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HSG 7th August 2011 08:15

The Romantic Spirit

(As we have outlined in past forum posts, and as was helpfully explained by philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the Western tradition in art involves two complementary modes: the aesthetic of the Beautiful and the aesthetic of the Sublime. Given that the Beauty aesthetic is quintessentially feminine, while the Sublime aesthetic is quintessentially masculine, this site inevitably focusses on the Beautiful. Every once in a while, however, we venture off topic and explore a theme that relates to the aesthetic of the Sublime. This is one of those instances.)

* * *

When it comes to television programs in English that cover the history of Western culture, the definitive magnum opus is still Kenneth Clark's seminal 13-part documentary Civilisation. Produced by the BBC in 1969, it is a magisterial yet accessible survey of the music, literature, architecture, and visual art of the Occidental tradition. Anyone watching it will acquire a sense of the "spine" of European culture, on which basis on which they can build a deeper understanding of their Old World heritage.

Clark is an affable host, learnèd yet modest, an exemplar of the Oxbridge scholars (Tolkien among them) who, for generations, brought English learning to the furthest outposts of the Empire. University students in Britain and the colonies would have studied with these grand old men until as late as the 1990s, at which time the last of their number retired, swept away by the baby-boomer crowd of Leftists who imposed the toxic regime of Cultural Marxism in the Academy, especially in the humanities.

If Kenneth Clark had any weakness as a scholar, though, it was that he was not a Romantic--a shortcoming that he shared with the majority of his Oxbridge kin, such as C.S. Lewis and F.R. Leavis. To his credit, Clark had a better understanding of Lord Byron's cultural importance than most scholars of his generation, but since Civilisation is not a Romantic work (though a noble one), Clark's episodes dealing with Romanticism are somewhat inadequate, especially considering the fact that the Romantic Era represents the pinnacle of art, music, and literature.

* * *

Given this one blind spot in Civilisation's otherwise omniscient perspective, we must turn elsewhere for a television program that does justice to the greatness of Romanticism. And we find it in an exciting 1982 documentary titled The Romantic Spirit.

Viewers of the A&E Network in the 1980s--a time when the "arts" portion of its "Art and Entertainment" acronym was still justified--will remember The Romantic Spirit as a series that the channel aired from A&E's debut in 1984 until 1991.

Unlike virtually every other program that A&E ever broadcast, however, The Romantic Spirit was never released on video in any form: not VHS, not Laserdisc, not DVD. Nor was it ever made commercially available in its country of origin, Britain.

For decades, fans of the series went to exorbitant lengths to track it down. Letters to A&E elicited unhelpful responses stating that the network no longer owned the rights. Messages to the U.K. company that had produced the documentary went unanswered.

But now, at last, just when it seemed that lovers of Romanticism would never again see this unique program in their lifetimes, the complete series has finally made it to DVD.

Alas, it is very much an "unofficial" release, with the DVDs issued by an independent outfit that clearly mastered the discs from old VCR recordings, which show over 20 years' worth of wear, to say nothing of dismal original recording quality.

Such shortcomings are easily overlooked, however, when one realizes that now, at last, by a small miracle, The Romantic Spirit can once again by viewed and admired by all.

The series is thrilling and compelling--a truly Romantic take on Romanticism; perhaps the only such interpretation ever filmed. The cinematography could be credited to Caspar David Friedrich, for many of the episodes comprise scenes which dramatize, in real life, his most evocative spiritual-landscape paintings.

The Romantic Spirit is not without its flaws. As the series was devised by a French scholar, it is exceedingly Franco-centric. Also, as the 14 installments were created by different directors, the intellectual quality varies considerably from episode to episode. Most unforgivably, the final episode (#14) is an unwatchable affront, an attempt to link Romanticism with Bolshevism, whereas the two are opposites: Romanticism being hierarchical, individualist, and idealist (three qualities that lead to great culture) whereas Marxism is levelling, collectivist, and materialist (three qualities that destroy culture).

However, even with those caveats, this is indisputably the most Romantic television series ever filmed, one that gives viewers a fine introduction to the spirit of the age.

The following YouTube video comprises the complete first episode in the series, titled "The Romantic Explosion."

Explosive it certainly is.

- Click to obtain The Romantic Spirit on DVD

Emily 16th August 2011 05:00

Re: The Romantic Spirit
It is a Romantic vision of Romanticism. For a documentary, it's quite exciting and has amazing visuals: geysers, mountains, thunderous cataracts, craggy coastlines, lone wanderers, fiery horses, caged tigers. Amazing. It's the visual world of Byron and Nietzsche brought to life.

I love the statements in the video, not just the quotations from the Romantics themselves, but even the descriptions of Romanticism, which enthuse about how the Romantics spurned cold rationalism for feeling and passion:

Scholars, critics, historians, have spent lifetimes trying to grasp the essence of Romanticism. And all the analysis, all the making of charts and lists, and all the interpretations of symbols, all the academic effort to come to grips with Romanticism goes totally against the grain of the Romantics, who couldn't stand the academic world. Their one, unanimous plea in life was, "Don't think. Don't reason. Feel."
The Romantics were crying, "Don't be afraid of feeling. Down with the artificial, the contrived, the phony. Down with the safe, the secure, the reasonable, and the comfortable."
The Romantics longed for a world that they conceived of not through the careful reasoning of the mind but impulsively, through the heart and the soul.
In Germany, a group of writers fed up with the doctrines of the "Enlightenment" begin to portray turbulent emotions and forceful individualism. The movement is called Sturm und Drang, "Storm and Stress."

I love the Romantic idea of never settling for the ordinary and mundane, but striving for the great and the exceptional:

"In order to find its original meaning, the world must be Romanticized. We will make the common and everyday become vibrant and significant. What is ordinary will become mysterious. The familiar will have the prestige of the unfamiliar. And the finite will seem infinite. Thereby I Romanticize it." Novalis, 1798.
All Europe was caught up in the turmoil of ideas and attitudes it generated, and no area of art, or life, was immune. Politics, war, love, death, they were all Romanticized.
This passionate longing for the unattainable was the essence of Romantic thought.
In his solitude, in an exile which is an inner exile as much as an exile from his own country, the Romantic creates his own world of the imagination. It is a region without boundaries and without rules.

I think this is an especially key statement: although the Romantics quarreled with the aristocracy, they were no egalitarians. They did conceive of an order of rank, but one based on Promethean fire:

The Romantics were against the old aristocracy based on birth and wealth. They were to create a new aristocracy: the aristocracy of genius.

When the video mentions that the Romantics were looking for transformation, this didn't mean "out with the old, in with the new," in our modern sense, but often, "out with the old and in with something much older," something more traditional and natural and historic, as in the case where they rejected 18th-century drama for Shakespeare, out of the 15th/16th century. In real sense, then, they were not revolutionaries but something more exciting: radical reactionaries.

Racine, classical playwright, represents the past. Shakespeare, rediscovered, becomes the figurehead for the now.

But although the introductory post in this thread specifies that the Romantic Spirit video is "off topic," I think there is an affinity between Romanticism, as this video describes it, and the topic of this forum.

Partly, there is the sense that we are "permanently in opposition" to the tyrannical, artificial aesthetic that has been imposed on modern society, just as the Romantics were against the tyrannies of their own time:

Into the land of beyond, into the nocturnal depths, they descend to the bottom of the volcano, into the holy, unutterable, mysterious night, into that ideal state that every soul seeks that has no place or name on Earth. They live dangerously. They live life to death. The Romantics sense themselves to be permanently in opposition. They are for the impossible and against everything else.

But the idea of a link between Romanticism and plus-size beauty really came to my mind when the video discusses the Romantics' rejection of tedious "moderation" and "boundaries" and stifling limitations of every kind, and their glorification of "excess" and surrender to passion:

They transformed the rational Europe of the 18th century into a volcanic continent erupting in its rejection of the sane and the sensible.
An excess of feeling, an excess of living, an excess of passion and of longing -- the creative vitality was staggering.
To give oneself unreservedly to one's passions and convictions without heeding the results of so doing, be they creative or destructive, this is one of the major imperatives of Romanticism
The distinguishing mark of this new era is a violent overflowing of feeling and an urgent search for passion, matched by the fierce determination to develop every caprice of the imagination to its ultimate conclusion, even though the results may well affront good taste, decorum, and the gods of moderation and respectability.

After all, the modern diet-starvation culture in which we live is all about constriction, about minimalism, about "boundaries" to appetite and body, about girls painfully denying themselves the rich food they crave; whereas plus-size beauty is about appetitive freedom, passionate self-indulgence, goddesses freely eating "whatever they want and as much as they want" (as is often said on this forum). The plus-size aesthetic of opulent beauty instead of diminished appearance, of luxurious fullness instead of meagre androgyny, is a physical expression of Romanticism in feminine form.

In many ways, I think plus-size beauty is the feminine equivalent of the quintessentially masculine Romantic spirit.

HSG 21st August 2011 07:26

Re: The Romantic Spirit

Everyone who enjoyed watching the first episode of The Romantic Spirit, titled "The Romantic Explosion," will also enjoy viewing this, the third show in the series (though the second in the original French broadcast), "Paradise Lost."

This episode focusses on the Romantics' love of the natural world, and thus features some of the most stirring visuals of the entire series: scenes of rocky coastlines, pounding surf, alpine bluffs, and dramatic skies. It vividly illustrates the difference between classical and Romantic aesthetics by contrasting the clipped, manicured, ordered gardens of the 18th century--like the grounds at Versailles--with the wild, natural gardens that appeared in Europe at the end of the 18th century. Called "English Gardens" on the continent (owing to the fact that their design originated in Britain), these Romantic gardens gave nature free reign, with dark forests interspersed by irregular clearings, and dotted here and there with picturesque ruins--even, in some cases, brand-new structures that were designed as ruins, to resemble the evocative relics of the ancient world.

This installment of The Romantic Spirit also presents a fine contrast between the masculine and the feminine, the Sublime and the Beautiful. In our "Natural Ideal" thread from last year, we described how plus-size-model tests achieve the highest aesthetic effect when they are enhanced by natural settings. That thread focussed on the Beautiful conception of nature, which is exemplified by flowers, meadows, and lush parkland, all evoking the distinctively feminine, 18th-century, classical aesthetic. Romanticism, on the other hand, celebrates the Sublime conception of nature, with craggy peaks and stern, wild, imposing vistas showing nature at its most ominous and threatening--a quintessentially masculine aesthetic.

We hope that you continue to enjoy this series, which so effectively showcases the Sublime Weltanschauung of the Romantic Era, in contrast to the Beautiful aesthetic that is the regular focus of the Judgment of Paris.

HSG 2nd October 2011 07:55

Re: The Romantic Spirit

We are now pleased to share a third episode from the television program The Romantic Spirit, a portion of which constitutes the zenith of the series as a whole.

The title of this episode, "The Golden Age," refers to one of the central themes of Romanticism: the cherished notion of a prelapsarian paradise against which the Romantics could contrast the baseness of the modern world and conceive of a better reality--an ideal world that existed once, in time and space, and could exist once more.

The initial portions of this episode cover various Romantic conceptions of a golden age, such as childhood and Classical Antiquity. However, the most extraordinary portion of the program begins at 29:45. In this section, the episode offers what may be the only sympathetic and politically untainted view of German Romanticism ever broadcast on English-language television.

In Germany, Romanticism flourished as nowhere else and could verily be described as embodying the soul of the people. The German Romantic conception of a Golden Age harkened back to the Medieval Era, a time when all of the Deutsch-speaking peoples were united in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, before the Reformation and the Thirty Years War atomized the land into hundreds of tiny principalities.

This Romantic desire to revive the golden age of Medieval Europe spurred noble 19th-century restorations of the most emblematic structures of the Middle Ages: castles and cathedrals. As this episode explains, the cathedral of the city of Cologne (about which we have written before) provides the most vivid example of how Romantics made their desire to revive the past a tangible reality:

NARRATOR: Around the middle of the 13th century, the city [of Köln] had begun work on a vast cathedral, which, in the following centuries, could not be completed. It remained a fragment until the Romantic Era. In an ambitious work, Sulpiz Boisserée published the original plans, thus engendering the impetus to complete it. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia became enthused by the idea. The state promised financial support, and following the confusions of the Napoleonic Era, the prince viewed its completion as a significant national task.

The Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, uttered these memorable words at the laying of the foundation stone in 1842: "I pray to God that this cathedral of Köln will soar above this city, and above Germany, until the end of days."

The secular equivalent of the cathedral, and fully equal to it as a symbol of the imaginative greatness of the past, is the castle, steeped as it is in the lore of fairy-tale and fable. The castles of the Middle Ages were also recalled to life thanks to the noble yearnings of the Romantics, as described in a passage that begins at 44:29 in the video:

NARRATOR: The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had laid the foundation stone at the Cologne Cathedral, instructs his architect Friedrich Schinkel to rebuild the castle of Stolzenfels on the Rhine, which had been completely destroyed by the French in the 17th century.

On September 14th, 1842, the king led a torchlight procession up to the castle, with his retinue dressed in old German costume.

On the orders of the king, Schnorr von Carolsfeld paints the myths of the Germanic heroes on the walls of the royal residence.

Click to enlarge

The Romantics looked to the past for their future. They too believed that they would experience a Golden Age, once they had found a way of uniting the past with the present.

The last comment indicates how our discussions of Romanticism are not, in fact, off-topic themes, but tie in directly with the subject of this forum. We too look back upon a Golden Age of the past (which for our purposes comprises every age prior to the 20th century, from Classical Antiquity down to the Romantic Era itself), during which periods the timeless beauty aesthetic held sway in Western culture, and with it the appreciation of full-figured femininity.

We invoke this grand history as a vibrant alternative to the modernist "aesthetics of guilt" that fetter our own era, and conceive of a nobler culture governed by an appreciation of true beauty. In dreaming of such an aesthetic restoration, we can make the return of that superior reality a genuine, tangible possibility.

Click arrow to view program:

The Kölner Dom stood as a mere fragment for centuries, while Schloß Stolzenfels was nothing more than a ruin for generations after the destruction wrought upon it during a philistine era. Yet when the Romantic spirit reasserted itself, these sublime edifices rose once more, and the élan of the people with them.

We need not despair at seeing Western culture crumbling all around us, living as we are in a similarly ignoble century. So long as there are Romantics in this world, so long as there remain a few unbowed individuals with Prussian blood in their veins, the possibility of a cultural renewal is ever just around the corner.

Emily 12th October 2011 20:48

Re: The Romantic Spirit
In the "Golden Age" episode, I was also very much moved by the following commentary from the narrator, which plays at 13:15 in the video:

The fashion for Greek-style temples in the building of the time is reflected in Sir Robert Smirke's design for the British Museum.

"There should be temples where one can revere the great artists as the highest mortal beings, where one can be bathed in calm, silent humility and uplifting solitude. I compare the most noble works of art with prayer."

Thus wrote the early German Romantic Heinrich Wackenroder in 1797. From this idea of creating a holy setting for the display of works of art came a number of great museums of the period.

How extraordinary that the romantics viewed art as sacred. What a contrast to our own modern world, a time when so-called "modern art" (a contradiction in terms) seems to exist merely to defile the past and to be as profane as possible.

Not only did the Romantics revive castles and cathedrals, but they were also the greatest museum-founders. All three building enterprises -- the constructions of castles, cathedrals, and museums -- arise out of the same exalted ideal: that however debased modern art or culture may be, the greatness of the past is undimmed. And if the finest artistic expressions of the past can be preserved and restored and presented to a contemporary audience, they can inspire a revival of those nobler values of yore and thus lead to a cultural renewal.

This is directly analogous to the Judgment of Paris project, which finds in today's plus-size models and their loveliest images a means of reintroducing the timeless beauty ideal, as expressed in the aesthetic of full-figured femininity.

Karsten 29th December 2011 02:23

Re: The Romantic Spirit
Originally Posted by HSG
The initial portions of this episode cover various Romantic conceptions of a golden age, such as childhood and Classical Antiquity. However, the most extraordinary portion of the program begins at 29:45. In this section, the episode offers what may be the only sympathetic and politically untainted view of German Romanticism ever broadcast on English-language television.

The latter half is definitely the most significant segment of the video. However, I was also struck by the castle that appears near the beginning, in the sequence describing childhood, with the quotations from Novalis.

The castle is only seen in shadow, whereas the other castles and cathedrals in the video are shown clearly, in daylight, so I thought I'd post a couple of images of this beautiful structure in broad daylight.

It's called Schloß Lichtenstein, a Neo-Gothic castle that looks like it stepped right out of a fairy-tale. No wonder the program used it to illustrate a sequence describing the golden age of childhood.

Yes, it even has a bona fide wooden bridge approach with a gate, just like a Disney castle -- except this is the real thing.

The interior is every bit as magical, also done up in a pure Gothic style.

The castle's official web site features an extensive gallery, along with a fascinating account of the history of the fortress and of the original Knights of Lichtenstein.

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