Our culture is, whether we know it or not, a Romantic culture, indeed, a revolutionary culture, that is, one predicated on the rejection of neo-classical restrictions. And the gem, the diamond, in the center of the Romantic revolt is the idea of the artistic genius. He is the engine that makes this movement go, he is the essential foundation on which the revolution is premised. Genius is a prominent topic in German academic philosophy from Emmanuel Kant to Arthur Schopenhauer. German culture, from Lessing’s manifesto in his Laocoon, defines itself as ‘Romantic’, over against the dominant neo-classical French culture of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere coming out of Versailles. But where did the idea of ‘artistic genius’ come from? What was its source, and what does it really refer to? To answer these questions we must take one step further back. We must return to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost, published in 1667, is a poem that tells the story of the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and before that the rebellion by Lucifer and his like-minded angels, the combat with Michael and the loyal angels, to which we have a one-line reference in the book of revelation, their defeat, and subsequent casting out of heaven (Rev. 12: 7-9) Thus the book of Genesis does not mention the revolt by the angels, and the Bible as a whole says almost nothing about it. It is the Greek Fathers of the early Church, chiefly Origen and Irenaeus, who developed the story of Lucifer to explain how there could be devils who tempt humanity and to seduce them to share their fate in Hell.
The traditional story is that Lucifer was the highest creature, the most powerful, beautiful, and intelligent of the arch-angels. His name means ‘Light bearer’. Then the Father revealed to Lucifer his plan to create a race of humans and give them free will, even though he knew some would misuse it and thus condemn themselves to perdition. This would give the Father the chance to show his love for his creation by sending his own Son to suffer and die for them, thereby to rescue them from their otherwise unavoidable fate. He would take on a human nature which, because it was suited to be united with divinity, would necessarily become the highest creature, the acme of creation, consequently demoting Lucifer to the second spot. According to the Church Fathers, Lucifer’s pride prevented him from accepting this plan by God the Father and prompted his rebellion. He would not bend the knee to Jesus. Instead he led his rebel angels in a ‘palace revolt’ against the Father, was defeated by Michael and the loyal angels in celestial combat, and cast down into hell. He subsequently continues his rebellion by devoting his energies to spitefully sabotaging the work of Jesus for the salvation of human kind, to entice us to join him in the hell he has created.
This is the story that John Milton received, but in Paradise Lost he made an important change. In his version, Lucifer rejects not only Jesus as the highest creature, he rejects the Father as father. The Father’s demand is felt by Lucifer to be so heavy or unfair, the Father himself so inadequate, that there is no solution but to remove the Father entirely, to deny, reject, or kill him, and for Lucifer to announce that he has fathered himself. Milton thereby strengthens Lucifer’s rebellion, he heightens Lucifer’s alienation and radicalizes his estrangement in breathtaking fashion. He denies his creaturely status. In book five of Paradise Lost Satan asks:
That we were formd then saist thou? & the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course
Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature
Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons.
Our puissance is our own, our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal’
Bk. 5, 854-866
This declaration confounds the understanding. How can a creature – indeed, the most intelligent of creatures – presume to make such an announcement? This is the first time in all of Western literature that a creature has dared pronounce such words. This is the blasphemy of blasphemies, a heresy so deep there is no name for it: a creature declaring himself to be god.
Milton gets away with it by putting it in the mouth of a devil; that way he can exploit and profit from its provocative potential for his poetic drama while at the same time washing his hands of any responsibility. After all, it is only a damned creature who is speaking this way. Had this been written a hundred years earlier, Milton would have been burned at the stake by Catholic and Protestant alike. So, why did he write it?
Milton had a problem. He was Oliver Cromwell’s Latin secretary, fighting on the Puritan side in the English Civil War against King Charles I, but also against the monarchy per se; at the same time he is writing a poem about the Prince of Heaven – Lucifer – rebelling against the King of Heaven – God the Father. Are we surprised that one influenced the other? Milton invests in Lucifer; in fact, he identifies with Lucifer. Lucifer is his stand-in in the story. Milton is doing the same thing against the earthly king that Lucifer is doing against the heavenly king. Naturally, he wants him to succeed; Milton encourages him, he roots him on. Lucifer is by far the most sympathetic figure in Paradise Lost; indeed, as several scholars have noted, Lucifer can be called the hero of Paradise Lost. William Blake caught the scent when he wrote that in Paradise Lost ‘Milton is ‘a great poet, and of the devil’s party’.
Two hundred years later the romantic poets like Bryon, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly, and Coleridge reached back before the Enlightenment and neo-classical poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope to Milton. Unlike the neo-classical poets, Milton had the power to touch the emotions of awe, fascination, and danger – the Romantic sublime. They fed especially on his description of Lucifer: like Lucifer, the romantic poet is in rebellion against the neo-classical unities, the strictures upon poetic form and content; like Lucifer, the romantic poet forcefully rejects the cultural role of a servile ornament within a hierarchical order. He disdains the horizontal supports from royal or aristocratic patronage or from a bourgeois audience he disdains as philistine. The romantic poets in fact transferred Milton’s novel portrait of Lucifer from the angelic realm to the human, to fashion the new portrait of the artist as a genius; that is, they secularized Milton’s revised angelology. Heretofore an artist – a sculptor or a painter say – had been like a carpenter or plumber. He would have attached himself to a master and his workshop and progressed through a series of stages until he got his own license and could set himself up as an independent artisan. Now, however, the artist is declared a genius. The traditional vocation of art as mimetic – from the Greek word mimesis or based on imitation, of either the Platonic Form or the singular individual – is here o’erthrown; on the contrary, the artist now claims to be literally creative. It is no longer a metaphor: he brings into being something that has never existed before. In effect, he usurps the place of God. Effectively, he has killed the Father. With Lucifer he also declares ‘I know none before me; I am self-begot’.
What Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor call ‘expressive individualism’ represents a democritization and universalization of this transformation of the artist into a genius now to the population at large; or, moving from the other direction, the claim by the general population to share in the privileges and higher status heretofore reserved only for a few. We have a spread of the romantic rebellion from an elite to everyone. We are thereby encouraged to press our claim to a concealed divine or independent status, and by our subsequent performance and attitude to render our status no longer hidden. We can each now say, ‘I know none before me. I am self-begot’.