Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: Part XII

This week deals with two events of fundamental importance in the history of civilisation, and that resonate strongly today. Firstly, Clark vividly illustrates the pivotal shift in Western culture from Classicism to Romanticism, and how the latter inspired unprecedented hopes that some form of absolute freedom was within human reach.  Secondly, he explores how such extreme notions inspired and energized the French Revolution, before degenerating into a crippling cultural condition that still affects the West, the world, and civilisation two centuries later. To put it pithily, Clark deals with The Fallacies of Hope.

Cultural Earthquake: Symmetry, consistency, and balance; these are words that Clark has frequently used to describe some of the attributes of great art. These were found throughout the tradition of Classicism as it flowed out of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. There, Classicism initially found a home and continued to shape civilisation. But then there was a cultural earthquake that shook the foundations of civilisation and announced the advent of Romanticism.

Romanticism: This new worldview constituted one of the most profound shifts in the consciousness of Western Civilisation, as we saw last week. The Romantic era flourished from c.1780 to c.1850, and echoed down to the Great War, which ground its ideals into the Flanders mud. For those vital decades it found lavish expression throughout art, literature, music, philosophy, and culture generally. It was characterized initially by the divinization of Nature, a fascination with the ‘pre-social self’, primal emotions, individual genius, spontaneity, authenticity, and the medieval past (left and right above). But now something else was revealed as an essential part of the Romantic orientation to the world – something very demanding!

Quest for the Absolute: Absolute freedom! That was the new quest. Suddenly, the Classical style (and the civilization that sustained it) seemed only to enclose and limit the human spirit, to stifle the imagination and enchain the artist and the poet. It came to represent the antithesis of a powerful and energetic new longing that had emerged in the cultural consciousness of the West. This involved a demand for metaphysical freedom, a desire to break free of all bonds and constraints, to transgress all boundaries, to strive endlessly upwards towards the infinite. It expressed a lust not just for freedom and liberty within society, but for some state of absolute freedom beyond even that.

Beyond Reason: At the very least, it was a state beyond reason, and it therefore constituted a quantum leap in the aspirations of the Enlightenment. Hitherto, the philosophes and other enlightened intellectuals had thought that Reason alone would be sufficient to criticize and reform society, to overthrow the decadent and effete aristocracy, and the archaic feudalistic assumptions that underpinned its ascendency over the masses. But this proved to be an illusion:

“rational arguments were not strong enough to upset the huge mass of torpid tradition” that kept the status quo in place. In fact, “it took something more explosive to blast apart the heavy foundations of Europe.

Beethoven: This force was Hope, but not ordinary hope, and Beethoven became its herald. As Clark observes:

What is that I hear — that note of urgency, of indignation, of spiritual hunger? Yes, it’s Beethoven; the sound of European man once more reaching for something beyond his grasp.

Inspired: Beethoven had been inspired by the French Revolution and the promise of universal liberty. Clark believes he gave the world

the greatest of all hymns to liberty in Fidelio … as the victims of injustice struggle up from their dungeons towards the light.

Beethoven intended to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon as a champion of liberty, but became enraged and disillusioned when he heard his hero had just proclaimed Emperor, placing the crown upon his own head as depicted by Jacques-Louis David (right).

To Infinity and Beyond: And so, in pursuit of this ideal, we must follow Clark in this portion of his quest, and

leave the trim, finite interiors of 18th Century Classicism and go to confront the Infinite. We have a long, rough voyage ahead of us, and I cannot say where it will end, because it is not over yet. We are still the offspring of the Romantic movement, and still the victims of the Fallacies of Hope.

Metaphysical Hope: And here we come to the central empowering myth of the Modern Age. At the centre of this Romantic Hope was Rousseau’s cry that 

Man was born free but is everywhere in chains.

At one (prosaic) level this is a legitimate protest against the inequalities and injustices of this world; these are concrete problems for which we can hope for practical solutions. However, in a deeper sense it seems that humans are also enchained at the metaphysical level, where limitless freedom should be a birthright, and that these ‘chains’ must be removed. This demand for absolute liberation entailed an exalted and abstract conception of Hope that couldn’t be translated into practical political action in this world — but this was never going to stop the radicals.

Blake: Such “anti-rational wisdom” was found in the work of William Blake: e.g., in London he denounced “the mind-forged manacles”, and in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell he offered the libertarian principle: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” He also subordinated reason to the Life-Force or the Will:

Energy is the only life and is from the body; and Reason is [only] the bound and outward circumference of Energy.

Freedom as Destiny: Another essential element to this Romantic anti-rationalism was the belief that there was a great metaphysical force propelling history in the direction of this limitless freedom. And it couldn’t be stopped, as Clark quotes Robert Burns:

It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.’

History as Living Thing: This belief involves the spiritualization of history to parallel the spiritualization of nature: i.e., history becomes History as nature became Nature, and both – History and Matter – were conceived in organic terms, as living, growing forces driving the world towards a glorious future. Shortly, Marx would combine the two to create Historical Materialism.

One Crowded Hour: Such a vision of energy, creativity, movement, growth and destiny was intoxicating for millions of people. There was an “ecstasy of enthusiasm.” As an otherwise forgotten English poet named Mordaunt observed at the moment when all this was beginning to unfold:

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

 And as Wordsworth later observed: ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.’

Revolution: These were extremely powerful impulses, and they proved to be contagious. In the 1780s  they “showed themselves like flames shooting up through the cracks” in the fabric of society, revealing the fires burning furiously beneath the surface, destroying the foundations. Inevitably, in 1789, there finally came the explosion. Initially, it seemed that utopia was within the grasp of the French people, as the Ancien Régime was torn down and a republic declared. The Rights of Man were proclaimed, and French society was to be re-built from the ground up. This involved fundamental changes to social institutions and everyday life, from religion, politics, language, and time; to women’s fashions, and the calendar.

New Time: In this new calendar the decimal system was allowed to run amok. 1792 became Year 1 and the 12, 30-day months were each divided into three 10-day weeks, with the 10th day replacing Sunday as the day of rest. Each day was divided into 10 hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes, and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds. The months were all renamed to

express the love of nature that had become so closely entwined with the Revolution

e.g., Thermidor, the hot one; Brumaire, the misty one, and so on.

A Beacon of Hope? In this radical, transformative fashion, France was to become a beacon of freedom throughout Europe, or so the revolutionaries, philosophes, poets, and artists passionately hoped. The mood was messianic, reality was very different.

A New Religion? A great, chaotic force had been unleashed. At the core of the revolutionary impulse was a quasi-religious fanaticism, and this new religion had no time for the old. Christianity was to be jettisoned and replaced by a properly organized religion of Nature, with new non-Christian services being held in ‘de-Christianised’ churches, celebrating the ‘Festival of the Supreme Being’. As Clark observes,

it was also proposed to pull down Chartres Cathedral and build in its place a temple of wisdom. There was a good deal of profanation and blasphemy, and a vast amount of destruction.

Desecration and Destruction: Indeed, the devastation was colossal. The Basilica of Saint-Denis, possibly the most important church in France, was devastated (left), its treasury looted, its reliquaries and liturgical objects melted down for their metals, and the royal tombs desecrated.

Tragically, Cluny Abbey (right) was wiped off the map. Founded in 910, Cluny had been the largest church in Christendom until the completion of St. Peter’s 700 years later. It was renowned as the leading institution of Western monasticism. The revolutionary mobs destroyed it in 1793; its massive and irreplaceable library and archives were burned; everything of value was plundered; and its immense walls were quarried for stone. Virtually nothing remained.

Descent into Terror: And then, events descended into an orgy of violence as the revolutionary leadership turned on itself. 

How horribly all this idealism came to grief. Most of the great episodes in the history of civilisation have had some unpleasant consequences. But none have kicked back sooner and harder than the revolutionary fervour of 1792.

There was an outburst of “communal sadism, a pogrom, and mass panic.” The ruling Committee of Public Safety officially proclaimed that ‘the country is in peril’ and that ‘there are traitors amongst us.’ Civil war broke out and, amidst great panic, ‘the Terror’ was unleashed.

The Virtue of Terror: In institutionalizing terror, the ruling elite, led by Robespierre, saw itself as implementing a revolutionary type of virtue that transcended normal morality. As the radical St Just declared about those who resisted:

In a republic which can only be based on virtue, any pity shown towards crime is a flagrant proof of treason.

At least 300,000, mainly common people, were arrested, 17,000 executed, and some 10,000 died in prison. Meanwhile, the Catholics in the Vendée rebelled against the imposition of the new religion and compulsory conscription into the Republican army.

Genocide: And so the order was given to the troops:

I order you to deliver to flames everything that can be burnt and to bayonet any locals you meet. I know there might be a few patriots but never mind, we must sacrifice them all.

Some 250,000 Catholic rebels were slaughtered in what has been called the first modern genocide.

Napoleon: France spent nearly a decade in chaos, as leaders came and went, mostly to the guillotine, but then, as Clark says, “in 1798, the French got a leader with a vengeance.” Napoleon was one of the truly great figures in history. As Clark observes, he was not only a military commander of genius, he was a great administrator, editor, author, and political operator. He also had a strong Romantic impulse and was entranced by the poetry of Ossian, the mythic Gaelic bard we met last week. He was also an imperialist who dreamed of building an empire encompassing Europe and beyond, and that would rival the conquests of Alexander the Great. Ultimately, he and the massive French Army were only defeated in 1815 by his own hubris and the combined armed might of the rest of Europe, brought together to confront him in one final battle, after years of titanic struggle in which some 5 million people were killed and Europe was scarred, politically and culturally, for a century.

Madame de Staël: One figure who lived through all of this at the centre of the cyclone was Germaine de Staël (below) (1766-1817). She was born in Geneva to a rich and aristocratic family, the only child of Jacques Necker, the Minister of Finance under King Louis XVI. Extremely precocious (at age 11 she offered to marry the English historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon), and a fervent Romantic, she wrote a study of Rousseau’s thought and became one of Europe’s leading novelists and writers. She knew Napoleon personally (and drove him crazy), and maintained influential salons and networks across the continent. Glamorous, she provoked many scandals, attracting a retinue of lovers, admirers, and advisors. These included the Schlegel brothers, who were leaders of German Romanticism and amongst the first to promote the study of Indian philosophy in Europe. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars it was observed (only partially in jest) that

there are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe: England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.

Dark Forces: The swift decline of the French Revolution into barbarism seemed to indicate that there was a deeper, darker dimension to the Romantic Movement that allowed it to be mobilized politically in the pursuit of both liberty and tyranny. It seems that unforeseen, ominous, and only dimly understood forces had emerged within Romanticism and had penetrated its soul, luring it towards upheaval and chaos.

The Fallacies of Hope: It appeared the ethereal could be overwhelmed by the demonic, as we see captured in the dreadful scene recorded in The Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner (1840), his contribution to the anti-slavery movement (below). In 1781, the captain of a slave ship approaching a typhoon had 133 slaves thrown overboard so that the insurance on lost cargo could be collected.

When Turner exhibited the work at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1840 he accompanied it with an extract from his 1812 poem ‘Fallacies of Hope’:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”

In choosing the name for this episode of Civilisation, Clark is making a grim association – where is the market for hope now?

The Gothic: Evidence of this grim other dimension appeared in the Gothic movement, as Clark observes. This was an extreme version of the Romantic Movement in literature that began with Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764); and was followed by Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); and Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796); and many others. Gothic tales often told of the past erupting into the present to destroy the future.  They focused on deadly passions, deceit, betrayal, revenge, ruin, decay, death, terror, and chaos, and usually involving debauched monks, violated virgins, wicked noblemen, sinister castles and graveyards. They became immensely popular as the Revolution declined into barbarism.

There was a taste for horror, and even Jane Austin’s heroines had liked to frighten themselves by reading Gothic novels

e.g., in Northanger Abbey. The Gothic was meant to be fantasy, but now “in the 1790s the horrors became real.”

Shattered Hope: As Clark Laments, by about 1810,

all the optimistic hopes of the 18th Century had been proved false: the Rights of Man, the discoveries of science, the benefits of industry, all a delusion. The freedoms won by revolution had been immediately lost either by counter-revolution or by the revolutionary government falling into the hands of military dictators.

It was a traumatic disappointment:

all the poets, philosophers, and artists of the Romantic Movement were shattered by it.”

The intoxicating hopes of the 1780s were replaced by the numbness of despair.

Byron and Pessimism: Clark believes this despair was best exemplified by Lord Byron, hero-worshipped as the most famous poet in Europe, but ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ for those who got too close, as one of his lovers observed. Where he had once exalted the ‘Eternal Spirit of the chainless mind! Brightest in Dungeons, Liberty!’ he now conceded

Fetter’d or fetterless,
I learn’d to love despair.

As Clark observes, this cultural despair has dominated the Western Intelligentsia ever since.

The Sublime: However, Byron did explore a radically new category of aesthetic experience ~ the Sublime, as identified earlier by the philosopher Edmund Burke (right) in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).  The Sublime achieves its affect through its representations of overwhelming majesty and power. For Burke, confused, uncertain images, voids, solitude, and silence evoke the Sublime, as do glaring brightness, the sudden alternation of light and dark, the noise of vast waterfalls and cataracts, raging storms, thunder, lightning, and foul miasmas. The feelings of awe and fear it evokes are far more powerful than those associated with the merely beautiful, which is simply well-formed and aesthetically pleasing. In contrast, the Sublime set out to capture “the savage incomprehensible powers outside ourselves”. These lurk below but may rise up to sweep us along, perhaps to artistic renown and poetic glory, but overwhelmingly towards engulfment, as we see in Thomas Cole’s 1842 series of four paintings The Voyage of Life (below).

Delacroix: Clark also discusses Casper David Friedrich and Théodore Géricault, who also painted epic images of the maritime Sublime. He then turns to Eugène Delacroix. Although he produced brilliant (but propagandist) works like Liberty Leading the People (1830), he had “the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived” – an age satisfied with the merely beautiful – “and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it,” often into the works of Byron, Scott, and other Romantics, or into unbridled Orientalism, as with his incredible 1827 depiction of The Death of Sardanapalus (below).

Despair and Renunciation:This pervasive despair at the Age of the Bourgeoisie drove Delacroix to Morocco just as a later artist, Paul Gauguin, would escape to Tahiti:

his Byronic hatred of the society of his time had made him determined to escape from European civilisation, whatever the cost.”

What, asks Clark,

had gone so wrong with the European spirit that so long a journey and so great a renunciation were necessary?

Rodin & Balzac: Auguste Rodin was “the last great Romantic artist,” in Clark’s estimation, “the direct heir of Géricault, Delacroix, and Byron.” Like them, he was possessed by a sense of “humanity’s tragic destiny,” and by a “creative power equal to that of the 17th Century.”  Above all, his statue of Balzac (left) revealed the creative power that made the author “the dominating imagination of his age and yet transcending his age.” According to Clark, it was “the greatest piece of sculpture of the 19th Century.”  It also revealed the artist’s contempt for public opinion, a contempt that was reciprocated, as the work was ridiculed and rejected, before it was eventually recognized as a masterpiece.

The Great Chasm: This mutual incomprehension and contempt between the artist and the general public is something with which we are now familiar, as it shapes contemporary culture. However, it was new in the 19th Century and revealed an epoch-defining rift in civilisation. According to Clark,

the early 19th Century created a chasm in the European mind as great as that which had split Christendom in the 16th Century.

Moreover, this chasm was “even more dangerous” than that which tore Europe apart in the Reformation era.

The Antagonists:This seems an incredible claim, as the Reformation ushered in the Age of Religious Wars that consumed millions and reshaped history. However, it is one that seems validated by the history of the 20th Century. But what are the groups on either side of this chasm that so gravely afflicts civilisation? Clark identifies two social classes or castes that have come to oppose each other in the modern era:

The Middle Class/Bourgeoisie –

On one side of the chasm was the new middle class nourished by the Industrial Revolution. It was hopeful and energetic, but without a scale of values. Sandwiched between a corrupt aristocracy and a brutalised poor, it had produced a defensive morality, conventional, complacent, and hypocritical.

The Intelligentsia/Adversary Culture –

On the other side of the chasm were the finer spirits — poets, painters, novelists, who were still heirs of the Romantic Movement, still haunted by disaster … They felt themselves to be entirely cut off from the prosperous majority, whom they mocked as philistines and barbarians. But what could they put in the place of middle-class morality? They themselves were still in search of a soul!

The Search At the centre of civilisation it seemed there was now a cultural void, and a quixotic search began for an agreed-upon aesthetic able to fill it. This went on throughout the 19th Century, continued into the 20th Century, and continues with little optimism in the New Millennium. Answers were sought initially in the immensely influential thought of Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and of many others, in literature, the visual arts, and throughout culture. How much progress has been made in this effort to hold civilisation together we will discover in the weeks to come.

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