Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gut Feelings: Intuition or Heartburn?

romanticism--male and female writers, male and female characters acting out their enthusiasm; a dramatic, personal attitude reflecting a passionate interest in and curiosity about travel, science, history, animals, behavior in general, art, food, drink, literature, all terrains of the imagination; an overwhelming belief in the potential inherent in humanity; an instinctive and vigorous distrust of philosophies or systems that diminish or remove altogether the sense of individual choice based on individual responsibility.

Although romanticism and romance have a brief arc of overlap, the two concepts, particularly in the literary sense, go their separate ways. The romantic is the Quixote-like character but equally the Tom Jones or Becky Sharp or Asher Lev character, off in the world to seek some form of fortune. The romantic is often forced to squint at the accouterments of reality because of the dazzle of reflected light from the goal or ideal. 

 A scholarly debate of some vigor argues the likelihood of Geoffrey Chaucer having worked at translation of a medieval French poem, The Romance of the Rose, which involved such romantic tropes as dream visions and the true identity of the protagonist Rose, as in, was she a real person or a metaphor for all women? The scholarly debate adds yet another note of romanticism to the persona of Chaucer, who also may or may not have been a spy, may or may not have been involved in a court case where he was charged with rape. Ah, the possibilities.

Romance is more an extended and complex display of a wedding cake, complete with bride and groom effigies at the top tier. Will a particular couple stop fighting long enough to get married? Will Beatrice and Benedick find true happiness? Will the Wife of Bath finally settle into a good relationship with a man, and is her current husband, Jenkyn, Mr. Right? As readers, we already know we feel pretty sure about Jane, so much so that we cannot help wonder if Rochester is going to make her happy. And as we nervously reread the final paragraphs of the ur-romance, Rebecca, can we be absolutely sure that the nameless narrator is going to be okay with Mr. Right?

Both romanticism and romance are considerable forces for a writer to deal with. After rereading The Crystal Cave by Mary Renault, we are tempted to observe that romanticism (as well as the English language) is alive and well, thank you. Even though Candice Bushnell exudes a tangy modernity and edge, any of her novels assures us romance--at least in her hands--has not gone vegan on us.

Romanticism recognizes the nine-to-five job but argues in favor of the intuitive, aggressively emotional state over the more formal, rational, mechanical. Thus does romanticism become alchemy as it helps transmute the perfervid scientist into Dr. Frankenstein, who may have slightly overreached. Thus does romanticism bring drama into the equation by matching Dr. Jekyll against the neo-Russeauian Mr. Hyde. 

 Indeed, isn't Natty Bumpo the Russeauian noble savage, gone around the bend. Not to forget John Yossarian nor, for that matter, Tom Joad. Romanticism gives the writer a sterling opportunity to take on established order, one of the most splendid examples of all inherent in lead character and writer in Huckleberry Finn, the former taking on social caste and civilization, warts and all; the latter taking on the excesses of Sir Walter Scott (whom he came to loathe), slavery, and race relations in the U.S.

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