February 2021: The Branches of Romanticism

Notes on symbolism, nostalgia and paranoia in the romantic movement

After I got my physics posts finished last month I had a sort of ‘productivity hangover’ where I didn’t want to think very hard about physics, or anything else really. I’m not quite through it yet, so this is going to be a shortish newsletter. The main thing I’m going to do is finish off my series of notes on Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism - earlier parts are here and here. We’re now into what he calls ‘unbridled romanticism’ - the branches of the tree itself rather than its roots.

I’m not sure yet what I’m planning to do with these notes. Maybe a more polished book review on the blog, maybe nothing. But I’ll give a quick recap of why I’m interested.

First of all, many influential ideas trace back to the romantic movement. I’ve covered several in the previous two sections:

  • Particularism: a fascination with specific details in art, nature, folklore etc for their own sake, rather than subsuming them into a big abstract theory

  • Lack of interest in consistency. Vividness and emotional truth much more important than logical tidiness

  • Expressionism: works of art should express the nature of the artist, rather than communicate objective truths

  • The importance of the will and of imposing this will on the world through authentic expression

  • The grounding of knowledge in action, rather than disinterested inquiry

And I’ll cover two more in this last part:

  • Emphasis on symbolism and mythic understanding

  • An understanding that ordered, rational knowledge only accounts for a small part of experience, and that there are huge murky unexplained depths beneath

Secondly, the wider culture seems to be stuck in a pendulum swing towards romantic-inspired ideas at the moment. I was reminded of a Slate Star Codex review of The Black Swan, which talks about the previous swing of the pendulum. Taleb’s book was published in 2007, during a wave of enthusiasm for New Atheism, cognitive biases, I Fucking Love Science and the like:

… it seems like the “moment” for books about rationality came and passed around 2010. Maybe it’s because the relevant science has slowed down – who is doing Kahneman-level work anymore? Maybe it’s because people spent about eight years seeing if knowing about cognitive biases made them more successful at anything, noticed it didn’t, and stopped caring. But reading The Black Swan really does feel like looking back to another era when the public briefly became enraptured by human rationality, and then, after learning a few cool principles, said “whatever” and moved on.

This stuff is passé now, irrationalism is in, and we’re all supposed to be trading meme stonks or something. We’re sick of the Enlightenment bag of ideas and automatically reaching for the other standard-issue bag of ideas that western philosophy has helpfully put within grabbing range. So I want to get a better idea of what’s in it.

In this part of the book Berlin is focussed less on specific names, and more on ideas - we’re into the full flowering of the movement, and these ideas are culturally pervasive. I’m going to pick up two themes from this section: the importance of symbolism, and the rise of nostalgia and paranoia.


I wrote a short notebook post last year where I compared two types of symbolism: conventions like ‘red means stop’, which have been carefully pruned to have one and only one meaning, and ‘poetic’, ‘mythic’ symbolism like the medieval rose, with thick multilayered meanings.

I got this from McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, but it turns out that he got it from The Roots of Romanticism and I didn’t notice at the time. Berlin lays out the same distinction. It’s this second, poetic type that’s important to the romantics:

Symbolism is central in all romantic thought: that has always been noticed by all critics of the movement. Let me try to make it as clear as I am able, although I do not claim to understand it entirely, because, as Schelling very rightly says, romanticism is truly a wild wood, a labyrinth in which the only guiding thread is the will and the mood of a poet….

There are two kinds of symbols, to put it at its very simplest. There are conventional symbols and symbols of a somewhat different kind. Conventional symbols offer no difficulty… Red and green traffic lights mean what they mean by convention.

… But there are obviously symbols not quite of this kind… if you ask, for example, in what sense a national flag waving in the wind, which arouses emotions in people’s breasts, is a symbol, or in what sense the Marseillaise is a symbol… the answer will be that what these things symbolise is literally not expressible in any other way.

This second type of symbol feels inexhaustible; the more shades of meaning you excavate, the more you find. This is why they preoccupied the romantics, who were fascinated by the abundance and surplus of the world.

The question now arises, what are these things symbolic of? The romantic doctrine was that there is an infinite striving forward on the part of reality, of the universe around us, that there is something which is infinite, something which is inexhaustible, of which the finite attempts to be the symbol but of course cannot.

Nostalgia and paranoia

Berlin then talks about how this inexhaustibility leads to ‘two quite interesting and obsessive phenomena which are then very present both in nineteenth- and in twentieth-century thought and feeling. One is nostalgia, and the other is paranoia of a certain kind.’

The nostalgia is due to the fact that, since the infinite cannot be exhausted, and since we are seeking to embrace it, nothing that we do will ever satisfy us.

… Your relation to the universe is inexpressible. This is the agony, this is the problem. This is the unending Sehnsucht, this is the yearning, this is the reason why we must go to distant countries, this is why we seek for exotic examples, this is why we travel in the East and write novels about the past, this is why we indulge in all manner of fantasies.

Then there is a darker version of this obsession, where the deep submerged currents of the world are out to get us:

There is an optimistic version of romanticism in which what the romantics feel is that by going forward, by expanding our nature, by destroying the obstacles in our path, whatever they may be… we are liberating ourselves more and more and allowing our infinite nature to soar to greater and greater heights and become wider, deeper, freer, more vital, more like the divinity towards which it strives. But there is another, more pessimistic version of this, which obsesses the twentieth century to some extent. There is a notion that although we individuals seek to liberate ourselves, yet the universe is not to be tamed in this easy fashion. There is something behind, there is something in the dark depths of the unconscious, or of history; there is something, at any rate, not seized by us which frustrates our dearest wishes.

This paranoia can inspire great art, or take ‘all kinds of other, sometimes much cruder, forms’:

It takes the form, for example, of looking for all kinds of conspiracies in history. People begin to think that perhaps history is formed by forces over which we have no control. Someone is at the back of it all: perhaps the Jesuits, perhaps the Jews, perhaps the Freemasons.

This paranoia shows up in attempts to understand the consequences of the French Revolution, where the world had avenged itself on all the Enlightenment bluecheck experts who had tried to tame it with reason:

… the French Revolution, although it promised a perfect solution to human ills, being founded, as I have said, upon peaceful universalism – the doctrine of unimpeded progress, whose goal was to be classical perfection, which, once we arrived at it, would last for ever upon some kind of adamantine foundations laid by human reason – nevertheless did not go the way it was intended (that was clear to all), and therefore what it attracted attention to was not at all reason, peace, harmony, universal freedom, equality, liberty, fraternity – not the things which it was set in train to satisfy – but, on the contrary, violence, appalling, unpredictable change in human affairs, the irrationality of mobs, the enormous power of individual heroes, great men, evil and good, who were able to dominate these mobs and alter the course of history in all kinds of ways.

… what the Revolution led everybody to suspect was that perhaps not enough was known: the doctrines of the French philosophes, which were supposedly a blueprint for the alteration of society in any desired direction, had in fact proved inadequate. Therefore, although the upper portion of human social life was visible – to economists, psychologists, moralists, writers, students, every kind of scholar and observer of the facts – that portion was merely the tip of some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk beneath the ocean. This invisible section had been taken for granted a little too blandly, and had therefore avenged itself by producing all kinds of exceedingly unexpected consequences.

The Convergence of the Twain

Berlin talks briefly about twentieth century versions of this paranoia, such as Kafka’s stories. That last iceberg metaphor I quoted reminded me of another one, a Thomas Hardy poem on the sinking of the Titanic, and it turns out to be a strikingly good match so I’ve added it in. The human designers of the ship are shadowed by ‘The Immanent Will’, who has 'prepared a sinister mate’:


            And as the smart ship grew

            In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


            Alien they seemed to be;

            No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,


            Or sign that they were bent

            By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,


            Till the Spinner of the Years

            Said "Now!" And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Next month

I’m supposed to be off Twitter again, according to me-last-month. I’m not really feeling it, but I’ll take at least a week off and then reassess.

I’m starting to feel some interest in physics come back, so hopefully I’m getting to the end of the productivity hangover and can do something useful again.

One last thing - I’ve belatedly realised that Gmail is occasionally shoving Substack replies into the spam folder. I’m checking it now, but I may have missed some in the past. So if you sent me something and I completely ignored it, sorry, that’s probably what happened. I’m often slow to reply, but I do normally reply eventually…