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The Dominant, ctd.

Update: If a blog post can ever be said to be in honor of anyone, then consider this one in honor of Ruth Kligman. May she rest in peace.

In the comments section of my last post, Shya asked:

can someone write a truly romantic novel today? Or would it necessarily be a postmodern (or post-postmodern) exercise in romanticism?

I’d suspect that, even if we went back to Romantic Era, we’d have a hard time finding something “truly romantic.” As Pontius Pilate so insightfully asked Christ: Quid est veritas? (What is truth?)

So let’s leave aside truth for the moment, and try answering that question in a different way.

To paraphrase John Barth’s famous gripe observation, people write all the time as if the past sixty years haven’t happened. Artists for the most part work within traditions, and there’s nothing to stop those traditions from remaining unchanged over long periods of time, prioritizing concerns that no one around them cares much about any more. (I’m not trying to be evaluative here; in fact, I think it’s better if people are doing different things.)

For instance, toward the end of Romanticism, the Impressionists (the first official Avant-Garde) pushed painting more and more toward abstraction. And you can trace out a continuum, say from Manet to Cézanne to Picasso, of perspective being flattened, and Impressionism slowly giving way to Cubism:

Edouard Manet, "Olympia" (1863)
Paul Cézanne, "Un coin de table" ("Coin Table") (1895–1900)
Pablo Picasso, "Le guitariste" (1910)

…From which point all sorts of abstract art followed:

Alexander Rodchenko, "Portrait of Lilya Brik" (1924)

This is a very common critical narrative in the visual arts. It leaves out lots of people and debate, but I think we can see how painting progressively gave up its emphasis on pictorial representation.

…But even as this was happening, lots of painters didn’t stop painting representative pictures of people and landscapes:

Grant Wood, "American Gothic" (1930)
Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks" (1942)

(Hell, visit any local arts and craft fair today, and you’ll find tons of people still painting Impressionist landscapes. Some of which are probably pretty good.)

Wood and Hopper were both Modernists, just like Picasso and Rodchenko, but they obviously had different concerns. However, they also share some concerns, such as an emphasis on regionalism (itself a holdover from Romanticism). And Hopper’s composition and technique is somewhat influenced by Impressionism.

And Wood and Hopper aren’t just conservative American realists; their respective paintings are pretty savvy. Hopper’s title is a pun: check out the noses on the diner patrons—they’re beaks. And Wood’s supposedly realist 19th century farmhouse has a French gothic window in it (hence “American Gothic”). Is he mocking US farm culture? Celebrating it? To this day no one can agree.

Other Americans, meanwhile, were more heavily influenced by Cubism and Constructivism:

Charles Demuth, "The Figure 5 in Gold" (1928)

Demuth is, arguably, more like Picasso and Rodchenko. And yet he still painted pictures of landscapes:

"From the Garden of the Chateau" (1921–5)
"My Egypt" (1927)
"Untitled” (1931)

…And take a look at some of Grant Wood’s lesser-known paintings:

"Stone City, Iowa" (1930). (Same year he painted "American Gothic"!)
"Death on the Ridge Road" (1935)

By the 1950s, as the story goes, even in the US, the dominant of representation had been replaced by other, more “purely pictorial” concerns:

Franz Kline, "Cardinal" (1950). (Almost looks like a landscape after looking at the above, doesn't it?)
Helen Frankenthaler, "Mountains and Sea" (1952). (Some Abstract Expressionists were of course still interested in how one could make landscape paintings.)
Mark Rothko, "Red on Maroon" (1959)

Indeed, the representative figure slowly became taboo in painting.

…in some circles. But in others (like the burgeoning Pop Art movement), people kept representing figures:

Richard Hamilton, "Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" (1956) (Note that Hamilton's a British artist, not American.)
Roy Lichtenstein, "Drowning Girl" (1963)
Andy Warhol, "Marilyn Monroe" (1967)

There’s 100 years of art for you. In some ways, there’s a lot of change: from representation to abstraction back to representation—but different. (“First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”) The Impressionists were concerned with light, movement, nature. The Pop Artists were more concerned with celebrity, advertising, and art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

But in some ways it just goes in a circle (or even a straight line): white men making flattened pictures of beautiful women. (Recall Godard: “The history of cinema is men looking at women.”) Heck, if you wanted to, you could regard Warhol’s paintings as being somewhat Impressionist. (Marilyn stares out at the viewer, as Olympia did, returning the Male Gaze…)

So, to return to the question of Romantic literature today: sure, anyone could write a Romantic novel. People do all the time. The Harry Potter novels that I’m so fond of are in many ways Romantic. They’re a resurrection of the boarding school genre, which flourished between 1850 and the 1930s. The characters are mostly one- and two-dimensional; they don’t truck with Modernist concerns with psychological complexity. The stories are mysteries, and very Gothic, concerned with magic and werewolves and witches. Nature is presented as an unknowable, awesome, dangerous force (the forest outside Hogwarts, the Whomping Willow).

As I mentioned in my last post, fantasy literature (and fantasy art in general) has continued to value certain Romantic dominants far longer than a lot of other writing has. Now that fantasy is dominant in our culture once again, those concerns are taking up more and more of everyone’s mental real estate.

But J.K. Rowling isn’t writing in 1850. Her novels are contemporary. Her writing is post-Modernist in that it’s fairly minimal, economic.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818):

To Mrs SAVILLE, England.
St Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dead sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007):

Two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

I’d wager that James Wood doesn’t like Harry Potter, but the writing is (mostly) third-person limited and focused on image. It’s post-Flaubert realism, in a sense.

At the same time, part of the fun of the Harry Potter series is in the disconnect in seeing modern-day technology interact with magic. (One running gag in the series is how a certain secondary character is fascinated—and mystified—by human artifacts.) Throughout, the hidden magical world turns out to be “truer” and more sophisticated than our vaunted modern world. On the one hand this is a Romantic, transcendental idea. On the other, it’s almost metatextual commentary: Rowling is acknowledging that urban-fueled eras like Modernism and Postmodernism happened, but that rather than bringing us closer to any kind of truth, they blinded us to the way the world really works. It’s pretty clever of her, I think. (She’s also invoking a motif common in British fairy tales: the supernatural world of faeries and brownies, unable to stand the clamor and stink of industrial England, went underground.)

So as Brian McHale might argue, there’s a Postmodernist aspect to Harry Potter as well: two worlds are in conflict with one another—two struggling ontologies. As the series progresses, the magical Romantic world spills over more and more into our everyday modern, urban world. See for example 1:00–1:20 (and elsewhere) here:

There are other ways in which Harry Potter isn’t simply straight Victorian fantasy. The films, for example, draw heavily at times on German Expressionism. (See 0:50–0:57 in the above video for one example.) Like Tim Burton’s works, they’ve effectively “flattened” German Expressionism (1919–28)—a Modernist movement that was very influenced by urbanization and abstraction—with Gothic Romanticism. Today we see affinities between the two, although at the time the German Expressionists were breaking with the past, creating a more Modernist, urban-influenced type of art.

Note also the J-horror influence at 1:25–1:30. J-horror is a genre or sub-genre very much concerned with how one can make Romantic work in the present—horror in general often is.

…All of this is a roundabout way of saying what Borges said in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor—are brazenly pragmatic.

Or perhaps it’s just a roundabout way of repeating that well-known quote by Heraclitus—the one involving rivers, and what happens when we step into them.

You know the one I mean.

“You can’t stick your foot in the same mouth twice.”

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

14 thoughts on “The Dominant, ctd.

  1. You know, I think I always assumed the American Gothic pair were standing in front of a rural church rather than a farmhouse precisely because of that Gothic window.

    1. The house is based on a real house:


      The question is, why did Wood want *that house*? Wood spent the 20s in Europe and surely was up to something.

      Some read Wood as mocking the farmers (“this is the kind of culture that Europe has but the US lacks—look how silly this window is on a farmhouse!”). Others read it as a connection between US farm life and European culture—Wood was a Midwesterner, and many, many Midwesterners came from Europe.

      There’s no definitive reading.

  2. Thanks for this. I like how you miraculously pull these threads together with beautiful jpegs and a fat bow at the end. Astonishing, really. However, I would add that the Romantics used to stare at the graves of lost loves, and now they stare at their shoes.

    1. Hah! That is possible.

      But even when staring at shoes, once can still make shoegazer rock:


      One problem today’s Romantics have is that there isn’t much nature left.

      1. …And that’s a problem. The Romanticist ideal of nature is rooted in the notion that there is something grander than humanity—something more awesome than our rationality and machinery.

        A band like My Bloody Valentine tries to create awesome, overwhelming emotional force. Hence the “Holocaust” sections of their shows (what a terrible name for it but), and their style in general. It’s largely about being swept away by emotion and something tremendously huge.

        But they generate it mostly through machinery—noise and lights beyond what the Romantics could imagine technology was capable of. It’s a very perverse Romanticism. Urbanity turned toward Romanticism.

        I’m not calling it bad, mind you. (I like MBV.) I’m just pointing out one way in which the Romantic impulse today does not (and possibly cannot) result in, say, Wordsworth.

        Or Wagner. This is, in some ways, the 20th/21st century equivalent of Wagner. And it’s similar but very different.

        1. Yeah, I think living in an e-dominated culture has gutted our sense of “more” (e.g., “than meets the eye,” to lean on a cliche, aka “grander than humanity”). Most folks, I’ll wager, tend to think of more in terms of want: more distracting entertainment, more media input, more disposable products. Funny, this may lead back to part of what you were writing about: the popular rise of contemporary fantasy lit as descendent of Romanticism, which still seems to me to be less rooted in authentic (meditative, explorative, transcendent) “more” than pedestrian escapism.

    1. We shall. It’s interesting, though, that the grave—which was a site of true horror for the Gothic Romantics like Poe—is now something of an affectation for today’s Goths. All that “morbid stuff” is “cool”—a fashion you can purchase at Hot Topic. Zombie movies are spine-tinglingly creepy.

      I predict a return to our living in awe of nature when the polar icecaps finish melting.

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