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A man stands atop a mountain looking down at the clouds

Romanticism promotes an anti-social emphasis on individuality and self-absorption. (photo: public domain)

Romantics like to think of themselves as unique individuals who have the strength of character to go against the flow. They describe anyone who stays in the mainstream as a “conformist,” a word with negative connotations.

Academic and novelist Ann Swinfen has some interesting things to say about this topic as it relates to C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. In her work of literary criticism, In Defence of Fantasy (1984), she points out that Lewis was against individualism and in favour of conforming to religious orthodoxy and societal norms. His fiction reflects this strongly held rational philosophy.

Swinfen writes, “The repression of self in order to conform to an external pattern is an idea generally distasteful to post-Reformation man, but Lewis makes this theme more palatable by the stress he places in his fiction – as he felt it had occurred in his life – on the theme of ‘joy’.”

Furthermore, in his account of his religious conversion, Surprised by Joy, Lewis openly rejects introversion and introspection, the primary tools needed for cultivating individuality.

The truth is, of course, that the overwhelming majority of humans are always conformists. If individuality is in vogue, then people add pretending to be an individual to their false personas. Many will manage to convince themselves they really are individuals, usually without the faintest notion of what that means. This is to say, people don a make-believe mantle of individuality (deliberately doing and saying meaningless quirky things) in an attempt to conform to that notion’s current popularity. Romanticism is popular these days so, of course, many people have added being a romantic to their false personas as well.

The real issue goes deeper than just conformity versus non-conformity. Also important is whether the individual places personal concerns before or after the concerns of society as a whole. Ignoring the needs of society in favour of looking after one’s own needs – as recommended by the romantic worldview – does not qualify as refusing to conform to an “external pattern” if everyone else is doing the same selfish and destructive thing!

American professor of English Literature, Morse Peckham, has explored Romanticism’s anti-social attitude. He makes a crucial distinction between self (who we really are) and role (a part we play) pointing out that non-conformity got its start with Romanticism’s concept of what he calls the “anti-role.” The Romantics created a role deliberately counter to that of persons in mainstream society. Their aim was to differentiate themselves by taking up a role in favour of primitive nature instead of adopting the mainstream role that prefers manmade civilization. The anti-role also favoured imagination and emotion over reason. Romantics later improperly identified this anti-role as the self. In other words, only romantic non-conformists could claim they had a self. Only romantic non-conformists were individuals.

As desirable as this exclusivity may sound to those with romantic inclinations, to say a role is counter to that of mainstream society is just another way of saying the role is a form of alienation. Since we all grow up in mainstream society and are shaped by it, and since humans are, as a species, social creatures, to become alienated from mainstream society is, ultimately, to become self-alienated as well.

The truth is we are all individuals. Romanticism’s claim of exclusivity is false. Each of us has an authentic self made up of a unique set of emotionally important ideas formed when we were children. Many of us do not know this. Many of those who do know the truth fear to find out who they really are. However, the point here is this: when it comes to discovering the real person, conforming to the popular romantic anti-role is just as self-defeating as conforming to the mainstream role.