The Radical Romantic 

A manifesto

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
Illustration by Dana Collins

What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers

—Dave Eggers,
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


Irony’s a dead man’s game. The bootless rage and disappointment that’s been the hollow core of serious art is proving pointless as a peach, and is being replaced by a giant red heart, shining and satin and engulfed in lace. But don’t mistake my bloated metaphors or any subsequent rhetorical fancy for coolness, distance, callow cynicism or irony double-jeu. We who are the new romantics, the radical romantics, embrace all the art in nature and the nature in art — for we believe in everything, and especially in our feelings, which loom large and grand and improbable as whole elephants.

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Born in the middle of the parting, groping
in with two beautiful eyes on your arm

—Brenda Shaughnessy,


On June 1, 2001, Le Monde announced a new French fascination with the medieval, as providing a paradis perdu of chivalry and unity, of Nature, near and intact, of life unvulgarized, that bears no semblance to anyone’s present existence. Although Le Monde felt obliged to note that in the actual M.E. there were famine, epidemic and “la misère,” still, as “l’Europe au Xxe siècle le tragique champ clos des affrontements nationalistes” (20th-century Europe is a tragic field fenced off by nationalist clashes), the 21st century finds renewal through “‘le Moyen Age énorme et délicat’ cher aux romantiques.” Here, we’ve had Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale (He Will Rock You), and another wave of interest in Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century saint whose catchall appeal is to middle-aged papists what the protean William James is to middle-aged Protestants. The Romantics of the 19th century similarly are affined with the Middle Ages: There was greatness there amongst the meanness, a greatness made more magical by its measure of seeming innocence.

The contemporary American poet Carl Phillips said mystery is needed to preserve innocence. Innocence, it is presumed, is the prerequisite of poetry. (This sounds simple and thus suspicious, but art’s sleeveless job has always been the caulking of the known to the sloppy unknowable. Valéry thought the communicative purpose of prose led to its postcoital demise, where the very incomprehensibility of poetry kept it alive beyond intercourse: The unknowable persists at the expense of the known.) But to insist on poetic innocence these days is as old-time-religion as virgin birth. As the 19th-century Romantics lauded the chaste love of Dante for his Beatrice, we of the 21st would applaud the muddy-handed medieval romances of friendship, such as Amis and Amiloun, where leprosy is inflicted and children slain in their sleep, all in the name of all-knowing brotherly love. For though it’s a coin toss which is rarer — love unpredicated or love hideously aware — we live in a time of inescapable and awful consciousness. We know ourselves and our kind too well.


We want art that’s not impotent.


The victim of an ironic situation is typically innocent.

—Anne Carson,
Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve
(second draft)


To wit and e.g., the forerunners of radical romanticism, the great postwar writers of Germany and its territories who still wrote in German. Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian teenager during the war, wrote poems under an eternal summer sun; in her country, the world was beginning to brown and there was only autumn, then winter’s deeper deaths to come. Like hell and L.A., her poems are brightly lit and writhe regularly in self-immolation. Paul Célan knew his deutsche Margareta and the ash-headed Shulamith would forever dance together, and despite himself, dared to make beauty in that dance. Later, Célan’s poetry would become increasingly incomprehensible as his language turned more and more on itself: the tongue crumbling under the weight of the “word with no meaning” (When I Don’t Know, Don’t Know). W.G. Sebald puts photos in his books of things he’d like to recall as he takes his own small retracing steps, because he knows there’s nothing like a picture of Grandpa in a black shirt to eclipse personal memory and the family scrapbook.

If modernism and postmodernism were born of the failure of war, radical romanticism is the product of sustained prosperity and the absence of befuddling conflict. We grew up dancing on home videos and currently spit Web sites like sunflower seeds; we’ve been taught our homespun genocides and tragedies and been given the gift of absolute virtual anonymity. We are the greasy assassins and the blooming corpses of quiet and unoccupied space; like God, we are everywhere always and want to be kissed. Similarly, I know I was born with blood on my hands, I accept my personal responsibility for slavery, for the plight of all aborigines, for famine and bird-headed babies, and I feel sorry and goddamned as a good German. On the other hand, I’ve suffered too, you know, life’s no bowl of Cheerios, but then again, just like a regular divinity, my sufferings are more or less deserved and my complicity largely assured. Our mystery is our guilty selves, and if we peel the faces from our skulls, what we find is feeling. Our stories lie there, just beneath the bone, bubbling between the seams, and as it turns out, they are stories that sound slick and sometimes cool but which scream what the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers.

  • A manifesto

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