The Romantics and the shackles of Modern Life

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ – Jean Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all heard scientists talk about how sickness is epidemic in the modern world. The ills of technology, social media, processed foods and oppressive schedules affect each part of our physical and mental wellbeing. While a lot of this can be considered scare-mongering, I think there is some truth to the warnings. In some ways, we are the sickest we have ever been.

We are somewhat fortunate in the West that our culture propagates a strong work ethic as the key to success. People climb higher than ever before. The ascendance of individualism, however, has its costs. Humans are wired to always be on the run. Rising stress levels cause us to produce fight or flight responses to small inconveniences. We rely on substances to wake us up or put us to sleep. Chronic stress,  high blood pressure and strokes are more prevalent than ever before.

We are the generation of immediacy. We expect quick results, and everything in society must attend to this purpose. Technology provides shortcuts and brain-power where ours has lapsed. It is the clock that makes us tick. Time is of the essence, and our health suffers because of it. We have cultivated a society that attends to our needs, and doesn’t. Our quality of life has been impaired as much as it has been improved.

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Literature has long chronicled the illnesses of modernity. The words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl suddenly spring to mind. His harrowing image of ‘starving, hysterical, naked’ automatons, the otherwise ‘best minds of [his] generation’, ‘dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix’, can only resemble the long queues of people waiting in line at the doctors for their magic pill: the elixir of life that will charge them up enough to face the mound of paperwork at the office the next day.

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Ginsberg often used natural imagery in his poetry as a point of contrast to the encroaching threat of modernity. He visualised a world that rejected the oppressive conformism and materialism of American society that had produced the sickness he saw on the streets. Like the early Romantic poets, Ginsberg saw industrialism as the disease of the modern condition.

Ginsberg’s generation, the Beats, were liminal figures. They expressed their cultural marginality by being everything and nothing, and belonging nowhere. They were the nomads of the American streets. The poets of early nineteenth-century Romanticism pioneered this interest in the figure of the ‘wanderer.’ Wordsworth, writing against a backdrop of rapid industrialism and the casualties of the French Revolution, fought against the changing order of society that modernity had brought along. He wrote of ‘thou wanderer in the wood’ – a person who wilfully chose to escape the reign of inequality being produced by a hierarchical, industrial-led society, into the recesses of nature, ‘the guide, the guardian… and soul of … moral being.’ Nature was still pure, untouched by human influence, and therefore a place to receive spiritual consolation.

Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the sea fog’ (c. 1818) captures a lone man stood on a summit, absorbed in quiet reverence, overlooking the catastrophe of the modern world. Framed by nature, he stands objectively, disconnected from the ills of modernity. Wandering was to the Romantics a way of submerging oneself into Nature and into a world with infinite and unlimited potential. Gazing out into the immensity of modern life, one should learn that it is, at times, okay to ‘wander.’

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Casper David Friedrich: ‘Wanderer above the Sea Fog’, (1818)

I now realise how Wordsworth felt composing ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, sat peacefully on the banks of the River Wye. Nature and writing, I have found, have an interesting alliance. I have learned enough about myself to know how susceptible I become to claustrophobic environments, and how much this can stifle my creativity. Sometimes sitting alone on a park bench amidst a cluster of trees truly can, as Wordsworth said, allow us to ‘see into the life of things.’

As Rousseau observed as early as 1762, man may be born free, but in the 21st century, our chains, obscured by the flashes of our mobile phones, may not be visible. We are inescapably tied to an overcharged sense of responsibility to perform at our best, reach success, make as many connections and as much money as possible. We may just not realise it.

Perhaps what our society needs most is a Roussean call to ‘get back to Nature!’, for it is Nature that can provide clarity to an unintelligible world.

The Romantics felt that life was not always something to be analysed, but felt and experienced. Nature, in all its majesty, was an apt setting to contemplate how one could strive for something greater.

Of course, it is too late in the day for us all to flee to the mountains, but all humans do need an outlet. For the Romantics it was opium; for my generation its the hyper-escapism that digital connectivity, recreational drugs and binge drinking can afford. The antidote for the stresses of modern life shouldn’t have to be a rejection of responsibility, or a substance-induced oblivion, but a carefully planned, structured, period of escape. 

Allow yourself time, stillness and flexibility. Cultivate an environment where only your own thoughts pervade. Shake the pollution of the city and embrace the fresh air of the country. Plan a day where events can be unplanned and spontaneous. Turn off that bloody phone.

Accepting uncertainty is not surrendering. It is choosing to relinquish, if only momentarily, the planning, structure and insatiable drive that lies behind our success. 

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