Are you a Romantic? Here’s a quick quiz! Tot up how many of these you answer ‘true’ for.
1. Do you gnash your teeth at night worrying about things you really shouldn’t worry about, like the implications of the fact that in 2 billion years we’re going to collide with another galaxy? WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!
2. Do you ever have cravings for opium or other narcotics?
3. Have you ever considered starting or joining a revolution?
4. Do you have misplaced/misguided ideas about what constitutes a utopia?
5. Has your mental or physical health deteriorated as a result of futile creative endeavors?
6. Do you have friends with names like Montmartre or Dorian?
7. Do you have a love interest who doesn’t love you back but sort of leads you on and likes to hold arty-type soirees?
8. Have you coughed up blood recently? (If so, heads-up: you’re doomed).
9. Are you so over-emotional that your friends won’t let you watch “The Notebook?”
10. Is Don Quixote your literary hero?
11. Do you love being out in nature, sketching flowers, and writing odes to the sea?
If you answered ‘true’ to at least eight of the above statements, you’re probably a Romantic. Congrats!
Some people really hate Romanticism for all its emotionality and melodrama, and it’s generally seen as the ‘opposite’ of realism, which depicts the nitty-gritty world as it actually is and nobly tries to take the focus off of the interiority of self and instead shine a spotlight on, you know, actual real suffering.
Isn’t that a tad demeaning though? As Hamlet says, who amongst us can cope with the ‘thousand shocks that flesh is heir to?’ Romantics may be kind of angsty but isn’t that just an honest admittance of what we’re all secretly going through? Just think about the 101 bombardments upon your well-being and self-esteem TODAY. I’m not just talking about that negative self-talk we all perpetuate in our minds, but actual things that happen, from a put-down at work, to realizing you’re wearing odd socks; from losing a game of tennis, to burning the gravy; from giving up on that book you were reading, to feeling envious of someone on Facebook. It’s enough to make anyone’s head explode. And yet, we soldier on. That’s the real Romantic message, I think: that in the face of abject misery every day and the ultimate bummer that we’re all going to die sooner or later, there’s beauty and wonder in the world around us. According to the Romantics, it is our ‘duty’ to honor, celebrate, and get in touch with that beauty- which is actually a pretty selfless notion when you think about it. As Keats so perfectly put it, ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty.’
This is all a long preamble to sharing one of my favorite paintings by Gustave Courbet: a self-portrait entitled “The Desperate Man” (1845).
Courbet started out his career as a Romantic and later became a Realist, which I think is kind of a shame. In this startling work we are forced to confront the ‘thousand shocks’ Hamlet talks about, head-on. It’s a self-portrait, yes, but we’re also looking into the abyss of our own desperation, writ large and inescapable. Ironically, it’s a kind of realism, albeit of the psychological kind: the reality that we’re all a total mess, even though we conceal this fact from others or sublimate it in order to soothe our own egos. Perhaps Gustave’s shift to realism was a sublimation of his own despair.
But let’s end on a happy note, shall we? After all, not all the Romantics died of consumption or suicide. Shelley drowned in a boating accident!