Thursday, December 27, 2007

`I Won't Try to Put the Experience Into Words'

An anonymous reader asks an impertinent question: “Why don't you believe?”

Why impertinent? Because it is the obverse of the ultimate question we pose in the privacy of 3 a.m.: “Why do I believe?” and its corollary, “What do I believe?” There’s something indecent about airing intimacies in public, a suggestion of exhibitionism. Besides, I have no satisfactory answer. I remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of his friend Herman Melville in 1856, five years after Moby-Dick:

“He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

There’s nothing courageous or noble about me, and I wrestle hourly with pride and presumption, but Hawthorne is otherwise right on the money. The current vogue for vulgar atheism has its counterpart in vulgar religiosity. What they share is self-righteousness, the human curse, and each fuels the other. In general, my sympathies lie with certain believers; if not with the particulars of their faith, with the worthiness of their questions. I think of R.S. Thomas, a priest as well as a poet, and a memorably difficult, even hateful man. In a 1948 essay, “Two Chapels,” he describes an experience he had the previous summer visiting a chapel, Maes-yr-Onnen, in Radnorshire:

“When I had walked around the building and stared in through the windows (there was no one there to unlock the door for me), I stretched myself out on the grass and let my mind wander back into the past. And indeed after a while, I saw the first worshippers coming through the fields -- sober men and women dressed in a sober fashion. I saw them leave the sunlight for the darkness of the chapel and then heard the rustling of the Bible pages and the murmurs of soft voices mingling with the wind. Yes, it was two and a half centuries earlier on a fine August morning. And almost immediately, I saw, I understood. As with St. John the Divine on the island of Patmos I was `in the Spirit’ and I had a vision, in which I could comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of the creation. But I won’t try to put the experience into words. It would be impossible. I will simply say that I realised there was really no such thing as time, no beginning and no end but that everything is a fountain welling up endlessly from immortal God.”

I envy Thomas his experience, as I do Augustine’s and Pascal’s (and a certain Father Roos’, in upstate New York), and it reminds me of moments in Eliot’s Four Quartets:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I prefer the company of men such as Eliot and Thomas to Dawkins and Co. They are explorers and ask better questions.


Fr Justin said...

Thank you. I am so happy to have accidentally discovered your wonderful blog. You seem to hear words the way I do, but are much more successful at identifying and drawing them out. Any ability I may once have had was successfuly stifled at school and university, and I've bever quite managed to shuffle free of the dead weight.
I've taken the liberty of linking to your site from my blog, but I understand that some who struggle with belief might take offence at a priest doing so. I suspect you won't mind at all, but just in case, I thought I would ask you. If you've a problem, I'll happily remove my link.
Happy Christmas! And thank you for your lovely stuff, in any event.

The Sanity Inspector said...

The late English journalist Henry Fairlie had some good ruminations on the difficulties of belief in his 1978 book The Seven Deadly Sins Today. He called himself "a reluctant unbeliever".

Art Durkee said...

One of the interesting things to me in contemporary poetry is that people still vilify Robinson Jeffers, who was of the same generation of Eliot and Pound et al., but whose response to the problems of modernity was not the same as theirs. He was indeed Calvinist in upbringing, but he was not at all conventionally religious. I think you might actually find some common ground with him, if you looked beneath the surface of the usual critical misunderstandings of him.

His type of belief was rooted in nature, and he struggled with the distortions of morality that conventional religion often found itself twisted into.

I like this comment of Thomas': But I won’t try to put the experience into words. It would be impossible. This is something I argue with my fellow poets about all the time: the limitations of words, the limits of poetry. (One thing a lot of chattering poets are deathly afraid of, it seems, is simple silence.) Being also someone for whom experiences of the type Thomas describes are not uncommon, and who struggles to write about it, knowing all the while how futile it is, I sympathize with this passage of his quoted here. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Marianne Moore on silence and restraint:

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat -
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth-
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

Lee said...

Belief has both private and public aspects, and if nothing else, very public consequences, so asking about the basis of someone's belief (or nonbelief), and belief systems, is not necessarily impertinent. And I'm very wary about deifying silence, which can just as easily disguise banality as great depth of feeling (whatever that may be).

'Not being able to put something into words' is for me an essential part of metaphor, and poetry. And these, too, are not merely private.

Anonymous said...

What is poetry? I do not know. But, I tend to agree with the beat poet louis simpson when he says,"Like the shark it[poetry] contains a shoe."(poem: "American Poetry")

For me, poetry is being able to put into words and/or images what the majority do not see or cannot express. The poet is a visionary who sees "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" or "snowfields in summer time," or as Coleridge defines poetic imagination in his famous paradox: "It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!"

Poetry ,for me genuine poetry, is universal and public and is to be read aloud or read quietly and It has the capability to put something into words and images that the many or the few can relate to.