Friday, February 12, 2010

Realism and Romance; Or, Politics and Principles

Back in college, I remember hanging out one night shooting the breeze with my hallmates. This was early freshman year, when I didn't know people that well. I remember one guy stopped me in mid-sentence, fixed me in the eye, and said, "You know, you're a romantic." I can't remember what precisely I'd been talking about that elicited his remark; probably I was saying something about how I had faith in the essential goodness of humanity or rightness of the universe. But whatever it was, I remember being taken aback; it seemed to me he'd said the word "romantic" as if it were some sort of crippling inadequacy. I never got to like the guy; in fact, I took out my anger by turning him into the lamest, most pathetic character in the comic book I drew for those on the hall who became my friends. I turned him into a lazy dreamer, a romantic. Take that!

But the fact is, he was right. I am a romantic. Always have been. If, that is, one defines the word "romantic" the way it was defined by the nineteenth-century Romantic movement in the arts: as the tendency toward the ideal, the deeper truth, the imaginative, the possible, over against the tendency toward the literal, the everyday, the rational, the "realistic." Hawthorne, for example, called his works "romances," not novels: to him, novels were about consensus reality, and as such were limited by what actually was, whereas romances were about the transcendent, the mystical, the might be, and thus were free to shape themselves according to the limitless range of human creativity. As Robert F. Kennedy put it, "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” The former folks are realists. Kennedy was a romantic.

I wish we had more romantics, and fewer realists, in politics today. Lots of people saw Obama as a romantic, and voted for him as a result; turns out he's just another realist, and not even a very effective one at that. The Democrats, as I've pointed out in several earlier posts, are all a bunch of failed realists; you might even say they're failed because they're realists, because they can't imagine what it would be like to imagine. They're game-players, bureaucrats, horse-traders; there's not an ounce of romanticism in the lot of them. If there were, we'd have universal health care. We'd be out of Iraq and on our way out of Afghanistan. We'd have climate legislation. We'd have a government worthy of our respect, and a future worth dreaming about.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was another great romantic. The philosophy he more or less founded, Transcendentalism, was an idealist one--meaning, in the narrow sense, that it hearkened back to the Platonic philosophy of ideal forms, or in the broader sense, that it was founded on a faith in the power of ideas, or ideals. In his essay "Man the Reformer," from 1841, Emerson wrote: "The believer not only beholds his heaven to be possible, but already to begin to exist,--not by the men or materials the statesman uses, but by men transfigured and raised above themselves by the power of principles. To principles something else is possible that transcends all the power of expedients." Emerson was notably skittish about involvement in politics; he frequently sounds elitist, out of touch, or frankly aloof when he discusses his reluctance to mingle with the madding mob. But he did speak out against Indian Removal and African slavery, two of the greatest sins of his day. He did rally his fellows to live their lives according to what might be, what should be, not merely what was. He did, in the best romantic fashion, imagine his heaven into existence--here, now--without waiting to see if he had enough votes to override a filibuster or enough pork to toss to the Blue Dogs.

We could use some of his romanticism today.


  1. Romantic. Yes. About that….

    As we swim in the never-ending ocean of red and pink hearts, chocolate boxes, stuffed bears, incessant jewelry commercials, and greeting card hell that paint the image of Valentines’ Day, the most redundant of all the “holidays,” I’m reminded of a sad truth: In addition to it taking on the indication of, as you said, “crippling inadequacy,” the term “romantic” has been grossly pulverized and Hallmark-icized (I made that word up) into nothing more than a single-noted measurement of one’s attitude toward physical and emotional affection regarding specific human relationships.

    Outside of a classroom, I never hear the term being used as a literary adjective, or in reference to one’s views of the world in the broader sense.

    In the weeks leading up to what, I assume, is every florists’ favorite day of the year, I’ve heard questions such as: “Are you a romantic person?” “What sort of romantic plans do you have?” and “What’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for you?” flying out by the dozen (pun intended). I’d bet my impending college degree that none of these questions are intended to gauge the true possibilities of human creativity. Unless of course, by “creativity,” I mean the many ways one can utilize a candle and manufacture a surprise marriage proposal. *cue nausea*

    In light of your post, which I quite enjoyed, I’m thinking the next time someone say to me “Are you romantic?” I might just be inclined to reply, “Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean someone who finds the most value in the more transcendental gifts of the world; someone who rejects the notion of ‘the norm’ and focuses on ‘the potential;’ essentially, the opposite of YOU…then yes, I believe I am.”