Suffering, nature, and the power of emotions are prominent qualities of the Romantic Period.
How has the Romantic Period influenced Brontë’s Wuthering Heights?
How does the notion of liebestod inform Heathcliff’s passion?
If Simon May bumped into Heathcliff on the road, what would he say to Heathcliff about his love of Cathy and his suffering?
Given what you have learned about love in RE103OC, who do you think loves Cathy more – Edgar Linton or Heathcliff? Why? (make reference to the materials to support your ideas)
Once you have read/watched the various materials and taken note of the information, outline the ideas that you would like to address in your creative powerpoint video. Your video must connect to lesson 8, May’s article and the film.
Once you are satisfied with your final copy ensure that it is saved as a .mov, .wav, pptx, or .mp4.
A Works Cited or Reference page is required with your presentation. May’s article is a book chapter – so you can just cite the whole book without discerning the chapter as it is not an anthology. Upload your Works Cited (MLA formatting) or Reference page (APA formatting) as a powerpoint.
-Course Citation for Works Cited (MLA) – White, Marybeth. “List the lesson and section here, i.e. 8.2, etc.” Love and its Myths. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University. Spring 2022.
-Course Citation for Reference page (APA) – White, M. (Spring 2022). “List the lesson and section here, i.e. 8.1, etc..” Love and its Myths. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University.
8.1: Contextual Background of the Romantic Period
As with arising of fin’ amor and its reinterpretation as Courtly Love, socio-economic and cultural factors created the conditions for the Romantic movement to arise in the late 1700s, six hundred years after the emergence of love poetry being composed in the aristocratic courts of France by the troubadours and trobairitz. It was a response to several important historical and cultural events: the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions; Enlightenment’s mechanization and reductive approach based on rational and empirical knowledge; and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Romanticism challenged these events, throwing objective knowledge into question.
Figure 1. Image of Immanuel Kant. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) was a German philosopher and an important Enlightenment period thinker. Kant famously initiated the notion of the “categorical imperative.” When faced with a decision to act while taking into account reason was, for Kant, a categorical imperative. Furthermore, in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason he explains how an emotion such as love has its reasons and therefore should be acted on in order to remain true to oneself. Authenticity to oneself was of the utmost importance, rather than following societal rules blindly. Kant urged people to critique their environments, question social structures, and employ reason to make one’s own way through the world. But, this did not mean that Kant was espousing a hedonistic, do what you will, world.
Given the political and social unrest of Europe following the aftermath of the French Revolution, realization of the limitation of knowledge, and the repercussions of the Protestant reformation, life in Europe was increasingly tenuous and facing an uncertain future. Within this context, artists sought to present freedom within human life, able to rise above the physical and social world. Art was considered the highest good, embracing all possibilities of Being (like Buber’s I-Thou – subjective) as opposed to the reductive nature of some Enlightenment understanding (like Buber’s I-It – objective). Through aesthetic beauty, the poets and musicians of the Romantic period resisted the socio-political systems of the day in an effort to promote freedom.
You will remember in Lesson One we briefly explored Enlightenment Philosophy in the context of the “disenchantment” of the natural world, which led to a further distancing of logos and mythos. Mythos, following the Enlightenment period, were then considered falsehoods – stories from an old time when humankind was ignorant and childlike. In Lesson One, there was a list of seven important features of Enlightenment Philosophy:
The first four points speak directly to the heart of Enlightenment philosophy, and this forms the basis of present-day Liberalism (not to be confused with political parties – although some of the traits may be similar).
Liberalism promotes a different social arrangement than that of the preceding feudal society. Liberalism advocates for a society that is based on the individual rather than one’s position within a feudal society. It echoes
meritocracy merit cracy (power),
which means that power is held by merit (who is deserving of respect). It is based on knowledge, understanding, and abilities, rather than the family one is born into.
Liberalism holds at its centre the first four points listed above, which are ideals that came from Enlightenment Philosophy: individualism, rights and freedoms, equality, and tolerance. By promoting the abilities, knowledge, and understanding of an individual over and above their position in birth, a meritocratic society is formed. The notion of “rights and freedoms” resulted from the subsequent shift in the primary unit of measurement from “collective/family” to “individual.” The individual and his/her rights and freedoms will be further discussed in the section on Democratic Revolution below.
Equality, in the 1700s and 1800s, was understood and interpreted in a very different way than we would associate with this term today. In early modernity, this term referred to equality among men. This did not include between equality between men and women. For example, French women continued to be denied the right to vote, experienced challenges gaining entry into universities, and holding positions of authority in governance, business, or family life. French women were the last among European countries to obtain the right to vote in 1944. Equality also did not refer to the small number of minority religious and cultural communities living in France. For example, anti-Semitism was widespread in France in the 19th and early 20th century; black communities residing in colonies of France in North America, Africa, and the Caribbean did not receive equal treatment (i.e. the Haitian Revolution and Canadian Indigenous peoples) and similar treatment continued when colony members moved to France in the 20th century only to experience systemic racism. Roman Catholicism continues to be the predominant religion in France, followed by non-religious, and Muslims. Muslims continue to face enormous amounts of racism and hate-crimes in France. Read this following news report from Al-Jazeera, reporting on what Muslims in France are experiencing in 2020.
Similarly, tolerance applied to those who were residing within European societies: families of different religious communities (i.e. all non-Christians), and regional differences between areas of newly forming nation-states in Europe (i.e. various communities found within France or within Italy). For the idealist, perhaps “tolerance” could be extended to people living in different countries or beyond Europe; however, given that there was no internet or “world news,” large differences in culture and tradition were not tolerated. The 18th and 19th centuries continued to be a time of colonization by many European countries. The people who were residing within the “colonies” were far more likely to be treated as “objects of curiosity”, but in most cases different cultures and religious traditions were considered to be “backwards,” “pagans” and in need of “taming,” “educating,” or should be conquered.
Although equality and tolerance were certainly not how we view these concepts today, they did set the foundation in the 18th century for promoting an individual’s rights and freedoms, our current notion of treating people “equally,” and tolerating difference. Liberalism continues to embrace such ideas, although more current understandings seek to move beyond “equal” to promote “equity” as well as moving beyond “tolerance” to promoting “acceptance”.
While equal sounds – well equal, Liberalism fails to address inequalities, assuming that all people have the ability to create their own wealth, health, etc. “Just get a job,” “Just eat better”… is the mentality that assumes we are all equal. However, this is difficult to fathom when one child is born into an upper middle-class household and another into a struggling 2nd generation refugee family; or one child is born without any physical or emotional medical conditions and another has physical or mental dis-ease.
Are we actually all equal?
If nothing else, the global pandemic has helped us to become aware that equity is required to provide an “even playing field” for some members of society who are currently working three times as hard just to get by, provide essential services, and continue to be at a disadvantage. Equity means that extra assistance is needed for some people to provide for the basics in life: water, food, shelter, medical needs, education, and even internet is now being hotly debated.
This is a very important distinction to think through. For example, the Québec government has introduced a law (Bill 21) which does not allow any public servant (police officers, teachers, nurses, judges, etc.) to wear any religious symbol. The rationale behind Bill 21 is to foster equality. Everyone looks the same when you are receiving service in the public sphere. The thought process is that everyone is equal, nobody stands out as different, and religious affiliation is not apparent. This understanding of “equality” attempts to build a “neutral” public sphere.
Many marginalized, minority religious communities are challenging the law as it effectively ends the public career prospects of those who do not want to give up wearing their kippah, turban, or hijab. Equity would accommodate for difference by allowing people to wear religious garments, providing an “even playing field” so that everyone can continue to have the opportunity to work as police officers, teachers, etc.
What do you think? Is equality at all costs the superior way to organize society? Is equity a more just way to organize society? How does love play a role in equality and equity?
Before we get too far away from the topic at hand – I think you can see the connections between individual vs. collective to see how this impacted the notion of Romanticism. Those writing fin’ amor poetry in the 12th century were resisting the rules being imposed by the Catholic church. The Romantic Period also offered resistance to the increased emphasis on science and rationalization of the world.
Enlightenment thinking set the stage for two important revolutions: Industrial and Democratic, which in turn led to a shift in social arrangements.
The last three points (rational thought, scientific methodology, progress) on the list of Enlightenment Philosophy values to come out of this period of thought speak directly to the Industrial Revolution that arose in the 18th century. Enlightenment philosophy paved the way for scientific advancements, and in many ways our lives have been enhanced because of science with inventions in the areas of transportation, communication, medicine, and housing.
Figure 2. D. Napier & Son Ltd, ‘Aero Engine in the Making’, England, circa 1918. Image by Museums Victoria. Retrieved from Unsplash. Free for use under Unsplash License.
Such progress is not without its downsides, with much of our “progress” exacting a large price to the earth’s resources and the pollution that accompanies the production of consumer goods, medical and food technologies, as well as our expediated forms of communication and transportation. The notion of progress that followed on the heels of Enlightenment thinking and the Industrial revolution encouraged an interest in the betterment of the common good. An important point that I wish to emphasize is that nothing is ever “black and white,” there are nuanced outcomes and unintended consequences to all of humanity’s ideologies and philosophies.
Certainly, our lives have become more comfortable with the inventions of cellphones, cars, thermal glazed windows, and shrink wrapped, pre-washed lettuce. In the 18th – 20th centuries, the “myth of progress” spurred further innovation. With every challenge that was created because of new inventions there would surely be a solution that humankind could invent to “fix” the new problem. For example, if rain is required, scientists discovered that “cloud seeding” can temporarily rectify the situation by injecting clouds with silver iodide. What is not currently known is what problems “cloud seeding” might cause. It also doesn’t address the underlying condition of why an area is becoming more arid. This type of thinking wasn’t common until the late 20th century after scientists began to observe the toll that certain practices had taken on the earth.
For two hundred years, under the guise of progress, the Industrial Revolution changed how goods are manufactured (frequently mass-produced, at times in sweat shops). Progress was measured in units such as gross domestic product (GDP), personal wealth, and the amassing of territory through colonization. Alongside the Industrial Revolution, another revolution was taking place. The Democratic Revolution witnessed a shift in European and colonial holdings away from the reign of Kings, Kaisers, Princes, Queens, and Czars.
Prior to the 18th century, Europe was ruled by different variations of hereditary, monarchical rule. Towards the end of the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution had created more employment as urban centres grew; however, there were more people entering the newly forming cities then there was employment. This led to increased poverty in cities and towns as well as increased frustration with not being able to find one’s way as an individual.
The older feudal system, while not allowing for much movement across social classes, did provide relative security. The shifting social arrangement meant more uncertainty, and greater movement of people out of their traditional farming and peasant roles into newer entrepreneurial areas such as merchants and manufacturers. Many countries within Europe experienced increased poverty in city centres, with resultant stress and unrest. Adding to the challenges of those facing poverty was the stance of the Catholic Church, which promoted poverty as a state of the blessed. Similar to the vows of poverty taken by Catholic religious leaders, those living in poverty were thought to be closer to the kingdom of God.
In addition to scientific, manufacturing, and territorial notions of progress, education was also viewed as an important means to the progression of an individual and society as a whole. During this time there was an increase in “free-thinking,” academic journal publications, which were available to the public, and overall an inquisitive attitude. The growing bourgeois, who along with other “developing middle class” members, critiqued ideas, inventions, and social ills. Philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes’ ideas formed the foundation for modern democratic principles, and there was a revitalization of the ancient Greek philosophers and classics. As people became more independent in their thinking there was frustration with the monarchies and social structures that continued to govern them.
Figure 3. Storming of the Bastille. c. 1789-1791. By Unidentified painter – L’Histoire par l’image. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
The French revolution is an example of how restless, impoverished, urban dwellers decided to resolve their situation and bring about, what they considered to be a society that would be based on merit and equality rather than a hierarchy of aristocrats and nobility. In 1789 the French Revolution established an early proto democratic parliament in place of the monarchy of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. France’s motto following the French Revolution echoes key sentiment found in Enlightenment Philosophy and Liberalism:
Liberté(Liberity), Egalité (Equality) , et Fraternite (Brotherhood)
Figure 4. Liberty Equality and Brotherhood emblem on a church. Taken by Greudin, 2004. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Similarly, the American revolution mythically commenced with the Boston Tea Party (1773), when furious British colonizers living in the Americas revolted against King George III over the exorbitant taxes he was imposing on the tea that had arrived in the Boston harbor from England, throwing the tea overboard into the harbour. It was a time of “sticking it to the man,” of asserting one’s independent and God-given right to pursue one’s dreams and become a self-made “man.” Rational thought, science, and progress harnessed with individualism, a sense of personal Rights and Freedoms, equality, and tolerance had spread throughout the European countries and their colonies by the 20th century.
This is the contextual background for our present-day “Western,” North American understandings of love. Keep in mind that Enlightenment Philosophy emphasized rational thought, scientific methodology, and progress at the expense of artistic endeavours and explorations of the humanities. Myths became “falsehoods” and stories for the uneducated that held onto magical, superstitious beliefs. The view of progress created an upheaval to the older societal norms of the feudal system, while the rights and freedoms of the individual became the basic unit of society, over and above communal and familial ties; urbanization and a shift from an agrarian society to one based on a market economy began.
Akin to the massive changes that we have currently been experiencing since the end of the 20th century and the new tech sector, cyber experiences, and forthcoming solar, wind, hyperloops, and interplanetary travel, massive change in a relatively short period of time presents different attitudes among people. Some embrace the new changes, while others resist and critique aspects of the new inventions and social constructs. In the next two sections of Lesson Eight, you will explore the Romantic tradition’s response to Enlightenment Philosophy. The Romantic period follows the trajectory of the Ancient Greeks, Plato, Judaic, Christian, and Muslim notions of love. A prominent characteristic of these traditions is the notion of self-transformation through love that leads to an ascent towards paradise and immortality. However, the Romantic period offers a differing understanding, one that frequently leads to unrequited love, tragedy, and heartbreak.
8.2 Wuthering Heights: Catherine has run off with Heathcliff
Romanticism presented a critique of Enlightenment Philosophy and what was perceived as a progressive atomistic view of the world, where nature could be controlled and bent to the needs of human beings. Inventions frequently involved the construction of polluting machinery with the aim of mass producing items. Mass production results in greater efficiencies at getting goods for market than the older method of individually handcrafted items. Romanticism resisted this notion of “progress” and offered resistance through its return to artistic mediums such as music, plays, operas, painting, and literature. Much like fin’ amor’s response to the encroachment of the Church into the sexual relationships and rules around marriage, Romanticism was also a response to the social conditions post-Enlightenment. Rather than seeking rationality and control over nature and one’s surroundings, the Romantics created music that swelled with emotion, paintings that dripped with human suffering, embraced nature, or emphasized nudity. Among the Romantics who resisted the advent of scientific progress brought about by the Industrial Revolution there was a return to matters of the heart. Human emotions were fully explored, pushing the boundaries of propriety and at times crossing the lines into what would be considered improper and immoral human relationships.
Figure 5. Liberty Leading the People Eugène Delacroix. 1830. By Eugène Delacroix – Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives via artsy.net. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
Richard Wagner (d. 1883) was a German composer who produced some of the most well-known music of the Romantic period. The Ride of the Valkyries is one of his well known pieces from the Ring quadrilogy. Click on the YouTube video below (5:00) to listen to this piece of music. As you listen, consider the Romantic period and some of its qualities: suffering, nature, and the power of emotions.
Richard Wagner – Ride of The Valkyries
Now that you have listened to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – reflect on how they made you feel. Jot down your ideas and consider your experience of the drama of the Romantic period.
Literature in the Romantic Period
Romantic literature flourished in Europe, primarily in England and Germany. The etymology of romantic is romanz, referring to the local vernaculars of the romance languages – that is the languages that are derived from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. In the medieval period “romance” referred to the tales of chivalry that were told, many of which involved notions of fin’ amor.
You will remember from Lesson Seven, the narrative of Le Roman de la Rose. While these tales were originally written in verse, their format changed to more fantastical narratives. Stories were fictional accounts that became known as romans or novels, and by the end of the 18th century the word “romantic” was a permanent fixture in European vocabularies, with a focus on:
Wuthering Heights: Contextual Background to Emily Brontë’s Narrative
All three understandings of “Romantic” are found in Brontë’s story, Wuthering Heights.
Stone statue of Emily Brontë depicted as a young woman. She has long flowing hair and is wearing a dress with buttons down the front. Across her shoulders is a cap, held in place at the base of her throat with a pin. Figure 6. Statue of Emily Brontë. Taken by Tim Green. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.
Emily Brontë (1818-1848) was born in Yorkshire, England. Her mother died shortly after her birth, and two years later when Emily was just seven years old her two older sisters passed away from tuberculosis. Emily lived with her two remaining sisters, Charlotte and Anne, as well as her brother Branwell. They were raised by her aunt, while her father was a clergyman in nearby Haworth, Yorkshire. Below is a picture of the Haworth Parson house where the family lived. It is here that Emily wrote the famous romantic period book in 1847, when she was 29 years old. Sadly, Emily died the following year at the age of 30, also from tuberculosis.
Figure 7. Brontë Parsonage Museum. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
The book was written under a male pseudonym (Ellis Bell), as women authors frequently did in the 19th century, given the gender expectation at that time. The 1850 second publication of the book, after Emily Brontë’s death, contains a forward written by her sister Charlotte, who mythologizes Emily, stripping her of agency as a writer who purposefully wrote a Romantic novel. She explains away her narrative as the voice of a naïve and impulsive young woman, rather than one who has written a masterpiece of Romantic literature that explores the depths and depravity of human love and passion.
There are important differences between romantic and Romantic: the former is a love story, like Harlequin romance novels or a movie like The Notebook. However, a Romantic period narrative is transgressive with mutually passionate love between the characters, rules and social norms are thrown out the window, not erotic but passionate, individual decisions that cut through expectations and roles. There can be great cruelty, immorality, and chaos – things are out of control in the novel, which is the key point. This is not a feel good romcom, rather it is a tension-filled look at the dark side of Eros – desire, longing, and passionate love. Consider making a table listing these two different concepts of romantic love and the Romantic period. It will assist in your retention of the materials and provide a quick reference for upcoming quizzes and tests.
Wuthering Heights: Preparing to Watch the Movie
Rather than read the book for RE103OC, we will be watching a two-hour film available through WLU’s library, OnDemand system. The film is divided into two sections so you can easily divide your viewing time or take an intermission between sections (time for popcorn!).
Before beginning the film, there are a few things to consider. The film moves between present and past instances of the lives of the Earnshaw and Linton families around the central figures of Heathcliff (adopted into the Earnshaw family) and Catherine Earnshaw (not to be confused with her daughter, who is also named Catherine). The novel and movie takes place in Yorkshire England in late 1700s- early 1800s on the edge of a small town and the Yorkshire moors. As you view the movie, watch for characteristics of the Romantic Period.
Romantic Period: Key Characteristics Reflected in Wuthering Heights
The Romantic period explored tensions between opposite worlds: controlled, constricted, manicured, well-heeled lives which observed social and religious norms and passionate, longing, follow your heart lives which can be chaotic. These opposites are not resolved, it is not that one is upheld as superior (although you may form your own opinions about that) rather they are merely presented by Emily Brontë as a way to explore and investigate our understandings of relationships and the maintenance of some semblance of order in society (others might argue intrusion).
Finally, the Romantic period valued the following attributes so take some jot notes of these (as well as the tensions and opposites that you observe).
Once you have viewed Wuthering Heights consider the following questions. Your jot notes and the questions will be helpful in preparing you for the reflection exercise during the week of Lesson Ten.
The ideals of Liberalism that were propelled into European society through the Democratic Revolution were central to Romanticism. Individualism, the Rights and Freedoms of an individual to determine their future and matters of the heart, the elevation of women to that of muses for the various artistic endeavours while not exactly “equality” as we would understand it today, nonetheless gave greater respect to women, and finally tolerance of difference (again with an understanding of tolerance within one’s region). You can see how the troubadours and trobairitz were ahead of their time in promoting love matches based on longing and passion, asserting their rights as individuals hundreds of years before Enlightenment philosophy.
Another outcome of emphasizing one’s individual rights and freedoms was a change in how God was conceived among what was still primarily Christian European societies. Individual relationships with God moved beyond the Protestant reformation that began in the early 16th century when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg (present day Germany) to not requiring any religious affiliation. Deism purports that the relationship is between God (however one conceives the entity) and an individual human being. A priest, member of a clergy, and religious institution is not required, according to Deist thought. In many ways this was the first SBNR “spiritual but not religious” non-affiliated, non-conformist tradition. Many of the founders of United States of America who led the colony into the American revolution were “free-thinkers” who held both Christian and Deist ideas in differing ways; for example, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.
According to Lindberg, the “dynamic power in Romanticism is the conviction that the infinite is present in the finite but that no particular form can contain it” (Lindberg 2008, 147). Lindberg is alluding to the fact that during the Romantic period there was a return to the ideas found within Plato’s ascent tradition and ancient Greek understandings of mortality and immortality as well. On the one hand, Romanticism brings heaven down to earth, whereby the infinite, the absolute, God, the Good, can be found within our finite world; yet on the other hand, not in a particular form. Similar to Martin Buber’s notion of Thou being in relationship, always a transcendent force but NEVER immanent, within a particular person. There was no union for Buber, just as there was no union for the Sufis with their Beloved Allah. The Romantics viewed the eternal not only within the heaven realms found in the ascent tradition but also within our relationships (both positive and negative). Love becomes a religion for the romantics, and it is through union with another person that the infinite is sought.
For the Romantics, the natural world in which humans inhabit becomes re-enchanted through our relationships of love. Remember from Lesson Three, Aristophanes’ myth about our primordial beginnings and how we seek wholeness through seeking our other halves? The Romantic period echoes both Plato’s ascent towards the good but in addition to aspiring towards the love of God, the Romantics considered it equally possible to achieve wholeness not just with union with the divine but union with another person. The notion of “soul mates” from the 4th century BCE returns and couples with the individualism that is prized in the post Enlightenment period echoing the Medieval poetry writing of fin’ amor. The end goal for an individual is finding wholeness and infinity through Eros; the desire and longing for another person culminating in union.
Theologian Paul Tillich’s Love, Power, and Justice argues that love is related to our very being. The ontology of love, itself, is what drives us towards union with the divine. He states,
“Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated. Reunion presupposes separation of that which belongs essentially together…[therefore love is] the reunion of the estranged. Estrangement presupposes original oneness.” (Tillich 1954, 25).
In other words, human beings seek to find the whole from which they have their Being. You will remember that Platonic love viewed the whole as the Form of Beauty and the Christians re-worked this to be God in His heavenly realm. The ancient Greek philosophers aspired to contemplate and ultimately return to the Form, while the Christians aimed to return to the Heavenly Realm of God. The whole that the Romantics endeavoured to unite with was through a love relationship with another human being. Rather than ascending towards God, human love is substituted, in this way the infinite is found in through finite love. Love becomes like a religion for the Romantics and similar to fin’ amor five hundred years previously women play a key role.
As with women during the times of the troubadours and in particular during the re-interpretation of fin’ amor as Courtly Love, women during the Romantic period are placed on a pedestal. They are elevated in status, whereby women are respected by Romantics for having their own ideas. Rather than being subjected to the social norms of the 18th and 19th centuries, which advocated for women to marry and be submissive to their husband as the head of the household, women were regarded as individual human beings who were capable of self-determination and accorded freedom to make their own decisions. Developing one’s own sense of self and living an authentic life as opposed to fulfilling a role through marriage and motherhood was important to the Romantics.
Below is a picture of the ancient Greek muse, Erato. Erato is the muse of poetry, in particular love and erotic poetry. You will notice that Eros/Cupid is beside her. She is one of 9 muses from ancient Greek mythology who reside on Mount Parnassus.
Figure 8. Erato. By Simon Vouet. 17e century. By Simon Vouet – New Orleans Museum of Art. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
We do have to keep in mind that these idealistic understandings of women, among Romantics, was tempered with the reality of life in the 18th and 19th centuries, where overall women were not typically allowed any freedoms or say, even in who they married. Relative to North American understandings of gender equality, even such an elevation as what occurred during the Romantic period is not the same as how we perceive women currently. Women in 18th century Europe were subordinate to men, fulfilling passive roles relative to the authority in public life that men were afforded. Even within the artistic circles of Romanticism, “independent” women acted more as muses rather than artists in their own right. Males continued to be the protagonists.
The objectification of women and their relatively passive role connects elements of medieval courtly life with the Romantic Movement at the turn of the 19th century. Yet, women did indeed provide male Romantic writers with a romantic muse that assisted in their development of Romantic writings (similar to how women during the times of fin’ amor and Courtly Love were muses in the production of love poetry). By muse, I am referring to their ability to inspire in the writer of music, poetry, or literature, the inspiration that propelled writers to produce their operas, musical scores, or literature. Of course, there were times when the desire and longing for the passionate love that they were seeking resulted, not in an ascent to the “Good,” or “God,” but a descent into the darkest regions of the heart.
The Romantic Period’s emphasis on love and finding the infinite (God’s paradise) within a finite person (the beloved) derailed the ascent tradition. No longer was love attached to virtue, morality, and self-transformation to align with God’s love (caritas and agape). Passionately loving another person as if they were a god/goddess opened love to the possibility of degeneration rather than ascent based on virtues. This form of Eros did not have agape to balance its force. Individualism further drove the concept of love found in Romanticism towards fulfilling one’s need for unification through love, no matter the cost.
People have done some horrific things in the name of love. The expression, “I’d do anything for you” if taken literally can have destructive outcomes. If the person that you consider “the one” changes their mind and no longer wants to be this can lead to some awful outcome if control, obsession, and jealousy arises. C.S. Lewis warns of the dangers of Eros love if it does not “bow” to Caritas – the unconditional love that Christian’s believe God bestows on human beings. Without the balance of agape or caritas love, Eros can become the opposite of its creative, heavenly force transforming into a destructive and common force. This brings to mind the position of both Pausanias and Erxymachus from Plato’s Symposium.
You will remember that Pausanias also stated that there were two types of love: Aphrodite Urania (Heavenly) and Aphrodite Pandemos (Common). Pausanias cautions us to orient ourselves towards Aphrodite Urania and be cautious of the pull of Aphrodite Pandemos, which appeals to those who focus on the physicality of love rather than love of ideas and mind. Erxymachus is the doctor who is keen to have us balance these two forms of love. He warns that without both forms of love we run the risk of being out-of-balance, hindering your ability to positively affect your spirituality.
If your passionate love is oriented towards Common love rather than being balanced with Heavenly love then more harm can be done, argued the ancient Greeks who gathered at the Symposium. The German Romantics coined the word, “Liebestod” to describe the destructive form of Eros that becomes associated with the Romantic period. Liebestod translates as “love death”. It refers to passionate love that leads to the desire for unification in the next life, in which love carries on beyond death, perhaps leading the lovers towards death. For example, Romeo and Juliette, Tristan and Isolde, Qays and Layla, Werther and Lotte, Jack and Rose, and Heathcliff and Catherine.
How is it that Eros, the creative force of love is re-created as a death force?
Key is the notion of authenticity among Romantic Period artists. As stated above, Romantic love between two people was considered to be the crucible in which one was able to “see themselves” through the eyes of their lover. In an effort to “become” a lover saw themselves in the “mirror” of their lover’s eyes. Freedom was found in being who you were rather than who others saw or wanted you to be while fulfilling society’s roles. Self-love was a central feature to Romanticism, and receiving “feedback” from your lovers helped to identify who you are, your likes, interests, and dislikes. If one of the lovers is removed through death or a decision to leave the relationship, then the other’s love can spiral into liebestod, either through a lack of will to live without their beloved, a broken heart, or wanting revenge and destruction.
Passionate love for one’s beloved during the Romantic period focused on loving another human being, one who in return provided the lover with a sense of oneself. Death, the ultimate form of infinity, becomes a sadly twisted alternative should Eros love not be balanced with a notion of The Good, virtue, God, or some other higher ideal (Aphrodite Urania) the desire and longing for the other to fulfill the lover’s identity and sense of self can result in a destructive transformation.
Take some time to read the ten pages of May’s chapter “Love as Religion.” As you read through his chapter, take some jot notes to solidify your thinking about Romanticism and some of the challenges that it presents to our notions of love today.
Are the love stories we watch and read balanced with agape and caritas love (i.e. The Notebook and Love Actually) or are they tragedies masquerading as “love” stories?
Love: A History –Simon May “Love as Religion: Schlegel and Novalis”
To provide you with some background here are some pieces of information.
My personal notes on the reading:
Return to Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Wuthering Heights.
Article: Love As Religion