Sunday, August 2, 2020

We Need To Talk About Romanticism: Re-Examining Emotion and Justice in Enlightenment Ideals


by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin


 Satire on Romantic Suicide (1839) by Leonardo Alenza y Nieto (1807–1845)



“We are slipping back from the age of reason into the mire of mystery, into a world of gods and devils, ghouls and angels. The difference this time is that we have chosen ignorance over knowledge, vapidity over insight, folly over realism. Consequently, we only have ourselves to blame when the rich and powerful take advantage of us.”
Andrew Davenport

Introduction


Why do we need to talk about Romanticism? What is Romanticism? And how does it affect us in the 21st century? The fact is that we are so immersed in Romanticism now that we cannot see the proverbial wood for the haunted-looking trees. Romanticism has so saturated our culture that we need to stand back and remind ourselves what it is, and examine how it has seeped into our thinking processes to the extent that we are not even aware of its presence anymore. Or why this is a problem. The Romanticist influence of intense emotion makes up a large part of modern culture, for example, in much pop music, cinema, TV and literature, e.g. genres such as Superheroes, Fantasy, Horror, Magical realism, Saga, Westerns. I will look at the origins of Romanticism, and its negative influence on culture and politics. I will show how Enlightenment ideas originally emerged in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church and led to the formation of a working class ideology and culture of resistance.


Romanticism and the modern world

"The whole exuberance, anarchy and violence of modern art ... its unrestrained, unsparing exhibitionism, is derived from [Romanticism]. And this subjective, egocentric attitude has become so much a matter of course for us ... that we find it impossible to reproduce even an abstract train of thought without talking about our own feelings."
Arnold Hauser

Romanticism arose out of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as a reaction to what was perceived as a rationalisation of life to the point of being anti-nature. The Romantics were against the Industrial Revolution, universalism and empiricism, emphasising instead heroic individualists and artists, and the individual imagination as a critical authority rather than classical ideals.

The Enlightenment itself had developed from the earlier Renaissance with a renewed interest in the classical traditions and ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order based on reason and science. On a political level the Enlightenment promoted republicanism in opposition to monarchy which ultimately led to the French revolution.

The worried conservatives of the time reacted to the ideas of the Enlightenment and reason with a philosophy which was based on religious ideas and glorified the past (especially Medieval times and the 'Golden Age') - times when things were not so threatening to elites. This philosophy became known as Romanticism and emphasised medieval ideas and society over the new ideas of democracy, capitalism and science.

Romanticism originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1890. It was initially marked by innovations in both content and literary style and by a preoccupation with the subconscious, the mystical, and the supernatural. This period was followed by the development of cultural nationalism and a new attention to national origins, an interest in native folklore, folk ballads and poetry, folk dance and music, and even previously ignored medieval and Renaissance works.

The Romantic movement "emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature." The importance of the medieval lay in the  pre-capitalist significance of its individual crafts and tradesmen, as well as its feudal peasants and serfs.

Thus Romanticism was a reaction to the birth of the modern world: urbanisation, secularisation, industrialisation, and consumerism. Romanticism emphasised intense emotion and feelings which over the centuries came to be seen as one of its most important characteristics, in opposition to 'cold', 'unfeeling' Enlightenment rationalism.


Origins of Enlightenment emotion

"Whence this secret Chain between each Person and Mankind? How is my Interest connected with the most distant Parts of it?"
Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) 

However, this 'cold', 'unfeeling' scenario is actually very far from the truth. In fact, the Enlightenment itself had its origins in emotion. Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century tried to create a philosophy of feeling that would allow them to solve the problem of the injustice in the unfeeling world they saw all around them.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together, Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”, while David Hume (1711 – 1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others. [1]

 
Portrait of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767


For the Enlightenment philosophers the relationship between feeling and reason was of absolute importance. To develop ideas that would progress society for the better, a sense of morality was essential. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) a prominent French philosopher of the Enlightenment in France, for example, had strong views on the importance of the passions. As Henry Martyn Lloyd writes:

"Diderot did believe in the utility of reason in the pursuit of truth – but he had an acute enthusiasm for the passions, particularly when it came to morality and aesthetics. With many of the key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, he believed that morality was grounded in sense-experience. Ethical judgment was closely aligned with, even indistinguishable from, aesthetic judgments, he claimed. We judge the beauty of a painting, a landscape or our lover’s face just as we judge the morality of a character in a novel, a play or our own lives – that is, we judge the good and the beautiful directly and without the need of reason. For Diderot, then, eliminating the passions could produce only an abomination. A person without the ability to be affected, either because of the absence of passions or the absence of senses, would be morally monstrous."


Moreover, to remove the passions from science would lead to inhuman approaches and methods that would divert and alienate science from its ultimate goal of serving humanity, as Lloyd writes:

"That the Enlightenment celebrated sensibility and feeling didn’t entail a rejection of science, however. Quite the opposite: the most sensitive individual – the person with the greatest sensibility – was considered to be the most acute observer of nature. The archetypical example here was a doctor, attuned to the bodily rhythms of patients and their particular symptoms. Instead, it was the speculative system-builder who was the enemy of scientific progress – the Cartesian physician who saw the body as a mere machine, or those who learned medicine by reading Aristotle but not by observing the ill. So the philosophical suspicion of reason was not a rejection of rationality per se; it was only a rejection of reason in isolation from the senses, and alienated from the impassioned body."

Michael L. Frazer describes the importance of Enlightenment justice and sympathy in his book The Enlightenment of Sympathy. He writes:

"Reflective sentimentalists recognize our commitment to justice as an outgrowth of our sympathy for others. After our sympathetic sentiments undergo reflective self-correction, the sympathy that emerges for all those who suffer injustice poses no insult to those for whom it is felt. We do not see their suffering as mere pain to be soothed away when and if we happen to share it. Instead under Hume's account, we condemn injustice as a violation of rules that are vitally important to us all. And under Smith's account, we condemn the sufferings of the victims of injustice as injustice because we sympathetically share the resentment that they feel toward their oppressors, endorsing such feelings as warranted and acknowledging those who feel them deserve better treatment." [2]

Cooper, Hume and Smith were living in times, not only devoid of empathy, but also even of basic sympathy. Robert C. Solomon writes of society then in A Passion for Justice: "There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. [...] Poverty was considered just one more "act of God," impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime." [3]

Enlightenment emotion eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the 'sentimental novel'. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature

"focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment. Frederick Douglass himself was inspired to stand against his own bondage and slavery in general in his famous Narrative by the speech by the sentimentalist playwright Sheridan in The Columbian Orator detailing a fictional dialogue between a master and slave."


As Solomon notes: "What distinguishes us not just from animals but from machines are our passions, and foremost among them our passion for justice. Justice is, in a word, that set of passions, not mere theories, that bind us and make us part of the social world."[4]


Title page from the first edition

 

Writers such as the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie tried to highlight many things that he perceived were wrong during his time and showed how many of the wrongs were ultimately caused by the established pillars of society. In his book, The Man of Feeling, he has no qualms about showing how these pillars of society had, for example, abused an intelligent woman causing her to become a prostitute (p44/45), destroyed a school because it blocked the landowner's view (p72), and hired assassins to remove a man who had refused to hand over his wife (p91), etc. [5] Mackenzie shows again and again the injustices of British military and colonial policy, and who is responsible. As Marilyn Butler writes:

"Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), is pointedly topical when it criticizes the consequences of a war policy - press-ganging, conscription, the military punishment of flogging, and inadequate pensions - and when, like the same author's Julia de Roubigné (1777), it attacks the principle of colonialism. An interest in such causes was the logical outcome of art's frequently reiterated dedication to humanity. It was a period when the cast of villains was drawn from the proud men representing authority, downwards from the House of Lords, the bench of bishops, judges, local magistrates, attorneys, to the stern father; when readers were invited to empathize with life's victims". [6]

It took a long time for the ideas of sentimentalism (emotions against injustice) to filter down to the Realism (using facts to depict ordinary everyday experiences) that Dickens used in the nineteenth century to finally evoke some kind of empathy for people impoverished by society. As Solomon notes: "It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that Dickens shook the conscience of his compatriots with his riveting descriptions of poverty and cruelty in contemporary London, [...] that the problem of poverty and resistance to its solutions [e.g. poorhouses] has become the central question of justice." [7]

 


Dickens's Dream by Robert William Buss, portraying Dickens at his desk at Gads Hill Place surrounded by many of his characters



European literary sentimentalism arose during the Enlightenment, and partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In England the period 1750–1798 became known as the Age of Sensibility as the sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility became popular.

Romanticist emotionalism: the opposite of Enlightenment sentimentalism

"Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness."
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832)

However, sensibility in an Enlightenment sense was very different from the Romanticist understanding, as Butler notes: "It is, in fact, in a key respect almost the opposite of Romanticism. Sensibility, like its near-synonym sentiment, echoes eighteenth-century philosophy and psychology in focusing upon the mental process by which impressions are received by the senses. But the sentimental writer's interest in how the mind works and in how people behave is very different from the Romantic writer's inwardness." [8]

She writes that 'neither Neoclassical theory nor contemporary practice in various styles and genres put much emphasis on the individuality of the artist' (p29). This is a far cry from the apolitical, inward-looking, self-centered Romantic artists who saw themselves outside of a society that they had little interest in participating in, let alone changing for the better. Butler again:

"Romantic rebelliousness is more outrageous and total, the individual rejecting not just his own society but the very principle of living in society - which means that the Romantic and post Romantic often dismisses political activity of any kind, as external to the self, literal and commonplace. Since it is relatively uncommon for the eighteenth-century artist to complain directly on his own behalf, he seldom achieves such emotional force as his nineteenth-century successor. He is, on the other hand, much more inclined than the Romantic to express sympathy for certain, well-defined social groups. Humanitarian feeling for the real-life underdog is a strong vein from the 1760s to the 1790s, often echoing real-life campaigns for reform." [9]

This movement over time towards the Romanticist inward-looking conception of emotion and feelings has had knock-on negative effects on society's ability to defend itself from elite oppression (through cultural styles of self-absorption, escapism and diversion rather than exposure, criticism and resistance), and retarded 'art's frequently reiterated dedication to humanity'. Solomon describes this process:

"What has come about in the past two centuries or so is the dramatic rise of what Robert Stone has called "affective individualism," this new celebration of the passions and other feelings of the autonomous individual. Yet, ironically, it is an attitude that has become even further removed from our sense of justice during that same period of time. We seem to have more inner feelings and pay more attention to them, but we seem to have fewer feelings about others and the state of the world and pay less attention to them."[10]

Thus while Enlightenment sentimentalism "depicted individuals as social beings whose sensibility was stimulated and defined by their interactions with others", the Romantic movement that followed it "tended to privilege individual autonomy and subjectivity over sociability".

Romanticism as a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century had a profound influence on culture which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implies a turning inward and encourages introspection. Romantic literature put more emphasis on themes of isolation, loneliness, tragic events and the power of nature. A heroic view of history and myth became the basis of much Romantic literature.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier


It was in Germany that Romanticism took shape as a political ideology. The German Romanticists felt threatened by the French Revolution and were forced to move from inward-looking ideas to formulate conservative political answers needed to oppose Enlightenment and republican ideals. According to Eugene N. Anderson:

"In the succeeding years the danger became acutely political, and the German Romanticists were compelled to subordinate their preoccupation with the widening of art and the enrichment of individual experience to social and political ideas and actions, particularly as formulated in nationalism and conservatism. These three cultural ideals, Romanticism, nationalism and conservatism, shared qualities evoked by the common situation of crisis. [...] The Germans had to maintain against rationalism and the French a culture which in its institutional structure was that of the ancien régime. German Romanticism accepted it, wished to reform it somewhat, idealized it, and defended the idealization as the supreme culture of the world. This was the German counter-revolution. [...] They endowed their culture with universal validity and asserted that it enjoyed the devotion of nature and God, that if it were destroyed humanity would be vitally wounded." [11]

The reactionary nature of German Romanticism was demonstrated in its hierarchical views of society, its chauvinist nationalism, and extreme conservatism which would have serious implications for future generations of the German populace. As Anderson writes:

"The low estimate of rationalism and the exaltation of custom, tradition, and feeling, the conception of society as an alliance of the generations, the belief in the abiding character of ideas as contrasted with the ephemeral nature of concepts, these and many other romantic views bolstered up the existing culture. The concern with relations led the Romanticists to praise the hierarchical order of the Ständestaat and to regard everything and every-one as an intermediary. The acceptance of the fact of inequality harmonized with that of the ideals of service, duty, faithfulness, order, sacrifice - admirable traits for serf or subject or soldier." [12]

Anderson also believes that the Romanticists remained swinging "between individual freedom and initiative and group compulsion and authority" and as such could not have brought in fundamental reforms, because: "By reverencing tradition, they preserved the power of the backward-looking royalty and aristocracy." [13]

Thus Romanticist self-centredness in philosophy translated into the most conservative forms for maintaining the status quo in politics. Individual freedoms were matched by authoritarianism for the masses. The individual was king alright, as long as you weren't a 'serf or subject or soldier'.


Beyond morality: Working Class perspectives on Reason and Sentiment

"We have never intended to enlighten shoemakers and servants—this is up to apostles."
Voltaire (1694–1778)

Around the same time of the early period of Romanticism, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) were born. They grew up in a very different Germany. Capitalism had become established and was creating an even more polarised society between extremely rich and extremely poor as factory owners pushed their workers to their physical limits. On his way to work at his father's firm in Manchester, Engels called into the offices of a paper he wrote for in Cologne and met the editor, Marx, for the first time in 1842. They formed a friendship based on shared values and beliefs regarding the working class and socialist ideas. They saw a connection between the earlier Enlightenment ideas and socialism. For example, as Engels writes in Anti-Duhring: "in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts." [14]

They were also critical of Romanticism. In a 'Letter from Marx to Engels In Manchester' Marx criticises the Romanticist obsessions with Medievalism and the 'Golden Age'. He writes: "The first reaction against the French Revolution and the period of Enlightenment bound up with it was naturally to see everything as mediaeval and romantic [...]. The second reaction is to look beyond the Middle Ages into the primitive age of each nation".

However, once
Marx and Engels had connected themselves to the Enlightenment they soon saw the limitations of Enlightenment concepts of reason and sentiment. As Krylov wrote in his Preface to On Literature and Art:

"Marx and Engels stripped away the romantic idealisation of the Middle Ages and, at the same time, demonstrated the inconsistency of the abstract view held by the Enlighteners that this was merely an age of social and cultural regression. They pointed out that the transition from slave-owning to feudal society was historically inevitable and showed that the establishment of the feudal mode of production was a step forward in the development of human society, compared to the reign of slavery which had preceded it. This enabled Marx and Engels to form a new approach to medieval culture and art and point out those features in them which reflected the progressive course of historical development."

Marx and Engels analysed West European romanticism in a way that gave credit for any progressive aspects despite its limitations:

"Considering romanticism a reflection of the age beginning after the Great French Revolution, of all its inherent social contradictions, they distinguished between revolutionary romanticism, which rejected capitalism and was striving towards the future, and romantic criticism of capitalism from the point of view of the past. They also differentiated between the romantic writers who idealised the pre-bourgeois social system: they valued those whose works concealed democratic and critical elements under a veneer of reactionary utopias and naive petty-bourgeois ideals, and criticised the reactionary romantics, whose sympathies for the past amounted to a defence of the interests of the nobility."

Similarly Krylov notes how Marx and Engels could see elements of class struggle in Enlightenment writing:

"Marx and Engels held in high esteem the heritage of the English and French 18th-century Enlighteners including their fiction and works on aesthetics. Their comprehensive analysis of the activity of the Enlighteners explains its close links with the life of society and the class struggle during the preparation for the French bourgeois revolution and draws a line between the moderately bourgeois and the democratic elements in their heritage."

However, Marx and Engels realised that the new bourgeois rulers would be limited by their conceptions of property, justice, and equality, which basically meant they only applied universality to themselves and their own property. The new rulers were buoyed up by the victory of their ideological fight over the aristocracy but incapable of applying the same ideas to the masses who helped them to victory. Thus Marx and Engels viewed the struggle for reason as important but limited to the new ruling class' world view, just like the aristocracy before them:

"Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man. We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch." [15]

As for sentiment, they were well aware of the Realist critical nature of modern writers (the Realist movement rejected Romanticism) and indeed praised them (e.g. G. Sand, E. Sue, and Boz [Dickens]), but limited themselves to offering some advice. While recognising that progressive literature had a mainly middle class audience (and were happy enough with these authors just 'shaking the optimism' of their audience), they knew that this was not by any means a socialist literature and were well aware of sentimentalist limitations. Engels states:

"I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instills doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides." [16]

Sentimental literature focused on individual misfortune, and constant repetition of such themes certainly appeared to universalise such suffering, so that, as David Denby writes, "In this weeping mother, this suffering father, we are to read also the sufferings of humanity." Thus, "individualism and universalism appear to be two sides of the same coin". Sentimental literature gives the reader the 'spectacle of misfortune' and a representation of the reaction of a 'sentient and sensible observer' who tries to help with 'alms, sympathy or indeed narrative intervention.' Furthermore, the literature of sentiment "mirrors eighteenth-century theories of sympathy, in which a spontaneous reaction to the spectacle of suffering is gradually developed, by a process of generalisation and combination of ideas, into broader and more abstract notions of humanity, benevolence, justice." [17]


Workers in the fuse factory, Woolwich Arsenal late 1800s


This brings us then to the problem of interpretation, as Denby suggests: "should the sentimental portrayal of the poor and of action in their favour be read as an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless, to include the hitherto excluded? Or, alternatively, is the sentimentalisation of the poor to be interpreted, more cynically, as a discursive strategy through which the enlightened bourgeoisie states its commitment to values of humanity and justice, and thereby seeks to strengthen its claims to universal domination?" [18]

While such ideas of giving a 'voice to the voiceless' was a far cry from monarchical times, and claims of commitment to humanity and justice were laudable, the concept of universality had a fundamental flaw: "The universal claims of the French Revolution are opposed to a [aristocratic] society based on distinctions of birth: it is in the name of humanity that the Revolution challenges the established order. But for Sartre this does not change the fact that the universal is a myth, an ideological construct, and an obfuscation, since it articulates a notion of man which eliminates social conflict and disguises the interests of a class behind a facade of universal reference." [19]


Striking teamsters battling police on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 1934


Thus for Marx and Engels defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, that is, a universal moral theory, could not be achieved while society is divided into classes:

"We maintain [...] that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life."

Marx and Engels worked towards that morality through their activism with working class movements and culture. Their critical writing also formed an essential part of working class ideology and culture of resistance and has remained influential in resistance movements the world over.

The culture of resistance today still uses realism, documentary, and histories of oppression to show the harsh realities of globalisation. Like during the Enlightenment, empathy for those suffering injustice forms its foundation. And unlike Romanticism, reason and science are deemed to be important tools in its struggle for social emancipation and progress.

Conclusion: Enlightenment and Romanticism today

"When we are asked now: are we now living into an enlightened age? Then the answer is: No, but in an age of Enlightenment."
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

There is no doubt that the influence of Romanticism has become ever stronger in twentieth and twenty-first century culture. Romanticist-influenced TV shows on Netflix are watched world wide. Love songs dominate the pop industry and superheroes are now the mainstay of cinema. Even Romanticist nationalism is making a comeback. Now and then calls for a new Enlightenment are heard, but like the original advocates of the Enlightenment, they are limited to the conservative world view of those making the call and whose view of the Enlightenment could be compared to a form of Third Way politics, that is, they avoid the issue of class conflict.

NOTES:

[1] Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) p72/73
[2] Michael L Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford Uni Press, 2010) p126/127
[3] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p13
[4] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p45
[5] Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling ( Oxford World's Classics Oxford Uni Press, 2009)
[6] Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p31
[7] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p13
[8] Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p29/30
[9]  Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford Uni Press, 1981) p30/31
[10] Robert C Solomon, A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract (Rowman and Littlefield Pub., 1995) p37
[11] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p301-312. Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/2707133
[12] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis, p313/314 Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/2707133
[13] Eugene N. Anderson, German Romanticism as an Ideology of Cultural Crisis. p316. Source: Journal of the History of Ideas , Jun., 1941, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jun., 1941), pp. 301-317. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/2707133
[14] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p270
[15] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p271
[16] Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1978) p88
[17] David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p28/29
[18] David J. Denby Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in France, 1760–1820 (Cambridge Studies in French, 1994) p117
[19] David J. Denby, Individual, universal, national: a French revolutionary trilogy? (Studies of Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 335, Voltaire Foundation, 1996) p27 


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin BA MA PhD is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Redrawing the Cultural Cityscape: The Destiny of Colonial Monuments in Ireland


"Symbols are what unite and divide people. Symbols give us our identity, our self-image,our way of explaining ourselves to others. Symbols in turn determine the kinds of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and remake."
Mary Robinson, Inauguration speech as President of Ireland, December 3, 1990

"Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes [...] the Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monument of their subjugation; before the senate house, the statue of their conqueror, within the walls tapestries with the defeats of their fathers. No public statue of an illustrious Irishman has ever graced the Irish Capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, 'This was to the glory of your countrymen'."
Dublin University Magazine (1856)

"Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals –
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse."

Dublin by Louis MacNeice


Introduction
On the night of the 8 March 1966 a massive explosion was heard in the centre of Dublin and Nelson's Pillar came crashing to the ground in hundreds of tons of rubble. No one  was hurt and a stump was all that could be seen of the 157 year old monument. It was not the first time that monuments had been attacked in Ireland and certainly not the last, at least figuratively, with a series of later monuments accruing many derogatory nicknames from the Dublin people.

The recent spate of attacks on monuments in the US and the Uk has opened up the debate on the cultural issues they provoke, ranging from those who can't believe the attacks hadn't happened sooner to those who see their destruction as mob vandalism.

Here, as everywhere, the public sphere is a highly contested one and not just culturally. For example, when the Irish Republic unilaterally declared independence in 1919, the Dáil Courts (Republican Courts) were set up, creating for the time being, a parallel (and popular) judicial system that frustrated the colonial power by undermining British rule in Ireland, and continued until independence.

Similarly the imposition of British cultural history in Ireland, through its monuments, was resented and these monuments became the focal point for the beginnings of a new public cultural space after independence. By wiping the slate clean, presumably it was thought, it would be possible to create a new progressive space based on Irish revolutionary figures. However, it did not quite work out like that. As in the political sphere, the public sphere remained a highly contested arena with successive conservative governments using different tactics to defer, reject or hinder progressive sculpture in Dublin.

I will look at the fate of some of these British historical monuments and the possibilities for future monuments that would more accurately reflect Irish peoples' historical struggles for freedom and independence.

'Removing' colonial history



‘Attempt to blow up the Albert Statue, Dublin’ (Illustrated Police News, June 1872)

Prince Albert statue
This early attempt on a Dublin statue followed controversy which saw the statue's location being changed from a central position at College Green, according to Donal Fallon, to finding "itself ultimately in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. It may surprise some of you to hear the statue is still in Dublin, though now it is inside the grounds of Leinster House."




The William statue was smeared with tar several times

William of Orange (1928)

In 1928 the statue of William of Orange (1701–1928) at College Green (in front of Trinity College) was damaged after an explosion on the anniversary of Armistice Day in 1928 and subsequently removed.

Donal Fallon quotes from the brief commentary on the statue that comes from a book, ‘Ireland In Pictures’, dating from 1898: "This equestrian statue of William II stands in College Green, and has stood there, more or less, since A.D 1701. We say “more or less” because no statue in the world, perhaps, has been subject to so many vicissitudes. It has been insulted, mutilated and blown up so many times, that the original figure, never particularly graceful, is now a battered wreck, pieced and patched together, like an old, worn out garment."


Final demolition of William statue (Irish Press 14 September 1945)

As historian Fin Dwyer writes: "If there was one statue that was not going to survive Irish independence this was it. William of Orange defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and ever since William and his victory has been twisted to suit political circumstances of the day. His victory had been celebrated by Unionists in the provactive 12th of July Parades in Ireland through the 19th century and he became a despised figure for Irish catholics and nationalists who saw William as a symbol of repression and discrimination. In 1929, the inevitable happened and the statue was blown up. Needless to say it wasn’t rebuilt."


Fitzgibbon Memorial

FitzGibbon Memorial (1930)
The memorial to Viscount FitzGibbon at Sarsfield Bridge, Limerick was constructed in 1857. According to the Limerick Post:

"Viscount Fitzgibbon, of Mount Shannon estate near Castleconnell, was reported missing presumed dead during the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘The Man Who Was’ is said to be inspired by him. His statue was blown up in 1930 and a monument to The Easter Rising now stands in its place."




Victoria statue

'Young' Queen Victoria (1934)
According to Professor John A Murphy, UCC: "In August 1849, Queen Victoria witnessed her statue being hoisted on the highest gable of the new Queen’s College, now University College Cork. There it remained until 1934 when it was taken down and replaced by Finbarr, Cork’s patron saint. The Victoria statue was put in storage for some years and then bizarrely buried in what was admittedly UCC’s classiest location, the President’s Garden."




King George II equestrian monument

King George II (1937)
This equestrian monument of King George II in St Stephen's Green (1758–1937) was blown up on 13 May 1937, the day after the coronation of George VI.



King George II unhorsed in 1937

It was unveiled in 1758 and depicted George II in Roman attire. It was placed on a tall pedestal but still 'the victim of many attacks'.




Statue of Queen Victoria

'Old' Queen Victoria (1948)
The statue of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, Kildare Street (1904–1948) was removed in 1948 as part of moves by the Irish State towards declaring a Republic, and eventually shipped to Sydney, Australia in 1987 where it is now on display on the corner of Druitt and George Street in front of the Queen Victoria Building.

The anger towards British colonialism in Ireland could be seen in newspaper reports of the time, for example:

"In 1895, The Nation newspaper noted that Irish migrants in New York had celebrated Victoria’s Jubilee with “the most appropriate celebration”, staging demonstrations and distributing political literature to highlight their view that: "some of the benefits conferred upon Ireland during Victoria’s murderous reign: Died of famine 1,500,000; evicted 3,668,000; expatriated 4,200,000; emigrants who died of ship fever, 57,000; imprisoned under the Coercion Acts, over 3,000; butchered in suppressed public meetings, 300; Coercion Acts, 53; executed for resisting tyranny, 95; died in English dungeons, 270; newspapers suppressed, 12."




Carlisle statue

George Howard (1956)
The statue of George Howard (Earl of Carlisle) in the Phoenix Park (1870–1956) was blown off its plinth in an explosion in 1956 and moved to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The pedestal remains in place as a memorial. George Howard (1802–1864), the 7th Earl of Carlisle, served under Lord Melbourne as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1841.




British War Memorial

British War Memorial (1957)
The War Memorial was erected in Pery Square, Limerick in 1929. In an article in the Limerick Post it was stated that:

"President of the British Legion in the Irish Free State Major-General Sir William Hickie, who had commanded the 16th Irish Division in France during the First World War and was therefore well known to and respected by the general body of the Ex-Servicemen present, unveiled the Cross which had been covered with a purple drape, symbolising the sacrifice of the men that the memorial commemorated."

During the early hours of  August 7, 1957 it was destroyed by an explosion.




Gough Monument

Gough Monument (1957)
The Gough Monument in the Phoenix Park (1880–1957) was blown up in 1957, it was later restored and re-erected in the grounds of Chillingham Castle, England, in 1990. Field Marshal Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough (1779–1869) was a British Army officer born at Woodstown, Annacotty, Ireland. Gough's colonial credentials are impeccable, serving British forces in China, India and South Africa where he "commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War. After serving as commander-in-chief of the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and led the British forces in action against the Marathas defeating them decisively at the conclusion of the Gwalior Campaign and then commanded the troops that defeated the Sikhs during both the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War."

The attack on the Gough Monument demonstrated that being Irish-born was no guarantee of immunity from denunciation and execration. Indeed, the assaults on colonial monuments also became a subject for Irish writers over subsequent decades too. The well-known Irish writer, Myles na gCopaleen, commented on a previous attack on the Gough monument when it was beheaded on Christmas Eve 1944. Writing in his column, Cruiskeen Lawn in The Irish Times in January 1945, he commented:

"Few people will sympathise with this activity; some think it is simply wrong, others do not understand how anybody could think of getting up in the middle of a frosty night in order to saw the head of a metal statue. [...] The Gough statue in question was a monstrosity, famous only for the disproportion of the horse’s legs, its present headlessness gives it a grim humour and even if the head is recovered, I urge strongly that no attempt should be made to solder it on."


Gough statue head found (Irish Press April 11, 1945)

The head was eventually found in the River Liffey, the main river running through the centre of Dublin. The fate of the Gough statue is also known because of a poem believed to have been written by another Irish writer, Brendan Behan (though some attribute it to poet Vincent Caprani):

"Neath the horse’s prick, a dynamite stick
Some Gallant hero did place
For the cause of our land, with a light in his hand
Bravely the foe he did face.
Then without showing fear, he kept himself clear
Excepting to blow up the pair
But he nearly went crackers, all he got was the knackers
And made the poor stallion a mare."




Nelson's Pillar

Nelson's Pillar (1966)
Nelson's Pillar O'Connell Street (1809–1966) was blown up in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The head of Nelson's statue was rescued, and is currently on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy. His naval victories around Europe, Egypt and the Canaries brought him much fame in Britain and an early death at the age of 47. The remaining stump was blown up by the Irish army to the delight of gathered Dubliners who according to the press "raised a resounding cheer".

The destruction of the pillar soon became the subject of two songs which both went into the Irish charts. The first called "Nelson's Farewell" was the first single by The Dubliners and was released in 1966 on the label Transatlantic Records. The gist of the song was that because of the explosion, Nelson, atop the pillar, had been launched into space:

"Oh the Russians and the Yanks, with lunar probes they play
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
And I hear the French are trying hard to make up lost headway
Toora, loora, loora, loora, loo
But now the Irish join the race, we have an astronaut in space
Ireland, boys, is now a world power too"



The other song was called "Up Went Nelson", "set to the tune of "John Brown's Body" and performed by a group of Belfast schoolteachers, which remained at the top of the Irish charts for eight weeks":

"One early mornin' in the year of '66
A band of Irish laddies were knockin' up some tricks
They though Horatio Nelson had overstayed a mite
So they helped him on his way with some sticks of gelignite"




Conclusion

Despite the regularly re-engineered cityscape of Dublin, the way was not cleared for a spate of representations of Irish national heroes. What  was erected tended to be mythologisations of Irish history (the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance, Cú Chulainn in the GPO: see my 1916 article) as if Irish elites feared the posthumous visages of its bravest and the effect their presence might have on the Dublin populace. What revolutionary figures that do exist in statue form (Tone, Emmett, Connolly etc) tend to be tucked away in parks or on side streets while the main bourgeois nationalist heroes stand on large plinths on Dublin's main streets (O'Connell, Parnell etc).

The lack of a major monument on a major street in Dublin commemorating, for example, the Great Hunger or the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation shows that, despite the decades of resistance to an imposed history, we are still not allowed to commemorate our own.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.