Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Romanticism, Spirituality, and the Contemporary University

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Romanticism, Spirituality, and the Contemporary University

Article excerpt

It has been common, since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, for people to remark that we in the west are in need of a re-acquaintance with the Enlightenment values that have traditionally bolstered our democratic societies, in need of a modern Voltaire to tackle, once again, the growing tide of religious extremism and persecution. In general I don't disagree with this sentiment but it's become enough of a cant phrase in the last 15 years that it can engender contrary thoughts at times, particularly if you work, as I do, in the academic world. There, I've often thought, stubbornly, the Enlightenment is doing quite fine. There, in fact, I've often thought, what we really need is a new Romanticism.

The academic world today hews so closely to an Enlightenment-based reverence for science and rationalism that it sometimes seems hostile to certain key elements of the humanities, for example those having to do with aesthetics, beauty, art and religion. Recent spikes in the cost of higher education have galvanized the university clientele, parents and students alike, to demand an education that yields practical skills and empirical, quantifiable results. And yet our current understanding of higher education as having to do with all things quantifiable may be resulting in a quiet counter-movement among college students. I sense, in the students I teach, an increased curiosity about the non-empirical and a sharpened appetite for the spiritual nourishment that Romanticism offers them.

Poe and Perverseness

For example, I teach a yearlong introduction to the humanities, part of the core curriculum at the university where I teach. When I teach Romanticism in that course, I often turn to one passage from Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat" to get at what I think is a central idea of Romanticism. It's the passage in which Poe's narrator tries to understand, to explain to himself, why he has offered violence to his favorite pet cat, first gouging out its eye and finally hanging it. The narrator concludes that what lead him to hang the cat, what lead him to his "final and irrevocable overthrow," was the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" (original emphasis). "Of this spirit," Poe writes,

    philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my
   soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive
   faculties of the human heart--one of the indivisible primary
   faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character
   of Man. 

Poe later describes this spirit of perverseness, in one of his most memorable phrases, as "the unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself."

In the course that I teach, we have already spent a good deal of time studying the Bible, classical literature (particularly the Stoics), and the 400 years of rationalism that might loosely be described as starting with the Renaissance and culminating in the Enlightenment. So when I bring up this passage I do so with an eye towards previous eras we've discussed. I'm always anxious to make two points in particular.

The first is that the passage represents a fairly simple argument against the classical rationalism that was the hallmark of Stoicism and the inspiration for the Enlightenment, that era against which Romantics like Poe were rebelling. For a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius, the closest thing to a divine spark in us is our reason, which allows us to navigate the unchanging laws of nature to figure out what we can control, what we can't, what our particular lot is in the great plan of nature. We cannot, for example, control the horrible things that happen to us, but we can control our reaction to those horrible things. '"Will this that has happened," Marcus asks, "prevent you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against inconsiderate opinions [...] will it prevent you from having modesty, freedom [...]?" The Stoics have always been particularly articulate in describing our potential for calm and reason in the midst of turmoil and anxiety. …

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