When I took German in college, a professor tried—mostly in vain—to teach us 1970s kids the true meaning of Romantic. That’s with a capital R, because I’m talking about an academic and artistic movement of the 19th century that elevated imagination and emotion over reason, glorified the individual and transformed the artist into a hero.
Or something like that.
Anyways, the professor showed us a series of slides—kind of like a beta version of PowerPoint, if you’re too young to know what a slide is—and asked us to identify Romantic symbols and themes in art.
One slide depicted a woman who could use few trips to the gym, gazing at a full moon over a placid lake at midnight. We all waxed professorial in pointing out the painting’s obvious and important Romantic characteristics.
And then got our butts chewed.
“Oh, my God,” the professor wailed, “look at the insipid look on the woman’s face! The moon and water are overwrought clichés. The painting is so leaden with treacle, it makes one’s teeth ache just looking at it.”
Frenzied note-taking ensued. Everyone wanted to be prepared in case this woman showed up on the final.
And yet, here I am, thirty-five years later, still a sucker for treacle.
The other night I was driving home along Lake Michigan and noticed the full moon paving a shimmering path over the calm black water. I pulled over to spend a minute taking it in without having to suffer the annoyance of making the car stay on the road. Moon River, wider than a mile. I’ll never get enough of that.
On the other hand, I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand the 19th century Romantic Movement. But I do highly regard imagination. I have deduced that people aren’t very good at reasoning. And I’m all for the Romantic notion of going out and beyond—following that siren lure of the undulating moonlight on the water into realms shrouded in darkness but dotted with beckoning luminaries.
OK, that’s overwrought. But I was born under the water sign of Cancer—in June, a month whose birth stone is pearl and whose “planet” is the moon. My psyche overflows with water and romantic symbolism.
What draws me to sights like the moon over the lake is not, as many people asset, the reminder of how small we are against the backdrop of the cosmos. God knows we’re presented with myriad reminders of that each and every day. No, with me, it’s the way our minds connect to the cosmos to make us so much larger than our physical bodies.
And here, I think, is where romantic meets Romantic. Just as experiencing the expanse of the sky or a great lake can meld us to bigger things, being in love gives us a hero—an ally against powerful forces that would just as soon squish us like upside-down June bugs writhing on a sidewalk on a hot afternoon.
Maybe that’s overwrought, too—but so what? Give me an F on the exam. We in the 21st century could use a new romantic movement.
One with a lower-case r.