The Flâneur and other Romantic Notions, Part 2 – Romantic Love

In my last blog post, I attempted (somewhat clumsily I must admit) to address a question many arts students are often asked about why they study the things they do, by making a connection between English subjects like Romanticism and the ideas and standards we encounter in contemporary everyday life. In Part 2 I would like to discuss what I think is the most persistent remnant of the French Romantic movement in popular culture today: an exaggerated idea of romantic in which love and tragedy are presented as two of the most fundamental symptoms of human experiences and expression. I would also like to discuss how the origin of both the French Romantic ideal and the current romantic ideal (in modern Western popular culture at least) can be linked to a specific set of historical conditions. This to show how history can shed insight on the present 🙂

Before examining historical events however it would make more sense for me to describe what I think the French Romantic ideal was. Three central characteristics were this:

  1. What seems an almost excessive willingness to embrace passion despite the knowledge that this often involved danger and pain,
  2. The elevation of human emotions as the ultimate form of experience and expression and,
  3. A willingness to involve oneself in tragedy and the ‘madness of love’ precisely because this experience represents the ultimate form of human truth; one that rises above social structures and orders imposed upon the world and the individual.

Reckless passion in the French Romantic ideal acquired a status so holy status as to rival that of the state and the church. Whilst studying French history last year I came across a quote I think captures perfectly this idealistic notion that love and passion rather than religion and politics can make the world better, or ‘save us from ourselves’:

Peter Gay, in The Tender Passsion: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud vol. 2, wrote that

Romantic eccentricity tended […] to mix dreams of political utopia and hopes of vast religious renewal’.

This is not difficult to understand when one considers how explosive and volatile French politics and society were during the 19th century:

Eugène Delacroix- La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple. The famous painting of the Revolution of 1830 being led by Lady Liberty.
Eugène Delacroix- La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple. The famous painting of the Revolution of 1830 being led by Lady Liberty. Click on image for more info.

1870 wood engraving of the Paris Uprising of June 1832

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux Click on image for more info
Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux
Click on image for more info

Writing in 1836 between the devastation of the French Revolution of 1789 and the further violence and dislocation that came with the June Days Uprising in 1848, Alfred de Musset encapsulated in his book Confession of a Child of the Century , the pervasive feeling of normlessness, disillusionment, and anomie that affected many during this period.

During the wars of the Empire, while husbands and brothers were in Germany, anxious mothers brought into the world a generation that was ardent, whey-faced and morbidly sensitive. Conceived in the intervals between battles, raised in schools to the beat of drums, thousands of boys exchanged grim looks as they flexed their puny muscles. From time to time blood-spattered fathers would appear, hold them up against chestfuls of golden medals, then put them down again and get back on their horses.

Alfred de Musset, an influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
Alfred de Musset, an influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
George Sand, another influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
George Sand, another influential figure in the French Romantic movement.

To shorten a long story, the 19th century in France was extremely bloody.

It therefore incidentally provided the perfect conditions for the passionate French Romantic ideal to emerge as a response to the disillusionment that would have accompanied periods of violence and political instability. The violence that had brought out the worst in human nature was reinvented in the Romantic ideal as a desire to elevate something (human experience and passion) to a higher level than the institutions, political bodies, and individuals that had so far guided France to overwhelming level of chaos. When Alain Corbin draws our attention to ‘the violence of passionate language in the years after the Revolution [in which] Love becomes ‘frenzy [and] jealousy took the form of madness’[1], this redirection of revolutionary energy into the French Romantic obsession with passionate experience is clear. Corbin continues with ‘emotion was so overwhelming that it made even death tempting’[2] – and this I think is something we can see in not some but many contemporary films, songs, and novels.

Louis Philippe I, in power in the 1830s, was supposed to be a ‘Citizen-King’ in what became known as the ‘Impossible Monarchy’. This period of French history was yet another confusing and frustrating attempt to return stability to a country which had undergone much political change and inconsistency, but one that created a frustrating double-standard: How can a king also really be a citizen?
Louis Philippe I, in power in the 1830s, was supposed to be a ‘Citizen-King’ in what became known as the ‘Impossible Monarchy’. This period of French history was yet another confusing and frustrating attempt to return stability to a country which had undergone much political change and inconsistency, but one that created a frustrating double-standard: How can a king also really be a citizen?

Now, to the present day.

Even at their most over-the-top and excessive, the French romantic ideals discussed above have survived into the present day. We might scoff at how ridiculous and frivolous some romantic prose is, but studying it next to its political and historical context is really interesting. So, in today’s world, I would like to argue that the glorified and sensationalistic fantasy of love as a force of human truth that can unite people over their differences has survived. And not only a little, but a lot.

In hugely popular movies like Titanic and Moulin Rouge!, love as this somewhat abstract but universal idea has the power to override differences that are imposed on the individual – differences like class and race. Part of the storyline of both of these films is the frustration that the wider society as a whole will not accept the reality of such love between members of different social groups.

nothing on earth could come between them
Note the tag line: ‘Nothing on Earth could come between them’
Note the tag line: 'No rules. No limits'
Note the tag line: ‘No rules. No limits’

However in countries like America and Australia, where the violence of the French Revolutions is not present and we do not face the same restrictive measures imposed by the Catholic church and other political bodies, the question must be asked: What set of historical circumstances is supporting the persistence of such excessive and over-the-top ideas?

I would like to suggest that the French Romantic ideal still functions as an antidote, but rather than an antidote to political violence and religious pressure, the modern depiction of love functions as an antidote to the sense of confusion or anomie that globalisation often causes.

Writing about social transformation in the global era Peter Atteslander defines anomie as

an anarchic state of crisis-prone uncertainty affecting a broad segment of the population [that occurs when] cultural interpretative models lose their function’[3].

Despite its many advantages, globalisation can trigger a feeling of anomie in the way that it necessarily confronts the individual with multiple viewpoints and possibilities for how to live. The overabundance of information and perspectives on any given topic that is now easily available in the Information Age can lead to a frustrating sense of normlessness and confusion about ‘truth’, meaning and accuracy. So we defer to feelings which are common and familiar to us all. This makes sense, but nonetheless I feel it should be examined.

Modern films like Titanic and Moulin Rouge! exemplify the ways in which the French Romantic ideal suggested a desire for unity in human relations, for something that would unite people over their differences and divisions, and around something universally recognisable. The revolutionary-like energy of French Romantic fantasies offers a compelling antidote to the increasingly scientific and reductionist ways in which the world is being defined. Human passion in these narratives – rather than spiritual or political fervour or scientific advancement – is something that adds meaning to life even in the face of death. Part of their appeal is the enormous abundance of tragedy that these films contain. Audiences are fascinated by the almost holy depiction of love as the ultimate experience of truth for human existence in an age marked by an increasing sense of anomie, dislocation, confusion and disenchantment. So now that I am rambling, and still unsure how I feel about this – whether it’s a good or a bad thing, or maybe neither – just an interesting thing – I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you see this idea in everyday life around you?

References and further reading: 

This piece is abridged, it was originally submitted as an essay to La Trobe University in 2014.

Pamela Silvan.

[1] Corbin, Alain, ‘Intimate Relations’, in Perrot, Michelle (ed.), A History of Private Life vol. IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1990), p. 573.

[2] Corbin, Alain, ‘Intimate Relations’, in Perrot, Michelle (ed.), A History of Private Life vol. IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1990), p. 573.

[3] Atteslander, Peter, ‘Social Transformation in the Age of Globalization: A Challenge to Reduce Anomie and to Increase Social Capital’ in International Review of Sociology, vol. 17, no.3 (2007), p. 489.

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “The Flâneur and other Romantic Notions, Part 2 – Romantic Love”

  1. Well love was the antidote in the French 1800s, and the Globalised 2000s, but what sustained it in between? 🙂

    I think love is overplayed in songs and movies. I mean, songs last 4 minutes and their themes can’t be that intricate, but the one-dimensional love slant of movies is less and less believable as I grow up. All I think in love-based films from Hollywood is how lazy the storytelling is in modern movies.

    Love is a lovely dream and often a lovely reality but depending on the culture it doesn’t cut through class, religion differences all the way.

    1. Thanks a really good question, I guess it’s because of how idealistic and as you say, how much of a nice/universal idea love it that is has survived as such as potent force for so long, and why it fills so many songs and movies. There’s nothing too wrong with this, it’s a beautiful idea. I just think reality falls short of it so often for so many people, and this is why I think it can be useful to look at love as a reaction to other social and political forces (maybe it won’t be such a downer that way LoL).
      And great point, it definitely isn’t enough to overcome all differences, which is something that exhausts me a bit about movies like Titanic. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. Bonjour Marty,
      okay agape or eros? “in love” (chemical) or love (unconditional) or what kind of love… is overplayed?

      Love songs aren’t the measure although our romantic poets may have us duped… if not industry.

      Love can never be overplayed. Of course love is the reality.

      But it’s simplistic interpretations and stereotypes can be overplayed and religions, class entitlement etc… have dictated for so long we get caught up in nature versus nurture.

      Love is the easiest thing of all.

  2. Well, I’d argue you your point about the Catholic Church not having an influence in the U.S. for OH so many reasons that involve nothing like romanticism as well as after witnessing pope john paul’s visit to NYC and the billboards that advertised his coming and how the charity vans full of bananas were being passed out to the poor, loud speakers blasting prayers and damnation in spanish, in my neighborhood…

    and as I have Catholic relatives, the impact was tangible to say the least on my american experience.

    but so we’re speaking of the french? those lovers who do everything with their tongues? ah yes…

    poets seduce us.

    but more importantly, most humans respond to emotion not logic. that’s the nature of politics.

    I love your blog!!!!!! what a great essay for contemplation. This is my first reaction and not my well thought out “response” btw. But I just adore the angles you take on and the questions. 🙂

    1. This sounds so interesting I have to research it further! Thanks for the insight! Poets and aspirations, and especially feelings – universal and familiar – seduce us, and I wish this could always be a good think like the Romantics would have argued. Thanks so much for your kind feedback and for reading!!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s