The mirror and the lamp
I read something interesting in M H Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp this morning.
Ever since Aristotle, it had been common to illuminate the nature of poetry…by opposing it to History…But to Wordsworth, the appropriate business of poetry is ‘to treat of things not as they are…but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions,’ and as worked upon ‘in the spirit of genuine imagination.’ The most characteristic subject matter of poetry no longer consists of actions that never happened, but of things modified by the passions and imagination of the perceiver; and in place of history, the most eligible contrary to poetry, so conceived, is the unemotional and objective description characteristic of physical science. Wordsworth therefore replaced the inadequate ‘contradistinction of Poetry and Prose’ by ‘the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science,’ and similar formulations became a standard port of departure in romantic discussions of poetry…Such statements are intended only as logical devices for isolating and defining the nature of poetic discourse. The prevalence of philosophical positivism, however, which claimed the method of the natural sciences to be the sole access to truth, tended to convert this logical into a combative opposition. To some writers, it seemed that poetry and science are not only antithetic, but incompatible, and that if science is true, poetry must be false, or at any rate trivial.
This perhaps does a lot to explain what Eagleton is getting at – but he apparently considers it beneath him to put it in Romantic terms – which would be too naive, too sentimental, too vieux jeu for someone as hip as he is, for whom only toasters and Chekhov will do. But he seems to be speaking Wordsworth all the same.
That’s probably what he means about religion – it’s not facts but feeling, just as it is with Wordsworth. That is at least intelligible, though not really a good defense of religion, given the temporal, political, institutional, rhetorical power it has, and given the fact that it does make literal factual truth-claims about the world and what is in it.
But it is at least intelligible. I don’t strictly think it’s ‘true’ that the mountains are full of meaning – but I do think it’s true that humans feel that way – and in fact that they ought to. I think less of people who don’t. I’m chilled by people who are dead to natural beauty, and to beauty of other kinds. I think beauty is an illusion in a sense, or in several senses, but I think it’s a necessary one. I would loathe to be without it. Imagine a brain lesion that made one indifferent to the blossoming fruit trees, the lilacs, the saturated blue of Puget Sound on a bright day, the swallows, the hummingbirds, the long grass, the stars, the sunset. Imagine what life would be if all that and everything like it became just so much Stuff, like a heap of sawdust or a dirty cement wall or a bucket of decomposing slime.
So perhaps Eagleton’s claim is that religion is like the brain without the lesion – it’s the ability to feel a particular way about things. Well – if that’s what he thinks, I can to some extent understand his vehemence. Perhaps he thinks atheism is a kind of machine for draining all of that kind of feeling from the world.
But it isn’t. It just isn’t. If it were…I might be tempted to see if I could force myself to believe too. But it isn’t. Feeling that way is part of the human equipment. Religion is probably one door into it, for a lot of people, but there are others. Music, art, sport, work (drugs) – there are lots of doors. Mind you – it may be that religion does it better for a lot of people than anything else does. Merlijn de Smit once told us that was true for him – growing up in a drab town he could find lavish beauty in the Catholic church that just wasn’t available elsewhere.
Hummingbirds. The world needs more hummingbirds.