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Beyond all Comprehension

By Shawn Nelsen

"He is so romantic, I mean really Diana he's just swell!" Jenny, a 25-year-old secretary, had just got back from her second date with Paco, a 34-year-old married janitor, and could not wait to tell her friend Diana all about it.  "We went and saw that new flick with that cute actor you like, then we had a wonderful supper at Denny's were he said I can order anything I want, so I got a salad."  Jenny continued into her story as Diana grew increasingly more jealous.   "After dinner we stopped at the liquor store so he could buy me some booze, then we headed back to my place cause he said his place was being remodeled or something."  By now Diana's interest was at a peak and she could not stop herself from asking "So did you… ya know?" Jenny smiled while she tried to think of a good response, then finally answered, "Well a good girl never tells, but yep, we did," as she could not think of anything clever to say.   Diana, feeling as though her friend was the luckiest girl in the world, could only respond with "Wow, you're right, he is romantic!"

Is Paco truly a romantic?  The answer depends on whom you ask.  Although dinner, a movie, wine, and roses may be romantic to the majority of people in contemporary times, for a large group of people in the 18th and 19th centuries being romantic meant something entirely different.  Mary Shelly, a writer of the late 18th century, was a romantic of these times and believed that being romantic, or a romantic, meant that one was a follower of the Romantic Movement.  The Romantic Movement was a shift of ideas that lead away from what Chris Baldick, in his definition of Romanticism, calls "the ordered rationality of the Enlightenment."  This idea of Romanticism as a movement, through works such as Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein, and also the art works and music of other romantics, was a major step in bring its followers closer to the concept of the sublime.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is a great example of romantic literature.   The story takes place in various parts of Europe around the time of the French revolution.   In the story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who is a member of the upper class in society, creates a living being by constructing its body out of parts taken from dead people and reanimating them.  When the creature comes alive, Dr. Frankenstein, only after trying to kill the monster, eventually abandons him.  As the creature wonders around with a child like mentality he eventually learns that, because of the way he looks, he will never be excepted by the society that he has groan to love.  As this realization kicks in the monster grows to hate the society that he once loved.  With his strong hatred, the monster decides to get revenge by confronting Dr. Frankenstein and eventually destroying everything that that Dr. Frankenstein held dear (Shelly).

In order to understand why works such as Frankenstein were being written and published, one must first understand what was happening in the western world at the time around Mary Shelly's life. During the mid 18th century, in what became known as the Enlightenment, there was renewed interest in the past cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans that was paralleled with a strong belief that science was the key to solving all of the worlds mysteries.  People as a mass started attending church less as they replaced the need for God with the need for proven facts that they believed only science could provide.  Artists such as William Hunter and Joseph Wright of Derby were drawing and painting pictures that either helped the advance of knowledge or depicted people in the quest to gain knowledge.(Kleiner P.838) Composers such as Haydn and Mozart started to use a much more structured style of composing that more accurately reflected the proper structure needed to advance humanity through science.(Hanning P. 294)  Philosophers such as Adrien Helvetius and Baron d'Holbach wrote how they believed science could be used to reveal nature as it truly is and eventually control it.(Emerson)

Unfortunately as the people of western civilization advanced in their understanding of how the world worked, many social problems became apparent.  One major problem was the development of the industrial revolution.(Emerson)  The industrial revolution led to the wide spread development and use of factories that put small farmers, which could not compete with the mass production of the factories, out of work.  As the farmers found them selves with no way of sustaining an income though their farms, they were eventually left with no other option than to move to the cities that were quickly becoming over populated. Overpopulation in the cities lead to decease and hunger, which in turn lead to angry mobs, which eventually lead to the fear of blood baths such as the French Revolution.  The people were becoming ever more frustrated with the fact that even though philosophers and leaders were putting extensive resources and effort into finding out, for instance, why people felt hungry, no body was doing anything to solve the problem of  hunger.  The Enlightenment was becoming an age of answers, but not actions. (Kleiner P.859) Such problems as these are what eventually lead to the counter-Enlightenment "or perhaps," as Gene W. Ruoff claims in his article entitled Romanticism, "an opposition phase of Enlightenment that was grounded in difference rather than uniformity."

As the Philosophers and artists of the Enlightenment believed that all of mankind is essentially the same throughout time and geography, (which explains their intense interests regarding the cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans) Mary Shelly and the other followers of the counter-Enlightenment believed, as Ruoff puts it, "in the uniqueness of individual expression as it is constituted by life experience, an important dimension of which is frequently national character." In other words, These counter-Enlightenment followers, who became known as Romantics, believed that everyone is different depending on their life experiences and were they are from. 

Romantics, such as Mary Shelly through her novel Frankenstein, also claimed that the Enlightenment was too "mechanical, impersonal, and artificial."  As Romanticism spread, first appearing in Britain and Germany in the late 1700s then later moving to France and else where in the early 1800s, a new interest in nature and emotion seemed to grab hold of the western world. Romantics strongly believed that nature and humanity are tightly intertwined (Baldick).  This idea has a strong presence in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, as Victor's emotions are often representative of the weather around him.  If Victor is happy, for example, then the weather is nice and sunny, but if Victor is sad then the weather is dark and gloomy (Shelly).  Also for romantics, the interest in city life, which was mechanical and impersonal in the sense that people were forced to live in cramped man made spaces, was being replaced by a strong desire to return to the countryside, where people are free to experience the wonders of the world on a more personal and organic basis (Baldick). This idea as well is strongly represented in the novel Frankenstein in the sense that almost all of the novel's story line took place in the countryside (Shelly).  Alas, the idea of emotional restraint, which Romantics believed to be an artificial way of portraying ones self, was abandoned for the favored idea of emotional intensity such as love, hate, horror, and joy (Baldick).  Romantics believed that by expressing their selves emotionally, they were living more naturally and there for keeping another important close link to nature.  This idea too is present in Frankenstein as the monster describes how he felt when his "friends" left him by saying "when I reflected that they spurned and deserted me, anger returned, a rage of anger; and, unable to injure anything human, I turned my fury toward inanimate objects" (Shelly P.99). 

Instead of placing value on what was proven to be, Romantics placed their value on what could be imagined to be.  They wanted to remystify what had been demystified by the thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Romantics held strong to the belief that the creative and imaginative parts of the human mind are, by far, the most powerful parts. They found themselves striving for "the boundlessness of individual imagination and aspiration." Romantics following this ideal often found themselves honoring a creative painter of writer, who could express himself as a true creative spirit, as a hero or genius (Baldick). These  beliefs perfectly set the Romantics like Mary Shelly up for a major step toward an understanding of the sublime.

The sublime, being more an emotional concept than anything else, is one of the hardest concepts for mankind to completely understand.  The problem is that for something to be sublime it has to be beyond human comprehension.  The sublime is defined by "the presence or suggestion of transcendent vastness or greatness" which can be shown through power, size or various other sources (sublime).  One way to try to comprehend the sublime, for instance, would be to try to imagine the vastness of the universe.  The universe is of infinite size and contains within it, every person, every planet, all of the stars, and everything else that mankind knows to exist.  Although a person can vaguely imagine the size of the universe, there is simply no way that he or she could truly understand the extent of its vastness, for the size of the universe transcends human comprehension. The lack of complete understanding gives the sublime the power to simultaneously cause two conflicting emotions. One of these emotions is the feeling of an overwhelming, or overpowering dominance such as one might feel with the realization that he or she is insignificant compared to the great size of the universe.  The other emotion is a pleasurable feeling of amazement, such as one might feel while imagining that something can be as grand as the universe (sublime).  The sublime also has a way of disguising small flaws by moving one beyond the will to scrutinize or judge. For instance, while one is trying to take in the vast size of a mountain, he or she will not care to, or be able to notice if there is a crack in one of the mountain's boulders (sublime). Because the sublime can leave one with a sense of wonder beyond what can be explained by rational thought, it ties in perfectly to the ideals of the Romantics.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is a great example of romantic thinkers moving closer to the sublime.

One way that the Romantics worked toward the concept of the sublime was through the works of art that they created.  Romantic artists moved away from the "mechanical rules of conventional form" in favor of  "an organic principle of natural growth and free development" (Baldick).  In other words, Romantic artists did not necessarily recreate an exact image of an object, but instead created an image of what they imagined an object could be.  Through their work, romantic artists were trying to produce an emotional response such as the sublime.  One great example of this is an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi entitled carceri 14 (Kleiner P.863).  The picture depicts what appears to be a dungeon in which countless stairway, arches, and bridges are linked to towering pillars that seem to dwarf the people within.  What makes this a wonderful example of artistic work related to the sublime is the fact that the picture seems to go on forever.  If someone, for instance, were to enter this imaginary dungeon then he or she would be overwhelmed by the infinite complexity surrounding him or her. Also there is the fact that nothing such as depicted in this etching could actually exist in any place other than the realm of the human imagination, much like the sublime, this etching is far beyond a reality that mankind can truly comprehend. 

Another great example of romantic artists working toward the sublime is a painting by Théodore Géricault entitled Raft of the Medusa (Kleiner P.868).  The painting depicts a scene out of a true story about the French frigate Medusa that took place in 1816.  The Medusa was carrying French settlers and soldiers to the French colony of Senegal when it ran aground on a reef due to the captain's lack of competence.  The captain, who was a political appointee, and his officers commandeered all of the lifeboats, leaving the rest of the people to fend for themselves.  In a "last ditch attempt" to save their own lives, the survivors built a raft out of the leftover pieces of the sinking ship. As the raft wondered afloat for 12 days with its occupants having no food, water, or shelter, what started off as 150 survivors shortly disintegrated down to only 15.  Out of the 15 survivors, most were driven mad as they forced to eat the raw flesh of their dead companions. Géricault's painting, being 16 feet by 23 feet, is a big painting and depicts the moment that the survivors first see their rescue vessel(Kleiner P.868).  When viewing the picture one will notice the complete look of anguish on the majority of the visible faces as the rest of the faces are looking away from the viewer in an attempt to flag down the distant ship that Géricault painted in the horizon.  Only one man is standing up in the picture and it looks as though he is only able to do it with the help of two of his fellow survivors.  This painting depicts the sublime in a sense that while truly studying this picture, the viewer can not help but be overwhelmed with a sense of anguish paralleled with an equally strong sense of hope.  In other words, the viewer does not know how to feel about this painting, for the idea of such a scene is simply beyond him or her.

Along with artistic works, Romantics also used music to help bring themselves closer to the sublime.  Romantic composers started grasping to the belief that music could portray raw emotion drastically more efficiently and accurately than the spoken or written word.  In this spirit, they started producing program music.  Program music is music that is set to a certain theme, but containing no words other than the title of the song and perhaps a short paragraph or two in the concert's program.  A good example of this is Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, "Episode in the life of an artist," which came with an autobiographical program that told the story of Berlioz's turbulent life (Hanning p.389). In addition, even thought the composers still respected the musical boundaries that were formed in the earlier classical period, they started tweaking the rules in order to get a stronger emotional response along with a more original sound.  These tweakings included using more chromatic scales, having the violin player pluck his or her strings instead of using a bow, and using various other tectonics in order to change the sound of their music.  As the music became more emotional it started to gain the power to create a feeling much like the sublime.  One of the best examples of this is Beethoven's ninth symphony.

The sublime is very hard emotional concept to understand, although as the romantics found themselves moving away from the conventional reality of the Enlightenment they came as close to comprehending it as possible.  The comprehending does not, though, come from the separate work of one romantic, but instead comes from the combined work of all of them.  Perhaps if one were to, for instance, read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein while in the presence of a Géricault painting while also simultaneously listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony, then he or she would truly experience the sublime.  With such an experience, perhaps even a person of contemporary time would agree that there is more to being a romantic than wine and roses.