Plenitude: The Romantic feeling of joy

Against the postmodern view that the aim of art is to desecrate what is higher, to transgress sacred boundaries, or to disrupt the status quo, I posit that contemplative art glorifies while active art makes what is more plentiful. The tradition espousing the fullness of being is, of course, Romanticism.

For all his bluster against Romanticism as a form of decadence, Nietzsche certainly picked up one motif less (or so I suspect) from the scene of Greek orgy and more from his Romantic predecessors. In one of his final works, Twilight of the Idols, he writes effulgently of that ‘overflowing feeling of life,’ that ‘affirmation of life,’ the ‘eternal joy of becoming’ which he associates with Dionysus. In a Dionysian view of life as art,

Every individual detail in the act of procreation, pregnancy, birth, awoke the most exalted and solemn feelings. In the teachings of the mysteries, pain is sanctified: the ‘pains of childbirth’ sanctify pain in general–all becoming and growing, all that guarantees the future, postulates pain… For the eternal joy in creating to exist, for the will to life eternally to affirm itself, the ‘torment of childbirth’ must also exist eternally…

This passage points me back to Lovejoy’s tour de force, The Great Chain of Being. The principal pursuit in this book is the fate of the principle of plenitude. Initially, the principle held that all that was essential–sometimes individual items, more often kinds–must be actual: for God to create just means for him to create all at once, fixedly, and for good all that was logically possible (the logical restriction refers to God’s inability to create ‘square circles,’ ‘married bachelors,’ etc.). Assisted by the principles of gradation (that existent beings slowly ascended from lower to higher) and the principle of continuity (that there could be no gaps in reality), the principle of plenitude could fill out the cosmos, making it teem with every kind of life. The creative act thus was an act of achieving fullness, of holding nothing back.

By a lengthy process spelled out marvelously in Lovejoy’s book, this principle of plenitude gets carried forward into modernity where it then and but only slowly moves from the static to the developmental. On the ‘evolutionistic’ conception (in Lovejoy’s lumbering jargon), all that is possible must be actualized not at once but rather slowly over time. The Romantics, taking up this theme, end up conceiving of art as a kind of ‘assistance’ to the ongoing creative actualization. As Lovejoy writes, because ‘God [was regarded] as insatiably creative, it followed that man who, as moral agent and as artist, would imitate God, must do so by himself becoming creative.’

I believe the active Romantic view is still very much with us in the twenty-first century and is justified on the grounds that the creative impulse is generative of further life. It is a bringing the perceptible, experiencable world into greater and greater fullness; bringing the world more out of itself or to itself. Following this impulse, the Romantic artist, whose work may be art or life or both, seeks to multiply diversity upon diversity neither because he chooses to nor because he wants to but because he cannot do otherwise. The world’s fullness, its abundance has yet to achieve its final realization. What can he do but assist the world in its becoming what it seeks to be, in its becoming what it is?

One must imagine a Romantic artist going through life in such a way as to actualize the inchoate, the not yet, the real with no other aim apart from an ‘overflowing feeling of [more and more] life.’ Is this not the very essence of joy: the real becoming more real?