Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Romance of Salvation

One of the most intriguing books I have ever read is Charles Rosen's Romanticism and Realism (coauthored with Henri Zerner). While I wouldn't want to attempt a quick summary of the argument, one basic idea is that nineteenth-century artists and authors, in an attempt to escape the narrow confines of rationalism (and often appealing to medievalism to do so), delighted in depicting the human subject as preeminent over all artistic depictions of reality, and in some sense, ruling over reality as a result. Another way of saying this is that the 19th century Romantics elevated the personal story above any objective fact. Interpretation is everything.

A very different book dealing also with Romanticism and claiming to divulge the 'true Romanticism' is The Figure of Beatrice by Charles Williams. He claims that the essence of Romanticism (and we are talking about an idea related to the roman or 'romance' in the sense of 'story') is careful attention to the actual details of a story that comes to us from outside ourselves, and to which we, like dutiful knights of old, vow ourselves and submit ourselves. The example, obviously, is Dante who after various attempts at writing his own story, found himself in exile and ruined. Instead of despairing or plotting his revenge, he decided to submit himself to the story that God was trying to write for him back when he was a mere lad, smitten with the glory of the young Beatrice. He ends up writing the ur-story of the Christian, the story of repentance, conversion, death and resurrection.

Like the 19th-century Romantics, Dante was able to put himself at the center of the story, even after submitting himself to the contours of the Christian narrative. Unlike most of what has been accomplished by the newer Romantics, Dante's personal journey serves as a model for all of us, and so points the way toward a preeminence of the human that does not devolve into solipcism.

These thoughts came to me as we chanted Psalm 67 this morning at Vigils, "The singers in the forefront, the musicians coming last, between them maidens sounding the timbrels." I found myself imagining some anonymous young Israelite maidens 3000 years ago, dancing and singing in a victory parade. Could they have known that their actions were paradigms for monks in the 21st century? They could not; but they served that function inasmuch as they submitted to the story with all their might. God has triumphed and I, as one of God's small ones, will rejoice.

It is noteworthy that where Williams claims to be describing the 'true Romanticism', Rosen merely reports objectively as a scholar on this phenomenon in subjectivity. By refusing to commit to the agenda of the romantics, he in a sense adopts their paradigm of supreme detachment from commitment to anything beyond self.

The question in this for me as a Christian is this: will I commit myself to the romance of salvation, or will I try to write my own story without God?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had to read this twice in order to understand what you were trying to say, but I think I "got it"!

It reminds me of a wedding I attended wherein the priest during his homily spoke of how the couple doesn't make marriage "their own" so much as enter something much larger than themselves. They become part of the larger "story", if you will.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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