The Human Condition:

On Being a Romantic – January 22, 2012

In the matter of music I am vaguely eclectic. I like most of the Rock’n’Roll of the last century, some New Age,1 most Celtic music and ballads, and of course Classical music. And in the latter area, I tend to lose my heart to the composers of the mid-19th to early 20th century: Brahms, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Wagner2 among others.

In reading, I like stories with high stakes and involved plots that test the characters’ ingenuity and endurance. I like characters who know themselves, understand their place in the universe, battle against adversity with honor, grace, and humor, and are prepared to die gallantly. I find a lot of this underlying attitude in science fiction and lose my heart to writers like Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Tim Powers, John Varley, and many more.

With such tastes, I have finally come to realize that I am, against all appearances, a romantic.3 The word—especially in the context of “romantic sensibility”—conjures images of a delicate spirit. Romantics supposedly live by their hearts, their feelings and intuition, rather than their heads, their foresight and calculation. Romantics are supposed to weep easily, fall fainting, blush at the hard realities of life, and draw back from pressing an attack with cold steel.

Well, that’s not me. But I’m invoking a more robust definition of romanticism.

I believe a romantic is someone who believes that human life has purpose and meaning. That humans collectively are not an accident on this planet. And that each human individually has a purpose in life, a destiny, to follow and fulfill. Whether that purpose is assigned by God, or chosen freely and consciously, or thrust upon one by circumstances, is not all that important. (I personally believe that part of growing up is to determine your own meaning, but not all may share that view.) Each person has something they are here on Earth to do.4

That view has a number of implications. If you have a purpose to your life, a particular meaning, a mission, then you are susceptible to success and failure. You are constantly either moving toward fulfillment (success) or moving away from it, or not moving at all (failure). With the possibility of success or failure, you have the possibilities of struggle, of ennoblement, and of tragedy. Thus each person’s life follows a path, a plot, a story arc.

I cannot imagine a novelist who does not share this romantic viewpoint. Stories might be written without it—many modern stories are, such as the works of Samuel Beckett—but they are clearly dismal, sad, and unsatisfying. To have real possibility of greatness, and emotional fulfillment, you must have purpose and the chance of failure and loss. The greatness is measured against the purpose. For reference, see the sad little aims of a movie like Sideways.

This sense of purpose also supplies the groundwork for a code of personal honor. Without a conscious sense of purpose and mission, it’s hard to have a stance that says, “I will always do this. I will never do that.” Again, some people can hold to those rules without the purpose, but then they are just routines, tics, empty strictures. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

What the purpose one chooses may be great or small, from helping others, to saving the rainforest, to finding the white whale, to finding the perfect glass of Cabernet. For each person the mission is different, but the emotional background, the suspense, the fulfillment are all similar. In a way, this sense of purpose and the possibility of failure are what makes war such a rich source of satisfying stories—because people engaged in battle are risking their lives for a purpose that lies beyond their own satisfaction. In fact, I would say the only thing that makes death meaningful—satisfying, ennobling, worth contemplating—is when it occurs in the pursuit of a worthwhile goal, or at the end of a life filled with meaning. Otherwise, death itself is an accident.

Sometimes that purpose is wrapped up in a person, someone to love, to be together with, to strive and suffer with, to raise children with, to grow old with. A person can have more than one purpose—to love one special person, and also to hunt the white whale—and then you have the bittersweet challenge of making choices and seeing the inevitable disappointment of one or the other goal.

According to this definition, a romantic is innately and unalterably opposed to certain opinions, philosophies, and attitudes—most of them arising in the 20th century. One is Skinnerian behaviorism, the view that says people are just glorified, more complex lab rats. That all life can be reduced to stimulus and response. See the cheese, learn the maze, run to the cheese. My hostility to this view is immediate and visceral.

Another anti-romantic view is represented by most socialist/communist doctrines, the view that people are just productive units, available to line up in service to the state, cogs in the society. The viewpoint that underlies most sociology and anthropology texts has this cold, calculating view of people as indiscriminate things, and I detest it.

Curiously, most overtly capitalist—or we might say mercantilist—principles are also anti-romantic. This is the view that says every man has a price. I imagine the producers of reality television shows, from the old Beat the Clock to Survivor, crowing, “For a million dollars we can get them to eat their young!” This is also the view that every thing has a price, too, and that if you put the right price and the right advertising spin on a shoddy piece of work, you can make people buy it. Some people, some of the time, maybe, but not those who respond consciously to a purpose and see value in the things they commit themselves to own.

And finally, romantics reject the modern view of love, that people are drawn together only by the attractions of sex and lust, and that they stay together, if they do at all, only through inertia, timorousness, fear, or ennui. That people are basically interchangeable breeding rats, and there is nothing special or important about the object of one’s love. That’s Skinnerian behaviorism in the bedroom.

The romantic believes that people have intrinsic worth, based on the virtues they possess and their potential for action, as well as on the purpose and destiny that they will fulfill. That objects have intrinsic value, based on concepts like beauty, utility, efficiency, design, and other aspects to which people respond. The romantic responds to purpose, is inspired by it, hungers for it.

This view may be wrong. It may be a form of hallucination or self-deception. Life and humanity may indeed be accidents. But, deep down, I just don’t believe it.

Certainly, there are people who try to write plays and books without recognition of this romantic spirit (e.g., Waiting for Godot), make products without it (the Chevy Malibu), live in intimate contact among other people without it (“No strings, just so long as it feels good”), and form societies without it (name your socialist tyranny). But I cannot understand such people. I have no feeling for them. I don’t hate them, but I turn my eyes away in confusion and sadness. They are like men who deny their manhood, or women who deny their femininity. They ignore an essential, informing part of themselves. It is possible to do this—but why would you? How is this better? What do you gain compared with all that you lose?

Now you know why I hate the 20th century. It’s given us such frightfully barren doctrines and attitudes. Many of our wars, certainly WWII and the Cold War, have been a struggle against people who would paint all life with this barrenness, the marching morons of Nazism and Communism. But out of that struggle, for many modern people, has come a kind of despair and a resignation to the sterility of life without purpose. Dada-ism. Inanity. Shostakovich—most of whose work, except for a few bright passages,5 I consider organized noise, or prelude to a migraine—instead of Prokofiev.

You may call all this a response to God, that God makes both human and personal meaning possible. I wouldn’t call that wrong, exactly. But certainly there have been people—a whole religion full of them right next door, who worship a black stone in Mecca—who do not recognize this romantic sense of purpose and mission. To them, the purpose of life is to submit to the whim of the divine and obey the laws of their religious theorists. And some people—here I’m thinking of the Calvinists—believe in a type of tyrannical god who treats his creations as mere things to torture and abuse. No romance in either of those views. And while indeed most romantics link their mission to a religious purpose, organized religious belief is not absolutely necessary to a sense of purpose in life.

What I call the romantic sensibility may actually be a striving to define God, to make the divine instruments of beauty, justice, courage, and caring into facets of everyday life. It is the union of heart and head, thought and feeling, into a whole that works.

1. Especially composers who use melody, like Vangelis and Ray Lynch.

2. Yes, yes, I know. “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” But I still like him.

3. The word has many meanings, of course. For the purposes of this essay, I’m using a definition picked up from my reading—but I can’t say where, or whether it’s from one author or a pastiche of several. This is the dreaded gestalt.

4. Note carefully my use of the word “believe” in the first sentence of this paragraph. I am also a Darwinist and understand life on Earth to be a chemical phenomenon, a reversal of entropy, and not directed by the will or thought of a divine intelligence. So as noted above, each person must create, accept, and adopt a purpose in life that fits his or her needs. I believe making such a choice is a noble undertaking. People who don’t—who sink into a life of purposeless lechery, hopeless debauchery, or nihilistic thuggery—are less than fully human.

5. Okay, I like the Symphony No. 10. All the rest is noise.