Romantic anti-capitalism and nature

Thomas Cole, The Ages of Life - Youth, 1842


Introduction to the newly released book, written by four hands

Romanticism, capitalism and ecology

It is not our intention in this book to propose an exhaustive historical study of romanticism and ecology. Instead, in order to illustrate the diversity and coherence of a broad cultural constellation, as well as its continuity well beyond the so-called “Romantic period”, we have chosen a series of references that do not belong to the usual literary canon of Romanticism studies. The essays contained here deal with expressions of Romantic culture from a wide variety of different areas: literature, travel writing, painting, utopian vision, cultural studies, political philosophy, and activist sociopolitical writing.

We discuss a highly diverse group of people – William Bartram, Thomas Cole, William Morris, Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams and Naomi Klein – from the late XNUMXth century to the early XNUMXst century. Individually, these names all have their roots in English, American and German cultures, but they share a common overarching perspective: the romantic protest against modern bourgeois civilization and its destruction of the natural environment. The purpose of our study is to shed light on the deep intellectual, cultural and emotional connections between the romantic rebellion against modernity and the ecological concern with modern threats to “Nature”.[I] Furthermore, our aim is to show that the essential links between romanticism, anti-capitalism and ecology can be expressed in very different cultural forms and historical contexts.

Max Weber (1921, p.371) once said that Asian cultures, with their magical beliefs, live in an “enchanted garden” (Magic garden), and this concept can also be applied to the romantic (mainly Western) view of Nature. There are rich and interesting studies on romanticism, ecology and ecocriticism, but most of them, perhaps most, if not all, deal only with literature and only with the so-called “romantic period”. Our work is based on a radically different concept of romanticism.[ii] Far from being consensual, this interpretation goes against the grain of most studies on romanticism, which are based on the apparently obvious assumption that we are dealing with a literary movement of the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries.

In our view, this assumption is doubly wrong: romanticism is a cosmovision – that is, it is much more than a literary phenomenon, although it has an important literary component – ​​and it did not end in 1830 or 1848. For us, romanticism, as a cultural protest against modern industrial and capitalist civilization, is one of the main forms of modern culture stretching from Rousseau – a particularly important founding figure – to the present, that is, from the second half of the XNUMXth century to the beginning of the XNUMXst century. Our thesis is based on a (heterodox) Marxian approach to cultural phenomena that attempts to link art, religion and political ideas to social and historical contexts.


Romanticism as a worldview

What do we mean by “cosmovision”? Our inspiration comes from the works of the French cultural sociologist Lucien Goldmann, who expanded an entire tradition of German thought, particularly that of Wilhelm Dilthey. For Dilthey, a cosmovision (Worldview) is an internal form of thought (inner Denkform), that is, a fundamental mentality (Grundstimmung). By treating romanticism as a Worldview our approach falls into this tradition, and Goldmann's writings are our starting point, although we have considerably reformulated his arguments.

For him, worldview is “a set of aspirations, feelings and ideas that brings together members of a group (in most cases, a social class) and opposes them to other groups” (Goldmann, 1955, p.26).[iii] Goldmann identified the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the tragic worldview, and the dialectic as the main worldviews of the modern era. Our research on the romantic worldview does not identify it with a single class or group, but with individuals from different social backgrounds, many belonging to the social category of “intellectuals”, that is, creators of products and cultural representations.

Lucien Goldmann states that not all holders of a cosmovision fully represent it. consistent. There are different levels of consistency and coherence between them. This applies strongly to many dealing with the Romantic worldview, including those discussed in this book. Some have put forward a radical protest against the whole complex of capitalist civilization. They are the ones who most fully embody the Romantic worldview as we define it. Others, however, only thematize specific aspects of the modern bourgeois world, or respond and react to them. Some develop a coherent and exclusive romantic perspective, while others oscillate between several perspectives or worldviews, sometimes even merging them into a single work. Most personalities considered “romantic” by mainstream literary history largely share the romantic point of view as defined here. But some are only partially connected with it, while others that are not generally considered Romantic – including those that fall outside the chronological extension of the traditional definition of Romanticism – clearly belong to the Romantic style of thought as we conceptualize it.

With regard to our conception, it is also important to highlight that non-romantic authors can have a romantic “moment”, a romantic aspect or dimension. A good example is Karl Marx. Although primarily a man of the Enlightenment, his critique of capitalism and his view of history include significant Romantic perspectives and arguments, which he borrowed from writers (Balzac, Dickens), economists (Sismondi), and anthropologists (Morgan, Maurer).[iv] A significant number of Marxians in the XNUMXth century expanded this dimension, and they can be characterized as “romantic Marxians”. This includes several of the authors discussed in this volume, starting with William Morris in the late XNUMXth century.

Before defining the romantic worldview in more detail, we need to make a comment about its relationship to societies in the modern period that seem not to be part of capitalism. If romanticism is a protest against capitalist civilization, it would seem paradoxical that it also appears in so-called “really existing socialist” countries – in the former USSR and other equivalent regimes. For us, however, the decisive point is that the USSR was far from being a real socialist society. At best, we could consider it a failed attempt to transition from capitalism to socialism.

We could also understand it as a kind of “state capitalism”, something proposed by several dissident Trotskyists such as CLR James. In any case, after a short period of revolutionary experimentation, the process of bureaucratization under Stalin's leadership produced a society that had many characteristics in common with Western capitalism: utilitarian rationality, productivism, alienation of labor, bureaucratic administration, instrumentalization of human beings. humans, as well as, fundamentally, the destruction of the environment.

It is worth noting, however, that there are far fewer important romantic figures among Soviet dissidents than among cultural critics in the West. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a notable example, inspired by an extremely traditionalist and retrograde form of romanticism, which rejected not only the Soviet totalitarian system, but also modern East European society. While there are other examples – one, on the left side of the romantic spectrum, is the East German author Christa Wolf, to whom we dedicate a chapter of Revolt and melancholy: romanticism against the current of modernity – remains true, however, that the vast majority of Romantic writers and artists, since the end of the XNUMXth century, are in conflict with various manifestations of western bourgeois industrial society. A prime example is Aldous Huxley's brilliant novel, Admirable new world (1931), who criticizes modern industrial society in both East and West. Ultimately, however, their dystopian world, where people worship not “Our Lord” but “Our Ford”, looks more like Western capitalism than Eastern “socialism”.


Romanticism versus capitalism

As we define it more specifically, romanticism is a cultural critique or rebellion against industrial-capitalist modernity in the name of past, pre-modern or pre-capitalist values. As a cosmovision, it is present in a whole range of cultural creations: literature and art, religion and philosophy, political theory, historiography, anthropology and even political economy. He considers that in the advent of modern bourgeois society there was a decisive loss of human, social and spiritual values ​​that existed in a real or imaginary past – Middle Ages, Homeric Greece, primitive communism and others.

Romantic protest is always inspired by pre-capitalist values ​​– social, cultural or religious – and nostalgia for a lost Paradise, for a Golden Age of the past. But that doesn't mean it's always reactionary and retrograde. It can assume regressive forms, dreaming of an imaginary return to the past, but also of revolutionary returns that advance, or try to advance, towards a future utopia passing through a deviation in the past. To give the example of one of the authors discussed in this book: William Morris, pre-Raphaelite poet and artist, admirer of the Middle Ages, began to invest his nostalgia for the past in the revolutionary dream of a communist utopia. These paradoxical and opposing forms of romanticism will be amply illustrated in our study.

The romantic perspective, therefore, is in direct contradiction with what has been called the “modern regime of historicity”, based on the belief in the inevitability of “progress” and the rejection of the pre-modern past as “archaic”. Referring to our analysis of romanticism as a diverse but widespread revolt against modernity, French historian Jerome Baschet writes: “It is important to emphasize that the modern regime of historicity did not come to prevail without its reverse side [romanticism] also taking hold. assert […] This point is so important that I propose to identify a romantic regime of historicity […] that accompanies [the modern regime] like its shadow” (Baschet, 2018, p.66).[v]

This shadow is precisely its inversion, since the past despised by the modern regime of historicity is claimed by the romantic regime, which invokes it to criticize the modern present and imagine the future.

As we have already suggested, romanticism does not always challenge the capitalist system as a whole, but it usually reacts to a number of features of modernity that it finds especially odious and intolerable. Below is a list – far from being exhaustive – of important examples of characteristic and interrelated components of modern civilization that romantic works often lament or condemn:

(1) The disenchantment of the world. In a famous passage from the communist manifesto, Marx and Engels noted that "the holy fervor of religious exaltation, chivalrous enthusiasm, petty-bourgeois sentimentality" of the past was killed by the bourgeoisie, drowned "in the icy waters of selfish calculation"[vi] (Marx; Engels, 1975, 6, p.487). Seventy years later, Max Weber observed in a famous lecture, “Science as a vocation” (1919): “The destiny of our time, which is characterized by rationalization, by intellectualization and, above all, by the “disenchantment of the world”, has led men to banish the highest and most sublime values ​​from public life. Such values ​​found refuge in the transcendence of the mystical life or in the fraternity of direct and reciprocal relationships between isolated individuals. (Weber, 1994, p.302)”.[vii]

Marx and Weber cannot be considered romantic authors, but their descriptions are extremely relevant. Romanticism can be seen largely as a reaction on the part of "chivalrous enthusiasm" against the "ice waters" of rational calculation and against the Entzauberung der Welt – leading to an often desperate attempt to reenchant the world. From this point of view, the well-known phrase “die mondbeglanzte Zaubernacht” (The Enchanted Night in the Moonlight), written by the German Romantic poet Ludwig Tieck in 1804, can almost be read as the philosophical and spiritual program of Romanticism.

(2) The quantification of the world. In Max Weber's view, capitalism was born with the dissemination of merchants' accounting books, that is, with the mathematical calculation of revenues and expenses. O ethos of modern industrial capitalism is Rechenhaftigkeit, the spirit of rational calculation. Many romantics intuitively felt that all the negative characteristics of modern society - the religion of the god Money (which Carlyle called mammonism), the decline of all qualitative, social and religious values ​​as well as imagination and poetic spirit, the tedious uniformity of life, the purely “utilitarian” relationships of human beings with each other and with nature – derive from the same source of corruption: the quantification of the market.

(3) The mechanization of the world. In the name of the natural, the organic, the living and the “dynamic”, Romantic writers often expressed a profound hostility to everything mechanical, artificial or constructed. They saw the capitalist factory as a hellish place and the workers as damned souls, not because they were exploited, but because, as Dickens put it in a fascinating image in Hard times (2015 [1854]), they were enslaved to the machine, to the mechanical movements and to the uniform rhythm of the steam engine piston, which “worked monotonously, up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” (Dickens, 1965, p.22).[viii]

(4) The dissolution of social ties. Romantics are painfully aware of the alienation of human relationships, the destruction of old "organic" and communal forms of social life, the isolation of the individual into his selfish self, which together constitute an important dimension of capitalist civilization centered on urban life. . Saint-Preux in Julia or The New Heloise, by Rousseau, is only the first in a long line of romantic protagonists who feel lonely, misunderstood, unable to communicate in any meaningful way with their fellow citizens, especially at the very center of modern social life, in the “desert urban".


capitalism versus nature

We add to this list of predominant romantic themes the one that is the central focus of this study: the destruction of Nature. The waste, devastation, and desolation inflicted on the natural environment by industrial civilization is often a deep reason for romantic sadness and anger. It is a theme closely related to the four previous objects of romantic protest. Nostalgic for the lost harmony between man and nature, sometimes consecrating nature as the object of a mystical cult, many romantics observed with melancholy and despair the progress of mechanization and industrialization, the modern conquest of the environment that led to the disappearance of regions savages and the disfigurement of beautiful landscapes.

The poisoning of social life by money and the poisoning of the air by industrial fumes are understood by some romantics as parallel phenomena, springing from the same perverse root - the relentless dominance of utilitarianism and commercialism, the dissolution power of quantitative calculation. In the disenchanted capitalist world, nature ceases to be a magical and spiritual realm, a sacred divine creation or the sacred splendor of beauty. Forests, rivers and landscapes are reduced to raw material only to be exploited until exhaustion.


Romanticism and nature: the origins

The origins of what we call the Romantic “enchanted garden” can be found among the early Romantics, that is, the writers and philosophers generally identified as Romantics. Although for us the romantic worldview is not limited to the so-called romantic period, but is alive in modern culture up to the present, it is undoubted that the first romantics were those who laid the first steps of the unfinished romantic narrative. Romanticism, of course, does not have a single date of birth.

But if we wanted to choose a moment as a symbolic starting point, it would be 1755, the year in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men. This astonishing document constitutes perhaps the first romantic manifesto, with its fierce critique of modern civilization and celebration of the “noble savage”. The association between these two topos it can be found among many later Romantic writers and artists from the eighteenth century to the present day, as will be evident throughout this book.

While Voltaire, the great proponent of enlightenment and progress, portrays indigenous peoples as anthropophagic barbarians in his philosophical satire Cândido, the romantic Rousseau sees them as “the true youth of the world”. For him, all subsequent steps of progress, which should lead to the perfection of the individual, "actually led to the decrepitude of the species". Wild man “aspires only to rest and freedom”, while civilized man “works to death” and is “proud of his slavery” (Rousseau, 2008 [1755], p.118, 146).[ix]

Indeed, emphasizes Rousseau, the barbarian “does not bow his head to the yoke that civilized man bears without a murmur” and prefers the most dangerous freedom to the most peaceful submission. In a passage that seems almost to predict anti-colonial struggles, Rousseau argues that the love of freedom is so strong among the “savages” that they are willing to face “hunger, fire, iron and death to preserve only their independence” ( ibid., p.132-133). While the philosopher's "state of nature" may be a fiction, his portrayal of the lives of primitive peoples is almost certainly based on travellers' accounts. In any case, Rousseau often explicitly refers in his essay to specific groups: Hottentots, Antilleans and “savages of America” (ibid., p.78, 147).

No Speech, Rousseau also denounces modern destructive behavior towards the natural world. He extols “immense forests never mutilated by an axe” and laments that civilization has turned human beings into “tyrants of themselves and of nature” (ibid., P.70, 80). Concerned that the expansion of agriculture could lead to the “destruction of the soil”, that is, of its fertility, he quotes a passage from Natural history (1752), by Buffon, which seems almost prophetic: “As men consume enormous amounts of wood and plants for fire and other uses, it follows that the topsoil layer of an inhabited region must always decrease and remain , finally, like the terrain of Arabia Petrea, and like that of so many other provinces of the East, which are, in fact, the longest inhabited lands, where only salt and sand are found” (ibid., note IV, p. .154-155).

Another essential romantic aspect of Rousseau's writings is a passionate, almost mystical relationship with Nature. In The daydreams of a lonely hiker (1778), he describes the ecstasies when faced with the marvelous spectacle of Nature. The more sensitive the observer's soul is, the more “a sweet and profound daydream then seizes his senses and he is lost, with a delicious intoxication (ivresse), in the immensity of that beautiful system with which he feels identified”.

In the midst of trees and other green things, the writer exclaims: “I believe I am in earthly paradise” (Rousseau, 2012 [1778], p.98, 124, 151). Unlike some other authors we will discuss, Rousseau generally does not connect these two romantic moments – the love of Nature and admiration for the “wild” way of life. In the g note of Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, however, an ironic passage seems to link the two things, in contrast to “civilized” behavior: “The wild man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature and friend of all his fellow men” (Rousseau, 2008 [1775 ], p.163).

Rousseau's example illustrates the fact that the romantic attitude towards nature cannot be reduced to a purely aesthetic attitude, as the popular stereotype sometimes does. When discussing the Naturphilosophie in the writings of Novalis, Schelling and JW Ritter, the Greek researcher Stephanos Rozanis states that this romantic philosophy – which is also a kind of theology – has as its supreme value the spiritualization of Nature. The natural Cosmos is seen as divine, and divinity, by the same logic, is conceived as the soul of the Cosmos, the “welcome”, in Schelling's name (Rozanis, 2001, p.34-35, 41).

Indeed, Europe's early Romantics, in the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, often saw Nature as a sacred and magical universe, the expression of a divine spirit. As François-René de Chateaubriand wrote in his The Genius of Christianity (1802), "The gift of prophecy and wisdom, of mystery and religion, seems to dwell eternally in the sacred depths of the forests." In fact, when writing The Genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand announces that his general ambition is nothing less than “opposing a Religious Natural History to modern scientific books” (Chateaubriand, 1966, p.316, p.157). For many of the early Romantics, especially in Germany, nature constituted a kind of mineral and vegetable metaphysics, a secret cabalistic language to be deciphered, and through their philosophy of nature they aimed both at the naturalization of spirit and the spiritualization of nature. (Fischer, 1986, p.234, p.238).

They, too, used to perceive nature as a kind of Arcadian Garden of Eden. O Naturphilosoph German romantic Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert laments the “early times, when our species lived in profound harmony with all Nature”, an era of “spiritual peace and paradisiacal joy” that ancient nations celebrated as the Golden Age (Schubert, 2000, p.76 -77). This leads them to a critical view of the modern destructive relationship with the natural world, as for example in Novalis' unfinished novel, The Disciples in Sais (1802). Portraying the attitude of a Promethean spirit bent on conquering and subjugating Nature by all means, Novalis attributes to him the following objectives: “May our generation wage a war of destruction (Zerstörungskrieg) slow and well planned against this Nature. We must subdue it with creeping poisons.”

For Novalis, this conquering attitude leads Nature to be seen as an “angry monster” that should be “paralyzed forever” by human action, thus putting “an end to its ravages” (Novalis, 1924, p.286-7) . With these and similar comments by German writers at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, the romantic attitude towards Nature ceases to be just an aesthetic and religious feeling – or, in some authors, a highly speculative philosophical exercise – to become a Zivilisationskritik substantial.

Another German writer of a very different sort was profoundly influenced by the spirit and context of early German Romanticism: the natural scientist and philosopher Alexander von Humboldt. Before undertaking his extensive travels in South America and elsewhere, which led to a series of groundbreaking works enunciating and illustrating a new view of the natural world, Humboldt spent several years in the mid-1790s in Jena and Weimar, where he frequented the romantic circle of artists and intellectuals around Goethe and Schiller. Humboldt was particularly marked at this time by the Naturphilosophie Friedrich Schelling's organicist, then a professor at the University of Jena and a member of the Goethe circle. The romantic views of Nature and man's relationship to it articulated by Schelling and others in that context were important formative impulses for the later development of Humboldt's own conceptions. Thus, although his intellectual and cultural roots lay in German romanticism, Humboldt, in turn, had a decisive impact on the views of Nature held by the English romantics Coleridge and Wordsworth, most especially the former, and later on those held by the Americans Thoreau and Emerson. In this way, he provided one of the crucial bridges between German and Anglo-American Romanticism in terms of perspectives on the natural world.[X]

Although Humboldt's view of Nature did not carry the religious dimension of German Romanticism, it did, in many other ways, reflect the latter perspective. Unlike the romantics of the Jena circle, Humboldt was, above all, a natural scientist dedicated to the study of natural phenomena through observation and measurement. But his approach to Nature was exceptional for indissolubly uniting the scientific and the “humanistic”. At the exact historical moment when "science" was separating from philosophy and becoming increasingly specialized, Humboldt articulated a broadly holistic view of nature that included the human subject's sensual, emotive, imaginative, and artistic responses to it. In his account of travels through South America, divided into several volumes, Humboldt exclaims in one passage: “Nature, everywhere, speaks to man with a voice […] familiar to his soul” (Humboldt, 1814-29 , p.160).[xi]

The artist is particularly in tune with this correspondence, and with the beauties of Nature, and, in another important work, Views of Nature (Ansichten der Nature, 1808), Humboldt writes about the painter of natural scenes, and that, “under his hand, the magical and grandiose image of Nature (if I may venture to use the expression) reveals itself […] in a few touches simple” (Humboldt, 2014, p.168).[xii] Indeed, as Andrea Wulf emphasizes in her biography, throughout Humboldt's writings we find, side by side with scientific observation and analysis, passionate expressions of a sense of wonder and sensitivity towards the "magic" of the natural world.

Today Humboldt is increasingly recognized as a genius forerunner of ecological science in his global and interrelational approach to this world, seen as a vast network of connections covering the entire planet, and more specifically in his theorization and study of “climatic zones” and climate change.[xiii] But equally important, from our point of view, is his “enchanted” perception of Nature, accompanied by a comprehensive and penetrating critique of the civilization of modernity and its deleterious effects. While he admired the political ideals of early US history, he was harshly critical, when he visited the country, of the evils he observed there: slavery and the expropriation of Amerindian lands, both stemming from commercial imperatives (Humboldt had studied finance before turning to science, but hated it), and the pervasive mercantile mentality that made that nation, as he wrote to a German friend, "a Cartesian vortex that sweeps away and flattens everything to a dull monotony."[xiv]

In addition to this broad critique of the evils of modernity discovered in the United States, Humboldt also points out, in many moments of his writings, to the disastrous effects on the natural environment of that civilization, often motivated by greed. As he observed throughout his travels – in South America, Europe and Russia – mining, modern forms of agriculture that include monocultures and intensive irrigation, as well as industry in its early stages, often lead to severe deforestation, the impoverishment of the land and pollution.[xv] In his travels, he also observed traces of earlier, pre-modern cultures, noticeably different in their appearance. ethos and its relationship with the environment. His comments on these cultures spark great interest and concern – another aspect of his sensibility that he shares with many other Romantics.[xvi]

The last person we will mention here from the early period at the root of the Romantic Revolt is the English poet John Clare. In some respects, Clare seems to stand out from the lines of development we've discussed and stand in stark contrast to Humboldt specifically. Humboldt was a wealthy and highly educated aristocrat, while Clare was a self-taught farm worker. Humboldt was a world traveler; Clare has spent most of her life in the strictly limited region of her birth. In view of this relative isolation, it is not surprising that Clare was not one of the English Romantics for whom Humboldt served as a bridge to German Romanticism. He also apparently doesn't have much in common with early French romantics like Rousseau and Chateaubriand. Yet Clare expresses, in her own idiosyncratic terms, and very powerfully, the Romantic view influenced by Nature as we understand it.

Clare's rebellion against the civilization of early capitalism takes the form, specifically, of an intense and personal reaction to the experience of rural enclosure that occurred across England in the early 1809th century - the parceling out of land formerly held in common by private property plots with physical boundaries, and the “improvement” of rural property through the deforestation of formerly common areas of land and the introduction of modern agricultural practices. In the area around Clare's home town of Helpston in Northamptonshire, the process took place over just over a decade – 1820 to 16 – which was his coming of age (he was 1809 in XNUMX). He experienced the transformation of his home region and the way of life of its inhabitants as an unmitigated disaster on many levels, including socioeconomic. Coming from a poor and landless family, Clare struggled to just make ends meet and, ironically, was forced by necessity to engage as a fair worker in some of the projects he despised.[xvii]

Throughout the period of the enclosures at Helpston and even after they were completed, Clare wrote a series of poems on the subject that were called "enclosure elegies".[xviii] In them, he lovingly evokes the natural environment and ways of life of his area before the enclosure, describes the effects produced by the enclosure and expresses a mixture of sadness, melancholy and anger at the result. Together, they emphatically express a romantic anti-capitalist vision that focuses on Nature and the place of human beings in it.

In these poems,[xx] the poet reveals an overwhelming nostalgia for the meadows, marshes and swamps where he roamed as a child. These partially wild lands are especially characterized by the freedom they allow for both humans and other living things: “Boundless freedom dominated the wandering scene / Not even the fence of the estate crept there… Now, this sweet vision of my boyhood days… all she lost her color…” (Clare, 1990, p.169-70). The lands are also portrayed as beautiful, although the aesthetic dimension of Nature is only one among many in the poems. Of fundamental importance is the collective and social aspect of human community in Nature, and Clare's nostalgia goes far beyond the personal joys of childhood play. As commons, land supported the poor and propertyless, and was also the site of pre-modern forms of community, in particular Roma. Clare enjoyed going to a Gypsy camp at one of his favorite spots on the commons; several poems mention the site and lament its removal by enclosure. More generally, he was strongly drawn to folk cultures and collected music, folk stories, and the like.

In “enclosure elegies”, Clare protests vehemently against the demolition, through enclosure and modernization, both of wild natural terrains and of the pre-modern cultures that found a home in them, and she clearly identifies the instance behind the change. In the earliest of these poems, “Helpston,” he writes, “Accursed wealth above bound human laws / Still the cause of all evil” and, more specifically, he connects it both to the suffering of the working poor and to the damage to Nature. .[xx] Later poems point to “self-interest” and the pursuit of “profit” or “gains” as motives that drive harmful changes; those who are motivated in this way have a “small mind” and justify their depredations with the strident doctrine of economic freedom (contrasted by the poet with the true freedom provided by Nature).[xxx]

Though Clare's politics were nominally conservative, her poetic indictment of modernity's incursions into a romantic perspective is radical. And the force and pertinence of his critique has indeed been recognized and honored by later critics who share an affinity with him: EP Thompson, who wrote a bicentennial tribute to his birth, Raymond Williams, who published, with his daughter, an anthology of Clare's poetry, and more recently George Monbiot, the ecological columnist for the Guardian who, in an article celebrating Clare, emphasizes the relevance of her protest poetry to the current environmental crisis.[xxiii]

Would it be legitimate to call “ecological” the romantic approaches to Nature whose origins we examine here and which we will explore further in the body of our work? Perhaps not in the limited scientific sense of the word "ecology" as defined by Ernst Haeckel, its inventor. Nor in the sense of a modern social movement that struggles against the negative environmental consequences of capitalist modernity, although in some cases – several of which are discussed in our work – the Romantics engaged with them.

But, as we will try to illustrate in this book, there is in the romantic current of cultural criticism a form sui generis of consciousness that is ecological in its most meaningful sense, a sense that has played an essential role in the historical development of ecology and that remains to this day a potent force in ecological protest and activism. Perhaps we could define the common attitude of the people discussed in this book as “romantic ecocriticism” – not in the more limited meaning that is usually attributed to the term “criticism”, but more broadly as a radical cultural and moral revolt against the damages resulting from the interaction of modern human societies with nature, in the name of qualitative values ​​lost in modernity.


Romanticism and environmental humanities

We hope that our study of the ecocritical current in romantic anti-capitalism can contribute to the ongoing trend that has been widely labeled “environmental humanities”. The first defining feature of this movement is, of course, the integral connection between environmental issues and concerns addressed by the humanities, that is, issues involving cultural phenomena. This approach understands ecological crises as crises of culture. Our exploration of the Romantic valorization of the natural world and protest against the destructive effects of modern industrial capitalism on that world is an important example, in the context of Western civilization, of the intimate interplay between environment and culture.

Another important feature of the environmental humanities in general is their interdisciplinarity, with the various subareas of the trend bringing together different disciplines. Our study, which falls within the domain of cultural and environmental studies, brings together a wide range of cultural phenomena as an expression of ecocritical romantic anti-capitalism. They include travel literature, landscape painting, utopian writing, social philosophy, analysis of literary and cultural studies, and the sociopolitical essay. In discussing these diverse cultural expressions, we continually cross disciplinary boundaries, and our concept of romanticism, which has historical, sociological, economic, and cultural dimensions, is also explicitly interdisciplinary.

It has been said that what the environmental humanities do, relative to the traditional humanities, is, among other things, to effect a enlargement of perspective.

Issues that traditional humanities often address within narrow philosophical or literary confines are opened up in a wider contextual framework. This is exactly what our conceptualization of romanticism attempts to do, as it situates expressions of the romantic worldview as critical responses to socioeconomic developments in modernity, which fundamentally include the increasing devastation of the environment.

A strong theme that is often articulated in work done in the environmental humanities is the affirmation of the unity of nature as an organic/inorganic whole, which takes the form of a complex web of linkages. This conception is generally shared by the Romantics we have discussed, and more broadly, the environmental humanities understanding of natural unity and interrelationship can be said to have close affinities with prevailing Romantic views of nature.

Another marked trend in the environmental humanities has been to explore and recognize the value of other conceptions of nature than the dominant modern western paradigm. In addition to exploring Eastern thinking about the environment, there has been considerable interest in the views and practices of “indigenous” peoples. In our study, we give prominence to these views, showing how they relate to other romantic ecological understandings and pointing to their particular importance in the contemporary context. In addition to these general connections, we should briefly indicate how each of the references we discuss reveals ideas and perceptions relevant to discussions that take place in the environmental humanities:

Chapter One: William Bartram asserts the non-hierarchical unity of life forms, emphasizes the “dignity” of animal nature, and strongly criticizes cruelty to animals. His botanical sketches illustrate the interconnection of organic and inorganic forms depicted.

Chapter Two: in apocalyptic fashion, Thomas Cole warns, both in writing and painting, of the irreparable human and natural damage that will occur, unless the process is stopped, through modern incursions into and destruction of natural terrains, driven by a profit-oriented utilitarianism.

Chapter Three: William Morris criticizes modern civilization's approach to nature as a conqueror outside of it rather than as an integral part living harmoniously within it. Your news from nowhere imagines a future “ecotopia” in which the harmony of previous societies is restored at a higher level, and the division between countryside and city is transcended.

chapter four: Walter Benjamin makes a radical critique of the “spoliation” of Nature in capitalist modernity, even defining his relationship with Nature as “criminal”. It shows consideration for the non-destructive attitudes towards Nature exhibited by "primitive" societies and warns of imminent ecological and human disasters unless the "handbrake" is pulled.

chapter five: Raymond Williams, like William Morris, calls for overcoming the opposition between countryside and city, criticizes the ideology of “modernization” as continuous and beneficial “progress”, and sees the need to reconceptualize the notion of “production”, expanding it to include as many by-products – in particular environmental damage – as products. As a socialist thinker, he points to the common exploitative attitude towards Nature held by both capitalist and so-called communist societies and makes a plea for a radically different “green socialism”.

chapter six: Naomi Klein, like Williams, thinks that “ecological deficits” should be measured alongside economic growth and is strongly opposed to the “extractivist mentality” that prevails in the contemporary world of globalized capitalism. She sees a clear connection between the existing ecological crisis and the danger facing people “altered” by the dominant elites, notably the indigenous inhabitants of white settler societies. She is considerably impressed by the participation of native peoples in contemporary struggles to limit environmental damage and admires their cosmological traditions that see all living creatures as “relationships” as well as taking a “stewardship” stance towards the natural world.


Recent works on romanticism and ecology

We are by no means the first to explore the links between “romanticism” and “ecology”. But, as will be seen in the brief survey that follows, most studies so far have dealt almost exclusively with the literary aspect of this connection. For this reason, our study – one of the first to suggest a much broader view of the Romantic relationship to ecological discourse and representation – clearly trumps them.

Contemporary recognition and analysis of the connection between the two terms is closely related to, and almost identical with, the development of “ecocriticism” in the narrower sense to which we allude. Sometimes also called “eco-studies” or “eco-reading”, this critical approach to literary texts first emerged in Britain and the United States, although more recently it has spread to other countries. Defined in an early anthology simply as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty; Fromm, 1996, p.xviii), it has evolved and diversified considerably since its inception. Although several isolated works appeared in the 1970s, the real impetus for the approach came in the 1990s with the publication of a series of seminal monographs, as well as the aforementioned The Ecocriticism Reader, and with the creation of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment in 1993.[xxiii]

In the 2000st century, ecocritical literary analysis has flourished exponentially, with around half a dozen works published in the year 2000 alone, and dozens more that have appeared since then. These later productions, often called the “second wave” of ecocriticism, often problematized key concepts and brought other forms of critical discourse (postcolonial, postmodern, feminist, etc.) into ecocritical discussions (Coupe, XNUMX).

But a common denominator of all ecocritical studies has been the main focus on authors traditionally identified as “romantic”. In most cases, the definition of romanticism that is at least implied, when not clearly stated as such, is the usual definition of a literary period, and since ecocritics are generally Anglo-American, overwhelming emphasis has been placed on the English and American literary writers of the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries. Although there has been some debate about which of the early Romantic authors most clearly expressed an ecological point of view, it is almost agreed that the important roots of modern ecology lie in the literature of the “Romantic period”. This affiliation is suggested, for example, in the subtitle of The Green Studies Reader (Coupe, 2000) – “From Romanticism to Ecocriticism” – the first section which includes excerpts or discussion of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and John Clare.

This handbook also includes passages from John Ruskin and William Morris, and indeed these and other late nineteenth-century figures are often part of ecocritical genealogies beginning in the Romantic period. The authors' precise relationship with romanticism, however, is not usually specified. In some cases, it is traced back to the twentieth century, and authors from that century are occasionally identified with romanticism.[xxv] In most cases, however, romanticism is seen more as an origin than an ongoing presence in ecological thinking and representation.

In the literature of ecocriticism, we find a solid discussion of the history of ecological consciousness, thought and representation, and their relationship to romanticism. In this discussion, some debates and differences of perspective emerged. Most who analyze the development of modern ecology somehow distinguish two strands of its history, using various terms to describe them: on the one hand, the “spiritual”, “humanistic” and “subjective” approach; on the other, the “scientific”, “rational” and “objective”. One way of interpreting the historical relationship between the two trends is to view the second as having its origin only in the second half of the 1866th century, especially in the work of the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term in XNUMX.[xxiv]

From this perspective, the first strand precedes the second chronologically, and is sometimes seen as “protoecological” rather than fully meeting the criteria of the ecological perspective.[xxv] While “first wave” ecocritics used to emphasize the distinction between the two strands of ecological discourse and highlighted the crucial contribution of early literary/philosophical – and romantic – writers in their difference from the scientific approach, “second wave” critics have questioned opposition, pointing out that literary writers of the “Romantic period”, in an age before the development of clear intellectual and institutional separations between literature, philosophy and science, were often familiar with the writings of contemporary naturalists and “natural philosophers” and were influenced by them. Far from being out of step with inquiries into the natural world, the work of Romantic literary authors was often permeated with them.[xxviii]

By and large, however, histories of ecology as defined in ecocritical literature tend to agree that its origins lie at the turn of the 1860th to the 1960th centuries, in association with early Romanticism, and that it then evolves through a series of new phases or turning points: the enunciation of a specifically “scientific” approach in the 1970s; the conservation movements of the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries; the new awareness of ecological threats in the XNUMXs and XNUMXs (the highly influential SilentSpring, by Rachel Carson, which warned of the danger of pesticides, appeared in 1962); and, finally, the widespread awakening to the immanence, gravity, and global nature of the ecological crisis in the 1990s and beyond.

Although it is most intensively studied and described in the Anglo-American sphere, since, as we have pointed out, ecocriticism came largely from England and the USA,[xxviii] manifestations of these developments occurred in other countries as well, notably in Europe. In his recent history of ecology (Die Ära der Ökologie, 2011; translate to English: The Age of Ecology [The era of ecology], 2014), when discussing the origins, the German scholar Joachim Radkau points to the contribution of the German movement Sturm und Drang [Storm and Momentum] (alongside Rousseau), as well as to a significant cultural trend in Germany in the early XNUMXth century, which he calls “forest romanticism”.[xxix]

He also alludes to the later ecological awareness of the founders of Marxism (although it was not one of his main themes), citing Engels's commentary on Dialectic of Nature: “But let us not rejoice too much in the face of these human victories over Nature. For each of these victories, nature takes revenge on us” (Radkau, 2014, p.24). As for the French history of ecological thought and imagination, Serge Audier's broad recent overview traces a French tradition among other national strands, which includes the novelist George Sand, the utopian thinkers Fourier and Proudhon, as well as the romantic historian Jules Michelet (Audier , 2017). Audier and others also point to several significant Russian contributions to the growth of ecological consciousness – notably in the work of the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin and the movement back-to-the-land [back to field] around Leo Tolstoy.

The range of sociopolitical positions of those associated with ecology is very wide. The editors of the recent anthology Ecology and the Literature of the British Left recognize the strong imprint on ecology of right-wing positions due to the “essentially conservative and often pessimistic impulse behind much environmental concern”, as well as the tendency of much of socialist thought to adopt the principle of unlimited growth (Rignall; Klaus, 2012 , p.4, 7); but the aim of the anthology is to explore the rich interplay and interpenetration of 'red' and 'green', demonstrating through various contributions a lineage running from early British romantics, through Ruskin and Morris, to later expressions of ' ecoanarchism” and “ecosocialism”.

In this respect, indeed, we can see a clear parallel between romanticism and ecology. In our study of romantic anti-capitalism – Revolt and melancholy: romanticism against the current of modernity –, we argue that this worldview is politically “hermaphrodite”, crosses all political boundaries, and that this characteristic explains, in some cases, the radical changes in political orientation about a particular author's career, while the fundamental romantic view remains unchanged.[xxx] The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, regarding ecological concern and commitment. Thus, this heterogeneity of sociopolitical postures both in romanticism and in ecology is naturally reflected in the present study of romantic “ecologists”, although in it the “red” line of political orientation is predominant.

As this brief overview has attempted to suggest, a rich and voluminous literature has developed since the 1990s, addressing many aspects of ecology and its intersection with romanticism. In this literature, several conflicting arguments have been presented. Perhaps the most fundamental involves the definition of two key concepts in the area: “nature” and “ecology”. Although discussions around these terms are certainly not without interest, we will not choose between possible options, but rather adopt a position that includes all within the framework of our analysis. On the question of what “nature” is, some have proposed to distinguish “nature” (the brute physical reality) from “Nature” (the human cultural construction); others proposed abandoning the concept altogether and replacing it with the notion of “environment”[xxxii]; still others contested the idea of ​​a non-human natural world and redefined nature as the “more than human” world. These distinctions and questions, however interesting in other contexts, sometimes conflict with each other, and in any case do not seem directly relevant to our exploration of romantic expressions of ecological awareness and protest. As defined earlier, therefore, we will adopt a broadly comprehensive and commonly recognized understanding of nature and the natural world.

Likewise, the ecocritical literature has proposed a set of defining characteristics, some of them contradictory, of the ecological perspective or “point of view”. They include: a sense of the interrelationship of natural phenomena, in a “weave” or “ecosystem”; a treatment of nature as “for itself” (versus for humans), also sometimes called “ecocentrism”; a conception of humans as an integral part of nature, or, conversely, a recognition of the non-human as radically “other”[xxxi]; a sense of place, of particular natural sites, or, conversely, a more universal gaze; a secularized and physical apprehension of nature, or, on the contrary, its sacralization. We could expand the list, but what we want to argue is that any or all of these traits can be found in Romantic ecological sensibilities.

In this book, we hope to shed new light on the subject of romanticism and ecology by reframing it in terms of our interpretation of romanticism as a Worldview anti-capitalism of the entire modern period. We broaden the scope of romanticism here in two main ways. First, taking it beyond the traditional definition of the period, we identify and treat as romantic all the figures mentioned, starting with William Bartram (second half of the XNUMXth century) and ending with Naomi Klein (contemporary, XNUMXst century). Second, we illustrate the current of romantic ecology with examples that break with the usual literary focus. Bartram was a naturalist and botanical artist, Thomas Cole a landscape painter, William Morris a craftsman and multi-media artist, Raymond Williams a literary and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin a multifaceted social philosopher, Naomi Klein an essayist and activist . Although several of them – Cole, Morris, Williams – have produced some literary works, creative activity is not their main activity.

Perhaps the most important innovation of our approach to ecocritical literature is the connection of the ecological romantics we have discussed with anti-capitalism. Ecologists and scientists have recently reached a consensus that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activity has changed essential aspects of the environment, ultimately with dire consequences. Many “eco-Marxians” – in particular Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster – accept this concept, but emphasize that responsible for these disastrous changes is a specific organization of human activity: the modern capitalist mode of production with its civilizational correlates.[xxxii]

This point is forcefully and explicitly made by Naomi Klein, the subject of our last chapter, but we have tried to show how this awareness, in one form or another (including in periods before the word "capitalism" was in use), is found in all the romantic figures we explore. And, crucially, we want to highlight the dimension review of that awareness. In that vein, then, we suggest that the term “romantic ecocriticism” might be appropriately used to describe the form of romantic anti-capitalism that we investigate here.

*Robert Sayre Professor of English and Literature and Civilization at the University Paris-Est, Marne-la-Vallée, France.

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique, Paris, France.


Robert Sayre & Michael Löwy. Romantic anti-capitalism and nature. the enchanted garden. Translation: Rogerio Bettoni. São Paulo, Unesp; 2021, 206 pages.


[I] While we recognize that its meaning has been hotly debated recently, we will not enter into those discussions here and will use the term “Nature” in its widely accepted sense of the biophysical universe and, in particular, the various forms of life on our planet.

[ii] For a systematic discussion and illustration of how we conceive of Romanticism, drawing on the writings of Georg Lukács, Ernst Fischer and others, but from a different perspective, see our book Romanism Against the Tide of Modernity (2002); see also our essay “Romanticism and capitalism” in Michael Ferber (2005).

[iii] Except where noted, translations in this book of works written in languages ​​other than English are those of the authors.

[iv] For an extensive discussion of Marx and Romanticism, see Chapter 3, “Excursus: Marxism and Romanticism” in our book Revolt and melancholy: romanticism against the current of modernity.

[v] Baschet is based on the concept of “regimes of historicity” as notably elaborated by François Hertog.

[vi] Ed. braz.: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Party Manifesto. Trans. Alvaro Pina. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2005 (1848), p.42. (NT)

[vii] Ed. bras.: Max Weber, “Science as a vocation”. In: Science and politics: two vocations. Trans. Leonidas Hegenberg and Octany Silveira da Mota. 14.ed. São Paulo : Cultrix, 2013, p.51. (NT)

[viii] Brazilian Ed.: Charles Dickens, Hard times. Trans. José Baltazar Pereira Junior. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015. (NT)

[ix] Ed. Bras.: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men(1755). São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2008, p.141, 213. (NT)

[X] On Humboldt's relationship with the Jena circle, on the one hand, and with Anglo-American writers, on the other, see Andrea Wulf's remarkable intellectual biography, The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (2015, p.5, p.25-33, p.36, p.72, p.128-29, p.167-71, p.250, p.256-57).

[xi] Quoted in Wulf (2015, p.54)

[xii] Quoted in the Introduction (Humboldt, 2014, p.8-9).

[xiii] See the introduction by Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland (2009, p.2-5).

[xiv] Quoted in Wulf (2015, p.3; see also p.19-20, p.106, p.108, p.181, p.276).

[xv] See Wulf (2015, p.56, p.58, p.103-05, p.213, p.288).

[xvi] Although Humboldt's comments on indigenous cultures occur in many of his writings, we can find a range of observations, alongside pictorial representations, in Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique (Views of the Ranges and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas; 1810).

[xvii] On Clare's relationship and response to the enclosures in Helpston, see the fifth chapter “Enclosure and the poetry of protest” by John Goodridge (2013).

[xviii] See Goodridge (2013, p.105).

[xx] Some of the best examples are “The Fallen Elm”, “Remembrances”, “The Lament of Swordy Well” and “The Mores”.

[xx] Quoted in Goodridge (2013, p.106).

[xxx] See Clare (1990, p.168, 170, 172, 197).

[xxiii] EP Thompson's brief celebration of Clare appeared in a special bicentennial issue of the The John Clare Society Journal (n.12, July 1993, p.31); the anthology edited by Merryn and Raymond Williams is John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose (1986); Monbiot's article on Clare is “John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago”, The Guardian (9 / 7 / 2012).

[xxiii] On this early period of the trend, see Tony Pinkney (1998, p.411-12).

[xxv] See, for example, Paige Tovey (2013).

[xxiv] It is thought that the first occurrence of the word in English was in 1873. The American George Perkins Marsh, however, already systematized some of the fundamentals of the “scientific” understanding of ecology in man and nature (1864): see James C. McKusick (2000, p.29, 31).

[xxv] See McKusick (2000, p.19).

[xxviii]See Bryan Moore (2008, p.89); Rigby (2016, p.4).

[xxviii] On German and French developments in ecocriticism, see, respectively, Axel Goodbody (2014, v.36).

[xxix] See Joachim Radkau (2014, p.12-20).

[xxx] For a discussion of the political diversity of romanticism, with a typological outline, see chapter 2 of Löwy and Sayre (2015).

[xxxii] See especially the influential work of Timothy Morton (2007).

[xxxi] See Louise Economides (2016, introduction).

[xxxii] One eco-Marxist, however, went a step further and suggested that the term “Anthropocene” should be replaced by “Capitalocene” (see Jason Moore, 2015).

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