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Atheism and its Impossible Imagination: How Literary Imagination Insists on Theist Morality

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in The City.

By Corey Latta 

Let me begin boldly: no atheist fiction writer, living or dead, has successfully created a world in the image of his non-belief.  The possibility for such a non-believing world vanishes the moment an atheist author exercises imagination to create conscientious characters in a fictive society.  As soon as the atheist author creates a fictive world, he populates that world with living characters.  These characters must have a semblance of will, intent, emotion, civility, and they must live by the laws, both natural and moral, of their world.  It is in the secondary world, in the tropes of character and identity, in themes of truth or doubt, in those questions of moral meaning and belief, that imagination both resists and ultimately redresses atheistic creativity.

I do not mean that atheist novelists have not created closed worlds populated by characters neglectful of morality or refusing of faith.  Many have done that.  Look no further than works like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for fictive worlds of wanton morality written from an atheistic worldview.  These, some of the most critically acclaimed and popular texts of the twentieth century, are only a few examples of unbelieving attempts to submerge, disturb, or undo theistic assumptions about life and morality.  What I am saying is that as products of the imagination, the self-enclosed communities of Hemingway’s characters, Burgess’s maddening dystopia, even Pullman’s anti-theistic celebration of deceit (Lyra “Silvertongue,” the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, prides herself on her ability to lie with “bare-faced conviction”) fail to escape the inherently theistic laws of imagination.  To put it another way, there are atheist authors, but no atheist stories.

Imagination means the power to create new and previously unknown images and experiences, along with abstract ways of knowing those images and experiences (i.e., it does no good to write a story about space explorers discovering another world if I do not imagine ways they can know, understand, believe in, and relate to that world).  It is important to note that in literature, the imagination creates those images and experiences consistent with the author’s ultimate reality.  So, to use a fantastic example, an author can write a story about a talking giant tree who befriends a lonely child, having met neither the fantastic character or the child, precisely because in the ultimate reality the author inhabits, language, trees, friendship, and children actually exist.  While the story’s images are entirely new–its characters having never existed before mental conception–the author draws from those familiar cognate realities, like trees and children, and old sensory experience, like language.  From the fragmented source material of reality–its nature, its physical properties, its diverse inhabitants, along with their morality and sense of life meaning–an author freely forms a secondary world made in the precise image of his creative vision.

In this way, the imaginative world, no matter how fantastic or illustrious, is essentially a distilled reality, a deliberately crafted parcel of cosmos written so that readers must wrestle with life’s meanings, and in wrestling, must come to understand those meanings more fully and more deeply. What is so vitally important to remember, though, is that the author, regardless of his worldview, has the liberty to make any sort of world, full of any sorts of characters, he wants from the mental material available to him.  From the raw material of his reality, an author may make any world his heart desires.  And in this way authors are subject to the great law of human creativity: we create what is new and unknown from what is old and known.  Ex nihilo has no part in human imagination.

Why is it then, to return to my main point, that no author has ever created a world free from theistic morality–that is, from a morality that transcends the human condition and does not contain inherent truths that point to a higher Being?  An atheist author is free to write any number of secular humanist stories, free to undo the aged myth of Christian belief, free to create a society unfettered from the oppressive gods of a higher truth, and yet, not one has.  Every story, even the most nihilistic, supplies a moral subtext inexplicable apart from some higher agent from whom that morality originates.  When we recall that the imagination is making what is new from bits of what is old, that we create what is not from what is, we find that no author has ever written an atheistic novel because the inherent material of his imagination is spoiled to his purpose.

If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it.  No matter how I might like to write a society whose morality gets along fine without any moral lawgiver, I instantly find that the very ideas of morality which I would like to make new carry with them nagging old notions.  And it would not take long, if I started to investigate from where exactly these nagging old ideas derive, to discover that the same moral precepts have cropped up across civilizations and their literature since the dawn of documented time.

 If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it. 

It is no use saying that these moral precepts simply come from years of evolving human social prescription, for most moral precepts, even those that defy social utility, have remained the same since their first appearance.  The questionable virtue of jealous love in Euripedes’s Medea shows up again in Shakespeare’s Othello.  The honor and shame of which Homer wrote in the Odyssey are the same ideas Hemingway disturbs in The Sun Also Rises.  Friendship in Gilgamesh is not very different than friendship in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It seems when we think about works of seminal literature written with no theist intent that some kind of inexplicable moral ascent keeps showing up.  Even in the bleakest literary moral visions of the modern age–something like William Burroughs’s non-linear, nearly impenetrable, and obscene Naked Lunch–imaginative attempts to unravel higher moral meaning only serve confirm its permanence.  In a world like Burroughs’, the imagination can only play on and push against the raw material of accepted moral principles, so when he writes a line like, “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell….Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus,”[1] he imaginatively assumes there is some “image of Man” that can experience moral brokenness (see the unnumbered Chapter titled, islam incorporated and the parties of interzone).  He makes an imaginative moral judgment.  What is brokenness, or the evil of poverty, or hatred if not all confirmations of higher polarized moral principles–for example, an unbroken image of man characterized by plenty and love – and from where did these values originate other than Burroughs’ im/moral imagination.

For all their disturbances of Judeo-Christian principles or basic theist belief, novels like Naked Lunch present an imaginary immoral world that ultimately–when we begin to question the very meaning of the work’s moral pronouncements–assumes, and then concedes to, a higher moral law.  The origins of this moral law are inexplicable and only imposed on Burroughs’ created world because they were first nested in Burroughs’ own imagination.  It is astonishing that even in works like Naked Lunch, readers do not find pages of nihilist answers to nihilist questions.  If that were the case, the readers’ moral imaginations would experience instant disconnect and that book would fade into an unpopular oblivion.  Instead, Burroughs fills his world with Ecclesiastian doubts about moral meaning while interrogating those doubts with fragmented scraps of possible truth.  And in each fragment exists an inherent meaning of which Burroughs is only a transcriber.  The imagination only creates what is not from what is, and even in a Burroughs novel, what is has loaded moral meaning.  In this way, atheism in Naked Lunch is unable to totally break the tethers of higher moral precept.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, calls these inescapable moral precepts the “moral law” and makes these key observations about the law’s perennial presence:

“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”[2]

In making what is new the imagination works with what is already there, and what is already there are the irremovable realities about how morality should look in characters’ lives.  This moral law goes “above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] It is because of this law’s presence that authors like Burroughs imagine innately morally charged themes of the human condition and poverty and hatred.  Just as the atheist author works from the imagination so the atheist imagination works from a higher moral reality.

The raw materials of the imagination, and this point can hardly be overstated, with which an atheist writer creates are utterly saturated in higher moral meaning.  The imaginative act, then, entails envisioning new worlds for old truths, gleaning from those moral meanings already available to the author, about whom George MacDonald–fantasy writer, theologian, great imaginative theorist, and C. S. Lewis’s self-proclaimed “master”– says, “for the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents…the meanings are in those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling.”[4]

The atheist author writes in no other imaginative power than that from the inexhaustible storehouse of forms offered by the world.  Like the precepts of the moral law, each and every outward configuration of external reality already contains meaning, waiting for the imaginative act to reveal their deeper truths.  In creating those inherently meaningful forms through stories, the writer exercises  “that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God.”[5] Unbeknownst to them, atheist writers imitate this prime operation of divine power by creating worlds that unintentionally affirm a transcendent moral law.  And so atheism is pitted against man’s imagination, man’s chief creative power, which MacDonald describes as being “made in the image of the imagination of God.”[6]

To show how inescapable imagination’s adherence to theistic morality is, I want to look at one short text that embodies atheism’s inability to be carried over into an author’s created world: Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  I choose Hemingway’s short story for two simple reasons: First, it is a superbly written short story, rich and layered with complex meaning, beautiful in style.  Second, Hemingway wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” without any Christian or theist intent.  It is truly a case study in the atheist imagination.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the story of two waiters, one old and one young, both waiting to close up a café one late night.  The remaining only patron is an old deaf man who tried to kill himself the week before.  The two waiters see the old man’s lingering late into the night differently, the younger waiter impatient for the deaf man to leave and the older much more understanding of the old man’s need for a “clean, well-lighted place.”

The old waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”  He feels the need for to create a space for “all those who do not want to go to bed” and to wait along with “all those who need a light for the night.”  The younger waiter does not understand why the deaf man cannot just go to a bar, chirping to the older waiter, “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”  To which the older waiter replies, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”[7] We see in Hemingway’s works a subtextual morality­–and what I would call a subtle metaphysic–at work.

What good is a clean, well-lighted place, anyway?  It has no inherent value.  It’s neither moral nor immoral.  Hemingway has merely imagined a café incandescently illuminated and contrasted it against the outer dark of night and the dimmed atmosphere of a bar. And yet, Hemingway has, in drawing from the cafés and bars and storehouses of imagery from his own life, written a sort of apologetic for morality.  According to the older waiter, Hemingway’s moral voice, the deaf, unsuccessful suicide puts himself in the way of hope inside the café.  Hemingway imagines the café as a solace with latent moral cleanness and order.  The hopeless and desperate need “a certain cleanness and order” in their lives, according to the old waiter.

But Hemingway’s realist imagination raises questions about ultimate moral meaning.  For example, what sort of statement does the narrator really make about the old waiter, when he says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing?”[8] It seems as if Hemingway, despite his salient personal unbelief, makes a statement about morality and life meaning that mysteriously transcends what seems to be a closed world of artificial light, failed suicides, and mundane waiters.

To get at just the kind of statement Hemingway’s short story makes, I think a look at C. S. Lewis’s essay on Christianity and culture might prove helpful.  On the value of culture in relaying higher theological truth, Lewis writes, “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.  These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit.  But God created the soul.  Its values may be expected, therefore to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.”[9] When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

Hemingway’s café, its cleanness, and its well-lighted atmosphere reflect something greater and more essential to the human condition.  Morality and hope and a bright existence in the community of others are imbedded in Hemingway’s imagery of the deaf man in the clean, well-lighted café.  These fixtures of the atheist imagination, despite the atheist author’s creative intentions, ultimately “resemble the regenerate life,” but only, Lewis points out, “as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.  But though ‘like is not the same’, it is better than unlike.  Imitation may pass into initiation”[10] Lewis here captures what Hemingway’s café means as a function of the imagination.  It is that imitation of the storehouse of reality imagined as a place of moral initiation.  Hemingway writes a café story with threads of humanist morality–themes of goodwill toward another, care for life, the need to recover a hurting life–that come to nonsense apart from transcendent truth working to weave those threads into universal moral meaning.

To apply Lewis’s terms to Hemingway’s fiction, the deaf man might move from the imitation of clean moral order to an initiation into actual moral transformation.  He might go from the reflection of moral truth in an artificially well-lighted café to the substance of truth in the real light of a redeemed life.  What Hemingway imagined as a story of minimalist morality, becomes, upon consideration of the story’s embodiment of that morality and its higher meaning, a story of moral ascension into metaphysical truth.

Once the old waiter finally leaves the café, he stops at a bar.  The old waiter stands at the bar smiling, while thinking through a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”[11] It is as if Hemingway’s imagination cannot completely shed spiritual language, as he turns to the Lord’s Prayer as a way to stir nihilistic doubt in his character. This barroom prayer is an instance of doubt seeking the assurance of faith.  The old waiter’s dismissive prayer fails to dismiss, as the old waiter has already given himself to the prayer’s requests.  Hemingway’s imaginative vision for this scrambled prayer includes splintered versions of the lines, “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” lines that get at the essence of the old waiter’s service to the deaf man.   It is fitting that the old waiter would recall these particular lines from Jesus’s prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as he literally served the deaf man his daily bread as well as delivered him from the dark world outside of the café.

The waiter, like Hemingway, uses his imagination to mock a God for which he has little use.  And through that same imagination, creates a moral imperative that transcends the story’s closed world, subtly pointing toward some higher Being.  Interestingly, the waiter’s actions move in a different current than his mock prayer, as he refuses another drink from the barman and goes home to lie awake till the sun comes up.  A kind of small eschatology emerges as the story that begins in artificial light ends in the light of day.  The old waiter’s atheism, as evidenced in the false prayers, turns out to be a failure in the imaginative act.  Why, given the freedom that atheism theoretically provides, would the old man bind himself to a kind of loving his neighbor?  For the same reason that Hemingway, an author free to create any moral vision he desires, imagines a world of moral obligation and angst over Christian spirituality.  The literary imagination does not allow for any other world.

I began by saying that no atheist writer has ever created a fictive world in his own image, and I have given only a few brief considerations as to why I think the imagination redresses atheism’s influence.  I will end this introduction where I started it, by saying that the role of imagination in atheism is subversive.  It cannot allow an author to construct an inhabitable world apart from those transcendent, timeless moral laws that govern necessarily imaginable habitation.  If, as MacDonald said, the imagination is that power most alike “the prime operation of power of God,” then we would do well to study it in the work of atheist authors in hopes that we might better know the creative resemblances of the regenerate life in literature as well as learn how the imagination’s imitation of theist morality passes into Christian initiation.

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 141.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low Marston & Company, 1893), 5.

[5] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 3.

[6] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 4.

[7] Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 382.

[8] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Ballentine Books, 1967), 30.

[10] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” 31.

[11] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

 

Ignatius of Loyola: A Life of Obedience

By Corey Latta

St. Ignatius of Loyola, author of The Spiritual Exercises and founder of “The Society of Jesus,” also known as the Jesuits, a spiritual society devoted to the piety propagation of the Christian faith, speaks into Christian history with clarion voice for the sake of obedience to Christ. The sixteenth-century Saint’s message of obedience proceeded from a life fleshed by vowed devotion to poverty and service to others for the sake of the Gospel. To the modern reader, Ignatius, like so many Christian history shapers, might seem unreachable. The story of Christian history is filled with these characters, heroes easy to admire but impossible to imitate. Ignatius is a man who had a vision in which the Father Himself directly requested that he be a servant to Christ, after all, and a true virtuoso in prayer, spiritual meditation, and theological thought. This is a Believer whose life consisted of extreme deprivation for the sake of sanctification, one willing to lose this world to gain the next, letting his body be famished for his spirit to be full, his fleshly desires broken so his will be perfected.

In my reading Ignatius, I found not a hagiographic caricature of Christian piety, but the impassioned pleas of a man convicted of total surrender to Christ. Confronted with a blatant obedience desperately needed in this age, the church is reminded by Ignatius of the high cost of holy living. And at the point where the Saint seems so out of reach—his complete obedience to God—we find a nexus where invitation and challenge coexist, where we can relearn some lasting ideas about living the Lordship of Jesus. Modern readers of Ignatius’s writing, especially his 1553 letter to the Jesuits in Portugal called “On Perfect Obedience,” find an invitation to surrendered devotion to Christ and the latent challenges therewith. In “On Perfect Obedience,” Ignatius reissues the call for the proper obedient disposition of God’s people to His will then proceeds to argue for the totality of obedience in the Christian life.

To see obedience as anything less than a consummation of the whole self, both understanding and will, is to do violence against one’s self.
While other desirable virtues and spiritual gifts remain of import, Ignatius argues that “it is in obedience, more than in any other virtue, that God our Lord gives me the desire to see you signalize yourselves.” Obedience “signalizes,” makes conspicuously defined, the Christian not only by creating uninterrupted fellowship between God and man but, and on this point Ignatius quotes Saint Gregory, also by planting and preserving all virtue says in the mind. Obedience cultivates the self so that it might be positioned appropriately to God, and as Ignatius appeals to his Jesuit audience, rightly positioning the self in relation to God is the necessary and endemic nature of the Christian.

If Christians, “as in the celestial bodies,” are to move in harmonious relationship with God, if believers are “to receive movement and influence from the higher,” Ignatius explains, then they “must be subject and subordinate. . . as takes place in obedience, the one that is moved must be subject and subordinated to the one by which he is moved.” This is the whole of the Christian life, to constellate every virtue, act of the will, and remaining sin under the authority of God.

Obedience works in process, Ignatius contends. It is the mind’s understanding as well as the will that must submit, for “without this obedience of the understanding it is impossible that the obedience of will and execution be what they should be.” The mind loves God best in submission to Him, and the will serves God best when following the submitted mind. To see obedience as anything less than a consummation of the whole self, both understanding and will, is to do violence against one’s self. Ignatius would have true obedience from his readers so that “love and cheerfulness” abound. For reader of Ignatius, invitation and challenge meet in an obedience from which love for God and cheerfulness in His will flourish.

Ignatius pushed obedience as the heart of the gospel. In obedience, the Christian church could take the reign and rule of God into the world, and as people convert to God’s loving will, the glory of “Christ, the highest wisdom, immeasurable goodness, and infinite charity” spreads.

Ignatius’s message remains clear. The promotion of the gospel is the promotion of active obedience. The consolation of the gospel is the acceptance of an obedient life. And the promise of the gospel is the assurance of obedience’s continual guidance into the supreme will of God: “And because you are certain that you have set upon your own shoulders this yoke of obedience for the love of God, submitting yourself to the will of the superior in order to be more conformable to the divine will, be assured that His most faithful charity will ever direct you by the means you yourselves have chosen.”

Image: Ignatius of Loyola accessed at stmarymagdalen.org

Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 2

By Corey Latta

(Part 1)

Temporality, once reflected upon and resigned to, proclaims to humanity its essential question—the one Tolkien so eloquently asked—“what to do with the time given us.” It’s a common philosophical observation that time isn’t in itself material but is used to measure the distance, relationship, and alteration between material things. We measure our lives by time. We consider a relationship significant if it lasts fifty years. We call service to a job quality if it has the tenure of time. We want to make something of our lives in the time we have. We reflect on the past as a way to understand what kind of people we are. We look to the future in hopes that we won’t repeat the mistakes of today. We hope to leave moral legacies behind us as we near the end of our time.

Biblical authors understood the importance of time in creating moral urgency, and they often wielded timely rhetoric in attempts to empower their audiences to action. Jeremiah laments for the time wasted by his kinsman and delivers an urgent warning, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8:20). Chiefly, the scripture writers emphasized the importance of the present. The temporal now is the only time to obey the will of Yahweh. 2 Corinthians 6:2 tells us that God proclaims, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you. Indeed, the ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation.” If one is to know Christ, there is no other time in which to know him than the present. And since God meets me only in the always present and since existence, in response to God’s presence, isn’t actualized in past or future,[1] I have only this present moment to respond to God. The eternal Christ can’t be met yesterday or tomorrow, only in today’s exact now.

Perhaps no period of time has seen more attention paid to the present than the twentieth century. Writers like Joseph Conrad, Walter Benjamin, Paul Valery, Wyndham Lewis, and C. S. Lewis fore-fronted the importance of time as the ultimate measure of humanity’s existential significance. Through time, we know ourselves. In time, we become the people we desire or fear to be. By time, we measure the space between the meaningful moments in our lives. From time, we learn an Ecclesiastian mortality. For Christian writers like C. S. Lewis, time pressed upon the human soul with all the force of heaven and hell behind it. In The Great Divorce, Lewis’s most superb example of his theology of the present, a ghost with a little red lizard on his shoulder is approached by a flaming, radiantly angelic solid person on the high plains of heaven. The ghost, a lost soul, has a strained, spiritually unhealthy relationship with the lizard, a metaphor for the ghost’s besetting sin of lust. Lewis catches sight of the ghost and noticed that “he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him.”

Lewis then narrates the solid person’s reply, “Would you like me to make him quiet’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.” Once the ghost admits that he would like to be rid of the lizard, the flaming Spirit announces, “Then I will kill him.” Shocked and afraid, the lizard-clad ghost defers, “Well, there’s time to discuss this later.” The flaming Spirit announces, “There is no time.” The ghost complains, “It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.” To which the solid person replies, “There is no other day. All days are present now.”

As a part of Lewis’s fictive eternal order, the angelic being serves as a metonym for God’s very essence. Though eternal, though standing outside of time—the slippage of time runs throughout the text serving as the novel’s bedrock theme—the angel’s eternality speaks to his moral perfection. In the high plains, once good is ripened, perfect timeless solidity constitutes nature. God’s timelessness, like His holiness, His perfect loving-kindness, and His omnipotence becomes the banner under which our temporality, like our sinfulness, our selfishness, and our weakness surrender. The solid person incarnates an apologetic of the present, which exposes the ontologically incomplete and morally decaying nature of temporal existence and of the ghost’s ephemeral sins. It is the weight of the present bearing down on the ghost that causes his conversion. He dies to what is temporal, knowing it as non-existence against heaven’s ultimate reality, and lives into the eternal. Once the ghost resigns to time’s deterioration, giving his decay over to destruction, a death by eternity, he transforms into pure, immortal substantiality. But transformation must take place in the present. All days are present for the ghost because all days are present for God.

If, alongside Augustine, Boethius, the biblical writers, and writers like Lewis, we are to understand God, then we must do so in full embrace of His atemporal existence. If I am to know God, then it will be at that crossroads of eternality and temporality called the present. Temporality proves an apologetic of ruin that forces from us the undeniable cry of mortality. The eternal God stands in perfect existence beyond time, though He enters time through the always present that we might shed the temporal and put on the incorruptible. Through time time is conquered. We turn to the eternal through the temporal present, which is the eternal present for God, and we gain immortal solidity. As Lewis says in his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress, “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” May we enjoy more than time can afford.

[1] In other words, there is only evidence of my existing yesterday through artifact and memory. And I’m sure I’ll exist tomorrow. But I only exist in freedom of will and full actualization of life now.

 

Photo: “Museums foot tunnel, South Kensington,” L. Plougmann. CC License.

Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 1

By Corey Latta

The time has passed when time doesn’t count.

— Paul Valéry, “La Crise de l’esprit” (1919)

Humans live in time . . . therefore . . . attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to . . . the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity . . . in it alone freedom and actuality are offered.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Throughout philosophy’s history, notions of eternity have developed alongside and in response to developments in theology of God’s nature. Significant texts like Augustine’s Confessions Book XI and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy spurred philosophical conversation about the nature of and differences between eternity (atemporality) and everlastingness (sempiternity). Now’s not the time to examine all of the nuances of eternity and timed reality, and even a cursory look at the paradigms of epoch and eternal duration will have to wait. For now, I want only to make that small case that an existential function of man’s temporality is to draw him to God’s eternality. And because Augustine, Boethius, and I are eternalists, I will proceed from that position.     Among the implications of God’s timelessness is His transcendent experience of tenselessness. Simply put, God, whose whole life exists beyond chronology, sequentiality, and temporal duration, experiences the past, present, and future in an eternal present, an “always present,” as Eliot poetically put in Four Quartets. To say it another way, God presently exists at all punctiliar moments. And all punctiliar moments exist presently in the transcendent God before He in them, to say it yet another way. This is no new view.

In Book XI of his Confessions, considering God’s relation to time’s reality, Augustine wrote of God’s causal agency in all timed things, stating that since God cannot precede created time (that would imply sequence—an utterly anthropomorphic idea), He must dwell outside of it. The age, then, in which God dwells, the “sublimity of an eternity” Augustine calls it, is “always in the present.” Augustine enjoyed good company in his eternally privileging the present. Early sixth century philosopher Boethius, who parsed eternity as the “complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life,” argued that God’s atemporal existence occupied one “simultaneous present.” God couldn’t know beforehand or afterward, for example, because future and past were always present for God.

Lewis also championed an always present view of God on several occasions. In a superb example of Lewis’s eternalism from Miracles, Lewis says:

It is probable that Nature is not really in Time and almost certain that God is not. Time is probably (like perspective) the mode of our perception. There is therefore in reality no question of God’s at one point in time (the moment of creation) adapting the material history of this universe in advance to free acts which you or I are to perform at a later point in Time. To Him all the physical events and all the human acts are present in an eternal Now. The liberation of finite wills and the creation of the whole material history of the universe (related to the acts of those wills in all the necessary complexity) is to Him a single operation. In this sense God did not create the universe long ago but creates it at this minute—at every minute.

Here, Lewis paints free will and the moment of creation in the color of divine simultaneity. To God, man’s continual expression of freedom and a definite moment in time, like creation, gather synchronously. God exists outside of time, transcendently beyond its sequential nature and effects. In a letter to a fan named Gilbert Perleberg, who is contending with Lewis’s view of time, Lewis states his idea of God’s eternality in a similar way,

This is v. [very] odd. All the arguments you advance as objections to my theory of eternity seem to me to show that you are in exact agreement with me. A doctrine that God ‘was’ more creative ‘at the beginning’ than ‘now’ is absolutely excluded by my view–‘was’ and ‘at the beginning’ being meaningless when applied to the Timeless Being. As I say in Screwtape the total creation meets us at every moment.[1] The distinction between miracle and natural even is not between what God once did and what He now does: it is always NOW with Him.

Temporalist critics of a timeless God accuse the eternalist position of presenting a virtually unknowable Deity. An eternal God is virtually unknowable, if He exists outside of time, man’s only known perception. If, indeed, God is transcendently beyond time, then how can we know him in our temporal trapping?

T. S. Eliot poeticized the theological tension between an eternal God and temporal man with “through time time is conquered.” Alluding to the incarnation, Eliot hit upon the nexus of God’s eternality and man’s temporality. God enters any temporal moment, and therefore into the stream of duration, with full ontological maintenance of His eternality. In entering time, God doesn’t change anymore than a man does when he enters a river. Time, though, changes. The “always present” nature of God’s existence opens up the temporal present, animating time with spiritual reality and allowing chronologically natured man to know the eternal God. The Incarnation demonstrated this break in the temporal more profoundly than any other historical event. The incarnational, tensed rhetoric of the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world [time]” reflects God’s taking on a tensed existence not only that man might live beyond time but also that he might live in time and in communion with eternity. If God is eternal, yet an occupant of time, then every singular moment within the continual flow of past, present, and future partakes in an eternal reality.

Indeed, God’s ever-occupying the present redefines humanity’s tensed existence. God, in full expression of His eternal nature, enters into all moments causatively and with consequence for those bound to dwell in time. Therein lies the apologetic of time. Against God’s eternality we must redefine our experience of past, present, and future. While time, and man’s experience within and of it, operates in tandem with God’s operative will, it also works against it. God exists perfectly within His own eternality. Eternal life is perfected in His nature. He occupies atemporal existence in perfection of non-decay. Humanity, though, suffers the effects of time until eventual death. By its very nature time endures in antithesis to eternality. Augustine knew this, saying of man’s experience with time that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.” Time’s finitude is the existential progression of fatal rot ending in death, and temporal man moves through that progression in steady entropy. Whereas God remains in whole existence, man breaths his way into non-existence. The life God enjoys in atemporal existence stands above decaying man as a great tower into which man longs to seek refuge.

(part 2)

[1] From Screwtape, letter 15: “The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them” (61).

Photo: “Dawn of  Eternity” by Waiting for the Word. CC license. 

On Playing the Man: Personal Reflections on Polycarp

By Corey Latta

Apologetics is all logos, and mind, and cerebration, and ism. And theology, apologia’s paterfamilias, conceptualizes and constructs new theories about God. If it’s very good theology, it recalls those older ideas from which the theories are built. I confess, as one who toils in both apologia and theologica, I find myself and my fellow thinkers a tad tiresome. Who are we, after all, that we would presume to argue on God’s behalf? What could I say to move a man’s mind closer to his Maker? Apologetics can be a presumptuous field full of ambitious intellectuals. I’m pressed to publish new material, to articulate anew at annual conferences. We say a lot, we apologists, maybe too much. I would distrust the apologist who didn’t doubt an old diatribe or regret not having a bit more reticence on occasion. And I suspect apologists and theologians are professional pundits and theatergoers critiquing God’s moving picture show.

In moments of clarity, I’m reminded that apologetics is, was, more.  I know myself involved in something greater. Apologists were the gospel of the crucified Christ embodied. Rationalizers and reasoners who bannered all truth as God’s. Defenders of the faith, I must remember, whose arguments weren’t vetted by editors or tenured peers but by persecutors and oppressive government officials. This is the apologetic tradition. I’d hold suspect any modern defender of the faith whose entire life was spent in the safe arena of academia, whose creed never faced the sword, or whose apologia didn’t determine living another day, if he didn’t feel just a tinge of sheepishness for all that theorizing so far behind the frontline.

Like the die-hard patriot who refuses to enlist, I’ve certainly let my theological arguments venture out beyond the truth of my life. And I might better know my place if I looked back to my greater kin. The authority from which I speak might gird me up if I leaned against it a little harder. If I could incarnate my ideas with more muscle and enflesh my Christian apologia so that it ran vein-long through me as it did my fathers in the faith.

Suppose, like Polycarp second-century Bishop of Smyrna, my case for God from the moral law or whatever defense for the historical validities of the Gospels I may make came from the same Christ-held-center that caused the apologist to say, “It must needs be that I shall be burned alive,” when his defense would cost his life. Sought, arrested, and led into a stadium for fatal interrogation, Polycarp heard what seems to me the apologist’s call, a voice from heaven saying “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Play the man. Would I, too, as one who defends the faith of Christ, who stands in the line of Polycarp?

When pressed by the Roman magistrate to consider his frail old frame and swear the genius of Caesar and “revile the Christ,” Polycarp replied, “eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” An apologetic from testimony laden with as much keen logic as poignant pathos, Polycarp deals in reason and reciprocation. Polycarp’s response—my life proves that I’ve been treated well by God, so why should I not return my faithfulness to him?—is a sound defense in itself, but how much more coming from one whose best defense for the faith was his mere presence? Polycarp could play the apologist only because he played the man.

It seems to me, when reading Polycarp, that modern apologetics is at stake. My role as an apologist is at stake. What else should define my call, if not some Polycarpian paradigm? Indeed, if I, with mere degrees and books and a couple dozen conference papers, might wrap rhetorical wit the way Polycarp did, as a deflection against heresy premised by the apologetic of my life, then I might occasionally move to a defense beyond a regurgitated designer theory of the universe’s fine-tuning or an armchair deconstruction of naturalism. I might be more than a professional apologist, more than scholar, as Polycarp was more.

When the Roman magistrate commanded the Smyrnan Bishop to turn away from his fellow Christians, often accused of atheism because they denied Roman gods, and dismiss his kin’s faith by saying, “Away with the atheists,” we’re told that Polycarp answered, “with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, ‘Away with the atheists.’”

An essential apologetic employs rhetorical wit in service to the Savoir. Polycarp knew no other kind. So he stands as, and so I’m reminded of, the Christan apologia’s beau ideal. It’s the old idea on which the western church was founded: that idea of a faithful disciple learned in the scriptures and sharp in thought, a living and breathing proof of Christ. No superfluous theologizing here. Only lived apologetics. A breathed bastion for the gospel. That’s the old idea.

Perhaps some modern apologetic publications would have more teeth if they were written to uphold the tradition of Polycarp, the “puller down of the gods,” as he was called. To pull the gods down so that the world might see Christ unobstructed. That we would have Polycarp’s strong shoulders able to topple over the statues of unorthodox thought. Modern apologetics as pulling down false gods. That’s the tradition in which I toil. I’m beginning to remember.

When threatened to be thrown to wild beasts—and if that wasn’t vile enough—to be burned, Polycarp said: “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” Polycarp’s pitting temporality against eternality and positing that life is best lived for the latter . . . that has teeth.

It’s all very romantic, I guess, and some esteemed colleagues might object to such a lofty, even unnecessary, return. Why should any western apologist want to champion Polycarp as anything more than a mythic figure? An antiquated model. Don’t we tend to see the first apologists as Thors and Herculeses and Beowulfs, really, trapped in distant hero tales? How unsettling, now in 2015, to meditate on my line of work in the light of Polycarp’s death. Polycarp died by fire and dagger in front of frenzied masses, while some apologists live by speaking to safe rooms of moderately hostile audiences, for goodness’ sake. I write this to recall the history in which I stand in hopes that I might remember to play the man when I play the apologist.

God, that we would be more romantic. That we would rehearse the myth when the times call for it. That we would pray Polycarp’s prayer when our backs are to the posts of the unbelieving world, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You. . . . I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ. . . . You that art the faithful and true God. For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen.”

What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall (Part 2 of 2)

By Corey Latta

Part 1 

The ovenbird’s universal song, the natural revelation everyone has heard, is an augury of seasonal diminishment. Having a masterful knowledge of the Old Testament, Frost constantly drew from its imagery and themes. Frost’s use of biblical imagery—particularly images of the Fall—in “The Trial by Existence,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “The Onset” (to list only a few) underscore his reliance on the theological here in “The Over Bird.” As both are certainly present in the first three chapters of the Genesis narrative, it is fitting that Frost would marry these two themes of natural revelation and the Fall. The biblical account of the Fall describes a naturally perfect realm in complete harmony with itself and man (Gen. 2:8-19). Upon the entrance of sin into the created order, not only mankind but nature is said to have fallen: “cursed is the ground because of you. . . both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you [mankind]. . .” (Gen. 3:17-18). The Fall is the most cataclysmic theological and ecological occurrence in all of scripture: the entire natural world fell from an ideal form to a perpetual state of aftermath. Likewise, “The Oven Bird” depicts a natural realm where life once existed in an ideal state of spring, but in which now organisms are in a fallen condition, degraded by the passing of spring into summer. Echoing the narrative voice in Genesis, the ovenbird declares a state of natural decadence; the message that everyone hears exclaims a state of fallenness.

The poetic speaker shifts slightly from what the ovenbird proclaims to a larger theological context:

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

“And comes that other fall we name the fall,” Frost declares with a definitive tone. The poem shifts to a more distinct doctrinal voice here. The octave presents a naturalistic mode of revelation: the poet can assert the theological implications of mid-summer’s diminishments. The double occurrence of “fall” in the first line of the sestet foregrounds the theme of the Fall that will run throughout the remainder of the poem. In this line Frost deploys his most foundational, and perhaps most important, poetic device—the previously explicated use of metaphor, Frost’s theology in poetic practice. At this point Frost begins to make his strongest metaphorical-theological connections.

When the poet says “and comes that other fall we name the fall,” the reader can certainly trace the seasonal meaning, which the poem endorses on its most basic level (spring to mid-summer to fall). However, the poem’s subtle theological undertones along with Frost’s insistence on metaphor should alert any interpreter that “fall” is a loaded term, one that draws on both natural and theological spheres. The ovenbird’s message of seasonal decay—the end of the flowers’ bloom at the peak of summer—culminates in the topos of the Fall of the natural order. The movement from natural occurrence to theological abstraction is a common gesture for Frost. The “fall,” both seasonal and lapsarian, is Frost’s entrance into both the natural and theological world in order to stretch the borders of each, interrogating the implications of one with the other, and perhaps rewriting the boundaries of both—all to create a highly charged poetics.

The speaker moves from his pun on the “fall” by returning once more to the message of the ovenbird: “He says the highway dust is over all.” The winged prophet describes a desolate condition in a sweeping statement. This fall, the Fall, has covered everything in the natural world. Going back to the role of human agency, it is the dust of the highway that has covered all. The poem seems to associate the origins of this desolation to a manmade object, perhaps as an indication of human agency in keeping with the Genesis narrative. Though the fallen world of the poem is purely natural, man—as the originator of sin in Genesis—is implicated as well.

After providing an aphorism on the Fall, the poem’s narrator then addresses the ovenbird’s condition: “The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing.” These first two lines of the poem’s final quatrain provide a fascinating element to Frost’s use of the doctrine of the Fall. By postulating that the ovenbird “would cease and be as other birds,” the poet speaks to the bird’s role by reverting back to the biblical theme of functioning animals. Numerous times in the Old Testament animals were assigned specific functions, at times in an evil capacity (i.e. the serpent in the Garden of Eden—Gen. 3:1-4) but more often as agents for God (e.g. the dove sent from the ark by Noah—Gen. 8:8-9; the donkey who spoke to the prophet Balaam—Num. 22:28). Though there is no explicit divinity in the poem, the speaker makes a clear distinction between this ovenbird and other birds who merely sing without substance, “but that he knows in singing not to sing.”

The poem’s last two lines are by far the most powerful and poignant: “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.” The theological elements of the poem necessarily culminate in the ovenbird’s inquiry. The speaker writes the last line as the sine qua non, the inevitable question from all the bird has said before. It is difficult to nail down what exactly this “thing” may be, but I think there are two likely options.

So profoundly diminished is this “thing” that the bird’s revelatory message primarily serves to frame the question of “what to make of a diminished thing.” Given the mid-summer state of immediate and approaching death, given the fallout and the degraded state of the natural world, what does one make of such faded and diminished objects? It is fitting that Frost ends with a question rather than a conclusion as he rarely seems interested—even in his exploration of biblical and theological tropes—in declaring answers. Instead, he interweaves the natural world of the poem with the theological and experiments with poetic meaning by metaphorizing the natural with the theological. Frost is more interested in writing catechistic verse than providing moral platitudes, and as a result, the poem concludes with inconclusiveness. The fallen condition of this “thing” bewilders the ovenbird, leaving the bird, the poetic speaker, and the readers in a state of contemplation over the poem’s two most prominent themes: the natural order and the assertion that it is fallen. Both themes, indeed Frost’s entire creative schema, argue for the presence of the theological as necessary for poeticizing the natural.

Photo: “Sunset” by Kamil Porembiński. CC License. 

What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall (Part 1 of 2)

By Corey Latta

Part 2

Robert Frost was a poet on whom nothing was lost, nor was anything outside of his poetic jurisdiction. His poetry—though seemingly narrow in its New England regionalism, prosaic in its focus, and proletariat in its characterization—envisions a conspicuous natural world containing an intrinsic theological system of great interest. Frost’s knowledge of the Bible and his poetic engagement with religious doctrine reveal an acute investment in the theological by one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. This investment proves an underlying argument in much of Frost’s work: perhaps an artistically literary experience of the natural necessitates consideration of the theological. Poems like “The Oven Bird,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” unveil Frost to be a writer deeply invested in the use of theological tenets for deeper poetic meaning and a creative mind especially taken with the biblical narrative of the Fall. Within Frost’s verse lies an apologetic of creativity, a philosophy of poesy that implies the natural world cannot honestly be captured without the presence of the theological.

Frost’s continual return to the Fall—along with his employment of other theological matters, such as natural revelation—find fullest expression in the natural worlds of his poems. The landscapes, wildlife, and seasonal cycles of nature are all subject to theological animation and all detectable through metaphor. For Frost, these metaphors of animation could not attain their fullest meaning without synthesizing the natural with the theological. An important consideration when discussing any poet’s inclusion of theologically charged is his use of metaphor. And, in fact, Frost maintained an ardent belief in metaphor as the chief trope and function of verse; according to Frost, metaphor is where poetry begins, exists, and ends:

[T]here are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another. . . . Poetry is simply made of metaphor.

What I see as a type of Frostian orthodoxy, metaphor enables meaning by enacting a poetic schema inclusive of religious, scientific, and philosophical discourse. In Frost’s own terms, metaphor is a way to “say matter in terms of spirit.” If there is spirituality, theology, and the supernatural in Frost’s poems, they reside in his implementation of metaphor. Through metaphor, Frost opens the natural to the supernatural, and every natural object, every leaf, tree, brook, and animal is subject to fuller meaning through the metaphorical. Metaphor becomes a theological act.

The conversion from theological thought to metaphor was for Frost the ultimate act of literary and religious expression. If theology is the study of God, then metaphor is Frost’s theology, his attempt to give form to theological inquiry. For Frost, metaphor making is the doing of theology. Exposure to one trope is exposure to the other, as Frost said, “the person who gets close enough to poetry, he is going to know more about the word belief than anybody else knows, even in religion nowadays . . . now I think—I happen to think—that those three beliefs that I speak of, the self-belief, the love-belief, and the art-belief, are all closely related to the God belief.” Through poetry, one can “bring the thing into existence.”

In his poem “The Oven Bird,” Frost uses the theological tropes of the Fall along with natural revelation to give new meaning to the natural world of the poem while also continuing to develop metaphorical poetics in which meaning itself must be both natural and supernatural. Frost displays remarkable poetic dexterity by both theologizing and naturalizing the act of this common bird’s call.

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I see this poem primarily exploring two theological tropes in relation to one another: natural revelation and the doctrine of the Fall. Note that, as is so often with Frost, the theological is deeply contextualized in the world of nature. Like the ovenbird’s nest, characteristically built on the forest floor, Frost grounds theology in the natural world. On the other hand, the poem’s natural imagery channels a theological dimension that forces the reader to contend with the work’s metaphorical meaning. Precisely in this melding of immanence and transcendence lies Frost’s poetic agenda: to infuse nature with theological phenomena so that both spheres (the natural and the theological) inseparably coalesce. This coalescence, in turn, creates an apologetic for the necessity of theology in the poet’s creative act.

Here, in the claim that “everyone has heard,” Frost interjects the doctrine of natural revelation, a theme that wends its way throughout the entire poem. Natural revelation is the doctrine that God has revealed, and continues to reveal, himself to all men through the natural order. As systematic theologian Louis Berkhof states, “The mode of [natural] revelation is natural when it is communicated through nature, that is, through the visible creation with its ordinary laws and powers.”

The most relevant aspect of natural revelation—and the most relevant distinction between natural and special revelation—is its universality, its common annunciation to all mankind through nature. Being a student of both science and the bible and often troubled by their apparent differences, Frost frequently sought to fuse religious and natural imagery, and it is extremely probable that Frost was well acquainted with the biblical doctrine of natural revelation and potentially saw it as the literal and metaphorical melding of theology and science.

In the case of “The Oven Bird,” natural revelation manifests itself in the winged singer’s “loud” call that “everyone has heard.” Frost positions this ovenbird as a prophet of nature, characterized by his seasonality, the audience of his message, and the nature of his oratory. Significantly, the one note Frost provides for the poem mentions the ovenbird’s common designation as the “teacher bird.” As a “mid-summer and a mid-wood bird” the ovenbird is situated seasonally in the progressive natural order, and it is from his seasonal office that he declares a natural message to the “solid tree trunks.” The ovenbird’s first hearers are not human, but rather organic members of his community that respond to the bird’s message, “the solid tree trunks sound again.” The revelatory world of the bird’s song is accessible and detectable to the listeners of the natural world. Indeed, the poem’s speaker describes the bird’s message as “loud” and resonating to the surrounding natural realm as the trees “sound again” the ovenbird’s oracle, implying a form of acceptance of the message by its hearers. In anticipation of that end, the ovenbird’s oratory begins to introduce the poem’s other prominent theological trope: the theological trope of the Fall. It is in the sonnet’s octave that Frost delves into the substance of the ovenbird’s natural revelation while also inaugurating a theology of the Fall. As the sonnet unfolds, the picture grows increasingly grim. The sonnet reaches its turn in both tone and theological theme as the natural revelation of the octave turns poignantly to a treatment of the Fall in the sestet. The ovenbird reveals a declining natural order where the first beauty of spring life has passed and all is given to the imminent coming of fall:

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

By mid-summer—the time of the ovenbird’s announcement—the leaves that spring birthed are old and on the verge of seasonal death. The ovenbird sings at a time of declivity as mid-summer holds little to no importance to other organisms in the poem. In a somewhat ambiguous line, Frost seems to say that “for flowers” summer is lowest on a scale of importance—numbered “one to ten”—because their time to bloom has past. The preposition “for” signals the position of the flowers as understood by the bird (“He says”). Just as the flowers’ petals have long fallen by mid-summer, so too have the pear and cherry trees, whose blooms “went down in showers/ on sunny days a moment overcast.” The bird speaks of sweeping loss and the beginning of death as leaves, flowers, and fruit trees—all images associated with the Garden of Eden—testify to their seasonal demise. As interpreter of this profound phenomenon reflected in nature’s cycles, the bird knows that mid-summer holds little importance for spring blooms and that the flowery life spawned in spring cannot live throughout summer.

 

Photo: “Arastradero Open Space Preserve” by Justin Kern. CC License. 

“You Must Change Your Life”: An Apologetic of Conversion in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

By Corey Latta

 

“Archaic Torso of Apollo”

 

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

 

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

 

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

 

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1908

 

Turn of the twentieth-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s verse often exists on the margins of both modernist abstraction–that strained reach for meaning in the seemingly meaningless material world–and the spirituality of Christian theism. Infused with the transcendent, poems like “The Panther” and “The Swan” and “Autumn,” to name a very few, present the reader with the converted quotidian, a paradoxical reality that leads the reader through the world-that-is into the world-beyond. This poetic world-beyond’s laws are constituted by beauty, truth, and the morally good. And without the presence of a spiritual reality within and beyond their empirical worlds, Rilke’s poems lose a vitally important interpretive key, namely, artistically-derived, theologically-animated morality.

The suffusion of artistically-generative morality–an absolute morality produced by art that speaks authoritatively into the moral life of the partaker–is at the heart of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Here, through the marbled chest of ancient deity, Rilke exhibits a broken statue of Apollo, god of music, poetry, art, and religious oracle. The statue sits broken, an amputee of decaying time. The poem begins in a sort of agnosticism, with onlookers refusing the god’s glorious head. The fruitful life of Apollo’s eyes is cut off, and the old god sits in blind decapitation.

And yet, the poem declares, the dismembered god’s power is but dimmed, not diminished. The headless Apollo’s is now a lamp turned low, but a lamp all the same. To see the statue–and by extension, to read the poem–is to bask in the dimmed divinity of broken beauty. The quadriplegic torso presents a paradigm of an emptied beauty that imposes a transformative power on the expectations of viewer. If, Rilke intimates, the statue were whole, if it kept head and arms and legs, then observers would miss the dazzling curved breast, the grinning placid hips, and its thighs like inroads to the god’s life giving center. It’s not the god himself that need be seen, but the beauty housed within his now shattered frame. The reader now finds himself before an incarnation. The self and the god’s otherness meet in an encounter of artistic beauty and mortal life.

The second stanza’s “otherwise,” refrained in the third, calls our attention back to what is, not to what is not. What faces the onlooker is the “translucent cascade of the shoulders” wildly glistening from borders that “burst like a star.” Here art, and theology, and morality collide in fragmented form of broken marble an apologetic emerges from the incarnation of the divine. In the artistically inanimate, Rilke gives us a form for animate morality. The amputation of the god’s members paradoxically proves the regeneration of the onlooker, and an omniscient affinity bursts forth in the star of moral awareness. Here, before the marbled god, you are seen and known and revealed. It is not the statue that stands exposed, but you. It’s not the broken bust being watched, but your very morality. And the apologetic conclusion of the matter, the poet’s argument from the torso’s beauty, is that “you must change your life.”

Rilke reminds us of what other writers have testified to: that when truly known, artistic truth and beauty birth the good. Irish writer Iris Murdoch explored the connection between art and morality, concluding along with Rilke, that, “Art and morality are, with certain provisos . . . one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” So in calling readers out of themselves and into a state of awful love of the beautiful, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” calls us into moral change. One can’t stand in the gleam of beauty long before seeing the good.

 

Photo: “Apollo” by N. Thompson. CC License

“Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence

By Dr. Corey Latta

Within the pages of a literary text lies a cosmos, each chapter hosting a world citizened by people of faith and doubt. Here, authorial intention, cultural representation, imagination, characterization, and realism constellate in textual code and the symbol, in diction and device, in tropes of verisimilitude, and in themes of selfhood and otherness to generate a moral worldview. Twentieth-century modernist literature—to which I’m drawn and in which I specialize—marks both a seismic shift in worldviews as well as a kaleidoscope of worldview itself. In modernism, there are many moral paradigms, but common to them all is the centrality of the self. Among Modernism’s writers, Ernest Hemingway stands as one of the movement’s most exemplary figures, an author unparalleled in illustrating the absence of the spiritually other as the heart of the self’s plight. Hemingway’s works demonstrate the mores of modernism, those themes of self-isolation, spiritual laceration, and nihilistic morality that defined a “lost generation,” as Gertrude Stein labeled it. In Hemingway’s works, humanity struggles to find and recover itself from those emotionally fragmented relationships that populate a bleak existential reality.

As an interpreter of literature whose lens is utterly Christian, I find Hemingway’s writing a complexly fascinating representation of an unredeemed reality, a worldview that betrays its need for the very divine presence it resists. I’m stricken by Hemingway’s recreation of a refractory human condition defined by a morality that reaches for transcendent spiritual meaning with a closed fist. Yet, reach it does. While Hemingway’s fictive worlds are populated with the emotionally wounded, the physically derelict, and the spiritually lost, they promote a resistance to Christian truth that yet resonates with a profoundly apologetic acknowledgement of that truth’s reality. Here, I’ll take a brief glance at Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to draw out that veiled apologetic.

This novel, Hemingway’s earliest and whose title is taken from Ecclesiastes 1:5, captures humanity’s perennial moral dilemma: man’s attempt to find purpose and meaning in a world seemingly bereft of absolute truth but full of fractured communities. The Sun Also Rises has no God to speak of—at least not an active, immanent, or apparent one—nor any other authority placed above man except that which derives from man. Yet it is precisely an absence of God that haunts the novel, creating a modernist apologetic of misplaced desire for greater life meaning. True to its titular source, The Sun Also Rises decries human longing without divine fulfillment. The novel’s world is that of the self in painful void of the theologically other. The reader sees no God, though feels the need for His presence.

Jake Barnes, the first-person narrator of the story, is written as a wounded individual—physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually—whose experience in the Great War has left him physically marred and desexualized. Jake loves Brett (Lady Ashley), who feigns reciprocated love for Jake but resists giving herself to him because of his sexual impotence, even refusing to live with him due to fear of her own infidelity. Both Jake and Brett are part of a larger social circle of morally flawed characters, caught in lives of debauchery. After a series of promiscuous affairs, Brett rejects Jake for another suitor, leaving him in a state of dejection. Through such a mercurial myriad of relational instabilities, the reader follows Jake, the novel’s self-referential “I,” as he approaches life significance with a mercenary understanding that moral meaning was a tradable commodity bought and sold in the market of experience. No higher good matters in Hemingway’s modernist morality. All one can do in life is live it, and there is no room for meaning beyond existence and experience.

In a particularly telling scene, Jake, while in an insomniac state, expresses his view of moral dealings with others as “[n]o idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values.” He continues,

You gave up something and got something else. Or worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. . . . Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what is was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it.

Jake’s practical existentialism exchanges any kind of spiritually underpinned or absolutist morality for a rather bleak pragmatism. Jake cares not for meaning but for social functionality. This passage immediately follows Jake’s bitter response to his relational despairs with Brett Ashley. Jakes says, “To hell with women, anyway. To hell with you, Brett Ashley.” Here Jake operates along the lines of his own isolation in which his relational distanced proximity to others determines, in part, his estimation of self-worth and morality.

In Jake’s melancholic world of self-enclosed morality—a virtual display of vanities upon vanities—beliefs do not shape man’s moral makeup. Instead, self-protection reigns. If Jake cannot have Brett, then he will damn her. And while the novel features sparse solitary acts of “rightness,” as in Jake’s compensating the prostitute for her wasted evening, each gesture proves to be of no real consequence—yet another dimension of the novel’s display of meaninglessness.

For Hemingway, moral positioning takes place in relation to the community, or lack of, as opposed to God or a higher authority. Pre-modern models of authority would have certainly shown the importance of understanding life in relation to transcendent meaning rather than an inward-turned existentialism as seen in The Sun Also Rises. Buried within the self, however, and twisted up with that inward turn rests a cautionary tale of life without the sacred. As a Hemingway-esque sun of moral emptiness rises on the novel’s broken characters, an apologetic from the absence of God appears. Modernist morality shores the fragments of wounded morality against the ruins of the human condition, revealing and arguing for the need for divine presence.

Absent any divine presence, characters futilely search for moral meaning in a murky society of modernist selves, a world of wounded egos in relationship with other wounded egos. It’s remarkable how often Hemingway’s common theme of broken relationships opens up into a consideration, albeit cynical, of existential virtue with an ever-present realization that life can, indeed, be wasted. Like many other early- to mid-twentieth-century modernist authors who lived through and wrote intently about death, Hemingway draws on this imagery to communicate the ecclesiastical futility of life, bringing this message to the forefront of the novel as death looms over the characters.

Jake is a wounded veteran who has seen and nearly experienced death. Romero, a matador, exemplifies death by characterization and vocation and embodies modern man’s nearness to death. Hemingway uses this character to overemphasize death, drawing on the metaphor of bullfighting to demonstrate its vitality and its symbolic significance of fully living life. “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters,” Jake says. Cohn, another example of modernist morality, is consistently portrayed as lifeless throughout the story: from his passive role in relationships, “I rather liked him and evidently she led him quite a life,” to his losing fight with Romero that essentially killed whatever spirit that remained in Cohn. The novel’s worldview of self-centered morality includes its characters’ perpetuating dismal fates, symbolic deaths, and self-destruction.

Cohn is a most interesting example of this bleak perpetuation. A product of both tradition and severe codependence on women with much stronger personalities than his own, Cohn admits what he sees as his existential problem to Jake, “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.” Cohn seeks adventure in traveling to foreign places in hopes to find meaning and fulfillment, to which Jake replies, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” Cohn is the quintessential modern man, lacking meaning and purpose in his world, and vainly searching for a “lived life.”

Highly impressionable, Cohn’s experiential and emotional capacity depends on his falsely constructed ideas of reality, primarily derived from books and the women who have ruled him. Jake observes, “Several women had put themselves out to be nice to him [Cohn], and his horizons had all shifted.” Jake even attributes to the writing of Mencken Cohn’s inability to enjoy Paris. Cohn’s easily swayed romantic notions of women and wandering are partly pursuits of “purification,” as Hemingway writes it. By fleeing to new places and experiencing new dynamics of community, Cohn seeks a kind of self-cleansing. Man’s search for higher meaning takes a thematic turn, when Jake warns Cohn to not seek new geographic places as a way to finding one’s meaning in life. In a conversation between the two about travel from France to Spain, Jake depicts France as a corrupt country, a place where value is determined by money, “Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. . . . If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money.” Jake contrasts this with Spain, where financial value and exchange are minimized in light of the celebratory mode of carefree living. In Spain, “[e]verything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” Jake and his expatriate community move spatially in attempts to move meaningfully. In the end, their attempts to find meaning by experience and adventure are tainted by the presence of their “selves.” The idea that Jake initially set up of not getting away from self by going to different places still holds up; no matter where they go, there they are. The self is omnipresent.

What ties Cohn to Hemingway’s modernist presentation of morality is the character’s lack of perception concerning what is valuable and true. Cohn’s is a blind romantic sentimentality. Indeed, Cohn’s moral imperceptibility lends itself to the modern mold of meaning without an absolute point of reference, a fixed standard beyond the self. That self, ever sprawling out in empty relationships, simultaneously closes back in on itself in condemnation (cf. Charles Williams’s Descent into Hell). If there is one word spoken by the characters in The Sun Also Rises that define human relationships, it is the word “hell.” For Hemingway, “hell” becomes an anti-theology, both denying the possibility of and affirming a pitiful desire for a transcendent adverse reality. Jake Barnes, Cohn, Romero, Lady Brett—indeed, all of the novel’s characters—cast their lives and the lives of those around them into a damned state. Brett describes her love for Jake as “hell on earth.” Jake wishes women, Brett specifically, to go to hell. Another character, Bill Gorton says, “road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs.” Robert Cohn tells Mike Campbell to go to hell in a fit of jealousy and then says he feels “like hell, naturally.” Jake and Bill say of Cohn, “Oh, to hell with him! He spends a lot of time there. I want him stay there.” Brett tells Jake, “I feel like hell” as she confesses her love for Romero the matador. In a passage where Cohn hits Jake, “hell” is used six times, four of which in the form “go to hell.” After an apology to Jake, Cohn confesses, “I’ve been through hell. . . . It’s been simply hell.” When Cohn leaves Paris, Jake says, “[T]o hell with Cohn,” but goes on to say repeatedly, “I feel like hell.” Finally, at the novel’s end, in a final conversation between Brett and Jake, Brett exclaims, “I’ve had such a hell of a time.”

The great irony of modern morality is that the hellish, unfulfilling feast of relationships proves to be precisely the greatest desire of the modern man. Hell, a term used often in the context of community, spreads through the “herd” of wounded society. In a moment in the novel when Jake talks about steers and the vulnerability of a lone steer, Bill promptly exclaims to Mike, “Don’t you ever detach me from the herd.” Morality in modernism centers, if it can indeed truly be centered, on the herd, the community of the flawed. As impossible as it may be for Hemingway’s heroes to relate to one another in a healthy and fulfilling fashion, it is even more impossible for them to live without relating to one another. There is no room for true individualism in Hemingway’s moral prescription. The novel denies ultimate fulfillment of meaning and truth but assumes man’s innate desire for them through relationship. If higher life meaning exists, it must be sought, though vainly, in the herd.

Characters in The Sun Also Rises define themselves by their relationship to the herd, but as the herd is a mere extension of the self—the reflexive modernist “I”—engagement in the socio-relational ultimately terminates in the self. The frustrated attempt to move beyond the self is where the novel’s apologetic lies. The novel readily raises questions of God and His role in life meaning, indefinitely suspending those questions in its characters’ desire for, but disbelief in, the transcendent. In the closing dialogue between Jake and Brett, she says, “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch. . . . It’s sort of what we have instead of God.” To which Jake replies, “Some people have God. . . . Quite a lot.”

The tumultuous love affair between Jake and Brett concludes with them sitting in a cab together. While “God” has been convincingly displaced in the novel, leaving only the self and other selves to regulate morality, His unaccepted presence haunts the world of the text. In fact, a rare acknowledgement of God hosts one of the novel’s most honestly intimate moments: “We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. . . . ‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ . . . ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” In the world of The Sun Also Rises, divinely authored moral meaning crumbles under the weight of broken life experience. Exemplified by a distinct displacement of transcendent meaning and the presence of fractured community, the meaning of morality proves as perishable as the self. The transparently dismal hope of a good life found in the wounded community of Hemingway’s world betrays a wantonly fraught human desire for the divine. Without God, the human condition remains bound to a hellish expression. Unless one ascends past the meaninglessness of selfed morality, like Solomon himself, one can’t live life “all the way up.” But isn’t it pretty to think so?

 

Photo: “hope” by Forest Wander. CC License