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Dupre, Louis. The Quest of the Absolute. Birth and Decline of European Romanticism.

DUPRE, Louis. The Quest of the Absolute. Birth and Decline of European Romanticism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Indiana Press. 2013. 387pp. Paper, $36.00--This book is the third in a trilogy by Dupre, which examines the emergence and development of modernity, in as far as we consider it a stage radically separated by a "caesura" from Ancient and Medieval modes of thinking and of living. The first and greatest merit of this particular study is its organization. It differs from the numerous other studies of Romanticism by its stratification. The first section is devoted to poetry. There follows a somewhat more hybrid section which includes psychology, ethics, fictional typologies, aesthetic and political theories, and finally, at the top of the pyramid an examination of Romantic theories of history, philosophical systems, and incursions in the Romantic understanding of religion. Dupre indicates from the very beginning that for various reasons, mostly connected with space, he will limit himself to the French, German, and English cultures, even though he regrets that he will not be able to deal with major figures such as Mickiewicz, Manzoni, and sundry Americans.

The main argument of Louis Dupre is that the Romantics tried to complete the modernist movement by aspiring to overcome the limits and the finitude of human nature, therefore reaching toward the absolute not only in literature, but also in politics, philosophy, and religion. Another way of putting it is that Romantics sought a modification and improvement of human nature and the human species. The project inevitably had to collapse, but its impact on the subsequent two centuries (only briefly alluded to by Dupre) remained enormous, perhaps decisive. This definition of Romanticism is not original, in fact it is widely shared by scholars of the period and of the movement. The merit of Dupre is his rounded outlook, his ability to combine levels and segments of Romantic activity, and thus to offer the reader a convincing and substantial image. Simultaneously, Dupre provides excellent thumbnail portraits and descriptions of some major Romantic figures. This may prove extremely useful to future scholars.

Among the most solid contributions in Dupre's book I will mention a few. Defining both Fichte and Schelling as the "signature" philosophers of Romanticism, while Kant at one end, and Hegel at the other are only partially contributors, is a fully justified and helpful understanding. Moreover, insisting that the often marginalized Maine de Biran is their equal, and a pioneering figure for the whole of nineteenth-century idealism must be approved and applauded. (As Nietzsche could not be understood without Fichte, so Bergson cannot be understood without Maine de Biran.) Explaining why and how Proudhon ever remained a Romantic clarifies much that is otherwise bizarre in the writings of this disorienting sociological pamphleteer. Establishing the role of Schleiermacher as that of the prototypical Romantic theologian is quite appropriate, and his influence on otherwise opposing figures such as the Catholic J. A. Mohler contributes to our comprehension. Dupre justly understands that, despite the greatness of Goethe and of Schiller, when we seek the greatest poetic figures of German Romanticism we ought to focus on Holderlin and Novalis. The discussion on the sublime and the beautiful (though Burke is missing) is well depicted and correctly pointed out as central to Romanticism. It is original and useful on the part of Dupre that he presented Joseph de Maistre not as a mere political commentator, but as a thinker with a solid ontological (largely Thomistic) foundation.

These and many other felicities make Dupre's book worth reading and some defects (the limping grasp of Coleridge and the minimizing of Chateaubriand) seem, by comparison modest and quaint.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Dupre is the way in which he suggests delicately the continuing impact of Romanticism. In the chapter on religion this is more clearly formulated. The author points out there that the "return to Gnosticism" and the increasing interest in all kinds of mythologies were fundamental dimensions of a newly found religiosity. We speak usually of "Romantic pantheism": this is true enough, but the attempt to somehow bring together (even fuse) all religions (see Benjamin Constant, Gorres, also Auguste Comte, and many others) was also a legacy of the Romantics.

In the long run we continue to feel the hand of Romanticism in our thinking and even in our everyday life. The great inheritance of Romanticism was the large treasury of concepts and images on which we still draw. Virtually every subsequent generation produced its own neo-Romanticism, all the way to the twentieth century. Chief political trends of the twentieth century (Communism, Nazism, ecologism, and others) could not be conceived without their Romantic roots and background. Even popular movements (rock and pop music, "New Age" theories, and many others) developed through the filter of Romanticism. Louis Dupre's book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this evolution.--Virgil Nemoianu, Catholic University of America.
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Author:Nemoianu, Virgil
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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