Sunday, November 07, 2010
What Do I Believe In? Nothing. I Am a Hollow Soul
Grimacing panjandrum-in-waiting of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Charlie Windsor has delivered himself of a piece of diverting New Age hokum, I see, called Revolution, of all things. I’ve always had a soft spot for New Age guru types and prophets of new world orders, especially when they give us the chance to eat biscuits by royal appointment and generally rampage through the back catalogue of religions that don’t involve Jesus, and whose practitioners tend to be found slumming it in far-Eastern absolutist monarchies (‘the magical mountain kingdom of Bhutan’, as Terry Eagleton notes) or Wellness Centres in the Cotswolds or the Lake District (I like a good caffeine enema as much as the next man, I’m sure). (Since I mention Eagleton’s review, I can’t very well pass over his final zinger on ‘Bertolt Brecht’s parable about the troubled king of the east who summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into the source of all the miseries in the world. The wise men duly investigated, and returned to the king with the answer that the source of the miseries was him.’) But much as they add to the gaiety of nations (and there’s a lot of it about, to judge from the spirituality sections that infest bookshops these days with the rapacity of that patch of mould that’s been infesting my kitchen window), Chuck Windsor’s screeds nevertheless have the useful effect on me of making me wonder what if anything I believe in. Nothing, I suppose, is the answer: sorry, but nothing. I am a hollow soul. How do I feel about this?
I was having a discussion in a seminar the other day about Larkin and ‘Coleslaw’ Miłosz’s objections to him, as partially repeated by Seamus Heaney in his great Yeats v Larkin bake-off, ‘Joy or Night’. Larkin does not share the Pole’s zealous Catholic faith. Fine. But his spiritual hollowness is too great an affront, transports the bushy-eyebrowed Miłosz too far beyond the realms of agreeing to disagree: Larkin is worthless, vile. It’s an interesting one-way street, and not necessarily a defining condition of the conservative religious mind. Some of my favourite (‘some of my best friends...’ moments coming up, I feel...) modern artists are, by any definition, religious fundamentalist types: Messiaen, Rouault, Reverdy. But despite the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of their church, I find each of those three examples humble, ingenuous, open, whereas I find the personality I am describing, the religious nostalgist attempting to bludgeon this empty world of ours, this world of nectar points, free DVDs of The Midsomer Murders in Sunday newspapers, and Bill Oddie not being on Autumnwatch anymore, bludgeon it, I say, into submission with protestations of the supremacy of the spirit: I find them, I say, narcissistic, deluded and closed. Also reviewing HRH’s book in The Observer, Rowan Moore notes how ‘he treats his views (...) as personal revelations’, which sums it up for me. They are not revelations. They are the entirely banal and tedious second-hand insights of a second-rate brain. And this is where I can return to and now stand over my self-diagnosis as a hollow soul. Art is not about revelation. On the contrary, it’s about learning to see in the dark. ‘This imminence of a revelation that does not take place’, Borges suggested, ‘is perhaps the aesthetic experience’. The great temptation, Adorno said in a quotation I can’t find now, is to make the spirit explicit. Or as he said in Hegelian mode in a quotation I can find, from Minima Moralia:
The shift to existence, always ‘positive’ and justifying the world, implies at the same time the thesis of the positivity of mind, pinning it down, transposing the absolute into appearance. Whether the whole objective world, as ‘product’, is to be spirit, or a particular thing a particular spirit, ceases to matter, and the world-spirit becomes the supreme Spirit, the guardian angel of the established, despiritualised order (...). In passing off determinate being as mind, or spirit, [occultists] put objectified mind to the test of existence, which must prove negative. No spirit exists.
And that’s my life then, the collected mauvais quarts d’heure of a randomly agglomerated bake of chemical scum. Send me a consolation packet of biscuits if you must, HRH, but given a straight choice between your spiritual vision being true and lingering in the vestibule of the unenlightened, I choose darkness. Or as Beckett’s Krapp put it: ‘clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most – ’, except of course he can’t bring himself to say it. Much more of this kind of thing from me, though, and I’ll have to write some manner of... spiritual manifesto perhaps? I trust so.
The revelation will not be taking place.