Ideology, Romanticism, Neo-Romanticism, and Aughts Philly

How scholar Jerome McGann defines romanticism in his notable tome “The Romantic Ideology”— an unthinking, unquestioning belief in a certain circumscribed ideology/set of ideological assumptions, aesthetic and otherwise— does apply, in a more limited sense, to the Philly Free School and most of the other key players in the Aughts Philadelphia Renaissance. Yet, as I noticed while studying for my comp exams at Temple in the late Aughts, there is a double-bind and a contradiction built into McGann’s famous, and famously ambiguous, formulation— the entire gist of ideology (and ideologies) is that different groups and sub-groups expend cognitive effort to develop and establish ideologies, so that no worked-over ideology does not have cognitive effort built into it; in other words, developed ideologies presuppose thoughts and questions. What McGann seems to be suggesting about English Romanticism (first and second generation included) is this: once the ideological parameters around their artistic endeavors were set, no more earnest cognition was devoted to anything but ideological consolidation— the Romantic Ideology was taken to be axiomatic enough that ideological interrogations and revisions were deemed unnecessary. The Romantics were self-expressive, self-reflective, and self-determinative; they saw and toiled to manifest the explosive potentialities of the subjective. To be reductive (and cute), they put the “I” in ideology, and sought the indirect route to objective truths through subjective ones.

Here’s another split between myself and most of Aughts Philly— if, as a collective, we have a patron saint among the English Romantics, it must, for a number of key reasons, be John Keats. One reason his Odes have aged so beautifully is that, despite (like his cronies) putting the “I” in ideology and developing his subjectivities in characteristic Romantic fashion (torch filched from Wordsworth/Coleridge by imaginative cunning), Keats presents himself and his visions in a prescient (anticipating not only Neo-Romanticism but countless strains of century XX culture before us) mode of “noir” or “deep noir”; the darkness and monotony of Regency London, in the midst of an impinging and strictly-speaking unnatural Industrial Revolution and factory-culture, and the place of a classical-minded (enlightened elitist/classicist) poet generating friction-sparks by struggling against it. Among the Odes, "Nightingale" and "Grecian Urn" create a gestalt-world not unlike "The Lost Twins" and "The Skaters"— all is shadowy, spectral, and obsessed with an evanescent past; and all manifest meanings are multiple, and create cognitive multiplications for their audience. The implicit split, for me personally, from Aughts Philly had come to fruition in Apparition Poems, and has to do with William Wordsworth, and an odd aesthetic attachment I had/have to him, even in the turbid depths of deep noir; a kind of compact I refused to break. Wordsworth’s aesthetic, much more so than Keats’, includes vistas suggestive of moral interests— that high art need not evade morality and moral issues, but take cognizance of them as an act of defiant, comprehensive courage and courageous, passionate humanism.

I both do and do not mean to imply that Aughts Philly was characterized by immorality, or immoral impulses or amoral ones. It was not particularly questioned, in our collective ideology, that all of us were on a vision quest for personal socio-aesthetic and socio-sexual fulfillment, and did not very much mind applying a little elbow grease to ride roughshod over people and situations which stood in our way. The conflict of wills among us could be terrible— yet one thing we had going for us, also, was a streak of Romantic Sincerity, which guaranteed that, despite all the circumstantial twists and turns of our lives, we were (many of us) able to cut through the bullshit and commiserate with each other on profound levels. We embraced emotions, and passions, and lived in them without the thought of too much objectivity— in other words, we were authentically young. Whether McGann could align us successfully with the English Romantics is an interesting question— but the key weakness in McGann’s formulation, from the beginning, is that he never seems to stop and think how his Romantic Ideology paradigm applies to any artist or art-group worth their salt— for genuine artists, unsettling ideological assumptions is less important than remaining emotionally, sexually, socially, and creatively fluid and fluent, and ideology itself be damned.