Saving the Subjective
The purpose of poetry is to reunite the language of the physical and the spiritual as one thing.
The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus, Andrew Klavan, Zondervan, 272 pages
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
Our post-Enlightenment world struggles from a deep loss of meaning. We no longer feel at home in the world—little we see in Nature that is ours. One could say we suffer from general disenchantment, but, specifically, we suffer disenchantment from our Christian heritage. To fill the God-shaped hole now empty, I fear we risk further polluting the sacred things by trying to re-enchant the world with false idols.
Andrew Klavan also shares this fear. His new book, The Truth and Beauty, offers alleviation through a remedy-bearing duo: England’s greatest poets and the God-man. In the introduction, Klavan reveals his struggle to reconcile himself to the not-so-intuitive words of Jesus, so as to have “joy to the full” and “life more abundantly.” Klavan confesses his difficulties in finding answers and tells the reader that the English Romantics were facing the same issue of creating “a new world on the ruins of the old.” All the while, Klavan hears the voice of Saint Paul admonishing, “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”
Klavan devotes chapter one to “the immortal evening.” On a cold Sunday in 1817, Benjamin Robert Haydon, an English painter, had a few friends over for dinner. Among them were William Wordsworth, John Keats, as well as the poet and essayist Charles Lamb. The dinner was quite lively. Sir Isaac Newton became a topic for conversation, and these men spared no opinions of him. He was a “fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle,” Lamb declared. Keats joined in, holding that Newton had purged the world of enchantment and “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to prismatic colors.” This called for a toast—the jolly crew drank to “Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics.”
They did not hate science or reason, but rather feared that “the blessings of science could blind us to its materialist curse.” The Romantics worried that the new skepticism would bring “Hamlet-like doubts about the nature of reality” and “strip away the internal human experience… of its wholeness, truth, and beauty.” As Wordsworth writes,
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our murdering intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
We murder to dissect.
Wordsworth is rebuking what is endemic to a scientific, enlightened era: the tendency to reduce everything to “matter” in pursuit of objectivity and a world of unified science. It is the “nothing buttery” principle: The idea that emergent realities are “nothing but” the things in which we perceive them. You may think you see meaning in a rainbow or hear beauty in Chopin, but it is nothing but raindrops and sunlight, nothing but pitched sounds. Appearances matter. When I first heard Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I did not merely hear it with my ears. I experienced it with the whole of my human person. I heard it with imagination, with will, with certain mental habits, and most importantly, with memory.
However, rejecting cold, scientific objectivity comes with a temptation to retreat into the realm of pure revolutionary subjectivity. Klavan explores this next. For help, he looks to the epic poet John Milton. In Paradise Lost, “Satan rebels against God in the belief his ‘unconquerable will’ can make reality whatever it desires,” Klavan writes. Satan boasts upon being cast into hell that he takes with him:
A mind not to be changed by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
The modernist bluff has been called. So we are left asking: what is truth? Or the question of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Who’s there? The prevailing answer in our modern culture, accentuated by Milton’s Satan, is the self. There is no “truth.” All narratives are delusions, pretenses under which lies naked power. Thus, we turn inwards and let our only argument be, as Nietzsche says, “I will.” For Jean-Paul Sartre, the solution is also to turn inward—to exist. Do not let any “essence,” any a priori nature, hold back your existence, your ability to define yourself. Good and evil now lie in our hands.
But, just as in the Garden of Eden, this power leaves us naked and ashamed, for it was never ours to hold. This is why Sartre ultimately describes us as being “condemned to be free.” Milton’s Satan realizes this as well. As Klavan states, his original proposition is wrong; “Hell slowly transforms Satan’s mind into itself,” and soon he is left crying:
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell.
The modernists tried to destroy the subjective, and it led to a disenchanted world. The postmodernists and existentialists tried to save it by turning to power and radical subjectivity, and so polluted it. What, then, is the answer? How do we save the subjective experience so fundamental to the human person? Klavan turns to the Romantics, for the answer is co-creation with God, to recognize God’s reality and make new experiences within it.
For example, a hailstorm makes the leaves jump, and it creates all the elements of a poem, yet Wordsworth was needed to write:
The leaves in myriads jump and spring,
As if with pipes and music rare
Some Robin Good-Fellow were there,
And all those leaves, in festive glee,
Were dancing to the minstrelsy.
Wordsworth has now created all the elements of delight—except for us. We collaborate with him, taking his imaginative experience and making it our own. “From nature to Wordsworth to us, it is a chain of collaborative creation by which the forest is filled with fairies.”
Atop this hierarchy sits God, who created all of nature. The purpose of poetry, for Wordsworth, is to reunite the language of the physical and the spiritual as one thing. It is to “regain our original perception of creation, the lost perception of Eden, you might say, before we divided creation into good and evil, back when we saw along with God that it was good.”
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Ultimately, this points to the God-man, Jesus Christ, who was the Word made flesh, the spirit of the world which became incarnate. Saving the subjective experience thus becomes an endeavor to fully participate in the life of Christ—the total unity of the physical and spiritual. Participating fully in the life of Christ means submitting to the reality of God and his will—hearken back to Christ’s prayer in the garden, which ends with “nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.”
To properly re-enchant the world, we must become like Christ. “Therefore,” as Klavan implores in the final sentence of his book, “become the Word.” For this, Klavan’s book is invaluable. He points us to beauty, thus to truth, and ultimately to God. For Keats was right to say,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye have on earth, and all ye need to know.