Such happiness remained elusive, however, as 19C and early 20C thinkers proceeded to undermine the vestiges of medievalism to which many human beings stubbornly continued to cling. Before Nietzsche declared that God was dead, and that we moderns were his murderers, Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people”, not in the sense that it stupefies or keeps one from thinking straight, but in the sense that it helps reduce the very real pain that alienating modern capitalism produces for the vast majority of mankind: not only can there be no wealth without poverty (no cheap consumer goods produced without access to low wage labour), no longer do most humans feel fully connected to the work that puts food on their table. For “doing” – creatively expressing ourselves through meaningful labour – is as central to human life as “thinking”, and the majority of moderns, locked into feeding the demands of the Industrial machine, no longer had access to anything resembling meaningful, creative action. Industrial capitalism reduces us to creatures who merely compete, merely consume, and creates a condition of life which, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed at the birth of modernity, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a kind of “war of all against all”. The modern era is also characterized by unceasing change, brought on by the birth of a productive force, capitalism, that is so dynamic that to many 19C observers it seems more alive than the disembodied “hands” that toil in its factories. As Marx notes:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Romanticism was one reaction to this predicament. If modern city life in industrial Europe was a dehumanizing proposition, at least the individual could commune with nature out in the countryside, where one could put aside thinking and feel benevolent nature speaking loud and clear to one’s unique, individual soul. Here, “my individual life is meaningful to me” becomes “my individual life is connecting to the oneness that is nature” and thereby the individual is at least momentarily restored, given a fleeting but powerful sense of wholeness, through the appreciation of the sublime – the vast, electric, living eternity that is nature, and nature itself becomes (à la GM Hopkins) the “grandeur of God”. And poets, musicians and painters became the priests of this new religion, attempting to reproduce in the audience the same “spontaneous emotion” that inspired their composition. Rather than art as the classical/Apollonian “holding the mirror up to nature” as Hamlet urged, art becomes the Romantic expression of the unique feelings of the soul of the individual “genius”, the artist who will act as shepherd for an alienated, toiling industrial humanity. In this vision, it is not humanity itself that is fallen, but society (read: industrial capitalism). Society has corrupted us, lured us away from our natural roots, and art’s function is to return us, however briefly, to where we belong. “We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell sings in her wonderful “Woodstock”, a typically 1960s yearning for the ideals of an earlier Romanticism, “we are Golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”
It is essentially a yearning for an escape back to the medieval world where everything and everyone was connected in a vast web of meaning. Many novels of the Victorian age urged a return to simpler times, or at least a return to the sovereignty of the (natural) heart over the (now merely calculating) head. Nature could save us (if we would or could not save ourselves) from ourselves, from alienation, and bring us back into communion with each other, into communion with the One. But Marx and Nietzsche are only two of the four thinkers who loomed like giants over the coming 20C, and two more remained to block any such easy access to utopia: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.
Darwin, though a believer, unwittingly replaced the nature of England’s “green and pleasant land” with a much darker vision, a blind, chaotic nature that produces life merely through the operations of chance, a purposeless competition for scarce resources, a “nature red in tooth and claw”. Romanticism was thereby revealed, in the eyes of many, as a medieval fairy tale. And it fell to Freud to deal the final death blow to meaning: the unique whole individual soul that so resonated with Romanticism’s Nature was now revealed as a chaotic, teeming morass of conflicting drives, all created, not by capital-N Nature, but by early childhood experiences, by social forces, by, in the work of Freud’s “post-modern” followers, linguistic vectors or “discourses” – by ideologies that predate us, that will pass through us and that will outlive us. Rather than we free individuals using language to seek “life, liberty and happiness”, we are largely determined creatures, programmed perhaps by our DNA, but even more forcefully “trained” by society, not only by the habits that we have come to feel as “normal” or “natural”, habits induced by behaviourist techniques early in childhood (as in Brave New World), but also by language itself.
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