Sex, Drugs & Romanticism

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite”

The Marriage between Heaven and Hell, William Blake, 1793

In 1792, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge came out with their Lyrical Ballads. To many, this particular moment in time marks the beginning of Romanticism, a movement which opposed the rationalism that had been central in the Age of Reason decades earlier. Plays made way for a focus on poetry and prose, in which themes like youthful innocence, a connection to nature, and the confrontational breaking of taboos started to play major roles. Institutions like the church, the government, and even the education system were consistently besieged with heavy critiques, showing the irrationality within the rationality their so-called systems claimed to have. The Romantics attempted to once again enchant the world, to restore its magic, to bring back the supernatural, and to purposefully not answer all the questions life puts forward, but instead display the enjoyment of clueless wonder, in a language anyone could understand. Approximately 150 years later, a new sense of rebellion came along, partially voiced by artists once again embracing the mysteries of life. In a world just struck by war, seeing the rise of feminist marches, civil rights movements and the developing voice of younger generations, the Hippie movement and Rock ‘n Roll soon took over. Paving the way for the mainstream were people like the beat poets, who, during the 50s, started to write about junkies, the lower class, and homosexuals, thereby actively breaking with conventions. Additionally, the language used became more free verse, more direct, and simply more accessible, therefore strongly opposing the rational, almost pretentiously complex texts modernism had put out the years before WO II. Unsurprisingly, the beat poets themselves felt aligned with the romantics of two centuries earlier. Allen Ginsberg even named William Blake as one of his biggest inspirations. In other forms of post-modernist writing, an enchantment of the world once again arose through the humorous existentialism of, for instance, Samuel Beckett and the irrationally mythicized mundane of the Magical Realists. What more do these similarities tell us about that period, and in what ways has it influenced our own?

            In 1969, Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors – who got their name from the line quoted above this article – put his poetry to music, later published under the name An American Prayer in 1978. Not only does this combination of music and poetry already echo a similar conjunction of song and poetry as the Lyrical Ballads (ballads also meaning songs), its textual contents also reflect romantic ideals. As a major figure in mainstream, anti-Vietnam hippie culture, Morrison tells the listener in one of his songs – or poems – on the album, similarly named An American Prayer, to “propagate our lust for life” and to “reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages, celebrate symbols from deep elder forests.” This need to propagate a lust for life, by returning meaning to a world that has lost it, is not only a theme in mainstream, early psychedelic rock, but also comes back in prose and poetry, recognized as more literary, of that same era. In post-modernist art, the apparent uselessness in living, or the loss of meaning humanity had suffered by that time, through Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche, Barthes and Derrida, was not solved with melancholy and crisis-like existentialism, but instead celebrated and mocked. Humanity’s absurdities, the odd things we continually impose on ourselves, became central. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the play where nothing famously happens twice, the Sisyphean waiting for death that life actually entails is wittingly made fun of. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Lolita, the reader’s morality andability to judge the truth are consistently questioned. Literature no longer came up with answers, but praised the asking of questions instead.

            This appreciation of clueless wonder, the idealization of the things in life unknown, or at least bigger than man, could be compared with that of Romanticism. In, for instance, William Wordsworth’s We are Seven a scene is depicted in which a little girl is asked by the speaker how many siblings she has; the girl keeps stating she has seven, although two of them dead, whereas the speaker urges she only has five:

Then did the little Maid reply, 

“Seven boys and girls are we; 

Two of us in the church-yard lie, 

Beneath the church-yard tree.” 

“You run about, my little Maid, 

Your limbs they are alive; 

If two are in the church-yard laid, 

Then ye are only five.” 

These differences in perception are a recurrent theme of Romanticism, as are (´funny´) twists in plots or expected truths, seen in, for instance, The Well of St. Keyne by Robert Southey, a poem about a well that has the power to make either husband or wife, whoever comes to drink first, “Master for life” in the marriage concerned. Yet at the end of the poem, the man that informs the stranger about the well’s abilities concludes the story of his own experiences differently than expected:

“I hasten’d as soon as the wedding was done,

And left my Wife in the porch;

But i’ faith she had been wiser than me,

For she took a bottle to Church.”

This form of mockingly enjoying this world of mundane and silly situations, of endorsing the irrational, is then very similar to the works of the post-modernists. Both forms of art, although from different periods, equally embrace and idealize the absurdity, or useless attachment to meaningless, essentially colloquial things, thereby, as Morrison would say, jokingly propagating a lust for life.

            Yet what does all this mean for the contemporary, for the literature that came after? Romanticism is generally seen as having preceded realism, a movement, or form of writing, in which any kind of idealization is strictly shied away from. In current time, art is very fragmented, with people being able to follow movements from any period before, resulting in a bunch of different sorts of writing, painting, sculpting and music existing simultaneously. However, overall, literature can still be seen as having made somewhat of a realist turn. Literary realism is generally understood to have emerged mid-19th century, as a reaction on romanticism it actively attempted to display reality as it is, leaving no room for the supernatural, nor idealization. Influenced by John Locke and Descartes, lots of realists based their work on the notion that humans are constantly shaped by their environment, by what they perceive through their senses. As a result, these texts concentrate on this interaction, and urge the reader to define their characters by the environments placed around them. This dehumanization, or centrality of the object, rather than the subject, seems to have reappeared.  

            Nevertheless, contrary to those 19th century novels, by, for instance, James, Flaubert, or Huysmans, the post-modernist text is no longer able to make it that simple. In 1963, French Author Alain Robbe-Grillet came out with Pour un Nouveau Roman (or For a New Novel)in which he evaluates contemporary realism, and in which direction it should, or will, go. He states that “in the initial [19th century] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their significations. […] The hand on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving.” He goes on to state that “we no longer consider the world as our own, our private property, […] we no longer even believe in its depth.” This then, would result in a new form of realism that is no longer defining its characters through their senses, through the reader’s senses, but is instead actively seeking to foreground the interaction between the narrative-bound mind and a story-free world itself, with a focus on objects simply being, rather than being there solely for a literary purpose. This sense of demystifying realism itself can be seen in, for instance, the increasing interest in gender, queer and post-colonial theory, together with eco-critical and post-humanist thought, all actively trying to strip reality of its value-laden, story-ridden significations. So too does literature actively try to simply represent things as they are, to let objects be, and be alone.

            To conclude, it thus seems that post second world war literature is making a similar journey as the literary forms of the 19th century went through. However, whereas both romanticism and realism still had their stories and their significations, post-modernist writing establishes similar patterns within a world without meaning, slowly marching, step by step, to finally cleanse the doors of perception, so everything can appear to man as it is.

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