This is an aside from a longer reading of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.” It felt blog-like, so here it is.
For me, the saddest thing in the history of ideas is a noble idea so corrupted that it comes to mean the opposite of its first intention. I suppose, to be charitable, this corruption can come out of innocent stupidity, but it’s difficult not to recognize how convenient the corrupted version is for the regime du jour, especially when the original idea is dangerous or potentially destabilizing. Christianity is probably the most notorious example of this corrupting tendency, as most of the Christians around us have demonstrated ever since the Nicene Creed declared war on the world, especially on Christianity itself. But the ideas of Romanticism have surely endured another such traumatic corruption. The sentimentalizing of the Romantic metaphor of childhood is a case in point. The innocence, the perfection, the general mindless adorability of children is one of the most enduring Romantic clichés. Its admirable origin is in work like German Romantic Philipp Runge’s painting The Huelsenbeck Children.
Philipp Otto Runge, The Huelsenbeck Children, 1806
The painting is not solely concerned with the children and the eyes of the boy that gaze so knowingly into our own. It is also a social and symbolic landscape (the town on the horizon, the sunflowers). In short, it is complex; it can be read.
“The pudgy faces and hands of the infant are alive with primal energy, and the elder boy is shown rushing forward, heedlessly wielding his whip. Only the girl possesses any forethought. She looks back in consternation as the baby instinctively grasps at one of the lower leaves of the sunflower looming above him. Most arresting of all is the picture’s handling of scale. Looking at the painting, we find ourselves in the children’s world. We are on their level, below the sunflower and close to the ground…. The effect of all this is to emphasize their monumental presence.”
(William Vaughn, German Romantic Painting)
Disgracefully, what followed the complexity of Runge reminds me of a scene in Peter Sellers’s early ‘70s satire The Magic Christian (1969) (based on a Terry Southern novel of the same name, 1959). At a certain point in the movie Guy Grand (Sellers) buys a “school of Rembrandt” painting from a snooty art dealer (played by a young and already pitch-perfect John Cleese). Purchase made, Grand informs the dealer that he only wants the nose and proceeds to cut it out with a pair of scissors. So it is with the eyes of the Runge children; they are taken from their context, only to become the soulless void of Victorian Romantic kitsch.
Things just get worse from there. The “wide-eyed innocence” of the Romantic child is literally emptied, a perverse confession of misappropriation, and then, added insult, tied to the values of Daddy Warbucks and the free enterprise system, upon which all innocence must henceforth depend! I give you Little Orphan Annie.
You know the rest, “All jumbled up together, to compose/A Parliament of Monsters” (Wordsworth). What began as part of a revolutionary turn away from orthodox religion and toward what Wordsworth called “natural piety” becomes, if you will, consumer pabulum. Hence: Rebecca, an American Girl doll.
And the last drooling detail:
If you have a masochistic streak, look again at the Runge painting while thinking of Hello Kitty. You’ll have it right in front of you, then, the whole sorry ass devolution.
Curtis White has published eight books of fiction, including
Lacking Character, Memories of My Father Watching TV, America's Magic Mountain, Requiem, Anarcho-Hindu, The Idea of Home, Metaphysics in the Midwest, and Heretical Songs. His non-fiction includes The Middle Mind, The Science Delusion, and We, Robots. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Village Voice, Salon, and Playboy.