Notice how I put a picture I’ve taken in Ireland: RIP Dolores…
Towards the end of the 18th century, an artistic, literary and intellectual movement emerged in Europe : Romanticism. But Wordsworth’s or Keats’ ideas only arrived in the United-States in the 1820s. By then, writers were greatly influenced by romantic ideas about nature, individualism, or the sublime ; but the peculiar context of the Frontier and of the progressive discrepancy between an industrialized North and an agrarian South made the American romanticism become a unique movement.
When reading Thoreau, Emerson, or Melville, we realize that the philosophy of their texts sounds very relevant, even in our modern society. Why is it that words written almost two centuries ago still speak to us? One of the possibilities is that we are still in the aftermath of the Romantic period. Indeed, back in the 19th century, ideas such as the value of the individual uniqueness, or the beauty and importance of nature were really new. But today these ideas seem obvious, and the American popular culture is full of them.
Individualism is one of the main idea shared by romantic writers and artists. The importance of each individual within society, and the importance of his uniqueness show a will of romantics to step outside of the masses. As Emerson wrote : “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Today, this idea is still shared by many – and we can even say by most of the population. There are many movies constructed around this philosophy, like Welcome to Me, a dark-comedy drama released in 2014 and starring Kristen Wiig. The title is already striking, as it invites the viewer into someone’s privacy. The “me” or the “self” is the main subject of the movie, and the film revolves around the individual. In this case, a unique one : a single woman suffering from borderline personality disorder wins the lottery, and decides to create a show about herself. In this movie, as in romantic texts, the uniqueness of one human-being is not presented as a bad thing but as a quality that allows that person to turn his back on the masses.
To romantic writers and artists, nature is, before being a symbol, simply beautiful. That is linked to the concept of the sublime, a beauty that is so extreme that it is sometimes described as an elevation : the grandeur of nature both improves and dazzles the men. Nature is then presented as the truth, because it is seen as purer than the industrious world. Today, even if the context is different, there is a new interest for nature with Global Warming. And it is common to see nature as something purer and more beautiful than modern cities. Many movies present nature as something sublime, and the most famous one is Into the Wild, realized by Sean Penn and released in 2007. A young rich man who decides to destroy his credit cards and identifications papers to go live into the wild? Romantic indeed. We can see him as a modern Thoreau, in Walden, except that he goes live in an abandoned bus instead of a wooden cabin. He rejects modern society in order to be surrounded by the beauty of nature : he is the romantic hero.
At the end, just remember this: we are a society of Bartlebys (from Mellville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener – A Story of Wall Street), we “would prefer not to”, we blame capitalism, we blame the consumer society, we praise those who can detach themselves from it ; but do they really? Is the romantic hero real? We “would prefer not to” be part of that detrimental society, but we are, we all nourish it. Maybe we should accept that, and instead of encouraging to run away from this society, we should just face it and change it.
But I know, it’s not gonna be easy.