I am behind in far too many things, so I hope you don’t mind a repeat from 2011. It’s a question I still find very important.
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?