22 January 2011

A Disclaimer (and then some)

As such readers as I've got must surely have gleaned by now, I'm no literary critic. Indeed, I shouldn't be surprised if I turned out to be every modern literary critic's horror. Not to mention every literary historian's. I never could get the hang of all those early-to-mid-20th-century Modernist writers, composers, painters, etc, with their nagging sense - correct me if I'm wrong - of the obsolescence of beauty? Somehow they've always struck me as operating under the conviction that, the universe being a mostly ugly, pointless and misbegotten place, it was the Artist's solemn duty to mimic that same hideous cosmos in all the most human-mocking, human-despising ways a good atheist soul could devise.

(Now that's not quite fair. Certainly T S Eliot, for one, believed in more or less the Judaeo-Christian God. Though I do get the distinctly Eliotic impression, in more than a few places, that his God got us all started for the primary purpose of showing us how Nature - human or otherwise - is not done. If I may paraphrase one of G K Chesterton's more decidedly sinister and conspiratorial characters, Lord Ivywood of The Flying Inn:

"The world was made badly, and we [humans] must make it over again."

Or at least make ourselves all over again. Anyhow, that's the best I can make of Eliot's Theology of Man. Again and again I find, particularly in the "middle Eliot" of the '20s and '30s, this restless sense of the decadence and rottenness, and even horribleness, of created things, and not least our own creaturely selves. The mood is especially palpable in several of his Ariel Poems - e.g., "Animula" and "Marina" - in Sweeney Agonistes, and in the Chorus speeches of Murder in the Cathedral. It's as if we humans were deliberately misbegotten for one main reason: namely that, through diligent application of the right measures of self-abasement and self-loathing, we might transcend our primeval slime, and so give back to our Creator the sort of improved final product able to meet His most exacting demands. Indeed, Eliot almost seems to me to be suggesting that, by despising ourselves enough, we could become our own creators - though we could never, of course, escape the taint and stigma of our original creaturehood. Or is he rather saying it's not by any works of ours but only by Divine grace that we're empowered to hate ourselves rightly? I have no idea. But Christian Eliot-lovers who disagree either way are welcome to enlighten me.)

And now, having got that off my chest, here's what I really want to say:

Thank God for 18th- and 19th-century Romanticism - and particularly the kind inveighed against and ridiculed by Wildean aesthetes and 20th-century Modernists. Thank God for the "conventional" Romantics - Wordsworth, Keats, etc - with their intimations of immortality: their haunted sense that our human aesthetic yearnings (the best of Bloomsbury to the contrary notwithstanding) are not self-referential, autonomous, "art for art's sake" things, but rather symbols, significations, symptoms of what may be our very oldest hunger - the aching for a "lost" wholeness and innocence and peace. Thank God for their recognition - however poorly or feebly defended - that something even as humble as beauty can have not only reality but meaning. And lastly, a special thanks for the English Romantic sense that no loveliness is too small, or ever wasted: that the beauties of even the simplest and lowliest, most neglected and discarded creatures - both God's and (I daresay) even a few of our own - have yet their part to play in the unfolding of the Divine magnificence.

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