- Kant, Keats, and a Plea for Romantic Idealism
In a world where fake news is simply the news one does not wish to hear, and ideals are lies, of what use is Romanticism? We face the very extinction of (Romantic) idealism, perhaps the Romantic catastrophe.
We might stave off such catastrophe by reminding others what the Romantics knew, which is that a world without ideals is uninhabitable. At the same time, as they knew well, inhabitability does not amount to truth. In a January 9, 2019 New York Times Magazine article "How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution," Ferris Jabr argues that scientists are confronting the fact that evolution has no adequate answer to the problem of beauty: there is an arbitrariness and excessiveness to the peacock's feathers that not only exceeds Darwin's [End Page 173] sexual selection, but also opens the door to subjectivity and inner perception as evolutionary forces. Kant, of course, insisted that beauty or purposiveness was a concept necessary to biology because life could not be explained by mechanism. There is hope for idealism when science makes space for beauty.
In "Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil," Keats celebrates Isabella's devotion to her pot, one without any clear payoff, an excess flouted in his urn of ottava rima. Kant turned to the beautiful because it challenged judgment: how to make the inescapably subjective human perception of beauty into something as-if-it-were universal. Kant's answer was the ideal of form and how form entails a design stance: the pattern implies a beauty which cannot be random, and therefore, form accounts for the beautiful as if it were available universally. Crucially, form mandated looking at the work as if it were designed without presuming an actual designer or God. Hence, the beautiful was a "purposiveness without purpose," and Romantic biologists would avail themselves of "purposiveness." As Frances Ferguson submits, Kant makes epistemology parasitic upon form.1 For Kant, form cannot be dismissed as ideology since knowledge itself requires it. Form entails judgment.
By announcing the exchange of Isabella and the pot, Keats pivots the poem around his titular "or," raising through the beauty of rhyme the problem of linguistic and aesthetic substitution. What happens when love's objects are exchangeable? And yet this question betrays a truth about human desire: desire's very fixations hardly preclude the mobility of its objects. Hence Isabella's chain of signification: Lorenzo: head: pot: basil. Without her obsessive desire for him, Isabella would not be Isabella, a point that grants her subjectivity, but at the same time questions how human subjectivity and desire require objects to bring them into being. Keats's "or" acknowledges how gender often reduces female subjectivity to uxoriousness, a prompt to find better ideals. Nonetheless, without ideals like beauty, not to mention romance and rhyme, life would be a cold pastoral indeed. Ideals attach us to this world, but some attachments are crueler than others. Perhaps Romanticism is nothing more and nothing less than our collective pot of basil, our Romantic urn. [End Page 174]
Richard C. Sha is the author of three books, most recently Imagination and Science in Romanticism, winner of the 2018 Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize, and forthcoming in paperback (Johns Hopkins UP, 2021).
1. Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3.