post)romantic artist is not the being creating natural flowers, but rather the florist arranging them in an elegant vase, contemplating their beauty calmly in light of its aesthetic arrangement of forms and potential impact to move and please viewers. With this analogy in mind, we’re now ready to consider Wordsworth’s famous definition of the poetic process:

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” (393)

We have already noted that if Romantic poetry aims to convey some kind of essential truth, it’s an anthropocentric one, not one that mirrors a divine vision and creation. Furthermore, we have observed that this truth differs substantially from scientific claims. So what is the nature of specifically aesthetic knowledge? And what is the process of its transmission and verification, if it eludes scientific and even rational scrutiny? Given the fragility of aesthetic knowledge, and, furthermore, given its anthropocentric nature, Wordsworth and other Romantic poets and writers would attempt to establish its tenuous foundations upon aesthetic sensibility. The foundation of art is the exceptional talent of the artist to convey beautifully and movingly essential aspects of the human condition. In turn, its only measure of success is the attunement it finds in generations of readers. For as Wordsworth suggests, the poet “shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated” (400).

Art’s truth—and power—consists of its ability to capture a contingent meaning which may not be everlasting, but which touches us with its very contingency. This truth emerges, on the side of the artist, in a kind of séance that combines what may be called, before its time, subconscious thought and what Wordsworth calls processes of volition. For Romantic writers, the poetic process entails a creative recollection of one’s own feelings “So that it will be the wish of the Poet to bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes, nay, for short spaces of time perhaps, to let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs; modifying only the language which is thus suggested to him, by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure”(400).

Aesthetic emotion, or what could also be called passion, connects every point on the route to artistic creation. An intense yet calm contemplation, the evocation of feelings, ignites the creative process. Through carefully selected words, the poet must be able to move readers, but once again not to raw emotions, but to aesthetic sensibilities that give both purposeless pleasure and a sense of meaning. The power of art, in turn, is only tested by time. It has no other true standard, for only the accumulated responses of readers can give it lasting value. But the question still remains: If Wordsworth aims at a contagion of aesthetic feelings and sensibilities from poet to readers through poetry, then why must he appeal to a higher, universal standard of truth? In other words, if the goal of art is emotive and aesthetic—to move through beauty—then why does he insist that the poet must express a human essence and meaning? The poet addresses this question by connecting Romantic art to truth, or, more generally, aesthetics to epistemology:

 “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alone into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.” (401)

As much as Wordsworth makes the power of Romantic art dependent upon the transmission of aesthetic emotion from real artist to real readers, he also wants to remove it from such sociohistorical contingencies by describing it as something that is measured by its own internal criteria and dependent upon nothing else. To do so, he depicts aesthetic truth in terms of the essence of the Romantic artist, a sensitive creator who captures “the beauty of the universe” and “the dignity of man” without any transcendental measure. He leaves us with a paradoxical vision of the artist which I call postromantic because we continue to find traces of it today: one aspiring to convey meaning without faith in either its objectivity or universality; one aspiring to move readers, but at the same time indifferent to the vicissitudes of their tastes; one which abandons the quest for an objectively verifiable truth only to engage in a process of intense contemplation of an elusive human essence which even the Romantic poet no longer fully believes exists.

Later Romantic writers and poets, including Charles Baudelaire, would realize how difficult it is to hold on to the epistemological rhetoric of truth when one is speaking of aesthetic beauty. For early Romanticism had presented more questions than it answered: In what ways can the truth of emotion and beauty be verified if not by generating a kind of consensus in viewers and readers? And even if, by a kind of magical Kantian subjective universal response, readers do indeed experience the same reaction to art and poetry, what does agreement have to do with truth? Can truth exist only in an anthropocentric context, without reference to higher standards? Couldn’t human beings agree and still be wrong?

Sidestepping these problems, the late Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire returns art to the domain of aesthetics. Art, he suggests, is all about beauty, not truth. In the Salon of 1846, he declares:

“Each century, each people having possessed its own expression of beauty and morality – if we mean by Romanticism the most recent and modern expression of beauty – the great artist would therefore be –for the reasonable and passionate critic – the one that unites to the aforementioned condition, naiveté –the most Romanticism possible.” (Salon de 1846, Oeuvres Complètes, 642).

So far it seems as if Baudelaire depicts beauty not as an attunement among author, text and implied reader, but rather as an attunement of poetry with its times. A work of art is one that best captures the feel of its epoch with elegance and pathos. The validation of art necessarily depends upon a social network of readers and critics who institutionalize that artistic perspective; who perceive it as in step with, and even ahead of, its times. Art is at once Romantic and modern, as Baudelaire puts it. While describing art as dependent upon the historical contingencies associated with artistic value, however, Baudelaire also agrees with earlier strands of Romanticism that the artist is the gifted creator of a timeless and abstract ideal:

“Romanticism lies neither in the choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in the manner of feeling… For me, Romanticism is the most recent and up-to-date expression of beauty… The one who says Romanticism says modern art – which is to say intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite — expressed by all the resources of art.” (Salon de 1846)

Baudelaire thus returns to Wordsworth’s image of the artist as a double figure: created in a world deprived of certainty; creator of beauty and meaning through art. External consecration does not suffice, however, to determine the quality of art. Like Wordsworth, Baudelaire is not fully prepared to abandon the artist to purely sociological standards. Hence his famous conception of art as doubled itself: as an intertwinement and juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the eternal, of passing fashion and timeless beauty:

“All forms of beauty contain, like all possible phenomena, something eternal and something ephemeral—the absolute and the particular. Absolute and eternal beauty doesn’t exist, or rather it’s nothing but an abstraction culled from the general surface of diverse forms of beauty. The particular element of each beauty comes from the passions, and as we have particular passions so we have our beauties.” (Salon de 1846, 687)

In alluding to the eternal dimension of art, Baudelaire confronts the same problem as Wordsworth: by what standards can we judge an aesthetic object as eternal when we, ourselves, are only human; when the artist who created it, though perhaps more talented than ordinary human beings, is just as fallible and mortal as the rest of us? In “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe,” Baudelaire answers this question quite compellingly. He begins, like Wordsworth, by describing the creative origin and impact of poetry in a Platonic manner, as a “ravishment of the soul” (202). In other words, art is a process that transmits, by a kind of magical contagion or entrancement, the contemplation of passion rather than pure emotion itself. What is the aim of this aesthetic contagion? Nothing but the powerful feelings and impressions it provokes.

As we have seen, Baudelaire not only disassociates art from morality—as Wordsworth had in transforming the Neoclassical vision of art—but also from epistemology, or the discourse of truth. Poetry may make us more sensitive and sympathetic to other human beings, and it may even teach us something about human existence, but that is only incidental to it, not its central goal. “Poetry cannot,” the author insists, “except at the price of death or decay, assume the mantle of science or morality; the pursuit of truth is not its aim, it has nothing outside itself” (204). So what is poetry then? Baudelaire responds:

“It’s this admirable, this immortal instinct for Beauty that leads us to consider the earth and its spectacles as a correspondence with the Sky. The insatiable thirst for everything that is otherworldly and that reveals life is the living proof of our immortality.” (Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe, 598).

Baudelaire’s vision of poetry brings us to the threshold of what I call postromanticism: meaning a presentation of Romantic values and assumptions that remains plausible, and even intuitive, in modern times. Accepting the artist’s double nature as creator of lasting beauty and created in a world without certainties, Baudelaire abandons the hope of proving the eternal value of art. Yet he still desires to claim it as an intuition, a hope. Baudelaire’s modernist vision of Romanticism can be described as a powerful current that splits into two principal directions.

One direction would be pursued by Modernist and especially postmodernist artists and writers. This is the direction that postmodern theory has made most visible during the past thirty years. Beginning, as did Baudelaire, with the assumption that the beauty of art is not measured by any identifiable standard of truth or meaning, modernist and postmodernist authors would go so much further than the poet in dismantling –and showing the dangers of– all traces of the universal from aesthetics. Once such criteria are removed, drawing qualitative distinctions among artistic objects and even between artistic and utilitarian objects becomes a matter of purely socioeconomic considerations. Thus we reach, as many maintain, the death of beauty and the end of art.

By way of contrast, what I call postromantic writers and artists take late Romantic assumptions similar to Baudelaire’s to a different conclusion. If there’s no higher measure of art’s beauty and illumination, then the creative endeavor is all the more challenging, titillating and despairingly powerful. Postromantic poetry and art plausibly intertwine a passionate longing for the absolute with a sense of skepticism, and even hopelessness, towards the possibility of ever grasping it.

Claudia Moscovici, from Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

September 22, 2010 Posted by | 18th century, 19th century, aesthetics, Baudelaire, Claudia Moscovici, Flowers of Evil, literary criticism, literature, Lyrical Ballads, M. H. Abrams, poetry, Romantic aesthetics, Romantic literature, Romantic poetry, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, Wordsworth | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Romantic Aesthetics: Wordsworth and Baudelaire

Rousseau on Love: Passion in Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse

In 1837, Victor Hugo wrote to his friend, Juliette Drouet, “A letter is a kiss sent by mail.” Hugo’s brief phrase captures the essence of the rich tradition of epistolary novels in France. Although referring to real letters as opposed to novels, Hugo’s definition underscores the expressive powers of letters to convey through language a sense of intimacy and immediacy of communication that rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, direct contact. For Hugo, as for the epistolary novelists, passionate love is the privileged subject of letters. Only because of the special status of this subject can Hugo compare a letter to a kiss sent by mail.

Using Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse as a significant example of the tradition of French epistolary novels, I wish to examine how this novel is able to represent Romantic passion in a modern way that comes close to how we understand it today: namely, as a complex, compelling, at once emotional, cognitive and ethical force that is at the very center of our lives. Rousseau’s representation of passion is all the more important because it contributes to displacing reductive or dismissive views of the concept. La Nouvelle Héloïse illustrates that passion cannot be regarded simply as the opposite of either morality or reason; which is to say, as a blind and uncontrollable drive that threatens human societies. Because of the close connection established by Rousseau between passion and morality, in Enlightenment and Pathology, Anne Vila aptly classifies Rousseau’s novels as contributing to the Enlightenment morale sensitive, placing them alongside the writings of the naturalist Tissot. She maintains that both authors attempted to preserve natural virtue by using the healthy aspects of sensibility to perform a moral cleansing of the sources of social corruption and of the uncontrollable elements of emotion itself.

Perhaps due in part to the complexities of its literary form, however, Rousseau’s vision of love exceeds the boundaries of its own moralism. While the author describes passion as sometimes uncontrollable, forceful and emotive, he also relates it to human values, cognition, sense of purpose and processes of reasoning. As Martha Nussbaum puts it in Upheavals of Thought, “Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself. Thus a theoretical account of emotions is not only that: it has large consequences for the theory of practical reason, for normative ethics and for the relationship between ethics and aesthetics” (3). Rousseau’s early Romantic vision of passion does, indeed, provide us with such a complex and messy ethical model of human emotion, one which is inextricably tied to its literary form.

The Epistolary Novel

La Nouvelle Héloïse does not convey, however, a universal philosophy of love. Rather, this novel captures in a literary manner a historical moment whose effects we continue to experience today. I wish to explore here Rousseau’s depiction of passion and its connections to other human faculties and concepts—such as virtue, honor, reason and jealousy—by pursuing some of the ethical, aesthetic and social questions raised by this novel. Why, for instance, does the author choose, as did so many others before him, the epistolary form as the optimal literary medium for the expression of passion? How do letters come to acquire the privileged status assumed by Hugo as conduits of human sentiment? Similarly, in the end, what model of the family does Rousseau endorse in depicting the effects of passionate love?

Nancy Armstrong shows in Desire and Domestic Fiction that the tradition of the epistolary novel in England, Germany and France contributed to the formation of a modern understanding of desire and love that could fit the social and emotional needs of the new nuclear family. While certainly participating in this cultural process, Rousseau’s novel at the same time poses an obstacle for it. As the abundant criticism on the subject reveals, the conclusion of La Nouvelle Héloïse is puzzling: not so much in its tragic resolution, but rather in its implicit critique of all of the models of love and of the family it represents. In other words, the complex logic of passion both creates and undoes Rousseau’s proposed system of moral values.

To begin examining this problem, let me first briefly situate Rousseau’s novel with respect to the tradition of epistolary literature and expressive theories of art. While novels contained letters before the eighteenth-century, it was during this period that the epistolary novel became most popular. One of the most famous seventeenth-century novels of letters, Guilleragues’ Lettres portugaises, already foreshadowed the tension among uncontrollable passion, individual moral limitations and social constraints as the major theme of the epistolary genre. During the eighteenth-century, this type of novel became so popular in France that it branched out into several sub-genres. We could characterize, for example, Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721) and Madame de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une péruvienne (1747) as travel narratives or as novels of ideas; while Crébillon’s Lettres de la marquise de… au comte de R…(1742) and Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) fit into the category of libertine novels. This tradition of literature gained prevalence between the years 1750 and 1820, and, as J. Herman indicates in Le mensonge romanesque, reached the peak of its popularity in 1780, when 450 letter-novels were published in France, a third of which were translations of British fiction.

Not surprisingly, the rise in popularity of epistolary fiction more or less coincided with the birth of Romanticism and expressive theories of art. The main principles of Romantic literature seem particularly well-suited to the epistolary form. In The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams illustrates that Romantic literature presents art as a special kind of expression of feeling. Taking Wordsworth as his principal example, Abrams finds in the latter’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” a more general characteristic of Romantic literature, even that which, like Rousseau’s novel, predates British Romanticism.

We can see how the epistolary novel would lend itself to the Romantic understanding of emotion. The letter form easily mimics real letters and builds upon the seventeenth-century tradition of letter writing popularized by Mme de Sévigné. The use of the first-person singular in letters conveys the impression of a transparent self pouring out his or her real feelings to a reader prepared for emotional identification. At the same time, as J. Herman points out in his study of the genre, the epistolary novel’s use of several correspondents and of a variety of situations and points of view allows for complexity of expression, creating what Bakhtin has called a “polyphonic” or multiple-voiced text. This genre also permits the cohesion and organization of ideas, themes and tropes, since epistolary novels are often presented by an editor who clarifies what is happening, makes value judgments and provides readers with additional information in prefaces and footnotes.

The Novel’s Plot and Sources

Rousseau wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse at Monmorency. This novel was in part inspired by his love for Sophie d’Houdetot, who was in turn in love with the poet St.-Lambert. Published in 1761, La Nouvelle Héloïse became an instant bestseller. Expressive, poignant and emotive, the novel had special appeal for its readers as many of them thought it was not a work of fiction, but the exchange of real love letters. Once literary expression could be linked to authenticity of feeling, the gap between reality and representation appeared to diminish, if not altogether disappear. The scene is set on the shores of Lake Geneva, but the plot harks back in time to the relationship between Peter Abelard and his pupil and mistress, Heloise.

As in the medieval relationship, the heroine, Julie, the daughter of the Baron d’Etange, falls in love with her middle-class tutor, Saint-Preux. Since Julie’s father hopes to find a suitable aristocratic match for his daughter, he strongly opposes her marriage to the tutor. Upset by the tension in her family, Julie’s mother dies of sorrow. Although Saint-Preux is obliged to leave Julie and travels around the world, the lovers remain closely in touch through their letters. When he returns, Julie is already married to Wolmar, an aristocrat who nonetheless seems to represent Rousseau’s middle-class ideals of masculinity. Frugal, virtuous, practical and rational, the husband complements the wife’s sensitive and emotive femininity. The tutor eventually joins the couple and their family without reigniting his affair with Julie and thus violating their sense of honor. Yet the fragile equilibrium among the three friends breaks once Julie sacrifices her life to save a child from drowning.

Significantly, one of Saint-Preux’s first gestures is to establish both rhetorically and sentimentally the modernity of his relationship to Julie by distinguishing himself from Abelard. As is well known, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), one of the foremost logicians and philosophers of his times. He’s arguably even more famous, however, because of his tumultuous personal life: most notably, the fact that he fell in love, had a child with and secretly married Heloise, the aristocratic girl he tutored. To punish Abelard for dishonoring his niece, Heloise’s uncle hired a group of thugs to attack and castrate the young man. Both Abelard and Heloise subsequently retreated into monasteries. Following their separation, Abelard did not show the same intensity and loyalty of feelings to Heloise that she maintained for him and that Saint-Preux wishes to show his beloved. The difference between medieval and modern romance, Rousseau suggests, lies not so much in the behavior of the woman as in that of the man.

As Saint-Preux writes to Julie just after their first kiss and overt avowals of love, “I’ve always felt sorry for Héloïse; she had a heart made for love; but Abélard never seemed anything but a sad man who deserved his fate, since he knew as little about love as about virtue” (Première partie, Lettre XXIV, Flammarion, 61, my translation). Embittered by his punishment and true to the religious values of his times, Abelard proved incapable of perceiving erotic love as at the same time sublime and transcendental. He ultimately chose the love of God over passion for his beloved. Saint-Preux wishes to do the opposite. He gives voice to the early Romantic conception of human love as (at least in part) transcendental.

 For him, Romantic love entails the elevation in esteem of a human being who comes to represent ideal moral and aesthetic qualities: beauty, virtue, goodness. These qualities had been associated with the divine by previous models of love, including the Platonic and the Christian, which, as Martha Nussbaum points out in Upheavals of Thought, had represented love as an ascending ladder from the contingent (or ephemeral, accidental and carnal desire) to the transcendental (or everlasting feelings motivated by universal or religious values). Yet, one may ask, why the need to attribute transcendental value to earthly love? And how is this possible to achieve when speaking of relationships between contingent, vulnerable and imperfect human beings? These questions lie at the center of a novel that represents the tension between the fragility of human life and feelings and the search for absolute meaning—a tension that would become the chief characteristic of Romantic literature, art and philosophy.

Human Flourishing and Romantic Passion

At first glance, in La Nouvelle Héloïse love is sensual. The famous bosquet scene, where Julie, Saint-Preux and Claire share their first kisses, captures the enchantment but also the dangers inherent in erotic desire. Saint-Preux surprises the two best friends and cousins, Julie and Claire, hiding and whispering in a bush:

“Upon entering, I saw with surprise your cousin approach me, and, with a pleasantly suppliant air, ask me for a kiss. Without comprehending this mystery, I kissed this charming friend; and, likable and appealing as she is, I never knew that sensations are that which the heart makes them to be. But what do I become a moment after when I felt … my hand trembles… a sweet shiver… your mouth like a rose…Julie’s mouth…placed, pressed upon mine…and my body pressed close to yours.” (34, Première Partie, Lettre XVI à Julie)

For a picture of the first kiss of the Romantic couple, this scene is so tantalizingly triangular that we’re tempted to ask what logic requires the presence of Claire. I would argue that this triadic scene allows passionate love to emerge (as it will end) in the context of moral ambiguity. For if the author wishes to situate sensual pleasure in the midst of innocence, what could create a more appropriate situation than two timid school girls whispering to each other, hiding and blushing once they notice the young man they are talking about approach them?

Moreover, what better way to proclaim the involuntary nature of erotic passion, than to initiate it playfully, not by the heroine—who cannot be represented as a libertine or seductress—but by her less eroticized foil? Finally, what better way to describe the difference between harmless desire and tumultuous passion than through the dramatic contrast between Saint-Preux’s responses to the two girls’ kisses? While Claire’s kiss barely registers, Julie’s unleashes the fury of passion, marking its moral ambivalence as both key to virtue and path to destruction: “No, the fire of the sky is not more lively nor more swift than the one that overcame me the minute we kissed.” (34, Première Partie, Lettre XVI à Julie).

Ambivalence also manifests itself in contradictory bodily and psychological reactions. On the one hand, passion gives cohesion to the scattered self, focusing mind and body upon the intensity of feeling and pleasure. This movement towards unity and coherence, however, is countered by a simultaneous and greater movement towards dispersion and self-destruction. Julie takes Saint-Preux’s description of the force of passion as a moral indictment. She too feels overwhelmed by her feelings and sensations:

“I had foreseen all too well, the time of happiness passed like lightning; the one of disgrace begins, without anything telling us when it will end. Everything alarms and discourages me; a fatal languor overcomes my soul; without having any reason to cry, involuntary tears escape from my eyes…” (Première Partie, Lettre XXV de Julie, 52)

Passion thus assumes the signs that we still commonly associate with it and have made generations of Romantic and Postromantic writers describe it as a force akin to madness: loss of coherence of the sense of identity; loss of control over one’s emotions and actions; depression and loss of vital energy; despair; a sense of detachment from the world and loss of meaning. As the mind gives in to this irrational drive, the body becomes animalized by its own sensuality. When the author focuses upon Saint-Preux’s agitation after the kiss, however, he saves the hero from his drives only by depicting his acute self-awareness:

“In the violent transports that move me, I wouldn’t know how to stay in place; I run, I climb with ardor; I throw myself upon rocks; I roam about with big steps and find everywhere in the objects that surround me the same horror that reigns inside of me.” (54)

To off-set the effect of the centrifugal movement towards the body and immanence, Saint-Preux evokes centripetal, cohesive images of unity and transcendence. Like Goethe’s Werther, Saint-Preux looks into himself to find a world. The inner world of memories, visual images, and fantasies supplants the dangerous effects of tangible reality. Moving upward on the classical ladder of love, the hero transforms the comic vision of androgyny depicted by the character of Aristophanes in the Symposium into a tragic Romantic union of two complementary beings:

“Come, oh my soul! In your friend’s arms let us unite the two halves of our being; come before the sky, guide of our flight and witness to our vows, swear to live and die for one another.” ( Premiere Partie, Lettre xxvi à Julie, 53)

Yet the tension between such literary and philosophical elements would remain abstract without the concreteness of social rules and assumptions to give them a specific meaning. Saint-Preux invokes codes of honor to assure Julie that she has no reason to despair. If their act of love had any moral ambiguity, that could be easily corrected by conforming to social and moral conventions and marrying each other. In his advice, Saint-Preux both relies upon and shifts codes of conduct. It had long been the case that marrying the woman one made love to would save her from dishonor. Yet at the same time, the alliance-based model of the family poses an obstacle to such an easy solution. The problem is, of course, that Julie’s family planned to marry her to a man of the same social class and would prohibit her marriage to the middle-class tutor. To overcome this barrier would mean nothing less than succeeding in persuading Julie’s parents that a new model of the nuclear family, based on mutual love and class mobility, should supplant the dominant one they believed in. Perceiving this obstacle as insurmountable, Julie accuses her lover of disingenuous naiveté:

“There was a time, my sweet friend, when our letters were light and charming; the sentiment that dictated them flowed with elegant simplicity; it didn’t need either art or color, and its purity was its only decoration… A pure and sacred fire burned in our hearts; abandoned to the ways of the senses, we are now nothing more than vulgar lovers.”  ( Lettre XXXII, 63-64)

In her accusation, Julie does more than suggest that her lover underestimates the power and value of social prescriptions. She also does more than demand a Romantic understanding of love as an unmediated and undistorted expression of true feelings. Julie proposes a complex model of sentiment, which we can call, following Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian description, as the eudaimonic model of love. Such a model regards the beloved as supremely important to one’s happiness and well-being, or what Aristotle called human “flourishing”. This importance is not abstract, but rather related to practical circumstances and possibilities. It depends upon issues such as: does the beloved deserve this valorization; does the love have a future; can the lovers actualize in practical life their union and prove how important they are to one another?

Julie sees love as inextricably tied to three aspects of human experience: 1) her appraisal of the importance of the lovers to one another; 2) her appraisal of their moral distinction (do they act in a sufficiently ethical and dignified way not only toward each other, but also toward others they care about, to be deserving of profound sentiments?), and 3) her appraisal of practical facts and possibilities (can they live out their love and in what manner?). If Julie remains unconvinced by Saint-Preux’s easy moral solution to their problems, it’s because she can’t answer firmly and positively two out of these three questions. Although it’s clear to her that St-Preux is fundamentally important to her happiness and that she is to his, that’s not sufficient to make their love dignified and happy. For instance, Julie is not convinced that their behavior was ethical toward each other both because it risked degrading feelings of friendship to desire and because it does not take into consideration the feelings of other people they care deeply about, most notably Julie’s parents. She’s even less convinced that their love has any practical possibilities, given her father’s desire to marry her to an aristocrat.

What kind of human flourishing is made possible by Romantic passion? Rather than a more strictly Aristotelian one tied to practical possibilities, ethics and external circumstances, Rousseau offers us an internal, psychological model of human flourishing. Romantic passion is nothing less than a conflagration of the senses and emotions ignited by the object of desire as well as by various psychological reactions. Since love is above all a shared emotional state, the author illustrates the importance of jealousy, possession, ambiguity and doubt in fanning the movements of passion. Saint-Preux and Julie constantly provoke and alleviate each other’s jealousy in a partly conscious effort to preserve excitement and desire. St-Preux, for instance, deliberately mentions to Julie his attraction to a beautiful young woman, only to reassure her in a subsequent letter:

“How I should love, this pretty Mme Belon, for the pleasure she has given me! Pardon me, divine Julie, I dared enjoy for a moment your tender tears, and it was one of the sweetest moments of my life… What was your delighted lover doing? Was he conversing with Mme Belon? Ah! My Julie, can you believe that? No, no, incomparable girl, he was better occupied! With what charm his heart followed the movements of yours!” (Lettre XXXIV, de St Preux, Première partie, 66)

Giving oneself to another, the author suggests, can exist only in the space of intersubjectivity. Two lovers cannot devote themselves to one another in an imaginary world made only for two, as though they lived on a desert island. To give oneself meaningfully to another, one needs to have the sense of choice and freedom. Passion implies the existence of alternatives and the sacrifice of the multiplicity of desire to the strength of one dominant sentiment. When we claim to love we say: among all possible and desirable partners, I give myself to you. But the sacrifice is meaningful, in the sense of not being merely arbitrary, only if there is a qualitative difference of desire and emotion for the beloved as opposed to the impersonal desire for all others. That is to say, love renders the object of affection unique and the nature of desire more intense and rich in feeling—and thus the threat posed by jealousy unreal.

So then, we are led to ask, what is the role of jealousy in passionate love? To create affective movements. The interplay between multiple objects of desire and the choice for the most compelling one. The interplay between freedom and possession. The homage of sacrificing other attractions for one person. The titillation of possibly losing privileged status in the eyes of the one we love. The security of having it, and deservedly, for the moment. In describing the modern self, Rousseau renders jealousy more than just an isolated emotion by tying it to will, freedom of choice, sacrifice, sentiment and moral obligation. When founded, jealousy potentially undoes all of these elements. When unfounded, it makes each dimension of love richer and more poignant.

Julie’s reply, as usual, nuances the picture of the role played by emotions such as jealousy in passion. She responds more cautiously:

“It’s not that I don’t know that your heart is made for mine and not another. But we can fool ourselves, mistake a passing fancy for passion, and do as many things by whim as we would have done for love… Swear to me, then, my sweet friend, not by love, a sermon that we only give when it’s superfluous, but by the sacred word of honor; that if respected by you, I will never cease being the confidante of your heart, and that no change will take place of which I’m not first informed.” (Première Partie Lettre XXXV, 69)

Julie, however, is only partly satisfied with her lover’s account of jealousy. She believes that his conception of love carries inherent risks. When love is so emotional and sensual, and moreover, when it’s so dependent upon the efforts of one’s imagination to idealize the beloved and render her unique, what distinguishes the manifestations of real passion from a mere coup de foudre; from a strong and impulsive desire? While the durability of passion, the history and friendship of the lovers, the mutual respect based on known rather than merely supposed psychological qualities all render the difference between passion and desire palpable when the two are contemplated calmly and from a distance, they resemble each other in the heat of the moment.

 Moreover, Julie observes, with the proper attention and focus, the more superficial form of attraction can develop into love. Knowing that jealousy is based, quite legitimately, on the slippery and often sudden progression from desire to love, Julie asks her lover to warn her of the early symptoms of this transition. She proposes a modern model of faithfulness in love, which she calls “honor,” but which is actually more psychological than social in nature. Fidelity demands the exercise of judgment and caution, the avoidance of potentially dangerous situations which can heat up the senses and create the illusion of true love, and above all, the avoidance of obsessive focus upon other objects of desire that enhances their qualities and renders them special.

First and foremost, therefore, Julie asks Saint-Preux to regard the difference between desire and love ontologically. While the other women he desires are substitutable, she needs to remain a unique and privileged being in his eyes. Second, this distinction must also occur on an epistemological level: for while desire may be involuntary, our consciousness of it is not. Julie thus requires her lover’s mental self-awareness to fortify his moral restraint: as soon as he observes in himself the enhancement and focus upon another woman he desires, she should be the first other person to know about it. In so doing, she claims to appeal to Saint-Preux’s sense of honor, not his love.

What could she mean by this distinction? Given the fact that strong desire and passion can share the same symptoms—if not the same causes—as we all know, love does not guarantee fidelity. Nor does moral obligation, since immediate desires can exceed it, or, to put it more simply, the flesh is weak. What emerges from Julie’s response is thus a more nuanced vision of the ethics of Romantic love. Faithlessness, she implies, has its warning signs. Human beings don’t act upon their desires, like animals, without some psychological preparation: focusing upon desirable persons and their attributes, mentally enhancing their qualities in their imaginations, and perhaps even seeking their company in ambiguous circumstances. Before this chain of symptoms is irreversibly unleashed, Julie demands to be forewarned of the process that transforms attraction into passion so that, together with her lover, they can help one another to remain faithful.

Having transformed the notion of passionate love, Rousseau does the same for that of moral duty. By means of Julie’s reflections on jealousy, he suggests that honor is neither, strictly speaking, the observance of universal moral principles nor that of social prescriptions. Far from opposing morality to convention and principle to desire, Rousseau makes us aware of the intimate links among principle, emotion and desire. Morality begins with the awareness of these connections. For it is above all an epistemological act of self-awareness which makes possible the control of destructive desires, meaning those that hurt oneself, the beloved and society by and large. Only after taking such precautions does Julie agree with Saint-Preux that—when unfounded—jealousy is delightful:

“What pleasure I taste in taking useless precautions; in preventing the appearance of a change which I sense to be impossible! What charm to talk of jealousy with such a faithful lover!” (70)

Julie is acutely interested in everything Saint-Preux has to say not only about other women, but also about nature, society and culture. She responds thoughtfully to his observations about how French society corrupts the difference between men and women—including his classically Rousseauistic conviction that women need to remain women and men men and that in order to stay properly gendered the sexes should live separately and fulfill different social roles. Jealousy thus serves a point of departure to show not only the potential dangers of being permeable to other human beings, but also its merit in opening us up by our awakening interest in that which is greater than the individual and the couple. By talking about others to Julie, Saint-Preux may excite her jealousy sometimes, but above all he stimulates her interest in broader social phenomena. In this way, the relationship itself remains open to other human beings and to the outside world, encouraging sympathy and civic virtue as well as reinforcing the couple’s love through close communication.

This permeability to one another and sensibility to the world, however, also leads to instability. Perhaps because of its charged and fluid emotional states, passionate love, Rousseau suggests, cannot exist without a sense of doubt: without, that is, the possibility not only of its diminution, but also its dissolution. As worrisome as the tumultuous movements of passion seemed to the lovers, what troubles them much more is a sense of tranquility and complacency. Alarmed by his own calmness, St-Preux declares:

“What calm in all my senses! What pure, continuous, universal voluptuousness! The charm of ecstasy was in the soul; it will never leave it; it will last forever. What a difference between the furors of love and such a peaceful situation!” (Lettre LV a Julie, 97-98)

Rousseau would like to illustrate that intense passion can be calm and sublimated; that love, once its erotic and emotive elements have been stabilized, grows stronger, more virtuous and deeper. Yet his characters spectacularly contradict such a model of passion. To them, the presence of tranquility only indicates the absence of strong feelings. The doubts awakened by the apparent calmness—raising questions such as, are my feelings as strong, do I still love her, what does that imply about the passionate and loving person I thought I was—only reawaken the movements of emotion. These doubts provoke a sense of despair about the nature of sentiment and identity which arouse Romantic feelings once again with renewed intensity.

The calmness of passionate love is thus only the eye of the tornado; an apparent stillness that’s surrounded by agitation. Passion does not lead to a Stoic or Epicurean understanding of happiness defined negatively, as the tranquility that results from the lack of physical and psychological pain about events outside of one’s control. Rather, passion is a key component in a Romantic understanding of happiness which is more positive than negative. Romantic fulfillment signifies not the absence of pain but the presence of heightened sensations and emotions, especially those provoked by a person who reciprocates and deserves them. Passionate love is shared rather than solipsistic and intense rather than calm.

Rousseau suggests that a genuinely tranquil love—one in which happiness is understood as the lack of pain—requires the absence of strong erotic and emotional attraction. Wolmar’s relationship to Julie illustrates such a relationship. Yet is this calmer model of love and, more generally, of fulfillment more promising than the one offered by passion? Julie and Saint-Preux had frequently discussed the necessary complementarity between men and women. Saint-Preux had often criticized in his letters to Julie the masculinity of French aristocratic women who were as educated as men, surrounded by them in their roles as salonnières, and even behaved like men in devoting their lives to politics and intellectual pursuits. Nonetheless, Julie and Saint-Preux are hardly the complimentary beings implied by their own model of gender. If anything, the two characters are strikingly similar. Both lovers are sensual, sensitive, emotive, observant, obsessive, expressive and analytical. Their actions and rhetoric are at times undifferentiable (although Saint-Preux is at times more heated in his words and reckless in his behavior). By way of contrast to Saint-Preux, Wolmar represents a true masculine foil to Julie and makes her appear more feminine by comparison. What kind of interaction does such gender complementarity yield? In depicting her husband, Julie describes their relationship as follows:

“I never saw him either happy or sad, but always content; he never talks to me about himself, rarely about me; he doesn’t seek me, but he’s not upset when I seek him, and leaves me unwillingly. He doesn’t laugh; is serious without making others want to be as well; on the contrary, his serenity seems to invite my play… In a word, he wants me to be happy; he doesn’t say it, but I see it; and wanting the happiness of one’s wife, isn’t that obtaining it?” (101)

Being cold and reserved, Wolmar’s love is not impelled by strong emotions or desires, but by a sense of respect, like, and familiarity which Julie calls “attachment.” This attitude is stable and lasting because the reasons behind it are: if Julie was worthy enough of Wolmar’s affection and respect before marriage, provided that she behaves appropriately, she will continue to deserve them. As Anne Vila points out, Julie describes Wolmar as a man who combines a classically Stoic attitude—of apatheia, or absence of feeling in the face of external forces beyond one’s control—with a modern protestant capitalist ethic of frugality and moral health. (see Enlightenment and Pathology, 211). The complementarity between man and woman, in this case, is obvious, but does it lead to love and, perhaps more importantly, to a sense of human flourishing? Julie wishes to persuade Saint-Preux that she considers the former less essential than the latter. Abandoning the idea that passion is necessary for happiness, she writes to her ex-lover:

“What misled me for a long time, and what may still mislead you, is the idea that love is necessary for a happy marriage. My friend, that’s a mistake…” (Lettre XX de Julie , 274).

Julie claims to share her husband’s understanding of love as a form of mutual respect and friendship. More fundamentally, she accepts his Stoic conception of happiness as the lack of moral and physical pain. She also wishes to emphasize that this model of human relationships, which is calm and self-sufficient, is not by extension also selfish or even amoral. Wolmar may not seek pleasure in life, but he encourages his more fun-loving wife to laugh, enjoy herself and feel happy. Moreover, despite his self-sufficiency, he places value upon her and their children, showing normal fatherly concern when one of them appears to be in danger. Much as he has given us a modern and thus transformed understanding of passionate love by depicting the relationship between the lovers, Rousseau proceeds to present a modernized notion of Stoic virtue in marriage. Does the author set one form of love and happiness above the other? Which one does he ultimately endorse as a role model in his representations of the interaction between men and women and of the nuclear family? As I suggested in the beginning, it appears that both and neither. For just as passionate love could not lead to moral and social stability, love without passion precludes communication and intimacy. Not fooled by Julie’s consistent praise of her husband, St-Preux writes quite critically of the marriage:

“You know Julie, you who know how much this expansive soul loves to share; imagine what she would suffer in this reserved atmosphere, when she would have nothing but this sad communication between those who should have everything in common.” (Cinquième partie, Lettre V à Milord Eduard, p 448)

 If intense passion rendered the lovers too similar and volatile to form a stable and lasting union, complementarity renders husband and wife too different to communicate meaningfully. In her last letter, before her death, Julie confirms Saint-Preux’s evaluation of her marriage by declaring that it’s only with him that she seeks eternal union: “The virtue that will separate us on earth will unite us in our eternal resting place.” (Sixth Part, Lettre XII de Julie, 566).

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect about some of the reasons why both models of Romantic love—the passionate and the conjugal—are doomed to failure in Rousseau’s Romantic vision of human emotion. It seems that in the first part of the novel, the author elevated the notion of passionate love to critique the old, alliance model of the family. This model assumed that marriages were made to unite the economic and social interests of two families rather than two beings who loved each other.

The rest of the novel, however, relies upon an ambivalent representation of passion to elevate a model of marriage that strikingly resembles the one previously critiqued. Wolmar marries Julie in part because they’re both aristocrats. Such a marriage clearly serves mutual economic and social interests. Rousseau suggests that to be moral love must be intimately connected to social virtue, as Wolmar’s and Julie’s relationship certainly is and St-Preux’s and Julie’s illicit affair is not, or at least much less obviously. At the same time, the author presents passion as a necessary link between personal and civic virtue. Without passion, in other words, it’s very difficult to be moral.

At the conclusion of the novel, Julie must be sacrificed precisely because the conjugal friendship she has established with her husband leads to a conventional and arid form of virtue rather than to the heart-felt and authentic one endorsed by the novel. What can this paradoxical scenario—where the unpredictability and fire of passionate love overwhelm civic virtue while the tranquility of conjugal friendship render moral behavior a mere convention or abstraction—tell us about Rousseau’s early Romantic conception of passion? Most obviously, it suggests that passion is both necessary and problematic to the individual and to society. Yet even more interesting than the contradictions of Rousseauistic passion is the model of eudaimonia sketched by the novel. For it seems that although La Nouvelle Héloïse sets passion in partial opposition to moral and civic duties, it also depicts it as necessary to human flourishing.

Rousseau’s representation of passion as a foil to conjugal love, in its very tensions and impasses, traces the ethical and emotional boundaries of what we continue to view as the truest and most meaningful form of love today. While passionate love may often violate civic duties and moral principles, it also preserves some of the most fundamental aspects of social ethics. In loving passionately, we step outside our egocentric boundaries to value and even sacrifice our desires for another human being. We also acknowledge the permeability and vulnerability of the self, our dependency upon others, particularly upon those we care about deeply. Finally, individuated love may lead to social sympathy, or to forms of identification with people we do not know well or love, cementing in a real rather than solely abstract manner the concept of civic virtue. Through his Romantic conception of passionate love, Rousseau suggests that although love may sometimes obfuscate the path to civic virtue, such virtue cannot exist without the emotive responses, appreciation of other human beings and modes of identification that only passion excites. 

Claudia Moscovici

from Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

September 17, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloïse, literary criticism, literature, love, love story, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, Romantic literature, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, Rousseau | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rousseau on Love: Passion in Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope

Seduction and romantic love are often viewed as interchangeable.  But, in fact, they can be polar opposites. In the past two blog entries on psychopathic seduction, I introduced what love is NOT. Love is not a game; it is not a dominance bond; it is not based on deception; it is not a form of conquest of another. Today I’d like to offer a more positive reflection on love, and in particular, of one of the key tropes of Romantic love: passion.

Passion was the core of the Romantic movement. It is also, along with sensuality and the appreciation of beauty, the focal point of the contemporary aesthetic movement I co-founded with the artist Leonardo Pereznieto in 2002, postromanticism.com. Sensuality and passion hardly seem separable since we tend to experience them together. It’s nearly impossible to imagine passion without the excitement, agitation and upheaval of the senses and emotions that we associate with sensuality. At the same time, however, sensuality and passion are opposites. Sensuality is the acute sensibility to beauty and to the myriad of potential delights it promises. It’s a way of seeing beauty in the world, in both human beings and objects. Such beauty is so vast and all-pervasive—kalon, or sea of beauty as Plato’s prophetess, Diotima had depicted—that it’s not necessarily anchored by any preference or bound by any attachment. Every week we may gaze at dozens of attractive persons, inspiring scenes and beautiful paintings or sculptures. Sensuality moves our eyes from object to object, stirring our desires, dreams and solipsistic emotions, but not necessarily capturing our devotion.

Much as sensuality, in its link to perception, evokes the aesthetic and epistemological dimensions of postromanticism, passion constitutes its ethics. This doesn’t mean that postromanticism mandates that human beings should not appreciate a multitude of objects or beings. But it does unabashedly declare: love is special. Many of us fall passionately in love and such feelings are so miraculous that they seem to defy explanation. Yet, at the same time, they are so important that they have inspired thousands of writers, poets, philosophers and artists throughout human history to depict passionate love. Not everyone does or should fall deeply in love. But those who do, we tend to believe, are very fortunate. If passionate love is a privileged form of human experience that has intrigued us for millennia, then it’s certainly worth valorizing it in our times.

Like Romanticism, postromanticism focuses above all on the expression of passionate love. Yet, in our day and age—an age so imbued with feminine and feminist sensibilities—one can no longer speak of the asymmetrical love between a male poet or artist and his ethereal muse, which has long been the dominant cliché of Romanticism. Postromantic love is reciprocal and symmetrical. Nor does postromanticism preserve the instrumental view of passion as a means of reaching something higher than human experience; of moving from the human to the divine, as we see in idealist traditions of love from Plato, to the Renaissance neoplatonists, to the Romantics. In Postromantic poetry, literature and art, passion begins with earthly existence and never transcends it.

Definition: So what is postromantic passion? Above all, passion is a focalization of the senses, thoughts and emotions upon one primary subject. I call it an ethics because it implies considering at every step one’s attitude and actions towards the beloved and, conversely, his or her actions and feelings towards oneself.

 The transcendent in the contingent: The beloved is not randomly chosen. Even if meeting him or her occurs by accident—as do most human encounters—the fit between the lovers feels so right that it appears to be determined by a higher force. The intervention of that higher force cannot be proven. Nonetheless, it has a certain metonymic logic similar to the one described by the Stoics, who perceived the imprint of divine will in the beauty and harmony of the universe. Postromanticism thus spiritualizes, but only gently and lightly, passionate love. It doesn’t necessarily express a belief in divinity, but rather an elevation of emotion and humanity. Passionate love is that which uplifts one’s creative and life energies, as if by force of destiny, with the elegance, sense of wonder and inevitability of something that appears to transcend human experience.

The artist and the muse: With so many successful female artists in the world and, more generally, with so many women encouraged to pursue their talents, it’s impossible nowadays to retain the Romantic idea of the artist as male and the muse as female. When the passion is shared, both members of the couple can inspire and engage in creativity.

Idealization and lucidity: While Romanticism tends towards the idealization of the beloved, postromanticism claims that the beauty of love and of the beloved often lies in his or her imperfection. For the Romantic poets the muse was otherworldly. Only through her nonexistence could she embody aesthetic ideals. She wasn’t a woman, but a fantasy, a dream. In postromanticism, however, the source of inspiration is not a “crystallized” or idealized object of the imagination—as the novelist Stendhal had described love—but a contingent person who is known in the smallest details of his or her reality. Which is not to say that postromanticism follows the legacy of realism or naturalism. In postromanticism, unlike in naturalism, the mundane aspects of the lovers and of love itself never become scientifically predictable, mythical or grotesque, as they do, for instance, in Zola’s naturalist fiction. Postromanticism declares: real love is endearing and unique; a product of a rare fit between two individuals who, through their mutual devotion, create lasting values in an ephemeral life.

Focalization: We tend assume that the Romantic life is synonymous with the adventurous life, the life of an emotional tourist: traveling everywhere; having a multiplicity of relationships; experiencing each type of woman or man as one samples exotic dishes from distant parts of the world. Yet when one glides only on the surface of human existence, it’s difficult to be immersed in passion. For passion requires time to become deeper, richer and more intimate; it requires focalization so that it will not disperse and become a flash of intensity that’s one episode among a hundred others. In losing focus, passion also loses intensity and significance. It ceases to exist.

Energy: Passion is a mutual consumption that gives rather than depleting energy. Like a windmill, like any rhythmic movement, it generates while absorbing energy, but not all by itself, but from the external impetus of two individuals’ continual efforts to live for and with each other.

Symmetry: Passion is constantly reinforced by symmetrical dialogue. The lovers negotiate everything and feel equal in the relationship. Which doesn’t mean that they’re identical. In fact, often passion becomes more exciting when the lovers share differences in temperament, point of view and opinion. Yet there are no conventional gender roles in postromanticism. One person is not necessarily more submissive, the other more authoritative; one person is not necessarily more emotive, the other more rational. The differences are unique to each couple, not necessarily polarized. They are diffused, varied and less predictable than in the Romantic complementarity between masculine and feminine roles.

Reciprocity: Reciprocity, which was largely ignored by the Romantic movement, is the pillar of postromanticism. Passion that is mostly solipsistic—one human being’s dream or projection upon an idealized person—is not real. It may represent desire or even a strong infatuation. But only once feelings, thoughts and desires are shared, do we enter the realm of passionate love.

Proximity and distance: The Romantic male artists and their muses, even when they coupled in real life, appeared infinitely distant in art because the descriptions of women were so often veiled and disguised. The Romantics privileged the metaphors of woman as muse, angel, Salomé or femme fatale; of woman as all the more desirable because mysterious, multiple, changing and unattainable. In this tantalizing play and disguise of feminine identity, the difference between Romanticism, modernism and postmodernism is almost effaced. Postromanticism doesn’t need feminine mystery and masquerade to cultivate desire and love. Which doesn’t mean that it assumes love to be transparent. Postromanticism trusts that passionate love can generate its own dynamics: a constant movement between elevating and lowering barriers which, unlike the Romantic vision of the femme fatale who fans desire through strategic advancements and withdrawals, is reciprocal, genuine and spontaneous.

Breathing: Passion is nourished by a proximity and intensity of communication so strong that it seems as if the lovers are breathing each other’s air. Without suffocating. The withdrawals are themselves part of the process of breathing. They are periods of inhaling air, of absorbing life experience and knowledge, in order to exhale it back to one another; to have a renewed life energy to offer one’s beloved.

Thinking: Postromantic passion is characterized by a rhythm and emotion which are genuine and spontaneous yet thoughtful at the same time. In this respect, it resembles Wordsworth’s Romanticism, which described passion as a processed and thoughtful rather than immediate and visceral emotion. Without the mediation of thought, passion risks being just a passing fancy; a gust of wind. And winds quickly change direction. Passion is a symbiotic relation between two individuals who enable each other to interconnect the important aspects of human life, including sensation, emotion and thought. Passion engages all of our human faculties.

Devotion: Passion is an enduring devotion. It’s not necessarily a commitment or responsibility in the way more institutionalized relations are, where the primary connection is external to the relationship. In other words, in passion the connection is not made by conventional morality and law. But the result is even more spectacular. Because devotion, a term evocative of religious experience, has transcendental dimensions. Passion is a secular form of adoration.

Fidelity: We tend to believe that virtue is a more reliable foundation for fidelity than passion, but postromanticism says that’s not the case. Virtue is often tested in the face of temptation and experienced as a tension between conscience and desire. All too often, the desire is more immediate, easier to satisfy and stronger. Passion reduces that tension and alleviates its pangs. In passion, the obsessive desire and focus upon a primary object is so strong that the energy left for others is weaker and more superficial, thus not posing a real threat to the relationship.

Jealousy and Possessiveness: If philosophers from Plato to Kant cautioned against passion, it’s largely because they associated it with negative emotions such as jealousy, possessiveness and hatred, which occur when love turns full circle and collapses upon itself. The Romantics, from Goethe to Constant, often confirmed this negative impression in describing how the force of passion leads to madness, murder and suicide. It’s undoubtedly true that passion is often accompanied by feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad sign. In moderation, jealousy and possessiveness may constitute a declaration of love. They can express: I know you desire others and that others are desirable to me, but I need and am grateful for the uniqueness of our attraction and feelings. Jealousy, in moderation, rekindles the flame of passion. It suggests: out of all the desirable persons we meet, I still chose you and you me. Jealousy in excess snuffs out the flame of passion. It suggests: I don’t trust you; you’re not freely mine. Rather than loving you, I possess you.

Ritual: Passion is a cherished ritual rather than a habit. A repetition of activities that appear always new, always exciting, because they’re primarily motivated by emotions and desires. In lasting love, one needs the repetition of activities as one needs to breathe air or eat regularly, rather than going through the motions today out of inertia, because one did it yesterday. In its rhythm and intensity, the repetition of acts in passionate love—going to a movie, dining out—resembles the repetition of religious rituals.

Erotism: Postromantic passion is erotic in a way that’s intensely sensual and at the same time different from diffused sensuality. In passion, the physical longing for someone is stimulated by knowledge and love of that person, rather than the love being motivated primarily by desire. That’s what makes passion different from the multiplicity of human attraction. While sensuality is a feast for the senses, passion offers food for the soul. Postromanticism places passion at its center, declaring: life and art would be emptier and more impoverished without such exquisite nourishment. 

Claudia Moscovici

postromanticism.com

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literature, love, modern art, passion, Romantic literature, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, thoughts on love, thoughts on passion | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope