"Disconnected with the rest of the world, he gradually consumes himself and becomes in principle a misanthrope."Olivia Lisle for Varsity

In 1798, Novalis accused Enlightenment rationality and capitalist bureaucracy of severing communal bonds and atomising individuals: ‘disconnected with the rest of the world, he gradually consumes himself and becomes in principle a misanthrope.’ Over 200 years later, these immortal words resonate in the minds of millions as we struggle with paralysing isolation and dislocation during lockdown. The Romantics’ response to industrial modernity and the loss of communal values can teach us how better to face the paradox of our own time: physical detachment from communities (and offices and lecture halls), yet a simultaneous expansion of online connectivity.

“Romanticism’s connection with feeling through poetic and artistic inquiry is accessible to all as beauty permeates everything”

Romantic philosophers, painters, and poets argued that the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire accelerated cold Enlightenment rationale and bureaucracy at the expense of sublime values and local unity. This left behind a detached machine state, characterised by materialism and alienated individuals. In parallel with the Romantics ‘driven by a vague unrest that sought another world’ (Herder), we long to escape from the debilitating sterility of life in lockdown and the new normal. Yet in this moment of unrest, we cannot romanticise – if you’ll permit the phrase – the pre-Pandemic world with its crippling inequalities, as exposed by the harsh light of COVID-19.

We should take inspiration from the Romantics and seek a post-Pandemic world where wounds heal and divisive social structures that we previously regarded as rational are displaced.

"The arts are the chief tool constructing post-pandemic healing"Twitter/teatrolafenice

Romantic philosophers created a transformative ideology to fill the vacuum caused by the mundaneness of modernity. German Romantics – including Friedrich Wilhelm Schlegel, Novalis, and Schelling – developed upon Kant’s claim that there are no objective truths. They replaced belief in rational doctrines with higher acceptance of the limitations that subjectivity puts on knowledge derived from reason. Romantic philosophers, poets, and artists proclaimed that exploration of feelings would produce a deep diffusion of understanding as well as kinship with the uncontrollable beauty of nature – as Goethe wrote in 1774, ‘nature alone is inexhaustible’.

“To satiate this longing for self-expression, we must turn to the arts, transforming our uncertainties about change into opportunities for observation and growth.”

The pandemic caused irreversible fractures across societal structures we once accepted as immovable: from examinations (previously thought of as sacrosanct) being cancelled in one swoop to the merging of home and work life (previously viewed as incompatible). We hold no objective facts about the path of the pandemic. Within the walls of the home, we can follow the Romantics by engaging in quasi-meditative, Kantian self-reflection, accepting that there is much we can’t control, yet that there is potential for exploring streams of consciousness. To satiate this longing for self-expression, we must turn to the arts, transforming our uncertainties about change into opportunities for observation and growth.

The arts are the chief tool in bringing about post-Pandemic healing, enabling us to fill an excruciating social void while highlighting injustices that will allow a better nation to emerge. Romanticism’s connection with feeling through poetic and artistic inquiry is accessible to all as beauty permeates everything, ‘from the sigh and kiss that the poetic child breathes’ (Schlegel) to scenic nature that elicits overflowing feeling. Artistic imagination and its prophetic interpretation of reality holds healing powers, enabling us to temporarily transcend circumstance through a heightened awareness of emotion and environment.

"National efforts to heal must ensure self-determination for social groups and regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales."Twitter/Reuters

We can also be inspired by Romanticism’s examination of nihilistic suffering within fragmented communities and its theories in favour of communal cohesion. Romantic poetry and painting highlighted inequities of the capitalist society where industrialisation had severed communal ties and triggered explosions of exploitation. Today we see William Blake’s ‘mind forg’d manacles’ in the structural inequalities based on race, gender, class, region, and sexuality that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Romantic writers believed that ‘flight from the communal spirit is death’ (Novalis), proposing an organic state centred around greater autonomy for communities and social groups attuned to unique cultures.

“Like Novalis, ‘I can think and dream of nothing else.’”

Post-pandemic, we must take on progressive organicism to uplift the needs of a pluralistic society. Socio-political tensions are rising and the Union risks implosion as polls indicate increased support for independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Romantic organic state supports greater autonomy for diverse social groups, promoting independence referendums. National efforts to heal must ensure self-determination for social groups as well as regions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. This is not to dissect the UK into unconnected units, but to organically adapt to radically altered political contexts, recognising that cultures may be distinct.


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The pandemic has pushed millions into the confines of the home, pulling the rug of societal norms out from under our feet. Romanticism proposes two solutions: we must first accept there is much we can’t control and embrace the beauty of emotion and nature. Then, we should seek another world, healing divisions through a liberating epistemology that grants respectful, loving autonomy to marginalised groups and regions of the UK. In 1802, Novalis beautifully wrote about a blue flower which would come to symbolise Romanticism’s hope and unspeakable longing for beauty. The modern-day equivalent of this blue flower might be the captivating beauty of a post-Pandemic epoch, where atomised individualism, inequities, and immobilising social divides have collapsed. Like Novalis in 1802, ‘I can think and dream of nothing else.’