What I believe

Stephen Spender

When asked the question ‘What do you believe?’ I suppose it to mean, first and foremost, ‘Do you believe in God?’ My mind is a blank with regard to this, as to similar questions. ‘Do you believe in life after death?’ ‘Do you believe that life has any meaning other than that which we put into it?’ I am incapable of thinking that there is an eternal being whose existence has neither beginning nor end, because I cannot think a beginning which has no previous beginning, an end which has no subsequent end. Equally, if scientists tell me that the universe began with the Big Bang, I find myself asking: ‘How did the forces begin that began the banging?’

Attempts to rationalise metaphysical beliefs seem to me to lead to absurd conclusions by trying to make sense of what is beyond our power of reasoning and, indeed, the reach of language. The idea of the resurrection of the body has a kind of logic, in that it explains how after death we might recover our organs of perception – without which life, as we know it, seems unthinkable. But it makes nonsense if you try to work out the logistics of it.

Before the modern age of scientific proof, religion provided answers to unanswerable questions about God, man, eternity. What mattered more than the answer was that the question should express with finality man’s predicament on Earth, in time, after death. When men lived by visions, the negative questions projected the positive affirmative answer. To ask ‘Is there a God?’ showed that the questioner already had in his consciousness the idea of God, and he did not have to look further for proof.

Biblical religion is prophetic vision affirmed by revelation and equated with literal truth. In replacing astrology with astronomy, the Book of Genesis with Darwin’s theory of evlution, science set up an alternative standard of truth: facts which, if tested against empirical observation, could be proved. After the failure of Biblical fundamentalists to win the battle against the scientists, later apologists of the Bible have often argued that Old and New Testament stories, from that of the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection of Christ, should be taken as myths. Doubtless these stories have great symbolic meaning, but to argue that they are not intended in some sense to be taken literally is to put the sacred texts on the same level as epic poetry and to equate them with the ‘fables’ which make up the sacred texts of other religions.

In the West, there is a tendency today for established religion to dissolve or disintegrate into religion treated as world literature and comparative religion – with all creeds embraced either on account of their anthropological interest or because all the myths have something ‘symbolically’ true about them. In contrast to this, there are some religious people – especially intellectuals – who insist on the literal truth of those miraculous events which the religion asks them to accept as dogma. Credo quia incredibile. It is difficult for me, though, not to think that when they insist on the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is the dogma rather than the fact which they believe in.

While believing neither in miracles nor in dogma, I don’t think that science has replaced or satisfied religious need. I am concerned here not with scientific research into the origins of life and the universe, nor with theories of randomness which may bring scientists at some stage to some form of religion, but with the generally shared view of science as the continuing process of objective inquiry, discovery and invention called progress which, for many people, has replaced religion. For they believe that the advancement of knowledge, wherever it may lead, is the cause of sacred truth and that progress is inevitable and unstoppable if not always beneficial. Science means objectivisation. As far as possible, the scientist eliminates from his task of measuring and analysing and theorising about them whatever in his own mind and body – his psychology – might distort the results of his inquiry. His ideal, one might say, is to become the dispassionate instrument of the instruments in his laboratory. The scientist sees himself as being a ‘he’ (or perhaps, ideally, if one thinks of him as pure instrument, an ‘it’) seeking to eliminate from himself (itself) the emotional and perhaps unconsciously biased ‘I’. He is concerned with discovering the truth about ‘them’ – objects outside the areas of his own self. Even if he is inquiring into the inmost psyche of patients, he must inevitably treat them as objects.

Religion is primarily subjective. It is concerned with what never can be objectified: the ‘I’ in each one of us which as pure existence and consciousness is completely outside everything and everyone else. The ‘I’ cannot be defined, though everything surrounding and affecting and influencing it – genetic pattern, environment, social status, personal psychology, and, indeed, each ‘I’’s own separate body – can be located as that circumference of which the ‘I’ of pure consciousness is the centre. I am not writing here of egoism or solipsism, which are secondary effects of introspective thinking: the ‘I’ asking, ‘Am I the only person in the world?’ – the answer to which question is ‘As someone who is “I”, so far from being the only person, you are every living person, an isolated spark of consciousness.’ Each one is at the same time unique and, in being unique, he or she is in the predicament of life which is that of everyone else.

The sense of shared uniqueness is the basis of love, and of guilt. All human beings living at a given time are equal in consciousness of their lot, and under all the coverings of my ego which separate me from those others I am aware of this. And the ego within me which denies it – turning isolation into a barrier against others instead of accepting it as that which all have in common – is a betrayal both of those outside me who are also ‘I’ and of the ‘I’ within me which is my true being, and is also they. The more I am attached to things the more I myself become thing.

The religious need is for a ‘Thou’ who responds to the ‘I’ in each one of us, speaking to him or her as ‘Thou’, and in whom all the ‘I’s meet. The ‘Thou’ may appear in the form of another person, in human love. But love between human beings never quite achieves this union, because we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, imprisoned in our self-protective, purely separating characteristics of egoism and self-regard – the prison fortresses of our characters and bodies. The idea of the absolute ‘Thou’ who recognises the ‘I’ in each is God.

In the 20th century, it is Marxism which has come nearest to establishing pseudo-science as a religion. Now, at the end of this century – this millennium – we seem to be witnessing the collapse of the god who – given the wars and the breakdown of the empires of capitalism – seemed set to conquer the world. Marxism derived from primitive Christianity – the religion of the poor. The failure of Christianity, from the Marxist point of view, was that Christ saw the world as consisting of two orders, each of which accepted the other’s existence: that of the poor who, in being close to the bare realities of existence, were potentially religious (the kingdom of Heaven), and that of the rich absorbed in their own wealth, power, bureaucracy (the kingdom of Caesar). Marx transformed the image of the poor from that of the ‘I’ loved by God and receiving its reward in Heaven to that of the revolutionary giving his abilities to the Communist state – when it had been attained through his efforts, totally directed towards that end – and being provided for by the state according to his needs. But until the heaven on earth of the withering away of the state, the individual must merge his own identity, that of an objective unit, in the task of achieving the Revolution. In its early stages, the revolutionary merges his separate consciousness, his ‘I’, in the ‘we’ of the movement, following leaders with whom ‘we’ identify, thinking them ‘us’. After the Revolution has come to power, the leader, instead of being one with us, becomes ‘he’ and his followers become his objects, falling into apathy, taking orders.

The means by which the Revolution was to be made were described as ‘scientific’: being decided on by a Central Committee analysing and dealing with the ‘situation’ of surrounding politics. The role of the proletariat was to act according to its orders. Freedom, it was said, lay in ‘the recognition of necessity’. And necessity was whatever the Central Committee (i.e. the dictator) thought fit. The tragedy of Communism was caused by the fact that, wherever there was a Communist revolution, those in power became obsessed with the necessity of their remaining in power.

The consequences of the modern dictatorships, with their ruthless power-obsessed leaders, their innumerable victims and their oppressed, disillusioned, apathetic and cynical proletariat, are all too apparent. Conservatives point out that these are the results of the over-optimistic view of human nature taken by philosophical political activists (starry-eyed when they are young) who set going the machinery of revolution. There is obvious truth in this, but the lesson is hypocritical when used to justify the rapacious opportunists of the Open Market economy on the grounds that their system is ‘human nature’. The good luck which has enabled capitalism to survive lies, not in its letting loose unbridled forces of greed and exploitation, but in the fact that it happens to thrive best under a rough and ready free-for-all called parliamentary democracy – a system which permits dog to eat dog rather than require all mongrels to cower under the tyranny of one hideous mastiff.

Science has outstripped the capacity of politicians to estimate the potentialities of powers they control. This is true not only of nuclear arms. It is true also of what is happening to the environment. Politicians can scarcely be blamed for such things as the hole in the ozone layer – the greenhouse effect – and the overheating of the world’s atmosphere. I believe that although there is no religion of science, there should be a conscience of science, a scientific code affecting the uses to which inventions are put.

There have been scandals of religion – the Crucifixion, the Crusades, the Inquisition. In our day, mere are scandals of science resulting from the generally-held view that science, in itself, considered as the truth, is a neutral force for which no one – least of all scientists – is responsible. The terrible experiments performed by German doctors on human beings who, in being Jews or Slavs, bore the status of animals was a scandal of science, in that these experiments conformed to scientific standards which we all of us recognise, and which are understood to extend the frontiers of knowledge. Another such scandal is the whole range of inventions which submit animals destined for human consumption to conditions in which they are deprived of their natural environment and forced to live in a way solely designed to increase their nutritional value. One hardly needs to be told by the religious that God created animals for the service of man to realise that man has a duty of gratitude towards animals – an obligation to allow them to live as far as possible in harmony with their natural environment. There was poignancy in the remark of the late Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, who said that before long the sight of sheep in a green field would be a rare delight. A future without such sights is human wickedness. Soon after reading this remark, I saw a television programme about Denmark in which the commentator showed a cow in a shed with instruments attached to it for feeding and milking. He explained that the cow was perfectly happy in these conditions. I wondered whether he himself would be happy if submitted to force-feeding all his days, never allowed out of his studio, tied to his desk in front of his microphone with earphones clamped to his head.

To say that a person is unimaginative is to say that he is locked within the separate world of his own limitations, of his own making. Writers, artists, composers – the people we call ‘creative’ – are capable of projecting their experience in the forms of their particular work, as language, colour, sound, ideas, in such a way that the work can enable other people to perceive the world around them and to possess their own separate worlds. It is significant that the modern political ideologies censor or prohibit art or attempt to convert it to propagandist purposes. They do this, I think, partly out of an instinctive realisation that art is a form of communication from that centre of sensibility which is personal to the artist to some corresponding centre awakened separately in each reader, listener or spectator. Propaganda is an attempt to substitute in each one of us a generalised consciousness, consumer and consumed, for our subjective consciousness. The attempt is not, of course, confined to the political ideologies: it is part of what we mean by advertising. Modern art is recognised by dictators as a greater danger to them than the art that precedes it, because even the greatest masterpieces of the past speak their truths out of the context of the past. By putting the past in, as it were, the inverted commas of fancy dress, dictatorship can annexe it. Thus Marxists fit Shakespeare into the context of their thesis of the development of European history towards the proletarian Utopia by seeing his highly individualistic heroes as representing a stage of development from the medieval to the bourgeois. This kind of treatment cannot be given to modern art, and to the extent that this art succeeds (even when, like Picasso, the artist belongs to the Communist Party) it will often be found to criticise its society through exaggeration, satire, irony, obscenity. Its images cannot conceivably reflect the Central Committee view of life even should the artists wish them to do so (one thinks of Picasso’s drawing of Stalin). The dictator sees in modern art the ungrateful, élitist, contemptuous, sneering, tragic hostility of the work which has been created out of the soul of the individual.

Much of what I believe is expressed in a passage from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for the atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with such skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name of Vermeer. All these obligations which have no sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – if then! – to fools.

Here is a declaration of faith which would probably be dismissed today as ‘élitist’ or as ‘hero worship’, in that it makes a hero of the practitioner of sublime art. The friends of my life-time whom I have most admired and loved, the books and paintings I love – people and masterpieces I compare myself with, much to my own disadvantage – exemplify for me what I most profoundly believe. I believe in intellect in the sense in which Proust uses the word here, which is the sense in which Dante used it – though I distrust the term ‘intellectuals’ when it is used today to mean public figures who can be induced to sign manifestos.

Proust qualifies religion with the precaution ‘as if’ – as if there were another world with such values. A great ‘as if’ hangs over King Lear, where Lear addresses the naked figure of Edgar, who is feigning madness, in words that bring us back to the ‘I’ of the ultimate human condition, and sees himself in Edgar: ‘Thou art unaccommodated man, the thing itself.’ Lear, however, even on the heath, is still the king who has demanded of his daughters Regan and Goneril that when he visits their homes he should be accompanied by his hundred knights. In Lear, the destitution which is the central image of the Christian religion, the sacred skeleton in the crypts of cathedrals, is one with civilisation’s power and glory, and both are submitted to questioning. Shakespeare’s play sums up for me what I believe.