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Three lessons from Romanticism to navigate modern life

Seeking inspiration from the literary movement that emerged in Germany in the late 18th century can provide new perspectives for an uncertain world

Psicologia
Lorenzo Montatore

Following the success of The Invention of Nature, in which the German-British historian Andrea Wulf examined the life and work of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (2022) explores the romantic spirit.

Originally, the adjective romantic had nothing to do with the meaning it has today, at least in popular culture. To be “romantic” was to discover one’s own self and to understand the peaks and troughs of life without being daunted by them, a philosophy well-suited to modern times.

What is historically known as romanticism was born in Jena, Germany, more than two centuries ago, among a circle of friends comprising young personalities such as Goethe, Schlegel, Schelling, Schiller or Novalis. As Wulf explains: “They wanted to romanticize the whole world, and that meant perceiving it as an interconnected whole. They spoke of the link between art and life, between the individual and society, between humanity and nature.”

There were three fundamental aspects that particularly interested the Romantics, and which again are undeniably relevant in the times in which we live.

The unity between human beings and nature. In a world on the verge of being engulfed by the Industrial Revolution, the Romantics took refuge in nature to recover the connection to our primary home. For them, nature is the source of all creativity, mystery, and beauty. After the collective trauma of the coronavirus pandemic, many young people have again turned their eyes and hearts to nature, abandoning the cities and giving new impetus to what in the late 1960s was known as neo-ruralism.

The importance of imagination. Faced with the monotony of an increasingly rigid and uniform world, the Romantics advocated the power of the human mind to fantasize. In Spain, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer deployed his romantic imagination in legends and narratives that are still read in schools to this day. In the audiovisual world, the rise of fantasy cinema, particularly Marvel superheroes, indicates that fantasy is still a necessity to escape the travails of life in the digital age.

The balance between freedom and selfishness. In the recent conversation between Prince Harry and the physician Gabor Maté, the author of Spare spoke of his struggle for identity, as well as of the depression and anxiety that limit human beings until they discover who they are. The vindication of the self was also a pillar of Romanticism, which at the same time asked how this individuality fits into the community. Is it possible to be oneself, without renouncing one’s essence, and at the same time be part of society? It is a theme that is prevalent in contemporary philosophy, as well as in the work of novelists such Haruki Murakami. The protagonists of his stories are usually misfits or characters who are displaced from society by unusual circumstances, leading to a journey of self-discovery before they return to the world.

In an era dominated by stress, fear about the future and intoxication through social networks, how can we today cultivate that romantic self that allows us to discover who we are and what we can bring to life?

There is a key concept in Romanticism that perhaps holds the answer to that question: sturm und drang. Generally translated as “storm and stress,” it defines the literary movement that emerged in Germany in the late 18th century advocating freedom of expression and emotion taken to its extreme as a response to rationalism and the Enlightenment. To incorporate a little sturm und drang into our daily lives, the first step is to try and resist the urge to maintain control over everything. Covid and the war in Ukraine have shown that the world is unpredictable and that there is little point trying to anticipate what will happen. The only thing truly in our hands is to decide how we will live our own lives day by day. An unkempt romantic would tell us that the solution to anxiety is to let life make you tremble with fear. When you relinquish control and allow life to surprise you, you are no longer a hostage to circumstance. You become an active part of that river of events and emotions we call life.

The urgency of living

— Carla Gracia, who holds a Phd in creative writing, wrote They will remember us, about the days Goethe and Schiller spent together in the summer of 1794. Their friendship was such that, two decades after Schiller's death, ­Goethe stole his skull and kept it at home in an urn: an act as crazy as it was romantic.

— Carla Gracia: “The romantics felt the urgency of living. In contrast to the illusion that life lasts forever, they understood the value of each moment. We learned that during the pandemic. This explains phenomena such as the Great Resignation

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