There are many ways to re-read a classic. One can go to it to participate again in something permanent. One can use it as a measure of one’s own growth or decline. One can mine from it that which is useful for enlightening the present cultural situation. Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism repays re-reading in all of those ways. The following remarks are pointed toward the last one: How might we deploy the criticism in Rousseau and Romanticism to enhance and subvert postmodern discourses?
The publication of a new edition of Rousseau and Romanticism with a fine critical introduction by Claes Ryn presents a good opportunity to rediscover this work or to encounter it for the first time.1 Ryn’s extensive commentary ranges over the major philosophical themes informing Babbitt’s writings, with special emphasis on Rousseau and Romanticism. Ryn is a reliable commentator, which is the highest compliment one can pay in Babbitt studies. As he points out, Babbitt has been misunderstood from every angle. The most important reason for this is that Babbitt’s actual thought is so subtle, flexible, and deep that it requires an intellectually sensitive reading to be understood. Ryn has such intellectual sensitivity and gives us a refreshingly undogmatic and genially humanistic Babbitt, the one whose voice we hear in Rousseau and Romanticism. Ryn’s Babbitt belongs to no sect. He is a Babbitt who should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers concerned about contemporary life.
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