Into the Wild is a 2007 American biographical drama survival film written and directed by Sean Penn, based on the travels of Christopher McCandless across North America and his life spent in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s.
I’m a stickler for firsts and origins, almost childishly so, or at least obsessively.
While researching Goya I stumbled on a letter by Goya to Bernardo de Iriarte dated January 4, 1794, in which I read:
I have devoted myself to painting a group of pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention.” (tr. Enriqueta Harris)
Goya’s insistence on his artistic freedom (key to the notion of “romantic originality“) in making art with ‘fantasy‘ and ‘invention‘ “for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works” makes this dictum one of the candidates for a Manifesto of Romanticism.
Other dicta which emphasize the egomaniac (wording by Nordau) importance the Romantics placed on untrammelled feeling is the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that “the artist’s feeling is his law” and William Wordsworth‘s ascertainment that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“.
In the Dutch language, the poet Willem Kloos said “I am a god in the deepest core of my thoughts,” giving voice to the Romantic conception of the artist.
Goya was a god too (and perhaps the first Romantic painter) though not a god that sought to please, soothe, nor comfort.
For years, for example, I thought that the winged words “back to nature!“, the credo of Romanticism and later a creed of hippiedom, can be attributed to the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In fact, he never said such a thing.
Dictologists (I just made that up) call such errors misattributions.
There is a second misattribution of Rousseau: the term “noble savage,” found 20,000 times in Google Books alone. Nowhere did Rousseau write that. As Peter Gay says “in the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up”.
The reason for these misattributions is what we call the “popular imagination,” a ‘space’ in which ideas (or memes if you want) start to live lives of their own, like urban legends, tall tales, traditional stories, myths, misconceptions and apocrypha.
Coming back to Rousseau, one has to admit that there is no smoke without fire. Indeed, Rousseau said things similar to “noble savage” and “back to nature”, as attested for example by “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” which is the incipit of Emile, or On Education which indicates that man in state of nature is good and becomes corrupted thereafter.
And then there is Voltaire’s notorious letter to Rousseau in which Voltaire said:
- “I have received your new book [The Social Contract] against the human race and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs on reading your book to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of renewing it.”
And of course, there exists an undeniable link between the “cult of nature” and Romanticism, which is best exemplified by the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
But since that painting is known beyond cliché, I give you Ritterburg / Felsenschloß (above) by German painter Karl Friedrich Lessing.
Look where this sufferer from artistism, this bourgeoisophobe, this starving artist, this beautiful loser, this bohemian, this tortured artist, this seeker of artistic inspiration, this man afraid of writer’s block, look at where this poor soul ends up: in a garret with a leaking roof.
The “Pégase romantique” caricature by Jean-Gabriel Scheffer (above) depicts from left to right Petrus Borel, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas sitting on a giant crayfish. Or is that the pet lobster Gérard Nerval supposedly took for walks in Paris on the end of a blue ribbon?
The motto of the caricature (top) reads ‘rien n’est beau que le laid; le laid seul est aimable,’ which translates as “Only the ugly is beautiful, only the ugly is likeable,” illustrating the cult of ugliness professed by for example Victor Hugo (“Le beau n’a qu’un type ; le laid en a mille“).
I found this image while researching the bouzingo, a group of minor French artists active in 1830s Paris. The source of the image is the excellent piece of grey lterature Pétrus Borel: Background, Reception and Interpretation (1999) by Erik S. Bovee.