Once upon a time, by which I mean in 2005, Jeff VanderMeer wrote an essay called “The Romantic Underground.”
It’s about an imaginary literary movement, or rather non-movement, because the defining characteristic of the Romantic Underground is that all of its supposed members denied both the existence of the movement and their own membership. I’m going to give you a few excerpts from the essay, although you’ll certainly want to read it for yourself. Jeff writes, “The first text identified with the Romantic Underground was Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), since claimed by the Symbolists.” However,
“Flaubert vehemently denied that his book was a Romantic Underground text; in fact, he denied the existence of the movement altogether. This has been a recurring refrain in the development of the Romantic Underground: every author identified as an adherent of the movement has denied this fact. No text has long remained part of the Romantic Underground because no living author has allowed it to for very long. (In some cases, another movement has made a better case in claiming a particular text, as well.)”
Other supposed members of the Romantic Underground include “Remy de Gourmont, Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg, Emile Zola, Alfred Kubin, Andre Breton, and Ronald Firbank.”
“Regardless, the enduring properties of the Romantic Underground remain a lack of membership by those authors cited and a general lack of identifying characteristics. At first, reading between the lines of critical texts from the period – some from the infamous Yellow Book – the Romantic Underground apparently formed a “loose umbrella” around certain authors, attempting to provide a critical and imaginative landscape in which creativity could have free, albeit vague, reign. Authors being skittish at best, most apparently saw the umbrella as more of a trap and escaped without their names ever being connected to rumors of a vast but secret literary organization dedicated to the antithesis of anything popular, tidy, or, indeed, logical.”
By this point in the essay, we’re getting a sense of what this movement might have looked like, if it had indeed existed. It would have included particular writers, ones I usually think of as turning away from nineteenth-century realism. It would have been “dedicated to the antithesis of anything popular, tidy, or, indeed, logical.” (I think I can detect, in Jeff’s essay, the influence of Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” although the imaginary creation is a literary movement rather than a world.) Jeff continues,
“Chroniclers of the Romantic Underground lost track of it during the 1920s and most of the 1930s, when the group may have decided to form ‘literary guerrilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells.’ It is supposed that Jorge Luis Borges joined the movement in the 1940s, but only a reference to ‘the underground romantic with his hopeless beret’ in his short story ‘The Immortal’ (1962) suggests any active participation. Fellow South Americans Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have joined the movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but, again, both deny the existence of the movement and any participation in it – thus seeming to substantiate the rumors, since this behavior is all too indicative of Romantic Underground members.”
I find this, “literary guerrilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells,” incredibly funny. But again we’re getting a sense of who this non-movement might have included: Borges, Neruda, Marquez.
“In the 1980s, writers such as Rikki Ducornet, Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Alasdair Gray all denied being part of the Romantic Underground movement. At this point, noted critic John Clute, in a footnote to a review of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel Consider Phlebas (Interzone, 1987), wrote ‘The sole criteria of the so-called Romantic Underground movement? The conscription of idiosyncratic writers dragged without their consent to the renunciation block, where they proceed to deny entrapment in anything as clandestine and formless.'”
Which does rather sound like something John Clute might have written. Jeff goes on to consider whether the Interstitial Arts Foundation might have anything to do with the Romantic Underground, or whether New Weird might have. He strongly refutes both possibilities and concludes,
“Therefore, I reluctantly tip my hat to the cleverness of the Romantic Underground movement. It appears once again to have relegated itself to single-author cells, none of which are in communication with any other, similar cells. Although writers such as Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as such contemporary authors as Edward Carey, Peter Carey, A.S. Byatt, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Dann, M. John Harrison (a double-agent), Kelly Link (another double-agent, working for both the Interstitial and RU), Paul Di Filippo, Zoran Zivkovic, Gene Wolfe, Jeffrey Ford, K.J. Bishop, Liz Williams, Nalo Hopkinson, Michael Cisco, Stepan Chapman, Rhys Hughes, Ian R. MacLeod, and myself have at one time or another been associated with the Romantic Underground movement – depending on the tone or theme or style of a particular book – none of us has ever admitted belonging to such a movement (either while living or after death). The Romantic Underground, it would appear, retains its crafty self-denying ability even one hundred years after its non-formation and the non-creation of its non-rules. In short, dear reader, the Romantic Underground, like many so-called movements, does not exist.”
Which is funny, right? I think it’s incredibly funny. But.
The term Jeff uses to describe these writers is in fact a useful term. It does describe something, a tendency in literature. It’s useful and interesting, at least for me, to look at Oscar Wilde and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rikki Ducornet and see an underlying – certainly not similarity in terms of themes or styles, but similar resistance to a realistic mode of representation. I’ve argued before on panels that fantasy is not a genre, but a pull in a particular direction, toward representing the world in a particular way. Jeff is largely describing writers who feel and respond to that pull.
James Owen has taken the Romantic Underground seriously. He has subtitled his blog, The Wonder Cabinet, “Words from the Romantic Underground.” And you know, I think he has a point. I think there is a way in which the writers and artists I know who are currently working in fantasy, and who are working in what we often call the literary and artistic mainstream but who incorporate elements of the fantastic into their writing and art, form a romantic underground. As Jeff describes it, “literary guerrilla cells of single individuals, with no communication between any two cells,” but nevertheless with some commonalities that we can point to, and that may be important.
I would have to think about what I mean when I say romantic underground, because my academic training is not in that era. But I think part of what I mean is a valuing of imaginative and fantastic, rather than realistic, representation. I think what we’re seeing in some parts of the artistic and literary world (and have been seeing for some time) is a response to modernism that is not necessarily post-modern, but something else. The New Weird was part of it, but it’s a larger and more general phenomenon. It’s a new romanticism, a new kind of romanticism. At least, I connect it with the romanticism of Coleridge and Shelley and Keats. And with whatever was happening at the fin-de-siècle, with Stevenson and Wilde.
And I’ll leave it there, because I can’t go much beyond that, at least not at the moment. I’m too tired, because I spent the day teaching and commenting on papers. The latter of which looked like this (in my office, of course):
And I still have a lot to do tonight. Mostly writing, because as I mentioned, I have a deadline before I go to ICFA next week. I’m looking forward to ICFA, and of course I’ll keep you updated while I’m there. I’ll even post pictures. But there are people I wish were coming this year who can’t make it, which is sad. (Hopefully next year.)