Are Women in Rock Also Women in Romanticism?

So we must speak of Romanticisms in music as well, not just Romanticism, and the individuality of the composer is key. Romanticism in all of its forms is a feature of the subject, not the object, leading to our familiar emphasis on the genius of the composer parallel to the ecstatic, transfigured position of the poet in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or the sensitive, reflective poet of Wordsworth’s “Preface.”

James Rovira, Ch. 1 of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (p. 14)

This post is the first of nine summarizing individual chapters in Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022). I won’t just be summarizing chapters, however, but adding commentary to them when appropriate, at times contributing ideas I wish I could have included in the book.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

This chapter is my attempt to pull together, conceptually and philosophically, the book’s discussions of women in western culture, of music, and of Romanticism. It begins with a discussion of the definition of Romanticism, followed by a history of women’s status in western philosophy. Then it focuses on the status of music in German Romanticism, starting with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s (1776-1822) review of Beethoven’s 5th and how those ideas seemed to anticipate those in Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) The World as Will and Representation (1818). The five points shared between these two writers include:

  1. The priority of instrumental music.
  2. The transcendence of music.
  3. Music as prerational cognition.
  4. The suppression of desire.
  5. The priority of Beethoven (not fully shared between them: both assert that Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven are principle composers, but Hoffmann places Beethoven above them all while Schopenhauer does not).

Instrumental music, by the late eighteenth century, began to assert itself as an artform and dominate critical attention, and this shift began to change philosophic thought. The key point here is Schopenhauer’s emphasis on will as central to existence rather than reason: historically, western philosophy since Plato has asserted that reason is what humanity has in common with the gods, that reason transcends nature, and that the job of philosophy is to escape immanence and the limitations of materiality through reason.

Schopenhauer turned this system on its head: blind, unthinking will is at the center of existence, generating ideal forms that are then projected into all of material nature. Reason and the concept is on the side of nature, not above it, but still serves the function of providing access to ideal forms. Instrumental music, remarkably, is a direct expression of will in nature unmediated by ideal forms, making it the highest of all of the arts.

Schopenhauer has a number of predecessors. I only discuss Hoffmann in my chapter, but I wish I had added discussion of Schelling’s 1809 “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and Other Matters.” At one point, Schelling begins to grapple with Spinoza’s monist pantheism. Spinoza presents a seemingly irrefutable argument about the nature of any infinite being: for any being to be infinite, its existence cannot be bound or excluded from anything that exists. Therefore, if God is infinite, all is God.

On the one hand, Schelling’s German Lutheranism could not assimilate pantheism, but on the other, Schelling as a rigorous philosophical thinker could not so easily dismiss Spinoza’s claims either. Schelling’s solution is to claim that God, as the ground of all existence, is also the ground of His own existence, and that the ground of God’s own existence is unthinking will: “Hence, viewed in itself it is also will, but will in which there is no understanding, and which therefore is not autonomous and perfect will, since understanding is the true will in willing” (p. 238).[1] God and the ground of God’s existence are in an eternal (outside of time) relationship to one another, and are ontologically identical, but this innovation of Schelling’s provides a basis for identity and difference between Creator and creature: we are all expression of “will” as the ground of all existence, but in our reason (understanding) we give will individual direction and shape. In this way, through will, the Creator retains infinitude and the creature retains individuality.

Schopenhauer adopted this solution without feeling any need to retain Christian theological commitments: he established blind, unthinking will at the center of existence and posited a cosmos that generated understanding, reason, and the concept randomly and accidentally, one that was by necessity in continual conflict with itself.

Now why, as my friend Sherry asked me in the virtual book launch for Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, can’t I talk about women without bringing German philosophy into it? This repositioning of will at the center of existence rather than reason has radical implications for the status of women in western philosophy: western philosophy has a long tradition of misogyny that places women in a subordinate position in relationship to reason. Women have traditionally been viewed as large children, capable of reason but possessing a rational capacity not fully formed, most commonly associated with nature and with will. Primacy of place has long been given to men on this basis. But if western philosophy moves reason onto the side of nature, and places will at the center of existence, women then occupy a privileged position in the terms established by the old misogynist system.

So I need Schopenhauer, an undeniably harsh misogynist himself, because his philosophy makes will the middle term between women and philosophy and, in the same stroke, elevates music to primacy of place. I’m not so much interested in validating Schopenhauer, or adopting his philosophy as truth, but as observing how these claims arise during the Romantic period. This discussion of philosophy allows will to be, ultimately, the connecting term binding philosophy, women, music, and Romanticism.

My chapter goes on to discuss sympathies between German and British Romanticisms because most contributors (except for Christopher Clason, who discusses Joni Mitchell in relationship to German Romanticism) are working with British Romantic figures and scholarship.

Check out my books in the Bookstore and, if you’d like to support me, order Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism directly from me using the form below.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

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Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock/Women in Romanticism (in development), David Bowie and Romanticism (forthcoming 2022), Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)), Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019), Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at jamesrovira.com for details.

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