Reason and Logic vs. Russian Romantics

I am presently in the middle of listening to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concert, called by many one of the most romantic pieces of music ever performed. Yes, romantic in the common sense that the word’s definition has acquired, but also in the technical sense – the anti-classical movement that rejected enlightenment reason and logic. And it may lay claim to being my favorite piece of music (though the favorite often alternates between Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite). This despite my love of and commitment to the ideal of enlightenment reason and rationality and logic. Something, I sometimes think, is here amiss.

The phenomenal thinker Isaiah Berlin wrote of the Romantic Movement (in philosophy and literature) the following:

The Romantic movement can be summarised under two heads. One of these… [is] the notion of the indomitable will: not knowledge of values, but their creation, is what men achieve. You create values, you create goals, you create ends, and in the end you create your own vision of the universe, exactly as artists create works of art – and before the artist has created a work of art, is does not exist, it is not anywhere. There is no copying, there is no adaptation, there is no learning of the rules, there is no external check, there is no structure which you must understand and adapt yourself to before you can proceed… the universe of people possessed by one set of illusions or fantasies will be different from the universe of those possessed by another.

The second proposition – connected with the first – is that there is no structure to things. There is no pattern to which you must adopt yourself. There is only, if not the flow, the endless self-creativity of the universe. The universe must not be conceived of as a set of fact, as a pattern of events, as a collection of lumps in space, ,three-dimensional entities bound together by certain unbreakable relations, as taught to us by physics, chemistry and other natural sciences; the universe is a process of perpetual forward self-thrusting, perpetual self-creation, which can be conceived of either as hostile to man… so that it will overthrow all human efforts to check it, to organise it, to feel at home in it, to make oneself some kind of cosy pattern in which one can rest – either in that way, ,or as friendly, ,because by identifying yourself with it, buy creating with it, by throwing yourself into this great process, indeed by discovering in yourself those very creative forces which you also discover outside, by identifying on the one hand spirit, on the other hand matter, by seeing the whole thing as a vast self-organising and self-creative process, you will at last be free.

A great number of words, to be sure. Berlin certainly did love prolix pontification. But there is something to what he says, as we should expect from a mind such as his. Romantics reject absolute standards, they reject the concept of purity, and they reject, in a way, reason and rationality. In this, I think they are entirely flawed; if history and philosophy and mathematics and science have taught us anything, it is that there ARE very real standards, even if they are hard to quantify. The speed of light is a constant that does not change in different ‘creative universes;’ the universe instead determines our perceptions of things (to a point). The romantics are wrong to suggest otherwise. And by rejecting reason and facts, they’ve had the effect, over a hundred years later, of leaving most people stranded without something to which to anchor themselves. The objective and the absolute, elusive as it may be, does exist, and should be sought, not hidden from as so many today seem to do.

This was also, to my limited knowledge, what was going on in the musical world too with the beginnings of romantic music shifting away from the preestablished forms and structures of classical music. Who needs these silly guides and rules? You create your own by writing your own music. Of course much romantic music IS written in very strict structures (symphonies, concertos, etc), but there was something of a move away from structure. Who needs the strict reason and rationality of preestablished structure? A very similar argument.

Rachmaninoff’s 2nd has now reached the ‘climax’ of its 2nd movement. It’s a quiet movement, filled with a hauntingly sweet and melancholic melody, and progresses slowly, before the arrival of the faster and louder 3rd movement that builds and builds and builds. The 2nd movement instead takes its time, meanders, and is entirely lovely. It is my favorite movement of the piece, and also the one that seems, on the surface, to lack more structure than the other 2 movements. Others often prefer the bombastic beginning or the long crescendo of the last movement, but I’m a big fan of the 2nd, with its meanderings and all.

Philosophically, politically, and personally I disagree with the romantics. I understand what they say, and they sometimes have entirely valid arguments. But to do away entirely with reason and rationality is folly, and to reject any concept of a standard is as well. And yet I love this music, whose philosophical underpinnings are the same as the more general Romantic Movement’s. Something certainly seems amiss, but what is it?

Perhaps in writing down this music, these romantic composers did away with their grand romantic philosophies. By writing something down one is making it permanent; it is establishing that pattern that Berlin speaks of. And it is doing so in a very real, very physical, very absolute way.

But this is probably not it entirely. Indeed, it is probably that the Romantics were not all wrong, though I believe that on the BIG things they were. But perhaps the two schools need not be so contrary. Though Alexander Pope is often described as an arch-enlightenment thinker/classicist, he is, I think, something of a romantic entirely, without dispensing with enlightenment ideals. He concludes his brilliant poem “Essay on Man” with a suggestion that some compromise is possible, and that both are working towards the same. It is an interesting concept, and one, perhaps, that we should hope to be true. As Rachmaninoff’s 2nd has just ended, I’ll go ahead and end my post with his last ‘stanza;’ It is worth considering, surely, and that entire poem in particular is well worth reading; it stands, in my estimations, as one of the ultimate triumphs of English verse, and is itself both beautiful and pertinent at the same time.

Come, then, my friend! my genius! Come along,
Oh master of the poet and the song!
And while the Muse now stops, or now ascends,
To man’s low passions, or their glorious ends,
Teach me, like thee, in various nature wise,
To fall with dignity, with temper rise;
Form’d by thy converse happily to steer
From grave to gay, from lively to severe;
Correct, with spirit; eloquent, with ease;
Intent to reason, or polite to please.
Oh! while along the stream of time thy name
Expanded flies, and gathers all its fame;
Say, shall my little bark attendant sail,
Pursue the triumph, and partake the gale?
When statesmen, heroes, kings, in dust repose,
Whose sons shall blush their fathers were thy foes,
Shall then this verse to future age pretend
Thou wert my guide, philosopher, and friend?
That, urged by thee, I turn’d the tuneful art
From sounds to things, from fancy to the heart;
For Wit’s false mirror held up Nature’s light;
Show’d erring Pride, – Whatever is, is right!
That reason, passion, answer one great aim;
That true self-love and social are the same;
That virtue only makes our bliss below;
And all our knowledge is, – Ourselves to know.

That reason, passion, answer one great aim;
That true self-love and social are the same;
That virtue only makes our bliss below;
And all our knowledge is, – Ourselves to know.

SunFire, feel free to correct me where I am wrong on the music front – your knowledge in that area far surpasses my own. 🙂

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Date: Sunday, 31. July 2005 23:14
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