[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: John Steadman Rice: Romantic Modernism and the Self

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John Steadman Rice: Romantic Modernism and the Self
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Conceptualizations of the self have been central to postmodern
    thought, but, John Rice asks, from what sources do these
    conceptualizations draw? In an historical analysis, he traces the
    roots of postmodern theorizing to one strain, the romantic strain, of
    modernist critique. While Romantic Modernism has a long history, it
    was only with its incarnation in the human potential movement after
    mid-century that it began its ascent to victory over another strain of
    modernist critique, what Rice calls "social scientific modernism." The
    triumph of Romantic Modernism, he argues, has come in the form of the
    growing cultural authority of a therapeutic ethic, and it is this
    selfsame ethic that informs much postmodern thinking about the self.
    Rice explores the Romantic Modernist view of the self and early
    attempts to institutionalize it. Especially concerned with the
    relationship between the individual and his or her community, he
    discusses the various ways by which the Romantic self attempts to
    assert its authority over society.

          John Steadman Rice teaches in the Watson School of Education at
    the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of A
    Disease of One's Own: Psychotherapy, Addiction, and the Emergence of
    Co-Dependency, and a forthcoming book on the institutionalization of
    therapeutic culture.

          Romantic modernism espouses and rests upon a distinction between
    formal rationality and emotion, intuition, spirituality, and
    individual expressive freedom. This distinction is reflected in the
    Romantic Modernist view of the appropriate relationship between the
    individual and society, which is predicated upon a distinction between
    a true self and a false self, with the latter understood in terms of
    the social roles that society imposes upon and demands of the
    individual. This societal imposition, in turn, is seen as a violation
    of the self's integrity and the individual's expressive freedom.
    Indeed, a "feeling of being violated by an inimical society...lies at
    the root of Romantic alienation,"[3]^1 an alienation born of the
    Romantic Modernist's apprehensive "consciousness of the void beneath
    the conventional structures of reality."[4]^2

          This premise of the self's violation at the hands of an
    "inimical society," however, is but the dark side of the Romantic
    Modernist world view. This "negative Romanticism" is perhaps most
    clearly embodied in American literature by the work of Edgar Allan
    Poe, whose oeuvre repeatedly emphasizes the horrors of the
    age--horrors, in turn, that resonate with the Romantic Modernist
    convictions that rationalism is bankrupt and that the modern self is
    doomed to estrangement, isolation, alienation, madness, and so on. Nor
    are these uniquely American strains of Romanticism. Indeed, Mary
    Shelley's Frankenstein is also a Romantic allegory as to the
    consequences of modernity's heedless reliance on scientific versions
    of rationalism.

          Romantic Modernism, however, is not solely focused on or
    oriented by this negative view. In contrast both to rationalism and
    its bleak consequences, another theme in Romantic Modernism posits the
    self as the source of value in the world. As such, the dedicated
    (Romantic) individual bears special burdens and is presented with
    special opportunities as well: "a Romantic figure was first of all
    faced with discovering a way to project his will upon the external
    world in order to reassert the dominance of human value and thereby
    his own identity."[5]^3

          This more positive strand of Romanticism is most clearly
    embodied in the American Transcendentalist movement of the early
    nineteenth century.[6]^4 Sharing in negative Romanticism's dark
    assessment of the emerging social structures of bureaucratic
    industrialism, "the principal cause of human failure seemed obvious to
    [the Transcendentalists]: it was society, that mass of forms and
    conventions and institutions by which men were held captive, alienated
    from their true selves."[7]^5 Indeed, "for a Transcendentalist all
    social structures can become oppressive institutions...that perpetuate
    themselves by restricting moral choice."[8]^6

          The assumption that conventional society and culture obstruct
    the self's natural development is coupled, in Romantic Modernism, with
    the assumption that humans contain within themselves all of the
    requisite capacities and impulses needed to construct and maintain a
    just and equitable social order. The Transcendentalists, for example,
    maintained that humans possess, by nature, a divine inner being, an
    innate and benevolent spirituality. As such, individuals must be free
    to develop these innate capacities through "a process of growth,
    unfolding and ripening, a gradual realization of inherent qualities
    latent in the organism from its very birth"--a process, again,
    believed to be "thwarted in its development by a...conformist

          These assumptions about human nature, and about the relationship
    between the individual and society, express a profoundly
    anti-institutional orientation. That orientation, moreover, translates
    into a clear course of action in which the self's expressive and
    experiential freedom receives ultimate priority over conventional
    social expectations. Thus, the Transcendentalists called for "the
    liberation of [hu]mankind, the release of a power everywhere latent
    but everywhere suppressed or unawakened."[10]^8 The assertion of the
    individual's will--the projection, as noted above, of that will onto
    the external world--was, of course, an abiding theme in
    Transcendentalist essays and poetry. Thoreau, for one, repeatedly
    stressed precisely this theme. For example, in Civil Disobedience, he
    baldly asserts that "the only obligation which I have a right to
    assume is to do at any time what I think is right."[11]^9 Emerson
    espoused precisely the same point even more succinctly: "The
    individual is the world."[12]^10

          One mechanism for cultivating and releasing the individual's
    latent powers was expressed in Emanuel Swedenborg's concept of
    "correspondence," especially as that idea was interpreted and
    articulated by Swedenborg's student, Sampson Reed. Emerson, in
    particular, was much taken with Reed's Observations on the Growth of
    Mind, which, following Swedenborg, asserts that the basic endowments
    of self, when carefully and meticulously cultivated, correspond with a
    realm of divine truth. Reflecting this presumed equivalency between
    the divine and our true human nature, the moment at which
    correspondence ostensibly occurs is called "the experience of
    `self-remembering,'" an experience in which "the perceiver not only
    records his perceptions but also experiences himself in the act of

          For the Transcendentalists, correspondence could be realized in
    and through exposure to and contemplation of the divine truths of
    nature--a theme that plainly infused, for example, Thoreau's Walden,
    and that was also expressed in Emerson's famous "transparent eyeball,"
    featured in the essay, "The Oversoul":

      Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air, and
      uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
      transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the
      Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of

          The Romantic Modernists' convictions regarding the divine
    essence of humankind were the basis for their antipathy toward social
    conventions and institutions. Conventional social structures merely
    sought to bring people into line with standards external to the self,
    rather than operating in ways that would facilitate the individual's
    "natural" process of development. Summarizing the inherent conflict
    between self and conventional society built into this convergence of
    convictions, Elizabeth Peabody contended that, "if there is a divine
    principle in man, it has a right, and it is its duty to unfold itself
    from itself. . . A social organization, which does not admit of this,
    which does not favor, and cherish, and act with main reference to
    promoting it, is inadequate, false, devilish."[15]^13 In addition to
    concisely expressing Transcendentalism's view of human nature,
    Peabody's remarks regarding social organization also underscored a key
    challenge for Romantic Modernists: to devise institutions which
    facilitated rather than thwarted self-cultivation.

          This effort to institutionalize Romantic Modernism was plainly
    the impetus for Bronson Alcott's experiments with alternative
    education. In his journal of 1828, Alcott outlined some key tenets of
    Transcendentalist educational philosophy, all of which resonate with
    the presumptions underlying the Romantic Modernist world view. For
    example, reflecting that world view's assumption that human talents
    and capacities are present from birth, Alcott believed that it was
    counter-productive to require children to learn, master, and remember
    lessons gleaned from books: instead, the instructor "should look to
    the child to see what is to be done. . . .The child is the
    book."[16]^14 Further reflecting his impatience with the view of
    education as a matter of imparting--and imposing, really--standardized
    knowledge to students, and then evaluating them as to the degree that
    they demonstrate understanding and mastery of that knowledge, Alcott
    maintained that the appropriate approach to education was to "let [the
    instructor] follow out the impulses, the thoughts, the volitions of
    the child's mind and heart."[17]^15 As George Hochfield notes, with
    this approach:

      The focus is shifted from subject matter or social outcome to the
      child as an end in himself; the inner world takes priority over the
      outer; and the teacher's function is to stimulate the independent
      growth of his pupil rather than force upon him an extraneous burden
      of learning.[18]^16

          Ultimately, Alcott's alternative school failed to survive, as
    have other attempts to transmute Romantic Modernism into enduring
    social form. The key point here, and one to which we will necessarily
    return, is that such failures reflect just how inordinately difficult
    it is to institutionalize a fundamentally anti-institutional world
    view--a point the Transcendentalists also learned in their
    unsuccessful attempt to construct an alternative society oriented
    around their shared premises. That attempt, of course, was the
    short-lived (1841-1847) Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and
    Education.[19]^17 Brook Farm was to be an economically self-sufficient
    community, which, at the same time and more fundamentally, was also to
    serve as a context in which each member could pursue his or her own
    self-cultivation. The combination of these goals was reflected in,
    among other things, the original charter's stipulation that each
    person's contribution to the labors of the Farm was to be strictly on
    a voluntary basis (a provision which--not incidentally--proved hugely
    unsuccessful, as volunteers were few and irregular in their
    commitments). Ultimately, and despite the introduction of Fourierist
    principles in an attempt to salvage the Farm after the first three
    singularly unsuccessful years, Brook Farm failed, and the community

          Brook Farm's demise again illustrates the point with which we
    are concerned, as its failure was primarily the product of the
    anti-institutional premises upon which it was based. Because of the
    Romantic Modernist's understanding of the relationship between self
    and society, the principal shared value among the Brook Farmers was
    that the self must not submit to group constraints. As such, although
    the Transcendentalists "may have had some sort of vague admiration for
    the vision of a cooperative community,...when it came to cooperating
    in fact, the members [of Brook Farm] tended to be excessively tender
    about compromising the integrity of their personalities."[20]^18 This
    "tenderness," this unwillingness to submit to the expectations of
    others, issued from and reflected the core convictions of Romantic
    Modernism itself. Indeed, "the transcendental virtues...militated
    against [Brook Farm's] success,"[21]^19 and those virtues were
    Romantic Modernist in nature.

    [22]^1 Michael J. Hoffman, The Subversive Vision: American Romanticism
    in Literature (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1972) 46. ] [23]^2
    Hoffman 9. ] [24]^3 Hoffman 11. Rather than clutter up the text with
    excessive uses of "sic," it seems more appropriate to simply point out
    that a number of the sources for this article antedate sensitivity to
    gender in language. ] [25]^4 The literature on Romanticism and
    Transcendentalism is, of course, voluminous. In addition to those
    cited, I have found the following to be especially insightful and
    informative: Morse Peckham, "Towards a Theory of Romanticism: II.
    Reconsiderations," Studies in Romanticism I (Autumn, 1961): 1-8;
    Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the
    Nineteenth Century (New York: Braziller, 1962); Peckham, Romanticism:
    The Culture of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Braziller, 1965);
    Peckham, The Triumph of Romanticism: Collected Essays (Columbia, SC:
    University of South Carolina Press, 1970); Catherine Albanese,
    Introduction, The Spirituality of the American Transcendentalists:
    Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott,
    Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau, ed. Albanese (Macon, GA:
    Mercer University Press, 1988) 1-28; Arthur E. Christy, The Orient in
    American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott
    (1932; New York: Octagon, 1978); Perry Miller, ed., The American
    Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry (Garden City, NY:
    Doubleday, 1957); Francis O. Mathiessen, American Renaissance: Art and
    Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford
    University Press, 1941); Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson, eds.,
    Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism (Boston: G.K. Hall,
    1982). For an excellent and explicitly sociological analysis of
    Transcendentalism, see Anne C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social
    Movement 1830-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). ] [26]^5
    George Hochfield, "New England Transcendentalism," Critical Essays on
    American Transcendentalism, ed. Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson
    (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982) 461. ] [27]^6 Hoffman 50, 54. ] [28]^7
    Hochfield 462. ] [29]^8 Hochfield 461. ] [30]^9 Henry David Thoreau as
    quoted in Hochfield 477. ] [31]^10 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Historic
    Notes of Life and Letters in New England," The American
    Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry, ed. Perry Miller (Garden
    City, NY: Doubleday, 1957) 5. ] [32]^11 Elizabeth A. Meese,
    paraphrasing Robert S. De Ropp, "Transcendentalism: The Metaphysics of
    the Theme," Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism, ed. Philip
    F. Gura and Joel Myerson (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982) 514. ] [33]^12
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Oversoul," The Collected Works of Ralph
    Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
    University Press, 1971) 10. ] [34]^13 Elizabeth Peabody, "A Glimpse of
    Christ's Idea of Society," The Dial 2 (October, 1841): 499. ] [35]^14
    Hochfield 464. ] [36]^15 Bronson Alcott as quoted in Hochfield 464. ]
    [37]^16 Hochfield 465 (emphasis mine). ] [38]^17 The discussion of
    Brook Farm draws upon Rose's excellent monograph Transcendentalism as
    a Social Movement 1830-1850. ] [39]^18 Duane E. Smith, "Romanticism in
    America: The Transcendentalists," Critical Essays on American
    Transcendentalism, ed. Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson (Boston: G.K.
    Hall, 1982) 497. ] [40]^19 Smith 497. ]

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