Writing about Rock / Writing about Romanticism

The release of David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), an exciting new examination of David Bowie’s life, music, and film using the historical and theoretical insights provided by the study of Romantic art and literature, is now my third book examining the intersections of rock and roll and Romanticism, followed by a fourth one that just came out in October — Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022). I’ll start discussing Women in Rock here in late November. All of these studies provide unique insights, in my opinion, both into Romanticism of centuries past and into rock music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and so, by extension, into our own lives in the present.

But why? Why specifically rock and Romanticism? Why Romanticism at all?

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

That’s a strange question for me to consider four books into my project. While I think the books themselves are their own justification, I’d like to try to answer that question in shorter form here. And that begins with the question, what is Romanticism?

If you read long enough and far back enough, you not only get a sense of how past ages have contributed to the development of our own, but a sense of ongoing similarity as well. This impression differs by field and period of study, and it’s different for the study of art and literature and even more so for the study of politics and philosophy. No past times or ages are irrelevant to our own.

I would say our most immediate predecessor, the period during which the modern world began to take its current form, was the nineteenth century. It most resembles us without completely being us. The Romantic era, traditionally defined, ends during the first half of the nineteenth century according to most scholars of the period and begins sometime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, with the publication of Goethe’s Werther, or some of the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, or the fall of the Bastille. However the start of Romanticism is defined, though, it was first theorized as Romanticism by the Schegels in their late eighteenth-century journal Athenaeum. They associated it at the time with the novels of their contemporary Ludwig Tieck, and in a number of fragments, aphorisms, and short essays considering the works of Greek and Roman authors and other writers such as Shakespeare.

Romanticism in their writing came to be associated with nostalgia, irony, and synthetic rather than analytic thinking and writing, which combines disparate parts into a new whole rather than dissecting things up into parts to better understand them. What’s interesting is that they didn’t initially periodize Romanticism, but rather associated it with a number of themes and aesthetic commitments, so that the late eighteenth century is perhaps best understood as the period during which Romanticism was first theorized rather than the first period during which Romantic literature first appeared.

But what is Romanticism? That question came to be asked more frequently and with greater intensity throughout the nineteenth century and into the present. Early on, it was opposed to Classic and Enlightenment thought and then extended to different fields, nations, and kinds of art, so that by the early twentieth century A.O. Lovejoy could say that the word “Romanticism” has ceased to serve the function of a verbal sign. As the debate continued, Romanticism came to be associated with an emphasis on imagination and feeling rather than reason; with radical political commitments (the British Romantics were supporters of the early days of the French Revolution, at least); less importantly, though very early, with drug use; and with the figure of the Romantic poet as an inspired individual who creates art out of genius.

A number of authors contributed to the discussion throughout the twentieth century with conflicting answers to that question in what seemingly became an unresolvable question. For my purposes, though, I’ve found the definition of Romanticism suggested by Sayre and Lowy’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001) to be the most useful for the study of rock music. They define Romanticism as an emotional reaction to modernity, which for them is the combination of Enlightenment thought and capitalist economies which manifests itself in a number of forms. They create a taxonomy of forms of Romanticism to account for the wide variety of Romanticisms identified across different times, cultures, and different fields of study, allowing for a single, coherent definition of Romanticism that expresses itself a number of different ways.

Modernity provokes the response of Romanticism because it isolates individuals from each other and from nature, leading people to long for a past time when people were more of a community and closer to nature. Since Romanticism is a reaction to modernity, it can exist whenever, wherever, and however modernity exists, and as modernity transforms, Romantic reactions transform with it. Romantics at any given time may or may not buy into the project of modernity, and may or may not be consciously critiquing modernity, but either way, they react to the sting of modernity and its sense of isolation.

Since Romanticism is an ongoing response to modernity, the forms it takes continually evolve as modernity continually evolves so that Romanticism itself becomes modernity’s ongoing self-criticism. The first two Rock and Romanticism books, David Bowie and Romanticism, and then Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism assert that one transformation of Romanticism following World War II was into rock music. David Bowie himself, born in 1947, is the product of a post-war environment, the offspring of a PTSD generation burdened with the knowledge of the Holocaust and our possession of nuclear weapons. Rock music is therefore a Romantic response to post World War II modernity, one that subverts received categories of thought about art, music, gender, film, technology, politics and — in all of these writ large — human identity.

David Bowie himself is a fertile site for the exploration of Romanticism expressed through rock music from the 1960s onward. David Bowie and Romanticism advances our knowledge of Romanticism, modern culture, and David Bowie in chapters dedicated to David Bowie and Romantic androgyny; Bowie’s space imagery; Bowie and drug use; The Man Who Fell to Earth; two chapters on the so-called Berlin trilogy (an entire book could be devoted to this topic alone); Bowie as an ever-changing embodiment of Romantic types; Labyrinth; Bowie, fascism, and the album 1. Outside; and Bowie, death, and the album Blackstar.

Check out these books, which you can order from the Bookstore, and learn more about life and culture since World War II and about one of its most productive geniuses, David Bowie. I’ll be blogging about individual chapters soon.

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