- The Triumph of Imperfection: The Silver Age of Sociocultural Moderation in Europe, 1815–1848
Intended as a sequel to his Taming of Romanticism (1985) and A Theory of the Secondary (1990), Nemoianu's book focuses on the late romanticism of the "Biedermeyer" period (the first half of the nineteenth century) in Europe and North America. For Nemoianu, late romanticism is characterized both by the realization that the early romantic ideals of regenerating the human race remain, at best, only ideals, and by the efforts of mediating between such ideals and the traditional sociocultural values and realities in various parts of the Western world. According to him, the overall effect of these efforts was that high romanticism was "tamed," reduced, and downgraded through a literary and cultural process that Nemoianu calls "the triumph of imperfection." In its late stages, romanticism accepts the empirical reality of imperfection and partial victories, seeking a sociocultural balance between the old and the new and moderating excessive revolutionary zeal. It often turns from the turbulent, violent, transformations of social class or nation to the "contentedness ('perfection') of the family, home, garden, and hearth [End Page 1272] (Biedermeyer in its narrower and more precise sense)," describing and praising "islands of happiness, prosperity, and hope" (244).
Nemoianu supports his main thesis through a detailed and astute analysis of a vast array of literary and paraliterary texts such as travelogues, diaries, historiography, and religious, political, and pedagogical writings from Western and Eastern Europe and the two Americas. The bulk of the eleven chapters of his book are devoted not only to well-known cultural and literary figures such as Goethe, Chateaubriand, Walter Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper, but also to little-read, yet no less important figures such as Joseph de Maistre, Guizot, Southey, Hazzlit, Lamb, Cobbett, and a large number of Central and Eastern European authors that are all but unknown in the West.
Implicit throughout Nemoianu's highly insightful and erudite analyses is his theory of culture as human progress that results from a vigorous competition among various social and intellectual forces. He presents this theory explicitly in his book on Imperfection and Defeat: The Role of Aesthetic Imagination in Human Society (2006), which can be regarded as a companion volume to The Triumph of Imperfection. For Nemoianu, literature is primarily the cultural domain devoted to a phenomenology/psychology of imperfection and defeat, highlighting the crucial role of these human factors in sociocultural processes that are largely neglected in political, scientific, philosophical, and religious types of discourse. Thus, for him, literature and the aesthetic as a whole are genuinely conservative, in the best nineteenth-century sense of the term, i.e., they are not reactive or "reactionary," but moderating and balancing factors in Western intellectual history.
Of course, one may also seek to balance and moderate Nemoianu's own theory of literature and the aesthetic as cultural domains exclusively devoted to "imperfection" and "defeat." Literary and aesthetic phenomena are too complex to be reduced to one or another cultural or semantic aspect. On the contrary, what we have come to call "literature" and the "aesthetic" in our age can, in my view, be best described as a ludic/liminal space where all other types of discourse, such as the political, historical, ethical, religious, scientific, and philosophical, are being staged for different cultural purposes and functions. In turn, these purposes and functions may vary in accordance with different historical and sociocultural contexts. Thus, literature or the aesthetic may indeed focus on the human phenomena of defeat and imperfection in one historical period or specific cultural circumstance, such as the "Biedermeyer" age, but it can also focus on many other equally important human factors, such as love, compassion, nonviolence, hope, transcendence, and the creative imagination, to mention just a few. In turn, literature or the aesthetic may act not only as an agent of moderation and conservation, but also as a catalyst for change, or a testing ground for innovative, revolutionary, or utopian ideas, as Nemoianu himself implies, for...