Romance and its Dark Side.


Romance now takes center-stage on the horizontal axis of the story-telling model I’ve been developing in postings over the last year.

Romance defines the undying human urge to “believe in better.” Romance is the most energetic of storytelling moods, because it awakens us to new possibilities and to our own hidden power to transform “what is now ” into “what could be.”  It is the foundation of all our Utopias. Through the Romantic process we have a shot at reaching “the new normal” — a place of contentment or creativity.

Yet to reach this better world, we must first experience some level of pain. That is the dark side.

Recently I wrote about the astonishing success of the silent film The Artist, which affects viewers strongly by perfectly encapsulating the Romantic trope. I’ve also explained how the three-dimensional story axis works, and how Romance fits in as one of the four core narratives that define our mood and emotional reaction to the basic facts of any story.

The object of Romance may be individual: a new life, a new love or partnership, a new personal quest. Or it may be collective: a new society or community, a new philosophy or religion. Either way, what’s important is our faith in an expanding or evolving universe of new and ever-greater possibilities that we can shape through our free will, courage, and open hearts.

Using Romance as a storytelling mode unlocks the power of dreams and imagination. And Romance confronts the demobilising powers of Satire, irony and nihilism, replacing them with the power of what’s possible. Romance is the storyteller’s most powerful tool, as it can transform daily events into a mythic journey with the power to mobilise the most timid soul.

Whilst the Classical or conservative mind-set holds that man’s greatest achievements lie behind us and that modern civilisation may be ironically summed up as “footnotes to Plato,” the Romantic spirit holds firmly that the best is always yet to come. Because Romance – whether expressed in the form of poetry, drama, novels, film or any other medium – explores life’s journey and the fulfilling (or otherwise) of human potential, these stories always unlock huge amounts of energy in audiences.

That’s why, of course, the image of the Romantic Hero is so important. There is one inside each of us. The Adventure of the Hero and the cycle of change described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces may seem forbidding and inaccessible, with its extremes of initiation, transformation, rebirth and return.

But Campbell made clear this journey underlies every personal transformation, great or small. He wrote: “The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. That is why it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general formula, and let it assist him past his restricting walls.”

Not everyone must follow in the dramatic footsteps of big-screen heroes or heroines, to live the life of Madame Bovary or Tom Jones or Anna Karenina. The Romantic element is defined as having the courage to undertake the transformation, rather than its scale. But in every case, the Romantic is willing to put aside the familiar, in search of a new and enhanced life.

Return is possible, but by no means certain. In Ulysses, the poet Tennyson describes the ageing Greek hero’s decision to abandon his kingdom to sail away into unknown adventures with his companions:

‘To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.’

The adventure and its rewards are so compelling, that risk of failure is less of a threat than the peril of remaining home to simply rust away with age:

‘It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.’

But Romance, of course, celebrates success and the happy ending. The triumph of good, of virtue rewarded, after many trials and tribulations. Despite their failings and self-deceptions, Emma and Jane Austen’s other heroines all end up with the men of their choice. Indiana Jones always ends up safely back at his teaching job, another talismanic trophy stored in a museum out of harm’s way. After the loss of everything else in his life, the hero of The Artist finally gets his tap-dancing starlet.

From an individual perspective, how should men or women honour their Romantic ideals? How can we be true to Campbell’s principle of life as a courageous journey of change – when so many ties bind us to the present, and to the old or familiar? The price that Romance exacts is a high one.

The truth is that the Romantic’s destiny is to deliver hurt to others by journeying forwards – or to hurt himself by placing the needs of others above his own urge for growth and discovery. We must choose between the pain of leaving, or the pain of getting stuck.

Believing in this power of renewal conflicts with belief in gradual incrementalism: there will always be a jolt, a crisis, a loss, as the thresh-hold is crossed and the initiation begins. To “believe in better” often means we must inflict the worst. Yet the pain of being untruthful to oneself is greater than any temporary suffering the journey of discovery may bring.

The revelation of a fuller life demands that we be purged through catharsis: the old self must be burned away as we experience loss, as the price of being able to go forward. The revival of our powers and vitality demands a sacrifice, a little death, before we can return. That is why, in Campbell’s trajectory, Refusal of the Call is an ‘early exit’ that turns the Hero into a victim and suspends his journey.

The anguish of the Romantic is to contemplate loss, and then plunge deliberately forward into crisis in search of an ideal. Equipped with no more than a sense of destiny to guide him, he must cast off into the unknown ocean.

But before that, of course, he must heed the Call to Adventure (the first phase of the Journey identified by Campbell). By definition, this Call is improbable, unlooked-for,  and after years in a stable or secure environment, perhaps unwelcome. This “awakening of the self” opens the Romantic adventure.

Do I myself possess the authenticity, courage and the heart needed to confront more Romantic journeys of discovery? I hope so. Over 40 years of  incessant journeying and life-transitions, and travel to the corners of the earth – sometimes with just a one-way ticket and a reporter’s notebook – I thought I had earned the spurs of an adventurer, who no longer felt the pain of attachment and detachment. Untrue.  I know that each contemplated departure is just as much of a wrench as the first time. There is no shame in admitting that fear, uncertainty, doubt assail me.

For any Romantic, there is no avoiding the pain, or avoiding the deep questions about what must be left behind. But there is a profound difference between behaviour driven by fear or shame, and behaviour that rests on the inner security of truthfulness to an inner vision – regardless of what the world thinks.

“Romantic” might suggest the journey and the chaos of initiation must always be about emotional or sexual attachment; the search for the true life-partner. That’s not always so. Last year I wrote a post that posited the modern entrepreneur or small businessman encapsulates the archetypal journey of the Hero. I suggested that the entrepreneur’s journey – setting out in business alone – is truly a Romantic image for our modern times. I suggest this entrepreneur’s journey revisits all the Seven Basic Story types in my storytelling model.

In business and in public arenas such as the world of entertainment, many don’t make it through.

Last year I wrote about the interrupted journeys and unresolved narratives of three types of modern hero who occupy top places in our celebrity pantheon: the rock star, the sports personality, and the mass murderer. What I tried to show, taking the death of singer Amy Winehouse as my starting-point, is that the Romantic myth exacts a high price and many get lost along the way – perhaps because we as audiences require our celebrities live that risk and danger.

In collective terms, Romance also has its dark side – the moment when the euphoria of belief turns on itself and in turn attacks the faithful. What we believe in can – if left untended – turn into its opposite. There’s no greater example of the Romantic spirit undone than the transformation of the French Revolution of 1789 into the 1794 Terror of Robespierre.

I’ve picked this example because a study of the way historians approached the French Revolution is one of the key themes of Metahistory, the 1973 study by historian and cultural critic Hayden White. His work significantly influences my thinking about how all narratives are formed and presented. I made extensive use of his ideas on narrativity.

Basically, White’s book reveals through a study of leading 19th century historians and philosophers, that there’s no such thing as an empirical account of events. Everyone is telling a story, consciously or not. His case studies of historians use rules that can equally be applied to politicians, economists, business leaders or sportsmen.

White showed even respected historians play with the facts to create emotionally coherent narratives around four familiar types of plot: Tragic, Comic, Satirical or Romantic. He uses the historian Jules Michelet’s treatment of the French Revolution as his case study for the Romantic view of human history. In the end, White says Michelet believes: “everything appearing in history must be assessed finally in terms of the contribution it makes to the realisation of the goal.”

For Michelet (1798-1874), the French Revolution was good for “worshippers of the future” because it swept away the darkness and oppression of the monarchy, and put human society back in contact with its true nature. It was only temporarily bad because as the dream faded, evil and division in human life was reborn. The promise of Utopia was battered yet still intact.

But whatever the tragedies unlocked by the Terror, the French Revolution was fundamentally a good Romantic plot. And that, says White, is why Michelet picked “Romance as the narrative form to be used to make sense out of the historical process conceived as a struggle of essential virtue against a virulent, but ultimately transitory vice.”

The other great example of this same Romantic story turned on its head is the Russian Revolution and its transformation into the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s. There’s no better way to attack a Romantic ideal than to use the power of Satire. Which is why George Orwell’s Animal Farm is such a powerful indictment of Communism that it was in compulsory use for decades as a school set book in countries with a deep-seated fear of  socialism, like the UK.

The Romantic dream of Old Major, the patriarchal pig who teaches other farm animals the utopian song “Beasts of England,” is transformed through Rebellion into a nightmare situation where a new generation of pig-oppressors treat the other animals worse than humans ever did. Orwell’s bleak satire shows how Romantic ideals of egalitarian, socialist economy are corrupted by inherent inequality.

Personal or collective, the Romantic journey is one of belief in better – and the pain of choice. Yet such is the promise of gain, of growth and of self-realistation, we will always confront the pain.

©2012 Richard House

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