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23 February 2021

Romantic visions of life after lockdown

What the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge can teach us about how to restore vitality and spontaneity to our bare, flat and digitally mediated lives.

By Tobias Phibbs

Concluding his magisterial six-part documentary series on modernism, The Shock of the New, the late art critic Robert Hughes wrote that, “children have the kind of direct, sensuous and complex relationship with the world around them that modernism in its declining years was trying to deny”. That aesthetic denial reflected what the German sociologist Max Weber called the progressive disenchantment of the world, the process by which modernity’s instrumentalism and rationalism supplanted magic, tradition and affect. All that was solid melted into air, all that was holy was profaned. Andy Warhol was the result.

The pandemic has intensified this process of disenchantment. Our lives are bare, digitally mediated and stripped of real presence, encounter and spontaneity. Members of the laptop class in particular, having abandoned even the relative anonymity of the office, are formless nodes in the ether. Time zones have proved no barrier, with workers and students toiling through the night and across hemispheres, inhabiting a liminal time beyond place. At the same time, limits on physical mobility have shrunk each individual’s world to a size that predates the invention of the steam train, let alone the internet. Lockdown is both a postmodern and medieval condition.

[See also: How Keats lives on]

We have limped on like this for almost a year now. The mundane horror of the past 12 months lies in how easily we have acquiesced and adapted to this barren life. Remarkably, there is no evidence that suicide levels have increased since the pandemic began. By many metrics, mental health will have worsened over the last year and anhedonia is everywhere, but this is the consequence of something which the language of mental health cannot capture and no amount of funding for counselling services can solve. More than a “mental health crisis”, what we are confronting is a crisis of living.

French anthropologist Marc Augé described airports and hotels as “non-places” with no relationship to any particular tradition or culture. Textureless, they are purely functional, and designed so that in them, “people are always, and never, at home”. Lockdown is non-life, an experiment in undifferentiated living, the end point of progressive disenchantment. Days drift into nights unpunctuated and unremembered. It is dismal and shrunken, and yet, for many, especially those who are neither frontline workers nor have young children, it is also more manageable than we might admit.

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Flatness, rather than outright misery, is the dominant affect of the moment. As a result, I have found myself returning to those who challenged the forces of disenchantment of an earlier age. It was German romantic Friedrich Schiller who first wrote of the “disenchantment of the world”, before Weber popularised it, and the romantics were perhaps the first in the modern era to self-consciously pursue a project of re-enchantment. This project is best understood as a semi-secular revival of the Catholic sacramental imagination, in which the eternal and the divine are manifested in nature and the everyday. Its protagonists did not reject rationality or the scientific spirit of their age, but sought to leave the world open to the possibility of something beyond a mechanistic conception of the world and humanity’s place in it. This something-more-than was seen as complementing, completing even, the rational worldview.

In England, “[e]nclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain”, as 19th-century peasant-poet John Clare put it, ripping through the countryside and spurring on the industrial revolution. The system of open fields and commons that had prevailed for over a millennium came to an end, while mechanisation and the assembly line replaced craft in manufacturing. It was this instrumentalism that the romantics reacted against, seeking beauty and magic amid upheaval and commodification.

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The literature of the romantic period is mixed. Much of it seems didactic or moralistic to a modern reader resistant to simple allegory. There are only so many poems about Vision, Imagination and the Sublime (always capitalised, to convey their sacramental aspect) one can read. What the romantics offered was more than a philosophy, or a contribution to the canon: they provided a model for living, one which stands in sharpest contrast to the drabness of life under lockdown.

[See also: Tom Fort’s Casting Shadows is an excellent, balanced portrait of fisher folk in Britain]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English romanticism’s foremost poet, embodies this most clearly. He talked his way up and down the country and across the continent, overpromising and underdelivering at every turn. As his biographer Richard Holmes put it, “He dreamed more than he planned, he planned more than he could execute, leaping from one brilliant conception to the next”. Abandoned projects included a translation of Goethe’s Faust and an egalitarian commune in America. His triumphs – the literary journal The Friend and his lecture series in London, for example, as well as much of his poetic and philosophical output – were usually chaotic, digressive and financially disastrous, yet they contained more ambition and feeling than entire artistic movements.   

Coleridge looked for and found enchantment everywhere, pledging to live with his “whole note” and enrapturing those he met along the way. He transformed the art of noticing, describing the English countryside in intricate detail. That which had formed no more than a backdrop, unnoticed and unremarked upon, sprung to life under Coleridge’s gaze. Nature, in his beloved Quantock Hills and later when he joined the Wordsworths in the Lake District, was his primary inspiration. But unlike some of the other romantics, Coleridge embraced the company of others and found enchantment in everyday folk customs, too; his poem Christabel, for example, is suffused with local folklore and superstition from around his Somerset home and further afield.

His loathing of disenchantment extended to politics, where he offered the first – and still the most incisive – critique of desiccated managerialism. Of William Pitt the Younger, he wrote:

A being who had had no feelings connected with man or nature, no spontaneous impulses […] nothing that constitutes individuality in intellect, nothing that teaches brotherhood in affection! Such was the man — such, and so denaturalised the spirit, on whose wisdom and philanthropy the lives and living enjoyments of so many millions of human beings were made unavoidably dependent.

It is a description entirely at odds with Coleridge himself, whose character reflected his physicality: large, looming and mesmerising. Harvard politics professor Richard Tuck characterises life under lockdown as consisting of heads in space, not bodies in communion. It is a criticism that could be levelled at some of the more aloof romantics, as well as our technocratic political class. Coleridge, by contrast, lived in communion with others and his friendships, though sometimes tempestuous, were filled with love and meaning.

***

The vitality with which Coleridge lived his life has been missing more than ever this past year. We have come to depend on the new Bonapartes, the big tech companies whose algorithmic logic replaces the mechanistic so that our disenchantment is individually catered for. There are signs of a longing for something more, however, and a desire for re-enchantment. Garden centres are overrun with queues, allotments with waiting lists, and huge numbers of people have moved from cities to the countryside. The daily walk has become a source of consolation, its repetition and aimlessness attuning us to our surroundings.

These murmurings of a more vivid life, however, are darkly overshadowed by lockdown. The risk, as with Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon, who could not bear to finish his tedious lecture calling for a return to “Merrie England”, is in an aloof vision of a richer way of living, comfortable in its nostalgia and divorced from any means of realising it. So these impulses must be paired with a political programme. For a start, festivals organised in every town and village, perhaps tying in with St George’s Day or May Day, to mark the end of this period. City centres, emptied of homogeneous Prets and office blocks, filled with workshops and independent businesses spilling out onto the street. Roger Scruton’s vision for beautiful housing made real – and not just recreating the rural idyll, either, but mansion blocks and new forms of modernism making cities vital and affordable. And working from home could return to the oikos the practical skills – DIY, gardening, the joys of the kitchen – that have been automated or outsourced away.

The beginning of the end of our long house arrest is surely now in sight. The claim that great cultural movements arise from repressive eras has been put to the test. Will a generation born into disenchantment answer the call? Weber described how for pre-Enlightenment societies the “world remain[ed] a great enchanted garden,” in which spirits animated humans, the natural world and even the built environment. Though we may have left the spirits behind, no amount of flatness can ever truly blunt wonder at creation. After this long purgatory ends, can we find room once more for that enchanted garden in our lives?

Tobias Phibbs is writer and director of research at the Common Good Foundation.

[See also: Locking down with Kafka]