Home » People & Culture » Neo-Romantic


There are times when it seems as through the world is falling apart.  The power of nations and their armies, which has only become greater through the last two generations, seems paralyzed to act in the face of growing unrest and demands for freedom around the world.  The best solutions to the frozen uncertainty seems to be in nature, a life closer to the farm and organic.  Imagination and the power of the human mind offers another way out once it is unleashed and free to take on the established regimes.

This summary not only describes today, but the world around 220 years ago at the start of what became known as the Romantic Era.  It wasn’t romance in the way we usually use the term today, but instead a belief in the power of individuals and their natural instincts.  Understanding the movement and where it came from can give us a few clues where we might be going today.

The main feature of Romanticism is revolution.  The first time an imperial government was thrown off was here in the USofA, but France was not far behind.  Our experiences were very different as France descended into murderous anarchy and then a new imperialism under Napoleon.  But the central belief in the power of the human spirit guided all the uprisings that continued through the early 1800s across Europe, culminating in many ways with the work of Karl Marx.  Revolution became institutionalized and often a goal in and of itself before becoming so twisted that the mere mention of Marx brings up images that are horribly incorrect (as the man said himself at the end of his life, “The last thing on this earth I would want to be called is a Marxist”).

There was much more to the Romantic movement than revolution.  Populations were herded into cities in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, and the result was filth and disease.  The natural state of humans, working as craftsman and farmers in a kind of medieval setting, burned in the minds of bright intellectuals.  New science and realistic art styles embraced nature with the arms of imagination.  Anything seemed possible, a prospect that was invigorating and terrifying at the same time.

We cannot expect history or even popular thought to repeat themselves perfectly, so this time will be different.  The Romantic era was led by artists in music, visual, and literary media, exchanging ideas through all forms of human expression.  That does not seem to be happening yet, at least not to the same extent.  While urbanization is increasing dramatically in some parts of the developing world, the developed world appears to be very stable and not inclined to shift dramatically.

The other key difference is that as an already urban population, the developed world’s reliance on central banks and the features of city life would collapse into a very different kind of chaos if it were to all fall apart suddenly.  Returning to rural life is no longer imagined as the hard work of farmers but more of an escape while still connected to the larger world with technology.  The skill to actually work the land, the culture in agriculture, is quite lost.

But there is little doubt that the Age of Anxiety, as I hope the latter part of the 20th Century will come to be called, has ended.  The lack of a term for this new era has been a barrier to its coming together, but I like the term “Fractal Era”.  It describes a new vision of nature, chaotic but bounded, and as free as the number of dimensions anyone can imagine.

I would like to know what you think, however, as this could become an important perspective for understanding the changes taking place around us.  Is a neo-Romanticism blossoming around us?  Is the human spirit becoming more important to us than particular cultural identities and great nations?

27 thoughts on “Neo-Romantic

  1. Yes, definitely, people are fed up with just about everything and big corporations and government are not doing anything about it. Most people I know dream of chucking it and going off to live like the Unabomber or something. I think that has always been around but things did not fall apart like they are now. This sounds like the start of a series and I would like to hear more about what you think about today and not what happened 220 years ago.

    • I will get into more later, this an attempt to bring back some old themes before I go forward with them. I want readers’ input though, since I have written around this topic before.
      One topic I have not gotten into is how Romanticism was a response to Enlightenment – the belief that a thinking class could understand the world and make things better through nobless obligue. The way our world is falling apart – ripping apart the connections that made an industrialized hive of “experts” working in narrow fields appear efficient – is very much the way Romanticism got its start. I see many parallels today.
      But yes, I am looking for examples in art that back up the idea of a new Romantic Era. Without the arts I don’t see this happening.

  2. Did you see that Time named the Protester to be their person of the year. Don’t know if it means anything but they are thinking along some of the lines you are.

    • Jim, I think that Time’s choice is marketing, much like their selection of “You” as person of the year a few years ago. I’d make Osama bin Laden “person of the decade”. Few people have had more impact than he.

      Forget Steve Jobs and the iDevices, forget whatever technological advances we have made. Anyone who can get the U.S. to spend over a trillion dollars in the “war effort” and on domestic security theater deserves respect, but all that he did was turn our own craziness on ourselves.

  3. The sixties was a romantic movement. A lot of people were fed up with the values of their elders or conventional thinking. The environmental movement came out of the 60s. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, criminal rights and welfare rights were all revolutions with roots in the 60s. In some ways historic preservation and urban revitalization is from the 60s. Anti-war and anti-defense feelings were a part of a legacy as well. The new left of the early 70s however felt that working class people and labor unions were a conservative force. In some ways they were. Archie Bunker. The rioting outside the the Democratic Party convention in 1968 pitted the policeman with sons in Vietnam versus college students and hippies who were thought to be outside the mainstream. It was Hubert Humphrey vs Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy’s campaigners were the long haired people. Humphrey was the old guard.

    Whole Foods and Restoration Hardware and Grand Avenue in St. Paul sort of represents the romantic movement insofar as it can be applied to everyday life. A lot of people like organic food and don’t like industrialized farming, so more choices are out there for us. Walmart and the Mall of America is at the other end of the spectrum.

    • True, there was a Romantic Movement that worked alongside important achievements like Civil Rights. Where exactly that energy went is something I’ve spent my life trying to understand, to be honest. The animosity between liberals and unions has been a major hindrance to any kind of progress at all, but it doesn’t fully explain what happened IMHO.
      What I’m looking for is a movement that really does change how people live in more substantial ways. Yes, organic foods and back-to-the-farm movements are a big part of that. Will these trends continue, or will they die out like the 1960s did?

  4. I interpret the move to the suburbs as a kind of neo-pastoral movement. After all, after World War I, the depression and World War II the cities looked somewhat crowded and shabbby. In the suburbs, people had their estate, so to speak, with land and a vegetable and flower garden. The better suburbs were moved from any trace of industrialization and the manufacture of technology. The suburbs re-called a type of small town life, but without having to interact with your neighbors on an intimate basis. When people no longer saw the industrialization, they no longer cared as much about the effects of technology and how the products they got in Target came from or were made. Life is good. Hippies turned in to yuppies. George W. Bush was born the same year as Bill Clinton.
    Now the good thing of free trade is that people in other nations have more employment. Given the wage differential between the 1st world and the 3rd, world the advanced capitalist nations undergo continual pressure to innovate. Innovation can be good and bad, depending on how many TV channels, cereals, shampoos and cell phones you.
    Nixon opened up China as a possible bulward against the Soviet Union. Maybe it would have been better to have kept those light manufacturing jobs in the US. Our communities would have been more stable to continue with the good things that came of the 1960s.

    • I think you have a counter-argument that there has more or less always been a Romantic movement simultaneous with the entire postwar industrial experience (which I call the Age of Anxiety). I have considered this in the past, and your point is well taken. There have been bits and pieces of Romanticism always present in our culture, especially our love of rural life (even as we let it die off).
      The various counter-currents have been running at the same time, I admit, with some of them more powerful than others. What I’m looking for are signs that the Romantic view is going to dominate in some new form much as I see the “expert” hyper-specialized economy we’re coming out of as a kind of Enlightenment model.
      This is a difficult argument to make well, especially since I want to use current language – which is very inadequate to describe what comes next, IMHO. That’s why I thought I’d raise this as an open question. The lack of real Romanticism in art is evidence enough that we’re not moving strongly this direction – at least not yet. But I do think that a truly decentralized world is likely to be more Romantic in many important ways no matter what.
      Just trying to predict the future, is all. 🙂

      • I’m not sure the move to the suburbs was as much a “neo-pastoral movement” as it was “white-flight” movement, or perhaps, saying as much with softer words.
        My family moved out of Saint Paul in 1960, part of that movement to the suburbs “in search of better schools”–Saint Paul schools were in decline. In the rapidly growing suburbs (in our case, White Bear Lake), shiney new schools were being built to accomodate the children of the Greatest & Lost Generations, white children.
        In 1960, White Bear Lake’s area had grown from a bit over 2 square miles to 7 square miles and the population grew from 3,646 in 1950 to 12,849 in 1960 and in 1965, over 19,000 were counted in a “special census.” During a period of about six years the city built an elementary school every year. White Bear Senior High School opened in a new building in 1964, the old building becoming a junior high school, and in the seventies, a second high school was built.
        Too often when we look at the economics, employment, manufacturing, union influence and the growth of the middle class, hence the suburbs–we, myself included, look at it through the lens of the majority.

      • It’s worth noting that Jack moved back to the City long ago. 🙂
        But yes, let’s think about the non-majority, non-middle class and what they might think. I think this will take me a while to digest, but it’s a good idea.

  5. There is little doubt that people are dissatisfied with about everything in life but I don’t know that it will amount to any real changes. Those with jobs will want to keep them and those who don’t have jobs won’t have the money to do anything different. The depression will probably change things more than whatever people think about living on farms or any of that other stuff if you ask me.

    • Good points, but the Depression won’t last forever (it just seems like it). Some of this thinking came up while trying to look at where the new opportunities are going to happen. A lot of it will be decided by the next generation, so it’s up to their values. I have a feeling that they are learning how to make do with a lot less. It’s another angle on all this.

  6. Post WW2 has also been called the Atomic Age. Then later in the 1980s the Computer Age or Information Age. Those things do add up to an Age of Anxiety. I read something a couple of months ago that said by 1960 US dominance in manufacturing was already beginning to erode. Europe was rebuilding and Asia was starting to be competition. JFK tried to describe in ennobling terms all the challenges facing the US. He inspired. For those of us born in the middle of the twentieth century we look back on what the wars the US had to go through: Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. You have to study it to figure out what we were doing there.
    But I wholeheartedly agree with you, Erik. We need romantic art to help us interpret the world. We need to look for signs of romantic art. We need writers and painters and musicians to help lead the way.

    • It is very true that the decline in manufacturing started in the 60s – by the end of the decade the process we see more or less complete today was well under way. The “Archie Bunker” life you mentioned earlier was already very much under assault – hence the reactionary nature of that life/thought.

      I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but if Brasil really is ascendant right now (I’ve been predicting this for a decade!) we may have the source of the new arts we in the developed world are waiting for. There’s always a chance something could come out of southeast Asia as well, but I think Brasil will feel more natural to us. Ready to Samba? 🙂

  7. If by romantic you mean turmoil and searching for meaning I think you are right on. If you mean a real awakening of spirit then I am not so sure. People are pretty selfish and if anything only getting worse from what I see. Take for example christianity. The fundamentalists still get most of the attention and want to dictate what other people think or do. I don’ think any of them actually read the bible. That will have to change before there is any kind of spiritual awakening.

    • Wow – this is one that I’ve tried to tackle and I’m not sure how far it will go. But I’m pretty sure that spirituality is not the exclusive domain of fundamentalists. The United Church of Christ has been pretty evangelical lately with their own style of open and community based faith, for example. I think that this is quietly catching on despite the noise that the harder line keeps preaching. But I’ll agree that this movement will have to be a lot more vocal before it captures the imagination of popular culture the way fundamentalism has.

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  9. Ho-hum, more like neo-ro-manic… Me, I wanna be me, me, me… The bromide that big business, big government and big labour are the ones that should do something to makes things better is a vain and vacuous argument if you’re not contributing by the sweat of your brow, if you’re not generating econoic activity of some kind or size. It takes work to get work, and work to get results.

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