At the risk of alienating readers I’m pasting here a piece I wrote in 2001 then revised in 2003 but never published, feeling I had missed the occasion. I was mildly embarrassed by it at the time but given the current state of world affairs and the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Australia, I figured maybe the time for this piece had come. I liked Luhrmann’s first movie, Strictly Ballroom and indulged his next, Romeo and Juliet (the script at least was ok) but had the interesting experience of viewing his third, Moulin Rouge in a Brisbane theatre after which my partner and I left feeling as though we were the only people in the venue who hadn’t adored the film. Here’s the essay:
Near the beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge, poet Ewan McGregor lets us know that there are only three things in this world that matter: beauty, truth and love. The scenario of this film promises so much yet the finished product fails to deliver the substance of these promises. What it does offer is an unaccustomed insight into the mechanics of latter-day romanticism. From beginning to end the movie camouflages the slowness and banality of its plot through rapid editing and a heavy overlay of glitter. It appears to be aimed demographically at a young audience though its soundtrack is knowingly retro, lending an eighties feel to music which actually spans three decades (the early eighties of course was the moment of the New Romantics - Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Steve Strange &c; a time when haircuts and pirate costumes seemed the sole signifiers of originality). The themes of bohemia and romantic love (where love = death) permeate this intensely self-regarding movie as it presents itself as the advance guard of a brave new romanticism. But did the romantic project ever go away?
Extreme philosophies of individualism exist comfortably alongside the discourse of contemporary free-market economics. Both attitudes are products of the liberalism that made the aesthetic of romanticism possible and Luhrmann’s film brings to the surface the complicity that late romanticism shares with commerce. At Fox Studios the creative personnel at work on the multi-million dollar creation probably didn’t, despite their relative affluence, feel remote from the figure of the ‘starving artist in the garret’. McGregor, their object of identification, ‘lies in the gutter’ at one point in the film, though he is ‘seeing stars’ rather than looking at them.
The demise of the romantic impulse seems less likely now than ever. As the aesthetic counterpart of liberalism romanticism is proving itself a persistent ideology. Francis Fukayama’s notorious thesis on ‘the end of history’ was both a self-serving document and a classic example of romantic resurgence. Market capitalism according to Fukayama has rendered the ‘free world’ a perfect and perfectly stable place; a utopia of cash-flow. In the broader picture capitalism is the economics, liberalism the politics, and romanticism the aesthetic sensibility of one persistent world picture. The hinge between these discourses, romanticism, liberalism and market capitalism, is the individual: the authentic, singular, self-authoring, autonomous, Robinson Crusoe figure who inhabits all three fields.
Individual identity seems all-important in romantic accounts. In an age in which identification has become a science (identikits, fingerprints, iris maps, DNA swabs) the fragility of ‘identity’ increases. The discourses of liberalism serve to recreate ‘identity’ even if what is produced owes more to Hollywood than to Freud. ‘Depression’, a characteristic modern ‘disease’ is a sign of this. Depression and identity do seem to be closely linked, but not perhaps in the way one would at first suppose. Depression isn’t due to ontological doubt; it seems to ensue more from an over-identification, a surfeit of identity onto which blame and failure attach themselves. In a world devoid of identity, depression couldn’t exist. But that world would not be the world of the ‘liberal imagination’.
The worlds of identity and depression crop up in an almost exemplary fashion in the work of the so-called ‘confessional’ poets. Some confusion manifests itself in the assumption that this style of psychological impressionism represents a return to the primal nature of poetry. There was indeed an element of voyeurism at work in the writings of the Plath and Berryman fan clubs. A retrospective ‘will she do it this time’ frisson often accompanies the reading of Plath’s successive books. While critics may wish to read Plath in particular in terms of gender popularly the poet is seen as an arch-individual carrying the burdens of gender (and the only way out for the individual is death). The poetics of the 1960s under the momentary sway of Al Alvarez often left little room for any other kind of writer. Even an anthology of political poetry had to cover itself with the title Poetry of the Committed Individual. This aberration in the history of poetics left behind all previous ideas of the poet as a conduit and/or as the practitioner of a craft, installing in their place the notion of the doomed individual whose sacrifice somehow leaves the publisher better off and the rest of us free to pursue whatever else the market offers.
It is characteristic of the liberal perspective that it should constantly re-invent itself. The recent historical imagination perceives a series of endings or ‘deaths’: of ‘the author’, of modernity, even of history (in Fukayama’s case) and romanticism itself. Romanticism has died and returned several times over the last century. Its end has been frequently spelt out. High-modernists instituted an anti-romanticism before the First World War; new critics in the 1950s saw in TS Eliot and his followers signs of the end of romanticism (in this context the ‘Beats’ were seen as a throwback). But romanticism has since been read back into the work of most of the high modernist writers. Eliot had used Jules Laforgue’s modes to remove himself from romantic influence. Laforgue was an ironist, writing about anti-heroes and Eliot took this aboard. But Eliot’s anti-Semitism gives the game away: the Bleistein of Poems 1920 represents the unreflecting, unimaginative forces governing the everyday world who are an anathema to those of artistic temperament. The Bleisteins are defined by an absence of true individuality, unlike those of a romantic temperament.
Postmodernism (or I should say one of the postmodernisms) found as an aesthetic of stylistic plunder a rich field in romanticism reproducing and breathing new life into romantic forms. An art that has abandoned modernism’s austere drive towards purity can use its devices to produce ‘the romantic effect’, but so many people read the effect as the real thing in an age in which irony is just another stylistic device, a kind of display rather than a mode of concealment or an address to two audiences who are supposed to hear two different things. No matter what you do, it seems, the way your actions are received will be predicated on a romanticist philosophy. Is romanticism ‘the opiate of the masses’? Is it the ultimate ‘ruling ideology’? It would seem so.
In a late essay, unpublished in his lifetime, Walter Benjamin described the street ‘artists’ of Montmartre and Montparnasse (a later generation of those who provided the material for Moulin Rouge). These were ‘people selling paintings of a certain kind, intended for the “best room”: still lifes and seascapes, nudes, genre paintings, and interiors’. The passers-by might well be more impressed by the artist’s ‘presence and imposing attire than by the paintings on display. But’, he adds, ‘one would probably be overestimating the business acumen of the painters if one supposed that their personal appearance is designed to attract customers’. What these painters do display, says Benjamin, unlike the distinguished artists who ‘do not need to market themselves in person’, is a widespread ability to use the tools of art with moderate skill. The garb is more or less a disguise, meant to alert us to the artists’ individuality, to their place as ‘outsiders’, though their work conforms mostly to an idea of art as innocuous decoration.
The formula of the broad brimmed hat or the beret and the corduroy trousers would for many more years be assumed by the sellers of what would now be called ‘hardware store art’: the big-eyed puppies or the urban vistas that show no sign of technology. What is being presented is almost of production line quality yet the story of its production is camouflaged by the image of the artist. (Associated with this is the phenomenon of on-the-spot portraiture and its attendant myth of the artist’s unique perception of personality.)
The street painters represented for Benjamin the enactment of a relatively new idea of ‘the artist’ free from the academy, guilds and art schools. This was the idea of the artist as a wild animal ‘disregarding all discipline’. These painters assumed the role at a less threatening level so that to visit their domain was like visiting a zoo, yet for Benjamin they represented in a mild form an idea of art that had been embraced by the fascists.
They also pointed to a break between art and theory. Gustave Courbet was the last artist in whose work a solidarity between painting and public affairs was still discernable. The Impressionists replaced a theory that might give answers to ‘problems touching on areas other than painting’ with ‘the argot of the studio’. Art criticism, Benjamin argued, began to serve the art trade ‘while appearing to serve the public’. It had ‘no concepts - just a kind of jargon which changes from season to season’. The anti-theory stance of the populist press would not be far behind.
Benjamin suggests in this piece that art without any input into debates about the problems of perception had become esoteric, ‘almost a relic of a past era’. As a mere parade of style it might also suggest salvation around the corner. Art could now be rescued by a strong man, swept up, as it were, in his embrace.
In this sub-critical form of art talk we are not far away from the breathless world of romantic (or romance) fiction. As some critics have pointed out the relationship between romanticism and romance is predicated on gender. Romanticism is perhaps the masculine form and ‘romance’ the feminine form of the same aesthetic sensibility. Romantic love for girls (as opposed to heroism and other ‘outward’ motivations for boys) operates as a negation rather than an affirmation of the self. In this kind of romance and in romance fiction which is essentially the same thing, one is most oneself in being most erased.
Love and death, as exemplified in Moulin Rouge, are themselves romantically coupled. From well before the romantic period, we know that death had been one of the primary plot events in opera, and that male death (the death of the hero) had existed for some time as a theme of homoerotic intensity. But the death of an artist is perhaps specifically romantic since the (male) artist is the paradigmatic individual. The title of the Robin Williams’ film might well have been ‘The Dead Poets’ Fraternity’. Why, it seems necessary to ask, is a male literary figure (like Chatterton) more of a romantic figure in early/drug induced death than a woman? (The Sylvia Plath story is not really an exception to this since it has usually been cast as a gender and power struggle. Plath and Ted Hughes are bound together permanently like a soap version of Catherine and Heathcliff.)
In Australia you could contrast the reception of the deaths of two poets, Michael Dransfield and Vicki Viidikas. Dransfield’s figure, as it has been continually re-presented, is archly romantic: the poet who died young (partially) through drug use, whereas Viidikas could never escape the mundane squalor of her fate. She was ‘a junkie who once wrote poems’. There was no commercial spinoff after her death - Viidikas was not a prolific author though her work was highly regarded - and it may be some time before her poems appear in print again. On the other hand neither factual detail nor critical acumen were ever allowed to interfere with the myth at the heart of the Dransfield industry.
Death is at once ‘natural’ (even when ‘unnatural’) and a removal from ‘nature’. This paradox is reflected in the philosophies of romanticism with its contradictory approaches to the idea of nature. What is the relationship between the two romantic discourses, of standing out from nature, of being ‘against nature’ and of being ‘at one with nature’? Both attitudes are observable in the visual arts: collage reconstructs the world, ‘action painting’ is ‘inside’ it (organic). (Perhaps the recent concern with appropriation echoes the ‘against nature’ discourse?) In social terms these two attitudes are represented by the dandy with a lobster on a leash and by the ‘natural man’ or ‘child of nature’ and the only hinge I can see here seems, once more, to be a notion of the individual, whether as agonist or as tranquil perceiver.
Both discourses are reflected in the self-representations of capitalism in its various historical phases. JK Huysmans’ championship of the dandy (in Against Nature) sounds like the early capitalism of mining tycoons with its conspicuous consumption (the mansion on the hill) and its view of the world at large as an obstacle or a ‘challenge’. Wordsworth’s attentions to nature sound like the corporate strategies of boardroom capitalism with its advertising logos assuring us that ‘we’re always a part of your life’, ‘we’re clean and green’ &c (the ruse of announcing how unobtrusive you are). Interestingly the ‘dot.com’, or third phase of capitalism brings back the capitalist as a kind of (bohemian) adventurer, this time involved in the romance of making (and losing) money that may only exist on screen.
There is an amusing passage in a coffee table book on Australia which appeared in the mid 1960s. The author of the written text, novelist George Johnston, then recently returned from the Greek islands, reflects on the mining and business boom of those years with an enthusiasm buoyed up by bad faith, turning the masters of all this economic expansion into the heroes; a metamorphosis that would not at the time have embarrassed them:
Not long ago I revisited a city bar where in the old days the newspaper crowd and the artists and writers, and poets and actors got together to put their frustrations and despairs down among the ranked glasses. It had all changed. It was packed with businessmen, alert in their executive suits, most of them young. They stood on the marble floor shin-deep in a ground-growth of briefcases as thick and as brown as summer bracken. The place had been renamed the Explorers’ Bar, and all around there were murals of Bass and Flinders and Cook and Leichhardt and Sturt and Oxley.
Here the artists and the loners have been neatly scissored out of the romantic pantheon and replaced by the very figures who might have formerly taken pleasure in using the aesthetic adventurers as alter-egos. At the same time these new ‘heroes’ are located in nature (the bracken) and in history (the bar décor). Johnston proceeds to eulogise these figures:
From the lone weathered battlers, risk-taking and response to challenge have shifted more and more to the province of the banker, investor, capitalist and industrialist. These men, once collectively maligned in the political cartoons of a working man’s Utopia, have become the principal architects of our progress. It is almost as if they had taken inventory of us, their countrymen, and judged us as stable and on the whole thrifty, solvent and to an extent affluent even, and taken note in our pride in never having defected on what we owed.
Is there any escape from romanticism’s hall of mirrors? It seems for the moment unlikely. The capacity of this discourse to reproduce itself and its chameleon-like ability to be forever different forever the same will be hard to get around. One more instance of its durability may be seen in the recycling of partially sanitised myths of the ‘beat generation’. For some time I have been aware of a continuing attraction for young writers of those archetypical modern bohemians. I had myself eagerly read Kerouac and Ginsberg when younger, but have to admit some surprise at Kerouac’s continuing relevance for would-be writers (I can still read works of Ginsberg, up to around 1970, with pleasure, but doubt I will ever want to read Kerouac again). Kerouac was the Beat mythographer, the one who, in a sense, made it unnecessary for new bohemians to even read the work of other authors. Kerouac provided a descriptive entry to the world of low life, poetry and illicit substances, together with a name check of its cultural heroes. The invocation of these works, together with the products of earlier romantic bohemia like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, have become more important than their ingestion. Like the dandy affecting his yellow handkerchiefs and coloured drinks, the new bohemia constructs itself through superficial reference and a patina of derangement. The book as a physical object (and a marketing tool) becomes, like a pair of Calvin Klein underpants, the sign through which a subculture recognises itself. This is the world that is represented with unintentional clarity in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.