I recently heard a broadcast on "All Things Considered" about a polymath in the Romantic era, E.T.A. Hoffman. He was the writer of the original tale, "The Nutcracker," which was, of course, made famous by Tchaikovsky and is now a venerable Christmas tradition.
By anonymous Russian 19th century photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hoffman was a staunch proponent of German Romanticism, and the original Nutcracker story was much wilder, scarier, and more rugged than the prettified version we see today. It was re-written by Alexandre Dumas to be lighter and happier; later Dumas' version was taken up by the Russian ballet company that commissioned Tchaikovsky to write the music. In the original tale, the young child (originally "Marie," a name with serious religious connotations as well as a very common name, not "Klara," which means "light," as Dumas changed it to) actually leaves this world at the end of the story, and goes to live permanently in the magical world that has come to life before her eyes. All the other stories have the adventures of the Nutcracker, mice, etc., as being mere daydreams of a darling child, after which she wakes up and joins the delightful Christmas party her family is throwing. But the original story suggests a complete, irreversible giving over of herself to the world of... the world of what? Is is imagination, or is it insanity? (That's the question I ask, anyway.)
This story has made me ponder over the past few days. During Hoffman's time, the cultural struggle was perceived to be Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, rationality vs. imagination. It was a war over how to define Beauty. And it's an important war, because how we define Beauty is largely how we define ourselves. Is Beauty a set of rules, perfect form, and crisp lines? Or is it fantastical trains of thought, natural form, and blurry lines? (I had a professor once tell me that Beauty is a set of scientific formulae, and he had the book that proved it...I can't remember the book, but I was skeptical.) Is Beauty about the mind controlling nature and shaping it to our will, or is it about letting nature control us? Is there even a distinction between the two when all is said and done? (And is it a question of control at all?)
Hoffman, obviously, promoted the Romantic view. He probably had good reasons to do so. He was living in a specific time, and the cultural landscape he saw was such that he felt prompted to express an artistic ideal that would influence culture away from its imbalance. I sympathize with him, but I am actually concerned about his ideas. This battle is one that rages in my psyche, today in the 21st century, even though it was fought long ago in the 19th.
I am terribly afraid of irrationality.
I enjoy dipping my toes into the waters of imagination, and I long to swim, but these waters lead all too easily to the darkness of insanity. I feel its pull whenever I start to go there. I get lost easily (Pisces Moon) in stories, movies, music, art. That's why I actually tend to avoid them unless I have a lot of energy, or someone to help, because coming back to reality is difficult for me. Imagination is bliss, with a bite.
Material grounding and mental rationality save me from that bite.
Most people wouldn't ask this question, as it seems obvious, but I am open and curious enough to ask myself--"What's wrong with going insane?" No really. If it's bliss and pure imagination, why would I want to miss out on that? After some thinking, the thing that feels wrong about it is the undoing of Self, for when I can no longer distinguish between where I stop and the other figures begin, is when there is no more "I" at all. It's the fear of death, and every creature is programmed to survive. Well, I actually don't particularly care much anymore about living, (and I mean that in a matter-of-fact way, not a suicidal or depressed way--I'm not afraid of dying, and I have accepted the futility of existence). But I do care about suffering, and I know that without me others will suffer, and that's reason enough to preserve the "I" as long as possible.
By the way, my song "Dancing in Neptune" is partially a joyous celebration of the experience of losing the "I," (it's also a song about "leadership"), but the truth is, it's not a song whose message I really like. I hate it, actually, but the muses don't always give me a lot of choice in what to write.
I tend to avoid fantasy (I use the word broadly to include anything of imagination, not only to a specific genre of literature), not because I don't understand it, but because I understand it too well. I have strong contempt for people who aren't rational, and you know what they say about strong reactions having roots in one's Shadow. In my case, it's true. My strong contempt for irrational people comes from an important figure my Shadow: Imagination.
Imagination wants to make me feel so deeply that I lose my grasp on what little self-determination I actually have; Imagination wants to dissolve my boundaries and bring me into the vast ocean of the universe's oblivion. Which is all well and good, except the fact that Reality exists, it sucks, and at least two people are depending on me to help it suck a little less. Being undone now would make Reality worse for these two people, and I can't let that happen. Damn you, Imagination.
This sobering, deep understanding of what the Romantics are calling for makes me wonder if any of them actually fully understood what they were really asking their audience to do. In Consensus Reality, Hoffman lived a successful career as a lawyer and judge. Apparently, he didn't have a hard time coming back from the depths, even though he urged his audience not to do so. Maybe his work was an attempt to bring balance to an unbalanced culture, but for me, I'm afraid of being unbalanced the opposite direction.
So give me Dumas' version of "The Nutcracker," where happy and (En)light(enment) "Klara" has a nice little daydream, and then wakes up and has a lovely Christmas with her kind, normal, rational family. There is plenty there, with masterful writing and lovely imagery, to find beautiful. I can't afford the trip to Hoffman's real intentions. (But I'm sure these aren't my last words on the topic, either...)