Sunday, May 29, 2011
Art and Belief, the Sacred and the Secular
Stimulating and toothsome essay in the latest Poetry Ireland Review by Seán Lysaght on the subject of ‘eco-poetry’. After my small run-in with an Australian poet the last time I posted about it, that’s a topic we can shunt to one side for the moment. No, what I wanted to think about here was the question of poetry and belief, as it comes up in the course of Lysaght’s argument. He cites George Steiner’s Real Presences as a restatement of the theist position: our Western tradition, Steiner insists, is underpinned by a ‘belief in the mystery of transcendence’. ‘If this were true’, Lysaght comments, ‘John F. Deane’s asphodels on Achill were unintelligible, in their wonderful aspect as a chorus of souls, to those of us who do not share religious sentiment, let alone belief.’ He goes on: ‘The basic argument here is that language has an ability to communicate the world, that there is a covenant between the word and the world, and that this covenant is founded on belief in mystery and the transcendent.’
This is a large topic, and not one Lysaght proposes to settle definitively in a few pages, though since few enough people would want to push the believers-only line very strongly (I hope) he retreats into a more secular version of it for his conclusion. ‘The unexplained power of language to capture and restore our experience of nature is something we can point to without resorting to sacred paradigm (...) The mystery is entirely secular.’ In that case (and at this stage I am addressing Steiner more than Lysaght) what role do we still assign to the sacred in our aesthetics? Which is it, when we read poetry, sacred or secular? Because it’s hardly both, I assume.
George Steiner is as heavyweight a rhetorician as they come. That’s rhetorician, not critic, since I don’t really rate his critical performances much: he is someone, I feel, who chooses rhetoric at the expense of critical persuasiveness or even coherence. And nowhere more so than in his writing on the sacred. George Steiner, Isaiah Berlin said, was that rarest of things, a complete charlatan, and while that’s fightin’ talk, I don’t think it’s too strong a condemnation to use of the argument behind that much-touted tract of his, Real Presences. For a few years, on a course about literary journalism, I used to teach my students James Wood’s essay ‘George Steiner’s Unreal Presences’, until I gave up, mainly because I had to admit defeat in the face of my students’ overwhelming unfamiliarity with the Christian mythology, without a working knowledge of which Woods’ essay can’t be expected to make much sense. But I still think of it as one of the noblest put-down jobs in contemporary critical writing. Steiner, as any fule kno, is very concerned to dignify the written word, to confer on it something of the aura of the mystical in these jaded and desacralised times. How does he propose we do this? Here is Steiner:
Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art), incarnates (the notion is grounded in the sacramental) a real presence of significant being. The real Presence, as in an icon, as in the enacted metaphor of the sacramental bread and wine, is finally irreducible to any other formal articulate...
Steiner is summoning Pascal here, but even with my Christian Brothers-level theology, there are two words in that passage I’d want to pause on. But James Wood has seen them too (‘as if’) and comments:
So Steiner is saying, in effect: ‘deconstruction has eroded our belief that texts mean anything; in opposition, I propose that, as Pascal wagered on God’s existence, we must wager on meaning’s existence. And I will wager on this in the same way that the Real Presence is a wager.’ But this ‘idea’ is no more than the milk of optimism, and is soaked in errors. First of all, the Real Presence is not a wager like Pascal’s (...) Pascal wrote that we should force ourselves to believe in God even if we are doubtful about his existence, because if we are right, and God exists, we win heaven, and if we are wrong, and God does not exist, we have not harmed ourselves by believing in an illusion. How could the Eucharist possibly be a wager of this sort? The Christian, if he or she believes in the Real Presence, believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist service refer to Jesus’s body and blood because they incarnate them. (...) It is not a wager, but a belief. (...) While on the one hand the text is taken to ‘incarnate’ meaning, a word with a specific theological gravity of embodiment, in the next sentence, this incarnation is made than an ‘enacted metaphor’. This is intellectually feeble.
Steiner borrows all the pomp and gravity of his religious comparison, in other words, but none of the meaning. He writes the cheque, made out on the bank of high seriousness, but with nothing in the account. He takes something as startingly unmetaphorical as the conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, since that’s what we’re talking about here, if you are a believing Catholic, and, first, collapses if into the banality of an ‘as if’ transubstantiation-lite, but then still has the nerve to peddle this to us under the title Real Presences, As If Real Presences presumably lacking a certain something by contrast. It’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand, a slippage as devious as that of any trainee deconstructionist. The fact, then, that otherwise intelligent people (John Banville, for instance) can swallow this fakery and take Steiner at his own estimate as any kind of serious thinker on this subject is as puzzling as it is disappointing. But the problem remains. Art works do not incarnate real presences, let me humbly suggest, any more than the signifier ‘cat’ is capable of sitting on my laptop and purring noisily while it tries to type long Dadaist poems with its belly. Get over it! Deconstruction need no more endanger your enjoyment of your favourite Beethoven string quartet than The X-Factor spoils my enjoyment of the blackbird on the gutter outside my window now, and an argument based on melodrama and basic terminological confusion is not going to help me appreciate anything better, frankly, Beethoven or a blackbird. You are wallowing, George Steiner, in a false opposition, the better to drum up a little of the high-rent angst that is your stock-in-trade. But let’s get back to the debate at hand. Does being a religious type increase one’s sensitivity to the natural world? Absolutely not, I would answer. Does possessing a sensitivity to the natural world predispose one to sign up for Christianity or other socially approved cosmic fairy tales? Equally absolutely not, I would hope.
So what becomes of the sacred in art these days? Though not remotely of the quavering agnostic (rather than merely atheist) persuasion, I am sometimes forced in classroom situations to reconsider the benefits of consigning religious belief to the scrapheap. Asking a seminar group once, in a discussion of Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, who Lazarus was I eventually elicited the timid suggestion that he was ‘the bloke with the hair’. Tom Paulin has complained about blank stares from students (in Oxford) when he tells them that George Herbert was an ‘Anglican’ priest (wossat then?). But if I think so little of the Christian mythology drummed into me thirty years ago by Brother Micky Mud and Dicky Dirt, why do I think they should waste any of their time polishing up on it? Oh, I see, for cultural reasons. To those such as Arnold who thought that, even now that literature has replaced religion as our principal source of humane and civilised values, we could always find a place in our hearts for the Bible, if only because of its impeccable prose style, Eliot like to counter that people who admire the Bible as a monument of culture do so over the grave of Christianity. Which may not be a bad thing, but there you go.
I always enjoy Christmas, Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling declares to Ludovic Kennedy, but it was all still commercial in my childhood and I notice a note of religion coming in now, and I don’t like that. I was reminded of that, re-reading Empson on Milton - a very different experience from reading Steiner on these topics, need I add. What a wild and wacky book Milton’s God is, and how amusing to see him designate his opponents ‘neo-Christians’, can I also say. But Empson, yes. Since Steiner mentions Pascal’s wager, I can’t let the opportunity pass to quote the great and good Sir William on that subject:
He (Pascal) argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.
‘The slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie’ – what a noble and beautiful answer to the imposture of religion.
Oh, and the sacred and the secular. I’ve totally failed to sort that one out, haven’t I. Some other time then.
I should say before finishing, by the way, that much of my favourite art is religious, or at least produced by devout believers: Messiaen, Tarkovsky, Hopkins. Only the crudest reading of my thoughts here could see any contradiction in this, I hope.
And many thanks to SL for his article providing the occasion for these