From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde
During the eighteenth century, a past emerged that would be unlocked and classified by countless scientists. The empirical approach of the scientists exposed a hitherto inconceivable wealth of customs, events, rituals, natural phenomena, and art objects. From that time on, mankind had a history it could no longer ignore.
Thus the past came to occupy a prominent place in Romanticism. The Romantic thinkers, however, had little affinity with historical schemes such as Condorcet's. A linear and rational progression in history was the last thing they considered important. For them, the richness of the past lay in its other- ness and strangeness rather than in what predictably preceded the here and now, in a distant era like the Middle Ages or antiquity rather than in the cursed, prosaic Enlightenment that preceded it. Such remote, distinct periods were usually manifestations of a golden age that had ended, but to which one could return with the aid of the imagination, drifting like the German Romantic writer Novalis's young Heinrich von Ofterdingen. But they could also constitute key eras in a national history, periods of flourishing in one's own culture. Dutch Romanticism, for example, produced its Golden Age, with Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and in English Romanticism, Sir Walter Scott revived the old ideals of chivalry in his historical novels. Such periods were studied for their own sake, so that the dominant ideas of the day had to speak for themselves, as Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) argued, thereby proclaiming a kind of historicism that since then has never disappeared from history writing.
In short, the idea that a culture was continually developing and advancing found little support in Romanticism. Where this notion was avowed, skepticism was often voiced with regard to the arts. The English writers and poets thus thought scientific progress was achieved at the expense of literature and the imagination. To use Keats's words, the world was increasingly reduced to a `dull catalogue of common things.' 1 Moreover, the discrepancies and inconsistencies described in the previous chapter also emerged, as in Friedrich Schlegel, who posited a never-ending historical progress that simultaneously embodied a cyclical process. A possible exception to this often unconscious reticence toward an open future was the work of Romantic writer Adam Müller (1779-1829). In his Vorlesungen über deutsche Wissenschaft und Literatur