- - Friday, November 4, 2011

THE ROMANTIC REVOLUTION: A HISTORY
By Tim Blanning
Modern Library, $22, 272 pages

The word “revolution” is most often used in relation to events of the 18th and 19th centuries. We think of the American and French revolutions - dramatic upheavals that secured freedom and independence - but we also think of the increases in industrialism and consumerism that took place seemingly suddenly across the Western world.

In “The Romantic Revolution,” Tim Blanning takes up a revolution that doesn’t receive as much attention as the flashier (and bloodier) upheavals but that, he argues, was equally important.

Mr. Blanning, a former professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the British Academy, is the author of “The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture” and “The Pursuit of Glory,” a work that established him as one of the leading scholars of the Enlightenment through the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. Mr. Blanning notes throughout this current volume that the Romantic Revolution is not easy to define. Hegel came close, referring to the disposition of the period as one of “absolute inwardness.”

In his introduction, Mr. Blanning writes that the only way one can hope to understand Romanticism is “to enter the world of the romantics by the routes they chose themselves.” His argument is that in order to fully appreciate Romanticism, one must know, or at least experience, its many manifestations in literature, art and music. The book is filled with references to the iconic paintings, operas and novels that were born during the Romantic era.

The author provides vivid anecdotes concerning a vast array of artists, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “conversion experience,” in which this son of the Enlightenment was touched by the fire of Romanticism. Readers walk through Paris with Rousseau as he sees an advertisement for an essay competition that asks the question, “[H]as the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?” His reaction is related this way by Mr. Blanning:

“Slumping to the ground, he spent the next hour in a kind of trance, sobbing so passionately that when he came to his senses he found his coat drenched with tears.” What could be termed his Romantic epiphany was Rousseau’s realization that “contrary to expectation, the civilizing process was leading not to liberation, but to enslavement.” In this way and with other examples, the author contrasts the passions of the Romantic Revolution and Enlightenment thinking that preceded it.

While the “enlightened” focused on illuminating so-called scientific truths objectively, the Romantics advanced an appreciation of the nature of the individual. Differences abound in the works of art and literature produced by these opposing schools of thought, and many of theexamples Mr. Blanning selects show just how powerfully Romantics were reacting to the tenets of the Enlightenment. Naturalist Georg Forster wrote, “fire and flood, every kind of damage inflicted by fire and water, are nothing compared with the havoc that reason will wreak.”

Perhaps the starkest difference between Romanticism and the Enlightenment is their widely differing opinions about classical scholarship. Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” considered by many to be the greatest single work of history, is dismissed by the Romantics as “grand-sounding labels for subjective prejudices.” Mr. Blanning writes that “the Romantics believed that the Enlightenment approached history from the outside, imposing on the past contemporary standards and a contemporary agenda.” Rather, Romantics argued that history should be “illuminated from the inside on its own terms.” This seems to be the approach Mr. Blanning himself took in writing this particular history. His immersion into the manifestations of Romanticism takes the place of objective analysis.

The book, broken up into three large chapters - “The Crisis of the Age of Reason,” “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Language, History and Myth” - at times can feel a bit erratic, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Mr. Blanning jumps from one artist to another, across many different forms of art, with ease and understanding. He is equally comfortable discussing Romantic manifestations in opera as in literature. By the time one arrives at the conclusion, “Death and Transfiguration,” the epochal survey feels complete.

Anyone with an interest in cultural history will revel in the book’s range and insights. Specialists will savor the anecdotes, casual readers will enjoy the introduction to rich and exciting material. Brilliant artistic output during a time of transformative upheaval never gets old, and this book shows us why.

• Maxwell Sater is a writer and critic in Maryland.

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