‘You may think our modern world was born yesterday,’ said Simon Schama at the beginning of The Romantics and Us. If you do, though, I can only imagine that you’ve never seen any history documentaries on television — where, as a rule, the modern world is born in whatever period the documentary happens to be about, from Ancient Rome to the 1980s. After all, how can the past possibly be interesting if we can’t see ourselves reflected in it?
As the title indicates, Schama’s choice, this time, of an era important enough to lead to us was the romantic movement. But as it soon turned out, the ‘us’ he had in mind was rather narrowly defined: the folks who go on marches in the name of ‘the brotherhood and sisterhood of the people’ (or some of the people at any rate — mainly the ones who go on marches).
As an example of what he meant, Schama showed us some recent American protestors in less violent action than usual. He also grew touchingly dewy-eyed as he recalled being a young man in Paris during the 1968 uprising when it felt as if ‘the world could be reshaped by youth’. Among the now elderly soixante-huitards he met was the artist Michèle Katz, who proudly showed us some of the posters created back then. ‘If being united means you have to crush things, so be it,’ she said of one image of triumphant marchers, although the ‘things’ being crushed under the marchers’ feet appeared to be undesirable people.
Of course, the fountainhead of all this ‘democracy’ — as Schama approvingly if questionably called it — was the French Revolution. Or at least it was for a year or two, before its ‘ideals’ were ‘betrayed’ by those pesky Jacobins. Studying the Jacobin newspapers of the time, Schama gleefully found a reference to ‘enemies of the people’ which he then juxtaposed with that wrong-headed 2016 Daily Mailheadline saying the same thing about British judges. So was he implying that Brexit Britain is like France during the Terror? And if not, why the juxtaposition? As for whether today’s protest movements tolerate much in the way of dissent — that, like so much else in the programme, went weirdly unexamined, especially for such a distinguished historian.
After a while, in fact, a more urgent question began to pose itself: what on earth has happened to Simon Schama? Have the recent culture wars, the simple binaries of Twitter and the election of Trump (by the people), combined to drive him away from the values of thoughtful scholarship?
In the section on William Blake, for example, he spoke warmly of Blake’s fierce opposition to ‘the true enemy of his age’ and presumably ours: namely, the Enlightenment and a belief in reason. Instead, we should prize ‘the sovereignty of passion’, as if feeling something deeply makes you right (as long as you’re feeling the right something) — and as if it isn’t the case that about the last thing the world needs now is more passion. Besides, didn’t the French Revolution build Temples of Reason; and didn’t Schama himself commend Mary Wollstonecraft on Friday for arguing that ‘women were as fully governed by reason as men’?
There was perhaps a clue to the mystery when he followed in Wollstonecraft’s footsteps to Paris in 1792. Surveying the area where she lived, he chucklingly speculated that it would have been full of ‘very
nervous liberals, people with a lot of money who were trying as hard as they possibly could to be friends of the revolution, otherwise they’d be in deep trouble’. But if it crossed his mind that this remark had
an autobiographical tinge, he gave no sign of it.
Happily, some of Schama’s old virtues were still in place — particularly his close readings of individual works of art. He also gave us a vivid portrait of Percy Shelley, even if his cheerful acceptance of Shelley’s habit of eloping with 16-year-old girls may not get Twitter’s full support. Nonetheless, the most striking impression was of a man ill-advisedly throwing in his lot with today’s new orthodoxies: the kind that prefer ideology to the complexities of history.
In its bid to prove its own modernity, the documentary brought us a clip of Pete Doherty praising the romantics. The hip-hop artist Testament read us Blake’s ‘London’ and suggested that the world is still as full of racism and sexism as it was in the 1790s. Music swirled over most of the content, including some of Schama’s words. Even so, what really clinched the case was how strongly Schama himself, by abandoning the subtlety and nuance of his previous TV work, brought to mind an aphorism of Milan Kundera’s: that ‘to be absolutely modern is to be… a brilliant ally of your own gravediggers’.
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