We live in a Romantic era. I first discovered this heterodox view, oddly enough, from a Periscope live-stream of Eric Weinstein:
"This is a romantic era. If you think this is Armageddon, then you're living in a romantic era. If you think this is nothing, ...you're still living in incredibly exciting times. There's no possible way that you could be in a situation that is anything other than an incredibly romantic era."
We're not living in 18th century Europe, clearly. This is 2020. Yet there are many parallels that we can draw from a bygone era, to learn to live more courageously today.
The term "romantic" took on a different meaning in the 18th century than it does today. Although it was commonly used to glorify natural beauty—such as sunsets and pristine vistas—there weren't the same amorous connotations the word carries today. Historians have yet to agree on a definition, nor when the era began or ended, as "romance" took on different manifestations across Europe and across different artistic media or areas of thought. The French poet, Charles Baudelaire, proposed one pithy definition:
"Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling."
But perhaps the best way to understand romanticism is to look empirically at some of its defining characteristics.
An emphasis on emotion
Self-understanding was an important aspect of Romanticism, and the expression of emotion was key to that self-understanding. Whether through art, literature, music, or even science, Romanticism emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. This included, in particular, the feelings of apprehension, horror, terror, and awe.
Individualism and authentic expression
As we all experience different feelings and reactions to the events around us, individualism and an authenticity to oneself naturally became another defining characteristic. The expression of feelings had to come from the artist, unadulterated by any externally-imposed "rules". Originality was to be revered; to be derivative was an unimaginable sin. The philosopher and historian, Isaiah Berlin, captures this Romantic idea:
"The painter, the poet, the composer do not hold up a mirror to nature, however ideal, but invent; they do not imitate, but create not merely the means but the goals that they pursue; these goals represent the self-expression of the artist's own unique, inner vision, to set aside which in response to the demands of some "external" voice—church, state, public opinion, family friends, arbiters of taste—is an act of betrayal of what alone justifies their existence for those who are in any sense creative."
How do we live life romantically?
The Early Romantic period carried a sense of profound optimism and belief that the world was in the process of great change and improvement. This was despite the tumultuous backdrop of chaos and war (the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic Wars).
We too are in a time of war. War not in any conventional sense, nor against a conventional enemy. Nevertheless, Weinstein submits that we must treat it as such, as the human spirit knows how to fight wars and how to unite against a common enemy.
Everything we do is now tinged with life and death. This was always the case, but our collective awareness of this has never felt more real. We are all at risk for death or permanently debilitating consequence from this illness. You, me, or someone dear to our hearts may not see the other side of this crisis. As much as we'd want to, we can't put our lives on hold for three weeks, two months or however long the government says so. These are trying times where nobody seems to know what is going on. If our leaders are failing us, how are we to deal with what is likely a life or death situation? How do we live in a manner that's befitting of who we are?
In this Romantic epoch, Weinstein suggests that we live more aggressively. We are going to have to take a more heroic mindset, but without taking unnecessary risks to public health. Take this as an opportunity to enact profound change. Perhaps there's someone you love, but where things haven't been good between you for a long time. Call them up, let them know how you feel. Get on Zoom with a few of your friends you haven't spoken to for a while. Whatever it is, fight learned helplessness.
"Open that bottle of wine you've been saving for a long time, because who knows, you may not get a chance to enjoy it. If you have something that you're thinking about doing, think harder about doing it now, if it can be done from home."
If you have an idea that's been simmering in the back of your mind, seize this opportunity and act. Take a page from the Romantics. Direct your intense emotions of the moment towards something both authentic and productive. Forget about the demands of the external voices, and create something that is true to your own unique inner vision.
It might be hard to see it now, but we're living through something historical. This is what we've been watching in our movies, reading in our novels, and listening to in our songs and stories. This is going to be remembered 100 years from now. So let's get through this with a totally different attitude. Laugh more. Live life more courageously, joyously, and with a romantic sense of awe.