A reflection on Our Fin-de-Siècle Art of Literature

Download 98.38 Kb.
Date conversion27.05.2017
Size98.38 Kb.
  1   2   3   4
From Romantic Movement to Postmodern Style:

A Reflection on Our Fin-de-Siècle Art of Literature

Chung-hsuan Tung


The history of Western literature is a dualistic history. It begins with two separate traditions: Hellenism and Hebraism. The spirits or values these two traditions represent seldom blend equally at any supposed period of the history. The Classical period and the Modernist movement are dominated by Hellenistic qualities whereas the Romantic period and the Postmodern movement are dominated by Hebraic spirits. In fact, the Postmodern style seems to be the result of pushing the Romantic movement, with its Hebraic/Dionysian tendencies, to an extreme. Many Postmodern characteristics can be traced back logically to Romantic attributes. This logical inference can be confirmed through factual evidence. After considering the seven factors—world, medium, language, author, reader, work, and theme—involved in literature as a means of communication, we cannot but admit that the Romantic spirit of loving freedom, change and difference has really brought about the Postmodern style, the fin-de-siècle trend of worshiping Chaos, of anti-form, anti-art, anti-literature. But this, we can predict, is likewise only a phase of the changing history. When the Hellenistic/Apollonian values become dominant again, the golden age of art may return with a new vigor.

Key words and phrases:

Dualism, Hellenism, Hebraism, Apollonian, Dionysian, Romantic movement, Postmodernism, fin-de-siècle

I. A Dualistic History

The recorded history of Western literature has been generally assumed to begin with two separate traditions: Hellenism and Hebraism. This assumption is a dualism by nature, as it reduces all possible sources to two elements. This dualism, furthermore, implies the co-existence of two mutually opposing cultures: the Greek and the Judaic. Various differences between the two cultures have been pointed out. The Greek culture is said, for instance, to be secular, aesthetic and hedonistic while the Judaic culture is religious, ethic, and ascetic. But the differences are capable of being reduced to two contrasting terms indicating not only the characteristics of human societies but also the psychic components of human beings. Matthew Arnold in his Culture and Anarchy, for instance, attributes “spontaneity of consciousness” to Hellenism and “strictness of conscience” to Hebraism (chapters IV & V).

Reduction entails oversimplification, no doubt. But it also brings about clarity. All dualistic thinkers, including Arnold, seek to clarify matters by reducing all structural elements to two ultimate ones. Thus history is for them but a matter of changing the dominant, to use a later Russian Formalist idea, between the competing two. The nineteenth-century England, for instance, was for Arnold dominated by the strict moral code of Hebraism. Hence his call for more Hellenism.
Hellenism is sometimes equated to Classicism. Therefore, one can thus talk of Western history:
The reintroduction of Classical learning through the Moslem

conquests in Spain is a partial explanation of the ensuing Renaissance

when Classicism seemed to be dominant. The Reformation is

explainable as a resurgence of Hebraic religious feeling. The

Neo-Classic Age and the following period of the Enlightenment

were inspired by Classical models, but the theories of the

Romantic Movement and of many of the nineteenth century German

philosophers emphasize the intuitive approach to knowledge upon

which Hebraism was built. (Horton & Hopper 4)
The quotation above embeds, in fact, another popular set of dualistic terms: Classicism vs. Romanticism. Here Romanticism is obviously linked to Hebraism while Classicism is associated with Hellenism. But, as we know, the Classic/Romantic dualism is popular only after the so-called Romantic Movement.

II. The Classic/Romantic Contrast

Western historians often regard the Romantic Movement as a reaction to Neoclassicism, and set the period of its triumph within the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But to replace the old binary opposition (Hellenism/Hebraism) with the new one (Classicism/Romanticism) is to further complicate the dualistic contrasts. Now it suggests not simply the contrasts between secularity and religiosity, aesthetics and ethics, or hedonism and asceticism. It also suggests many other contrasts, and some of the contrasts may not accord with the discriminations that go with the dichotomy of Hellenism vs. Hebraism.

One scholar, for instance, lists ten contrasting items between Romanticism and Classicism as follows:


1. emotional appeal instead of appeal to reason

2. the subjective point the objective point

of view instead of of view

3. an individual a normal and typical

approach instead of approach

4. dissatisfaction suspicion and horror

with the known instead of of the unconventional

and unknown

5. experimentation clear and ordered ex-

with musicality and instead of pression and form, a

color in expression belief in beauty of

measured precision

6. emphasis on feelings emphasis on content

and emotional instead of and idea


7. emphasis on the emphasis on the

immeasurable and instead of measurable and the

undetermined determined

8. importance of par- importance of uni-

ticular and indivi- instead of versal thoughts

dual thought and ideas
9. love of external love of man’s accom-

nature in its wild instead of plishments in taming

and primitive state and controlling the

wild and rebellious

in nature

10. rejection of tradi- acceptance of tradition

tion (except from instead of (of earlier classical

earlier romantic periods--particularly

periods—in parti- those of ancient Greek

cular primitive folk and Roman cultures)

cultures, Renaissance

developments or

idealized historical


Then he adds: “this list of contrasting qualities might be continued indefinitely, but a list of any length would show the same general desire of the romantic to escape from reality which seems to oppress his aesthetic expression, and to experiment with an ideal more satisfying to the individual, and the contrasting fear of the classic to depart from known and tried norms of form and theme established by settled and prosperous aristocratic groups” (Smith 40).

Indeed, we can gather from numerous literary dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, etc., enough definitions, explanations, and commentaries to explicate the Classic/Romantic dichotomy and can be justified in further asserting that Neoclassicism stresses the general, the urbane, the sensual, the keen and sober while Romanticism stresses the particular, the rustic, the visionary, the dreamy and frenzied; that while Neoclassicism values sense, wit, intellect, decorum, restraint, laws, civilization, tight close form, etc., Romanticism values feeling, imagination, inspiration, sincerity, freedom, caprices, primitivism, loose open form, etc.; that whereas Neoclassicism is head, bright, Apollonian, mimetic, mechanic, static, satiric, and commentary, Romanticism is heart, melancholy, Dionysian, expressive, organic, dynamic, lyric, and prophetic; and finally even that the one is an artificer, a mirror, and a believer in stability and the sinful nature of man while the other is a creator, a lamp, and a believer in mutability and the natural goodness of man.
Yet, as a movement against Neoclassicism, Romanticism has now accumulated so many attributes that it becomes impractical to define it as a critical term.1 Thus, A. O. Lovejoy suggests that the term Romanticism has come to mean nothing at all since it means so many things while Water Raleigh and Arthur Quiller-Couch suggest abandoning the terms “romantic” and “classic” altogether.

  1   2   3   4

The database is protected by copyright ©hestories.info 2017
send message

    Main page