Sorry Ass Devolution

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

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The Dominant and the Longue Durée

"Hi, I'm dead!"

It’s a very familiar story: Romanticism began in 1798 and ended in 1900, when it was replaced by Modernism. …Although maybe it wasn’t replaced until 1901; it must have taken a while back then, in those days before cellular phones and email, to “get the memo,” as we say today. How long did it really take for everyone to hear that they were to stop making Romanticist works, and start making Modernist ones? Why, in some of the outlying regions, Romanticism may have limped on until 1902—even 1903!

Pinpoint the year when Romanticism died, or when Modernism perished. Can you have two eras at one time? Some have argued that Postmodernism is over; have you heard? Stop making Postmodernist art! It’s sad; I liked Po-mo; I’ll miss metatextuality (plus I had a killer idea for a story that became self-aware, and demanded the right to vote). But there’s also an upside: no more Shrek movies! (Well, not after this year’s Shrek Forever After.)

All of this begs the question: What happens to eras? And what are they? Surely they exist—Modernism happened—and if they exist, they must have beginnings. Right? Modernism surely began at some point. Do they also have endings? When Modernism started, what became of Romanticism?

Let’s see if we can’t find out.

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