Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sentimental education

Perhaps it has got something to do with having a father who was considerably older than my mother – and who himself was regularly mistaken for someone of an even earlier generation than the one he in fact belonged to – but I have always felt more culturally connected to times previous to my own. I am drawn, for example, to the intellectual culture of the early-to-mid 20th century, and to the latter part of that period for popular culture.

As a young undergraduate, I always used to prefer the late-in-the-day tutorials scheduled for the benefit of part-time, 'mature aged' students. They came on their way home from work in the city, the men in suits, the women smartly dressed and smelling of perfume. They knew stuff I didn't know and had strong opinions about things I had never really thought or even heard about.

There was a woman in her late twenties perhaps whom I used to talk to a lot when I was in my second year. She seemed slightly old-fashioned, out of her time somehow. And it turned out that she had quite – unusual – ideas.

For she had something of an obsession with someone I had only vaguely heard of, someone who was obviously a hero for her and who represented an apparently lost but (in her eyes) glorious cause – the fascist leader, Oswald Mosley. But politics (or political history) was not something I had strong opinions about at the time, and I just took her views as one aspect of a slightly odd and intriguing personality.

Not only the student population but also the academic staff (in stark contrast to today's equivalents) reflected a variety of political and social views, from left to right to totally apolitical.

I took a course on W.B. Yeats which influenced me quite deeply. It was taught by a Hungarian who had written a dissertation at Cambridge on 18th-century English gardens and who was very much in sympathy with Yeats's fin de siècle aestheticism as well as his general political tendencies and social views.

As a young student, I was – like the typical student character in a 19th-century novel – almost drowning in Romanticism. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emily Brontë, Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire.

Two French novels I read around that time, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and L'Education sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert, were each centred on a relationship between a younger man and an older woman: dark unpleasant books both of them, but strangely alluring. They and other Romantic texts coloured all my interactions and relationships (or non-relationships!) at the time.

Everything – especially everything female – was seen by me through a kind of literary lens which in retrospect I could have really done without. All that Romantic and pre-Raphaelite baggage made me quite as blind to immediate reality as (in a rather different way) the Mosleyite woman was.

In subsequent years I have come to reject just about everything associated with the Romantic movement. Except one thing, its one true – and overwhelmingly important – insight into the nature of reality: that, morally speaking, the natural world is value-free – there are no values in nature.*

The 18th-century philosophes saw themselves as science-driven and enlightened thinkers, but their deism perpetuated classical notions of a divinely guided universe. Ironically, it took the radical (and often self-consciously emotional) upheaval of the Romantic period to clear the way for a truly scientific and secular view of the world.

* Of course, I don't mean to deny that living beings have values and human beings have moral values, and that we constitute part of the natural world. But since the Romantic period it has been much harder to maintain the view that human values are somehow reflected in – or derive from – non-human realities, whether natural or supernatural. (This point – or one very like it – was made by Isaiah Berlin.)

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