Romanticism and Nostalgia: The Modern Condition

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…
—William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

To call someone romantic in the present day could mean in the positive sense that someone is expressive, loving, and affectionate, but it could also mean in the derogatory sense as someone unrealistic, irrational, or over-sentimental. Although the contemporary understanding of romance is related to love, the word “romance” itself has gone through different associations in Western history. The origin of “romance” comes from the medieval languages that derived from Latin, including French, Spanish, and Italian. Stories of chivalry, adventure, love, knights and damsels in distress appeared in these romantic languages. Notions of passion, fantasy, and beautiful settings became associated with romance.

After taking a back seat to rationality, Romanticism made a fierce return in the late 18th century through the arts as a reaction against the mechanical and regimented monotony of the Enlightenment. Romanticism was a movement to renew the wonders of human life by bringing back sentimental passions, individuality, and subjective freedom. In parallel with the artistic and intellectual impulse to break free was the social and political instability of the French Revolution. Concepts of death, destruction, and the transience of power became pertinent. Metaphorically, the Romantics saw themselves as heroes, just like the medieval knights, braving through the repressions of society. German Romantics, including Friedrich and William Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Friedrich Schelling, Johan Fichte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and also Georg F.W. Hegel were not homogeneous in their philosophies, but had a common interest: understanding humanity’s inner and external nature, and the spiritual relationship between the two. According to Friedrich Schlegel, Romanticism is found in “whatever shows us a sentimental subject in fantastic form … Everything that speaks to our sentiment – not our sensual, but our spiritual sentiment.”1

Earlier Romanticism in German literature was characterized by extreme individualism and dramatic feelings in the movement of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress). In England, Romanticism found itself in the sentiment for the materiality of the natural world. In comparison to the German’s mysticism of nature, English Romanticism of nature was personal and familiar. From the poems of William Wordsworth to the paintings of John Constable, nature was something very close to home.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, National Gallery of London.

Nostalgia: The Romantic Paradox

In the crux of Romanticism is a fundamental paradox: the desire for individualism and a connectedness to a world that is both material and metaphysical. This is a modern desire. The Romantic is in search of truth, authenticity, and personal identification with place in the world, but he/she can never be fully satisfied because of subjectivity:

in turning to personal experience one forgoes the security of an established belief system with which to make sense of the world and exposes oneself to whatever comes. It means becoming a perpetual outsider. The gain for the individual is the experience itself and the continual surprise of existence. The Romantic is a constant beginner in life, always learning, never content to be instructed by others.2

Consequently, the Romantic may search for connectedness in another realm: the imagination, the past, or a utopian future. While romanticism is understood as an approach to view the world, nostalgia is a state of romanticism in response to a particular (yet not necessarily defined) place and time. Nostalgia is often immersed in melancholic emotions that range from a sense of reflectivity to a sense of mourning. Mourning is a reaffirmation of modernity for Bruce Braun: “To be modern is to mourn; we preform ourselves as modern by mourning.”3 Being aware of the world, we are constantly trying to catch up with what we deem as modernity’s destruction.

Imperialist nostalgia and tourism

Renato Rosaldo describes imperialist nostalgia as the hypocritical, self-inflicted mourning created by cultural dominance. This is present in colonialism and the modern worship of nature:

A person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim. In more attenuated form, somebody deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At one more remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature.4

Whether I want to think positively, or I’m just in denial, I still find the above statement too hard to swallow. Imperialist nostalgia may be fitting as a cultural phenomenon, but can we really condemn every modern individual to this offense? Nonetheless, imperialist nostalgia may have been the driver of modern mass-popularized tourism. Caren Kaplan suggests that imperial nostalgia has been narrated and represented by the colonizer (i.e. the victor) as the search for the “pure” and “simple” “elsewhere,” whether in another historical period or through other cultures.5 Travel is the modern activity to remedy this sense of displacement.

Displaced nostalgia and landscape images

Physical travel isn’t the only way that a nostalgic past is displaced. S.W. Naguib describes displaced nostalgia as the yearning of a place that one has never experienced, and that it is generated from the familiarity and the attachment to the exposure of repetitive idealized landscapes.6 These landscapes are dream-like and a-temporal, giving off a particular ambience. Postcards, travel brochures, calendar images, photo-collections (and now Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr images), perpetually reinforce the nostalgia evoked through landscape images. Perhaps even more effective than landscape paintings, landscape photographs make a greater impression in our implicit memories. Photographs have the type of authority to imply a truth: details are captured within the picture frame like evidence, not just evidence captured by the photographer, but evidence that we assume to have seen ourselves. Accompanying this evidence of truth, are the emotions of longing and admiration.

Beach “postcard” landscape. Source: Picture Postcard, by Thomas, Flickr (CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Are you a landscape romantic?

Although there are many ways to perceive landscapes, I personally believe that one must be a romantic to be passionate about landscapes. At the same time, it means being stuck in the paradox of modernity (this is why I sometimes feel like I’m stuck on a never-ending hamster wheel). Is there a way to get unstuck without foregoing the belief in landscapes…

1. Hubert Schrade, German Romantic Painting, (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1977), 7.
2. Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien: Humankind and the Environment, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 31.
3. Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Forest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 137.
4. Caren Kaplan, “‘This Question of Moving’: Modernist Exile / Postmodern Tourism,” in Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 34.
5. Ibid, 27-64.
6. Saphinaz-Amal Williksen Naguib, “Egypt in View: Postcards of Nostalgia,” in Reveries of Home: Nostalgia, Authenticity and the Performance, eds. Solrun Williksen and Nigel Rapport, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 109-123.

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