Romantic era, romantic literature, the romance genre – an almost history lesson.

While hunting up writing samples today I came across some not too old term papers of mine.  The first one I pulled up was a favorite, although I willingly acknowledge there were some grammatical errors which I have since fixed, about Romanticism and Existentialism.  The paper was actually for my History and Systems of Psychology class and, I think, the purpose of it was to link philosophy and psychology while connecting the premise to something relevant in the present.  As you can guess I went back to the romantic era in history then proceeded to trip over Nietzsche on my way to the present day plot point.

There were so many ideas I put forth in that ten page paper but what I was most struck by was the definition of the romantic era; those who defined it and what feeling it embodied.  We have, in all likelihood, heard some romantic era classical music and perhaps associate that sweeping, rich, thunderous and climactic tone with “romance” but it’s an incomplete representation of the period.  The ideals of the romantic era were embodied when people, whether they were composers, poets or authors, were focused upon the idea of the individual.  Men like Rousseau who, humorously enough could not think himself out of the pardox of his beliefs, had an idea the individual should not live for the state.  These views put forth in The Social Contract caused it to be banned and sent him fleeing to Switzerland.  [Of course he erred in thinking the individual would somehow magically make the best decisions for society as a whole which really rather blows the premise of individualism right out of the water and solidly into the land of communism or socialism- but that’s another discussion for another time.]

Goethe, on the other hand, with his Sturm und Drang (storm and urge/longing) style, swept the arts from the classical period and into the romantic era where subjectivity was the name of the game; rationality too rigid.  We can thank Goethe for encouraging this direction, this violent explosion of passion into word and song such as the one characterized in this Schumann piece (it starts slow but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you hear it): 

What I find to be so incredibly interesting about the above information is the noted disconnect between the ideals of “the romantic era” and those used in romantic literature beginning in the twelfth century.  The literature style was about heroism, chivalry and adventure.  Sure, the hero through some kind of superhuman fete would win the favor of the lady but the REAL story was the adventure.  As early as the eighteenth century, thanks to our buddy Goethe, we see literature written in the romantic era.  Sure the emotions he conveyed were accurate to the period but, and this surprised me, not to the definition of romantic literature.

So, what I am left wondering is who decided to name what period which?  There is of course the understanding of the style and literature being concerned with individuality since, in my opinion anyway, heroism is not a characteristic we give a society but an individual- but if literature such as The Sorrows of Young Werther were to bring about the era, a story about a desperate and broken hearted man who winds up killing himself, what mark of heroism do we have there?  I suppose we can postulate Werther was committing an act of heroism through his martyrdom but, let’s face it, how often can we look upon a forlorn man shooting himself as a hero?

That notion does seem to permeate a great deal of works some consider to be romantic:  New Moon and Wuthering Heights (although I freely admit Heathcliff did not kill himself and instead decided to spread the misery around) are two which immediately come to mind, but neither are written in the romantic style.  For that it seems we should look upon literary figures and actually ignore (mostly) the romance genre itself.  Anyone else find that ironic?

The romance genre of today, while usually consisting of far more explicit sex scenes than those stories of the twelfth century, are more along the lines of what was considered romantic but not in the romantic style.  There was chivalry, heroism and grand adventure in those good ole tales of yestercentury and by that context Rand wrote in this style.  Her ideals were even half in the romantic era itself in the sense of rabid individualism while her writing lies solidly within the confines of the romantic style.  We might argue about her heroes, how unlikable they might be to some of you, but they were still her definition of heroes; they existed in a world of enemy combatants (although often without bloodshed); their purpose was to surpass any and all obstacles put upon their paths.  It was the might of the individual, the hero, in an adventure for glory.  The adventure getting top billing in the story of course.

And back we go to the romance genre (sorry for the whiplash)!  It incorporates aspects of chivalry (hence the overwhelming and oft times over the top “alpha male”), sometimes acts of heroism but more often than not the focus is not the adventure but the development of the romantic relationship.  [Dear, God, the word has yet ANOTHER use!!!!]  But does it really fit in the category of either the literature OR the era?  I can’t reconcile it for myself to be honest with you.  In fact the whole word usage seems to have me vexed.  In literature it’s heroism (alpha uber male/vampire/werewolf/sorcerer/ex-marine/navy seal saving babies from burning buildings guarded by dragons and demonic overlords- hero, check!); adventure (the sexxoring while always good and containing simultaneous orgasms is not something I generally would put in the category of “adventure” so- adventure, not so much); lady’s favor (if the sexxoring was gotten to and good then- lady’s favor, check/star/exclamation points/omgwtfwowza); glory (not by my definition but if your definition is a happily ever after where everything is all sunshine, daisies and unicorn farts then I have to say- glory, check). So, at best, we’re sitting at 2 out of 3.

Now let’s look at the genre next to the era:  it fulfills the “sturm und drang” portion of the definition, doesn’t it?  The over wrought, sometimes tortured, copious amounts of emotion it also has.  But what about individualism?  That’s a bit tricky and not something which seems to work for me. The stories, generally, are character driven which would lead me to think it’s about individuals but how often are they really?  Are the premises of each book within the genre not actually designed to give a happily ever after which would have mass appeal?  Does the very notion of a “typical happily ever after” not actually discredit the very notion these books are in support of the individual or about the individual?  I suppose it matters not so long as the story is about a specific person (or three, or four) and thus winds up being about an individual but it still would not be about individualism ESPECIALLY if the context is specifically about fitting in, doing the societally acceptable “thing”.

I’m curious…  what do you, dear reader, think of the romance genre?  What constitutes an adventure?  Glory?  An act of heroism?  Do they have to be grand notions or can doing the dishes be the ultimate act of heroism?  Could the most amazing adventure be that of an agorophobic walking across the street?

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