[Romantics] believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body …they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was for…. — Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism
When we think of Romanticism, we rarely think of rage and nihilism. Perhaps that’s because, for most people, the word “romantic” has come to stand for a particular subset of the genre known as “romantic love.”
But that’s not what the word “Romantic” indicates in the philosophical and/or historical sense–a movement we may have learned about long ago in the classroom, when the concept didn’t mean much to us except as something to memorize, be tested on, and then promptly forgotten.
But Romanticism (here’s a good summary of the concept) is far more significant than that. It informs our lives in many ways, including-surprisingly enough–our political lives: [The Romantics] sought regeneration — a regeneration we can liken to that of the medieval heretic or saint. They favored selfless enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which was an expression of faith and not as the product of utilitarian calculation. Emotion — unbridled emotion — was celebrated irrespective of its consequences.
If Romanticism glories powerful emotion “irrespective of its consequences,” it becomes easy to see why rage and nihilism are no strangers to the movement. And Jean Jacques Rousseau, sometimes thought of as the father of political Romanticism, was no slouch himself in the department of anger and paranoia.
In the realm of human emotions, there are few that are more powerful-and more commonplace-than anger. I’m no Freudian, but the much-maligned Freud introduced many useful concepts, and his term “Id” is one if them. The word “Id” covers forces that include the impulse behind anger, and is defined as the “part of the psyche associated with instinctual, repressed, or antisocial desires, usually sexual or aggressive.” Its counterpoint, Freud’s “Ego,” refers to “a set of psychic functions such as reality-testing, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.”
Try substituting the word “Romanticism” for the word “Id,” and the word “Enlightenment” for the word “Ego.” Works, doesn’t it? A related dichotomy would be “emotion vs. thought,” or even “left-brain-dominant vs. right.” Freud’s famous formulation “where Id is, let Ego be” tells us on which side he came down. Hint: it was not the side of Romanticism.
All of this, of course, is an oversimplification (isn’t just about everything?). But it’s a useful one nevertheless, and also historically accurate to say that Romanticism came about in large part as a reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason to the exclusion of emotion.
As Pascal famously said: “the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of.” Fictional characters such as Star Trek figures Spock and Data are entertaining examples of attempts to create a humanlike creature run by reason rather than emotion. But when dealing with actual human beings, it’s not possible; emotion will always rear its head, and one of those emotions will always be rage. And Romanticism not only celebrates rage as a strong emotion, it uses its power in various political movements.
A longer version of the Isaiah Berlin quote that began this article can be found in Armed Liberal Marc Danziger’s discussion of some of these issues. The lengthier excerpt includes Berlin’s assertion that the Romantics glorified those perceived as downtrodden: the failures and the minorities. Romantics didn’t just express empathy or sympathy for them, but actually elevated them to a place more worthy and more noble than the successes and the majorities.
So, who are the Romantics of today? From the foregoing discussion, it should be clear: Romanticism has found a cozy home on the Left. Romanticism (and Leftism) dictates not just sympathy for the Third World, but near-veneration of those there who combine a sense of victimhood (real or imagined) with what the poet Yeats called “passionate intensity,” which is the essence of Romanticism.
Anger is part of that passionate intensity, and it’s often a dominant part. Anger is not only a strong emotion, it’s a protean one, a shape-shifter. It can originate for one reason and towards one object and then its energy can be displaced and/or projected towards something or someone else. In its most intense form, it can result in suicide when it’s directed at the self, and homicide when directed at another.
These two-suicide and homicide-are not at all mutually exclusive, of course. Although most suicides do not murder and most murderers do not commit suicide, there’s a subset that does exactly both. The murder-suicide, traditionally occurring in Western culture mostly in the romantic (and Romantic) form of the spurned lover, finds its political expression in certain Arab countries in the form of the suicide/homicide bomber, who acquires extra motivation for his/her acts through the glorification of such deeds by that culture.
Political anger is not often severe enough to lead to suicide or homicide, at least not in this country. But the lesser and the greater forms of political anger have a similar etiology: in many cases, an individual who has a pre-existing higher-than-average level of anger (overt or repressed) for personal reasons–whether because of life experiences, or because of a somatic tendency towards anger–latches onto a political philosophy that further justifies that anger, fans it, and channels it in a particular direction.
The most extreme of these people end up, like the shooter in the Seattle Jewish Community Center, killing the targets of their rage. An example on the right would be the sort of process that has caused certain extremist right-to-life advocates to murder abortionists. Milder forms of political anger are commonplace, and occur on both sides.
The anger on the Left is more visible right now, fanned by the flames of frustration at being at last in power, but still not in control. That feeling had its roots in the continuing sense that the Left’s fell out of power in the first place as a result of election fraud. It’s not necessary that this perception be correct to be a powerful motivator; just that it be perceived as correct by those who believe it.
Some-although not all–of those on the Left who sport this anger feel an added sympathetic vibration with the anger of the suicide/homicide bomber. The Romantic glorification of the downtrodden Third World by the Left adds to that sympathy and gives it further political underpinnings.
There’s an interesting socioeconomic trend to Romanticism: it’s a philosophy that seems to attract a surprising number of the more well-to-do and well-educated. In Arab countries terrorists are at least as likely to come from the ranks of the relatively affluent as they are to be poverty-stricken. And in the West it seems to be the relatively well-to-do these days who are influenced most strongly by Romanticism.
Perhaps ’twas ever thus. Romanticism-here and elsewhere–is not only fueled by the guilt sometimes felt by people who have relative plenty when others are suffering, but it’s also fostered by an educational system that teaches and glorifies Romanticism in ways both subtle and overt.
So guilt and education are part of it. But there are other ways in which affluence-at least, relative affluence-feeds into Romanticism, especially in this country. Romanticism is idealistic (I would say, naively so). Belief in Romanticism in its purest and most philosophical form requires a certain remove from the struggles of day-to-day existence only available to those not on a subsistence level (see here for a more in-depth discussion of how this might work).
The affluent may also be attracted to the intensity of feeling and experience of the terrorist and the suicide bomber for another reason. Many human beings are probably hard-wired to seek excitement. Those who are no longer engaged in an obvious struggle for existence-no lion hunts, for example–can sometimes feel a sense of ennui and a lack of thrills. Filling this need can take the form of seeking out extreme sports such as skydiving or auto racing, or by high-risk behavior such as gambling or taking drugs. But for some people the quest takes the form of an urge towards nihilism.
As for the Middle East, the influence of the West and of Romanticism–both the homegrown and the grafted variety–have never been absent from the modern Arab scene. From T.E. Lawrence to the Nazis (see Bernard Lewis’s book Semites and Anti-Semites) to the present-day Leftists, Romanticism seems to have blended in well with the pre-existing ethos of the area.
Romanticism and politics make strange bedfellows. They lead inexorably from a philosophy that celebrates nature and considers humankind to be essentially good to one that glorifies murder and rage. But whoever said people were rational? Certainly not the Romantics.
Neo-Neocon is a writer and therapist: “Born in New York, living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides I’ve found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.” She regularly explains the ramifications and consequences of this conversion @ neo-neocon.