Between Reason and Monsters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1799 Francisco Goya published “A Collection of Prints of Capricious Subjects.” The eighty etchings and aquatints, known as Los Caprichos (caprices, folios), criticized the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society” and particularly in Goya’s native Spain: superstitions, arranged marriages, corrupt rulers, powerful clergy, etc. The forty-third print is among the artist’s most enduring images. Entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”), it shows an artist (possibly Goya himself) asleep at his drawing table. He is surrounded by bats, owls, and a wide-eyed lynx—ominous creatures in Spanish folklore. A mysterious figure lurks in the center, staring directly at the viewer.

On first impression, the illustration seems to be an endorsement of rational thought: when logic lies dormant, the world becomes demon-haunted (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). But this is only part of the meaning. A caption accompanying the print warns, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” Pure rationality and pure irrationality are both dangerous. Reason without emotion is too dull and heartless to adequately address basic human and societal needs. Emotion without reason gives rise to all sorts of prejudices and harmful fantasies. When held in harmonious balance, passion and intellect create life-affirming art.

Goya’s rejection of absolute rationalism marked a transition from the Enlightenment to early Romanticism. While not denying the value of science and social reforms, he reclaimed emotions as an authentic and positive force.

Romantics would further the cause, placing knowledge and wonder, history and mythology, order and spontaneity side by side. Their idealization of expression stirred them to especially grand appraisals of music, which E. T. A. Hoffmann called “the most romantic of all the arts—one might say the only purely romantic one.” This belief owes largely to the balance Goya advocated. In most of its incarnations, music is both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Its raw materials and construction are open to theoretical and scientific analysis, but its evocations are almost by definition non-rational. Most important, its expressiveness is born from its structure.

As a visual artist, Goya might have objected to the musical bias of many later Romantics. After all, the counter-requirements of heart and mind are found in every art form to a greater or lesser extent. At its best, art is a reminder of what makes us human: form and feelings, function and purpose, reason and emotion.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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