Having one’s Kant and eating it

Terry Eagleton

  • Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume One edited by Robert Denham
    Toronto, 418 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 8020 4751 3
  • Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume Two edited by Robert Denham
    Toronto, 531 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 8020 4752 1

If someone were to ask why art and culture have proved so vital to the modern age, one might do worse than reply: to compensate for the decline of religion. It is certainly a more convincing response than claiming that modern society finds art particularly valuable, as opposed to richly profitable. What modernity finds precious is less works of art, which are just one more commodity in its marketplace, than the idea of the aesthetic. And this reverence for the aesthetic reflects the way in which art, or at least a certain exalted notion of it, is forced in the modern age to stand in for a religious transcendence which has fallen on hard times.

T.E. Hulme caustically described Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’; but much the same could be claimed of art in the post-Romantic epoch, an epoch which is forever on the prowl for plausible secular versions of good old-fashioned metaphysical values. The dilemma of modern societies is that they need such strongly foundational values to legitimate their authority, but find themselves constantly discrediting them by their own rationalist behaviour. Art or literature, then, can restore an aura of mystery to a bleakly disenchanted world. And though this is a hope full of tremulous pathos, it is by no means entirely fatuous. Art, after all, has a good deal in common with religious belief, even in the most agnostic of environments. Both are symbolic forms; both distil some of the fundamental meanings of a community; both work by sign, ritual and sensuous evocation. Both aim to edify, inspire and console, as well as to confront a depth of human despair or depravity which they can nonetheless redeem by form or grace. Each requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and each links the most intense inwardness to the most unabashedly cosmic of questions.

From Matthew Arnold’s portentous idiom of sweetness and light to George Steiner’s reverent talk of artefacts as real presences, art is a domain of displaced transcendence. It is the one remaining intimation of immortality for those who mourn the spiritual barbarisms of modernity, but are modern enough themselves to feel thoroughly out of place in a pew. For Matthew Arnold and his progeny, literature is religion without theology – the edifying, poetic spirit of Christianity emptied of its increasingly rebarbative doctrines. To this extent, literature becomes a sort of aesthetic analogy of liberal Anglicanism, full of the atmosphere of belief without an embarrassing amount of doctrinal lumber. Just as it sometimes appears that you can be a zealous member of the Anglican Church while rejecting the existence of both God and Jesus, so literature as transcendence commits you to little beyond a sense of the numinous which makes a virtue out of not knowing what it means. But as Arnold recognised, such degutted religion is a way to preserve discipline and social order among a populace who are less and less inclined to enthuse over the Virgin Birth.

The affinities between art and religion can be multiplied. Literary interpretation takes its cue from hermeneutics, originally a theological discipline. The decoding of the word was always at some level a deciphering of the Word. Sacraments, which are traditionally thought to bring about what they signify, are instances of so-called performative discourse, just like the language of poetry. In both cases, the sign is incarnational rather than merely denotational. The metaphor of artistic ‘creation’ has always been latently theological, a re-enactment of God’s fashioning of the world ex nihilo. And just as the world is autonomous of its creator (which is part of what is meant by calling him ‘transcendent’), so the work of art is mysteriously self-generating and self-dependent, conjuring itself up miraculously out of sheer nothingness, obedient to no law but that of its own unique being. As a concrete universal, it is as much a coupling of sense and spirit, time and eternity, as the Incarnation itself, a microcosmic model of Christ. Art is all about inspiration, the wayward impulses of the Holy Spirit of the imagination; but like the Church it is a corporate, hierarchical, code-governed affair as well, conscious of being the bearer of tradition and convention, preserving canons of esoteric texts and grooming acolytes in their initiation into them.

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