Enlightenment, Romanticism and other Perversions

I’ve just finished a draft of a forthcoming book for Edinburgh University Press on Scottish Romanticism and the culture of ‘improvement’ in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. My focus in that book is on how complex, intersecting ideas about progress were involved in a series of important literary innovations, as writers reimagined what literature is and what it does.

At the same time, the book contributes in its own way to a debate over the term ‘Scottish Romanticism’, which is still a relatively novel idea, part of a larger shift away from the ‘Big 6’ (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Keats and Byron) in recent decades to conceive a more diverse landscape of writing in the period in class, gender and geopolitical terms.

There have been a number of influential recent contributions on the subject of Scottish Romanticism, and I won’t go into my own thoughts here (wait for the book!). But in general, the use of cultural-historical totems like Romanticism, Enlightenment and so on, which comes in and out of fashion, is worth a moment’s thought. At what point does conceptual framing shade into obfuscation? As scholars working to understand the past and what it can teach us, should we retool and expand these labels, or dispense with them? When do they become so capacious as to entirely lose meaning?

To take an example, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’ came in the twentieth century to refer primarily to a loose grouping of male intellectuals active between roughly 1750 and 1800, foremost among them names like Adam Smith, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid and James Hutton. But ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’ or the weaker construction, ‘Enlightenment in Scotland’, can also refer to a larger intellectual trend towards rational enquiry in the period (NB. it was much less secular than has often been assumed). And, at an extreme, it can refer to a whole series of social, political and economic shifts that are effectively synonymous with the culture of modernity.

David Hume’s new hat ©Rankeelaw https://www.flickr.com/photos/42135512@N02/4122799534

The New Historicism has driven a tendency for scholars to avoid using labels like Romanticism and Enlightenment, which are primed with ideological baggage, and to reach instead for more transparent terminology. It is certainly odd to equate entire decades of national history with the writing of a few (men). And yet there is a danger that something is lost in abandoning these terms completely, a complex critical history which means that they provide a formidable source of meaning.

Broadly labelling an era can be a perversion of the inevitably uneven cultural and historical phenomena at work. Still, all of the versions of ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’ may be useful at one time or another. Indeed, these figures of speech are often helpful because they are prejudicial, but they can also be effectively repurposed. Clarity is I suppose the watchword, an awareness that the terminology is not straightforward and cannot be used without explanation.

In my own work, ‘Romanticism’ offers something (I hope) of real analytical value, without overshadowing history. It is impossible, after all, to talk about culture without recourse to abstractions of one form or another. The local and the specific exist in dialectical union with the general and the conceptual. Or, as John Stoddart puts it in his 1801 Remarks on Local Scenery & Manners in Scotland during the Years 1799 and 1800,

Hence we may see the idleness of many disputes respecting ideas general, and particular, simple, and complex, &c.; for in the constant stream of mind, no fixed point can be taken (call it impression, idea, passion, emotion, what you will), but it is so surrounded by, and worked into minuter circumstances, so tinged with recognitions, and remembrances, various in degree, and in extent, that it must at once possess something of all these different qualities.

Even the driest, most dedicatedly historicist work is still applying strata of critical framework, and is bound by the logic of association. Romanticism and Enlightenment are brands (yuk) as much as anything else, anachronistic labels invented much later to describe the past. But they can still help us think and teach.

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