WHY THE ROMANTICS MATTER by Peter Gay, Reviewed by Lisa M. Steinman

By Peter Gay
(Yale, 2015) xvi + 141pp.
Reviewed by Lisa M. Steinman on 2017-04-24.

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This book could have begun with a variant of my favorite opening line--from Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution (1996): "There was no such thing as [Romanticism], and this is a book about it." As Gay's prologue notes, "if there were German romantics and French romantics, they did not start from the same initial impulse, did not develop the same cultural expressions in their literature and their art" (xii-xiii). Proposing, then, to talk of romanticisms--the plural is used throughout the book, as in most discussions of romanticism(s) these days--he treats the movement as a "large . . . far-flung family" (19) rather than as homogeneous. Gay nonetheless finds certain shared preoccupations, primarily in French and German literature, visual art, and music between the late eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth century.

Peter Gay died at 91 in 2015, the year this book was published. Not surprisingly, since his thirty-some previous books have covered Weimar, Freud, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, a good deal of this new book highlights modernity and modernism with some glances back at the eighteenth century. Thus he tacitly argues that the romanticisms he explores not only emerged from the Enlightenment but also persisted well into the twentieth century. As Gay concludes in a brief epilogue, twentieth-century novelists, poets, composers, painters, dramatists, and architects "lived off the [romantic] past" (116), suggesting that modernity is a cluster of romanticisms under a different name.

Gay's account of romanticisms begins with love. After foregrounding the centrality of love, lust, death, and spirituality in the diaries of Novalis, he goes on to note that the biographies of Hölderlin, Schleiermacher, and Schlegel reveal a similar, but not identical, focus on feeling, which they privilege over the rational, intellectual values of the Enlightenment. French writers, on the other hand, are said to have privileged psychology and desanctified love. Although "[s]exual attraction," he writes, "was an indispensable element in the love that French romantics [Constant, Stendhal, and Balzac] celebrated, . . . there was no religion in it" (10).

For all the talk of love and of a few radical ideas about women's sexuality, however, Gay notes that women seldom ranked among the romantic writers who counted. Gay himself underestimates them. Briefly discussing the English romantics (primarily Byron, although Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley are mentioned in passing), he finds them expressing not so much sexuality or religion as "love of nature, chiefly as interpreted by an individual mind" (13). He does not even mention Mary Wollstonecraft or other women writers such as Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, Hannah Moore, Maria Edgeworth, and Felicia Hemans (to name just a few), although their inclusion might have shifted the family resemblances being traced. Nor does he mention any U.S. writers from before the twentieth century.

A second chapter shifts, according to its title, to romantic psychology. But after noting simply that romanticisms "had an astonishing long life" (17), Gay turns to modernity. He also makes a brief case for the inevitability of generalization in a brief study of major movements. "Whatever cultural expressions of modernity we explore," he writes, "the particular threatens to overwhelm the general. Defying these evident obstacles, this book is an essay in generalization, without slighting, let along ignoring, the individuality of each domain" (18). Gay does indeed take note of individual arts, cultures, and artists, even as he defines modernity using a checklist of stylistic choices: moderns were risk takers, neophiles, and subjectivists. They found "the untried . . . markedly superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine" (19); they prized "the shock of the new"; and they committed themselves "to a bold subjectivity," meaning "an aesthetic inwardness" rather than "narcissism" (20). (Gay--whose own style is erudite but also infused with a dry, appealing wit--writes that "good" subjectivity differs from "bad" as "good" cholesterol differs from "bad" [20n]). Not surprisingly, given the claim that modernism turns inward, the chapter moves on to discuss psychology (already mentioned as one of the French romantics' interests) with particular attention to Nietzsche and Freud.

So what period of cultural history do they exemplify? It is often hard to tell whether this volume is about modernity, modernism, or romanticism, or, indeed, which period is addressed in individual sections. On the one hand, we are told that modernity, like romanticisms, "had a distinct history" (24); on the other hand--in the next sentence--we are told that Diderot and Kant "might qualify as the first true moderns" (24) before Gay returns to mark the period from 1880 to 1920 as "pivotal for romanticisms in modern culture" (25). A bit later, the same traits that are said to be defining features of romanticism are used to define modernism (28), but again the artists who may have called themselves moderns are said to be nonetheless romantics, especially in the subjectivity of their aesthetics, even as they still often maintained a larger sense--or varying larger senses--of purpose, including countering bourgeois values and restoring "enchantment" (36) to the world.

The history of romantic modernism turns out to be remarkably ironic. Just as works by artists bent on delivering "the shock of the new" ended end up "being called classics" (27), modernist rebels became "solid citizens" (30). A short third chapter on how the self-conscious avant-garde became canonized or at least sold (Gay says "taught") by art dealers and museum curators acting as pedagogues, includes three case studies: Knoedler of New York (and later Paris and London), Durand-Ruel of Paris, and Alfred Lichtwark, who ran the Hamburg Kunsthalle from 1886 to 1914. Showing in vivid detail how these three dealers managed the art market, Gay not only explains how different institutions helped to change public tastes, but also argues that "aesthetic, strictly noncommercial passion" drove those who worked for such institutions (44). This argument may understate the influence of larger socio-economic or political forces on aesthetic passion. But the stories that art dealers told themselves about their motives and actions are themselves of historical interest.

In a longer fourth chapter on the idea of art for art's sake, or "art for artists' sake" (30), Gay shows how the status of the artist in most European cultures rose in the latter half of the nineteenth century, leading artists to feel the need for an ideology to validate that status. We are told, for instance, that "this rationalization made an impressive stride" in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin (60). Gay ends the chapter by treating the life and work of Oscar Wilde at some length. Though Gay calls Wilde an "heir to the romantics" (78) and invokes the Oedipus complex to explain Wilde's relation to his predecessors, he cautions against positing a decontextualized "cultural Oedipus complex" (80). He also insists that the modernists' endorsement of art for artists' sake did not mean that all of them disowned any larger moral or social mission for art. Further, we are told, the "seedbed for the principle of art for art's sake had been planted decades before . . . with the idealization of selected monuments in the world of literature, painting, and music" (64); the cult of art then became a cult of the artist, making art--at least for some--"a new religion, a substitute for a fading Christian faith" (67). In Gay's characteristically pluralist way, the chapter ends by suggesting that the moderns held complicated and even self-contradictory positions. Moreover, the presence of various not necessarily compatible attitudes towards the past, he claims, is itself a general feature of modernism, for "the modern romantics made not a single revolution but many revolutions" (83).

In his final chapter, Gay shows how the music of Beethoven (1770-1827) exemplifies some of the romantic threads traced in this book: the shock of the new, an inward focus, an emphasis on feeling, an ambivalent response to predecessors, and a radical newness giving way to eventual canonicity. Yet the chapter ends with the curiously ahistorical claim that, however he was received in his own day, Beethoven "was writing for all ages" (95).

On the whole, the virtues of this book override its defects. As a cultural historian, Gay surveys his terrain from a wide angle rather than plunging into the various debates over style and ideology that so often occupy practitioners of disciplines such as art history or literary theory. He also makes good use of case studies. Rooting his generalizations in individual histories, Gay tacitly shows that while similar attitudes may have arisen in different cultures and different arts at the same time, this is not necessarily due to influence or to some unspecified zeitgeist. Instead, as he argues from the beginning, similar attitudes may have sprung from widely varied and individual psychological needs. Whether or not one accepts this explanation of the family resemblance among cultural attitudes, practices, and beliefs, it usefully balances the general and the specific, even if one might want to see a more trenchant reckoning with larger global, institutional, and economic changes. And can this or any other book explain why the romantics matter now by means of the moderns alone, without at least mentioning the twenty-first century and the changes wrought by new digital technologies? At the same time, Gay's insistence on not losing sight of the singular in pursuit of sweeping generalizations or overarching theories means that there are particular treasures to be found in the book, not the least of which is the pleasure of reading Gay's blessedly jargon-free prose.

Lisa M. Steinman is Kenan Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College.

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