Romanticism and Its Discontents, by Anita Brookner
Isaiah Berlin said that all the problems of our age could be traced back to Romanticism. Anita Brookner heard him lecture on the subject and decided to teach it herself. This took place at the Courtauld Institute where she was an authority on eighteenth century painting. She has written monographs on Greuze, Jacques-Louis David and Watteau as well as a study of 19th century art criticism, The Genius of the Future [Phaidon, 1971]. Brookner writes with a candor that leaps unexpectedly out of lapidary prose. Her earlier, scholarly career has been eclipsed by her nineteen novels, one of which, Hotel du Lac, won the Booker prize. But during this time Brookner kept her academic credentials intact by continuing to teach and lecture and by publishing occaisional literary and art historical essays (collected as Soundings, Harvill Press, 1997).
Nonetheless, the appearance of Romanticism and its Discontents, a study of French Romanticism, comes as something of a surprise. Brookner has stated there is no going back once you leave academia, which she eventually did. What is happening is Brookner has returned to what now appear to be her models–some of the chief Romantic figures–and her subject, Romanticism, after examining it imaginatively in her fiction for twenty years. This was done most directly in Providence, [E P Dutton, 1985] maybe her best novel, features a university course entitled “The Romantic Tradition”:
Larter took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and for fifteen minutes gave them an almost seamless account of the Romantic dilemma. This according to Larter, but in fact according to Chateaubriand, was due to the collapse of moral standards in the Revolution, to the repudiation of the supernatural, to the deconsecration of the churches and the exiling of the priests, to the attempt to live according to the humanitarian rules of the eighteenth century, to live without piety and belief and consolation. But God, having been lost, was difficult to find again. Romantic man, man without God, had to behave existentially, and experienced isolation.
In Brookner’s novels, her characters, usually women, occupy a constricted psychological space; they feel unable to ask for what they want, to garner attention. Thoughts can never be uttered and their deep emotion is only alluded to. There is much articulation of solitary days, of muffled ruminations, of time-filling tasks. Her work has affinities with Morandi in its dusty grey spacelessness and with Graham Greene, who also wrote in tones rather than colors and about internal pain.
In her earlier critical work, The Genius of the Future, Brookner seems to reference herself and her future novels when she describes Baudelaire as an “emotional temperature taker”. They also share a similar imagination, one which concocts routes of escape into places of disappointment-the persistent trope in her fiction. Her characters don’t understand why they have not achieved romantic fulfillment. Brookner has been misunderstood for her boring, pitiful characters. In a sense, she is depicting 19th century women in the 20th century, that is, women whose world remains, if not a private domestic space, a relatively minor public one. Her main characters tend toward librarians, scholars or widows. These obscure contemporary women live in a world where women progressively occupy a public urban space, one that was exclusively male in the 19th century. In this aspect, Brookner articulates the same space that Griselda Pollock (who was a student of Brookner’s at the Courtauld) writes about in her book on Mary Cassatt, where she challenges the preeminence of public (male) spaces in the 19th century depiction of urban modernity, and posits a continuum with the private (female) domestic space. Brookner updates this situation in her own fiction. Her depiction of women living with unfulfillment and absence is Romantic; she transforms the isolation of the traditional romantic hero into her characters in such a way that their failure, hesitancy and inaction have their own existential legitimacy.
In Romanticism and its Discontents, Brookner begins by distinguishing between Romanticism and the Romantic movement. A conventional history of the latter might go from Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798 to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in 1830. From Brookner’s point of view this would simply be where the cluster of romantic subject matter resides. She has a low opinion of it’s nationalistic form in Germany and it’s pastoral form in England, and if it attaches itself to any infantile sense of divine redemption–as in the case, for example, of William Blake–she dismisses it. For Brookner, Romanticism is a “peculiar existential mode”. French Romanticism, she claims, recedes further into the Eighteenth Century, back to Rousseau, who demanded a rigorous program of personal questioning. And it all but completely covers the Nineteenth, dominated, in France especially, by Napoleon’s “legacy of aspiration and regret” (p20). After an introduction to this political and spiritual phenomenon, Romanticism and its Discontents is structured in chapters on the painter Gros, Alfred de Musset, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Ingres, the Brothers Goncourt, Zola, and Huysmans.
Throughout the book Romanticism’s ethos of the personal, its risk-taking and its manipulation of the spectator is equated with Modernism. Her purpose is gently to nudge it against the present: “The Romantic movement has left its own legacy. Heroes are no longer taken on trust, and the inevitable outcome is a disappointment that is both different and strangely familiar.”(p. 20) Though Romanticism can be characterized as “infinite longing,” (p3) it was mostly a historical phenomenon that tended to destroy more rules than it established. An introduction fleshes out the fictional Larter’s synopsis: a slow breakdown of the commonly held values of the ancien régime, with its open-mindedness, faith in reason, and the gradual irrelevancy of religion, the French Revolution, the bankruptcy of the belief in the perfectibility of the human species, then Napoleon’s fall, all resulting in “the necessity of improvising alternative belief systems.”(p 2). Stendhal is emblematic, for Brookner, in the way he describes the grandeur of Napoleon’s rise to Emperor, the cavalry officer who danced all night at a glittering ball and then died on the battlefield the following morning. Alfred de Musset, the only lightweight in this portrait gallery, recalls the era two decades later: “Death was so splendid in those days, so great, so magnificent with its smoking crimson.” (p. 45)
Romantic doubt seems to manifest itself, unbidden, as a historical inevitability. With the painter Gros, Brookner portrays this doubt as a fever, with Gros a victim of his own subjectivity. He fills his work with shadowy painterliness, and is horrified when he discovers that this is read as defiance by his teacher David, whose Neo-classicism, with its light, clarity and composure, served social consensus as a guide to moral behavior, . “[Gros] had, almost unknowingly, introduced personal comment into accepted versions of the truth.”(p22) Gros becomes a major documentarian of Napoleonic battles, and in the huge Plague Hospital at Jaffa, manages to aggrandize the image of Napoleon. As a result, the painter became Napoleon’s chief propagandist. One can march through the longest rooms in Versailles and see dozens of these huge paintings commemorating each of the Emperor’s battles. Simultaneously, through the moody atmospheres of his own sensibility, he created a template of ambiguous modernity that would inspire Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios. Gros, unable to stabilize himself in his contradictions, emotionally undone by his helplessly powerful imagination, walks out of Paris, stricken, and drowns himself.
Romanticism, in a sense, is a progressive cult of moi, a religion of the imagination and a reflection of contemporary life. Brookner rightly places the symbiotic Baudelaire and Delacroix, the two pivotal figures of Romanticism, “two great pessimists in the age of progress” (97) in adjacent chapters at the
heart of the book. Baudelaire’s morbidity cultivated “an inner life so intense that the outer world could only be percieved indirectly” (p78) One can imagine Baudelaire path crossing that of a group of stockbrokers, all dressed in black. They have just made a killing at the Bourse and are on their way to a brothel. In his reading of “modern life,” Baudelaire transforms them into undertakers: “we are each of us attending some funeral or other” (p60). Delacroix was aloof. He “accepted…the need for a correct non-commital persona as a necessary component of an oceanic imagination” (p98) Baudelaire pursued Delacroix as a fellow spirit, as the great painter of the era, as well as his personal analysand. This was one of the saddest, comically unfulfilled artistic collaborations in history. Delacroix’s grand machine, The Death of Sardanapalus, (a painting that had a disastrous reception which Brookner never explains), depicts an impassive Sultan watching his harem girls gutted like fish before his eyes. In Baudelaire’s interpretation, typically food for his own out-sized imagination, cast the painting as a vehicle for the expression of impotence, ennui, an inability to feel no matter how powerful the stimulus. The fastidious Delacroix could but be repelled. His inner life remained his alone. Brookner portrays the relationship dryly: “he (Baudelaire) goes on to analyse Ingre’s tastes and methods with far greater accuracy than he normally devotes to Delacroix, whom he is content to define in metaphors that feed into his poetry (“Delacroix, lac de sang hante de mauvais anges”). Being identified as a lake of blood haunted by malevolent angels was precisely the sort of comparison to which Delacroix was justified in taking exception.” (70)
When Brookner discusses Baudelaire’s seminal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, she credits him with inspiring Manet (to whose discipleship Baudelaire probably remained oblivious), the Impressionists, the Goncourts’ urban studies, the epic quality of modern life in Zola’s novels and their sense of immersion in the flow of humanity, as well as Prousts’ choosing to write from the convalescent point of view, all anticipating 20th century Modernism.
As the arc descends, life itself is seen as so disappointing that vitality can only be salvaged through the consolations of the practice of art and literature. The Goncourts and Huysmans carry on the Romantic sickness of Baudelaire, while Ingres, embodies Romanticism as energy–which is confusing, unless we take the extroversion and robustness of this figure as anticipating the 20th century’s relentless optimism and self-seeking heartlessness. Brookner quotes an art critic, Thore : ” who stated in 1846 categorically, ‘…M. Ingres is the most Romantic artist of the nineteenth century, if Romanticism is an exclusive love of form, an absolute indifference to all the mysteries of human life, a scepticism in philosophy and politics, an egotistical detachment from all common and shared feelings. The doctrine of art for arts sake is, in effect, a sort of materialistic Brahmanism…’”(p118-119)
Zola comes off as a gentle beast, a hard worker who, after championing the Impressionists, becomes disillusioned by their apparent facility. Their paintings, unlike the vast canvases of his novels, arrive at completion much too quickly. Her explanation of the well-known case of L’Oeuvre, Zola’s novel of a failed painter who hangs himself, and whose publication ended his lifelong friendship with Cézanne, is that Zola, who finally in middle age had achieved financial stability, felt threatened by Cézanne’s failure at achieving recognition for his work. This doesn’t make sense. By the time of their break, Zola’s reputation was secure and Cezanne had always had a private income. Still, when Brookner’s moving narration of Zola’s death arrives the reader becomes aware of her great empathy (a Romantic value) for these figures, and is persuaded of their heroism, too.