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Romantic Modernism and the Self

John Steadman Rice

Graffiti of Frankenstein’s monster in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Photo by Zarateman.

Romantic Modernism espouses and rests upon a distinction between formal rationality and emotion, intuition, spirituality, and individual expressive freedom. This distinction is reflected in the Romantic Modernist view of the appropriate relationship between the individual and society, which is predicated upon a distinction between a true self and a false self, with the latter understood in terms of the social roles that society imposes upon and demands of the individual. This societal imposition, in turn, is seen as a violation of the self ’s integrity and the individual’s expressive freedom. Indeed, a “feeling of being violated by an inimical society… lies at the root of Romantic alienation,”11xMichael J. Hoffman, The Subversive Vision: American Romanticism in Literature (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1972), 46. an alienation born of the Romantic Modernist’s apprehensive “consciousness of the void beneath the conventional structures of reality.”22xHoffman, 9.

This premise of the self ’s violation at the hands of an “inimical society,” however, is but the dark side of the Romantic Modernist world view. This “negative Romanticism” is perhaps most clearly embodied in American literature by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose oeuvre repeatedly emphasizes the horrors of the age—horrors, in turn, that resonate with the Romantic Modernist convictions that rationalism is bankrupt and that the modern self is doomed to estrangement, isolation, alienation, madness, and so on. Nor are these uniquely American strains of Romanticism. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a Romantic allegory as to the consequences of modernity’s heedless reliance on scientific versions of rationalism.

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