The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century weakened the grasp of the church over society, and tried to replace authorities like God, church and king with critical thought. Enlightenment led to the Age of Revolution, primarily the American and French. But the French revolution seemed to expose the failure of the Enlightenment's worldview, one that could cause both utopian liberation and tyrannous oppression. It felt like a new Fall of Man. The world lost its value; life lost its meaning; the individual no longer had grounds to reason about right and wrong. Those who articulated this dissatisfaction were the early Romantics, and they ushered in a new artistic, literary, and intellectual movement. In the process they created several iconic anti-roles that we still recognize in popular culture.
The Byronic hero
The Byronic hero appears as the wanderer, the outcast, the Wandering Jew, the mysterious criminal whose crime is never explained. The tremendous appeal of Byron's poems throughout Europe and America shows how widespread was the feeling of malaise.
The Visionary was the first stage of recovery and the first positive Romantic anti-role. The word often used at the time was “mystic.” The Visionary tries to observe the world so intensely as to get to the essence outside of all mental categories. It was felt to be the special task and privilege of the artist and poet to communicate that experience.
The Bohemian is perhaps the most modern of the anti-roles, characterized by a fascination with alcohol and drugs and sexual experimentation as ways to shift and change consciousness, put the mind through permutations of perceptions which are impossible for the square who is boxed in by his social role. Similar is the interest in non-bourgeouis modes of living, in indifference to middle-class standards of dress, furnishing, and cleanliness.
The Visionary avoided role-playing; the Bohemian defied it; the Virtuoso and Dandy transcended it, the one by fantastic mastery, the other by irony. Paganini was the first great Virtuoso and for decades the anti-role model and ideal. Other examples are Richard Burton the Virtuoso traveler and translator of the Arabian Nights, and the Virtuoso mountain climber who performs sublime feats of superhuman effort “because it was there.”
The Dandy transforms the role not by excess but by irony. The role of the highest status in European society is that of the aristocratic gentleman of leisure. By willfully playing this role better than those born and trained to it, the Dandy reveals the pointlessness of the socially adapted. The social type with the highest status spends his life in play and pettiness. The Dandy instead offers perfection and elegance without content, without social function. By stealing the clothes of society, he reveals its nakedness. He demands a greater exquisiteness and perfection than society can achieve. This explains the irritation of society with the Dandy, its efforts to deprive him of his ironic authority, the moral nastiness with which England relished the downfall of Oscar Wilde.