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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: imagination

Poetic Knowledge, the lost “science”

I was delighted to run across this article on the Crisis Magazine web site. The article is a review by Kirk Kramer (originally published in 1999) of a book by James Taylor called Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. Actually, I was amazed to find anything whatsoever in print (even the “virtual” print of an internet magazine) referring to poetic knowledge, because I thought that the deconstructionists, not to mention relativism’s current reign of terror in contemporary society, had put paid to any notion that “poetry” (i.e., “literature”) can shed any light on truth, which is what is meant by the term “poetic knowledge.” But, of course, Crisis (and undoubtedly many of its readers) is part of the Catholic counter-culture, who continue to teach and believe that there is such a thing as truth, that it can be known, and that it can make you free.

Taylor, it should be noted, takes his term “poetic knowledge” from Thomas Aquinas’s own term poetica scientia, one of four scientiae or kinds of knowledge/knowing. This term “knowledge” could, with justice, be translated “science,” except that for English speakers these days science means only empirical science, which believes only what it can observe and measure. Poetic knowledge, unlike “science,” has to do with experience, which comes from within and relies to a large extent on imagination, rather than empirical “science,” which relies on material evidence and hard reason. In the middle ages, however — when Thomas lived, wrote, and taught — the Latin term scientia had not yet been reduced to its narrow, modern meaning. It meant broadly “knowledge” (from the verb scio, “I know”), and might refer equally well to theology, “the Queen of the Sciences,” to material science, or to poetry, a term which, as it was used in Thomas’s day included both what we would call poetry and what is usually called fiction today.

Rehabilitating poetry’s reputation

In the Middle Ages, poetry had a bad rep in certain quarters, because it was “fictional” (made-up stories) rather than “factual” or true (like the Bible, the truest book ever written); nonetheless, it is heartening to note that Thomas Aquinas, probably the wisest person alive in those days (some would say ever) listed it among the various ways of “knowing” (scientia), albeit not a perfect one, as it does not appeal to reason (which was Thomas’s Big Thing). I would say not that poetry is not “true” (although that might be said, with justice, of individual poetic works), but that it deals with truth differently than the rational sciences. It deals with truth “poetically,” i.e., analogically rather than analytically. Analogy is the basic tool of the poet — he makes us see that one thing is like another, and in seeing that we glimpse some truth about the thing that might have escaped us before. This is why Aristotle said that poetry is more “philosophical” (concerned with wisdom) than history, which is merely factual.

Bust of Aristotle

Aristotle, Roman copy of Greek bust

I’ve recently begun a new semester teaching a course called Medieval Epic Poetry, for the Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization. It’s a continuation of the Ancient Epic course, in which we studied the great classical epics of Homer and Vergil. (In fact, it was with Homer in mind that Aristotle called poetry “philosophical.”) In the Middle Ages, the Christian vision collided with the assumptions of pagan heroism, so epic per se didn’t really survive (until Milton, anyway), but the works we’ll be studying in the present course show how the Christian imagination adapts the epic legacy to keep readers thinking about philosophical questions, such as “What is the best way to live?”, “What should we live for – glory? Or something else?” and “Whom should we admire? What makes a great leader?”. While the Christian authors of the works we’ll be reading this semester – Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost – largely agree on the answers to those big questions, they explore the questions in rich and varied ways that both delight and provoke our imaginations.

The cultural collapse of the West, particularly precipitous over these past fifty years, has many causes, but one of them surely is the abandonment of great literary works in our educational curriculum. The world is a poorer and more dangerous place these days, because our imaginations have been starved (when they haven’t been poisoned by pop culture). Catholics who wish to live well, and to celebrate the upcoming Year of Faith, would do well to acquaint (or re-acquaint) themselves with some of the great works of our Western literary tradition and to ponder, in the light of Faith, the questions they pose and the examples they present.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Poetic Imagination and the truth of God

What follows is a little essay I wrote for our parish newsletter/magazine, where it appeared this past Christmas. I offer it here because it discusses a book, The Heliand, that appeals to me on a variety of levels, and raises — in my mind, at least — the question of the poetic imagination, which I would like to deal with explicitly in some future post.

The Almighty Word at Christmastime

cat nativity
If Jesus had been God-made-cat,
rather than Man.

I find the “Christmas season” (that
time of year that used to be Advent) irritating, but not for the reason you
might expect. It’s not the wretched Christmas music blared in every public
venue from Macy’s to Jiffy Lube, nor is it the crass commercialization that
spawns such things as sermons on “What Would Jesus Buy?” and ads that show
tinsel Christmas trees with small electronics as ornaments. Those are mostly
products of a crass and cynical world that has little love for God, and are therefore
not to be wondered at or, in my case, even noticed (I have developed a fine
faculty for ignoring and avoiding such things). No, what I object to most is
something that most Christians unthinkingly embrace: the cuddlification of Almighty

In the weeks leading up to the
Church’s celebration of the Nativity of the Lord, Christian gift shops,
greeting cards, and homes abound with saccharine images of Christ as a sweet
little baby, designed to make you go all gooey inside, to want to pick Him up,
cuddle Him, chuck Him under the chin, and murmur, “Who’s a sweet little babykins,
then?” Now, I find babies just as endearing as the next person, but I don’t
think God became Man so that we would want to pinch his fat little cheeks. It
is a terrible irony that by sentimentalizing babies, our culture has
trivialized them: if babies are important primarily because of the way they
make us feel, then we are just as free to abort them when we find them
threatening as we are to gush over them when we find them cute. Similarly, when
our Christmas preparations focus too much on the cute little baby in the manger
(and not His true identity), we sentimentalize the Nativity of God-Made-Man and
thereby run the risk of trivializing Him. (This trivialization would explain
the proliferation of Nativity sets in which the figures are all cats or
cupcakes or VeggieTale characters.)
We need to remember that God did
not become an baby so that we would find him cuddly; he became a man so that he
could die. At the heart of the Nativity is the paradox of the Incarnation: that
He who is Mighty deliberately became weak so that he could share our troubles,
our sorrow, our death. For me, the power and wonder of Christmas has always
been found in this paradoxical truth, that the Infinite became Finite, the
Immortal and Eternal, for a time, made Himself small and vulnerable. This is a
truth that has always been difficult to accept or understand, but some ages
have dealt with it better than our own. Today we tend to avoid discomfort of
any kind – witness the proliferation of pills and potions widely available to
dispel all pains mental and physical – so we prefer the cute, cuddly baby God
of Christmas to the Mighty Judge who, as Advent constantly reminds us, is
coming soon (forgetting that the two are the same). In the raw Middle Ages, however,
people had not yet trivialized God; perhaps for this reason my favorite
Christmas images and carols come from that time.
          Lately, I’ve been thinking
particularly of a poem of the early Middle Ages, The Heliand (or Savior), also
called The Saxon Gospel, a ninth-century
retelling of the synoptic Gospels as an epic poem of God the Warrior-King. This
poem was written for Saxons who had been forcibly converted by Charlemagne but found
it difficult to embrace a god whom they found weak. The Saxons were a Germanic
warrior race, who fiercely resisted being conquered by Charlemagne or forced to
become Christians. The monk who wrote the Heliand
sought to show that Christianity was a faith that was not incompatible with
Saxon culture and values, and apparently he was successful in convincing them
that the God of Christianity, despite His becoming a man, was not a puling
weakling but a mighty ruler, a crafty king who knew how to outsmart and conquer
his wily foe, Satan.
opens with a song of creation that presents the Creator as a master
spell-maker, the great sorcerer who merely by speaking the words of creation
brings all things into being – as a modern hymn says: “God, Whose almighty Word
chaos and darkness heard, and took their flight.” All of Creation, time, and even
Fate itself work together to do His will, until the moment is ripe for God’s
ultimate master plan to unfold, when He will for a time appear weak, but only
so that he can fool his foe and win the ultimate victory. In this telling,
Christ was not born in the household of an insignificant carpenter, but was the
foster-son of Joseph, the scion of a line of great kings, and in this poem the
herald angels who announce the new King’s arrival appear not to lowly shepherds
but to the groomsmen guarding noble Joseph’s horses. The Infant, at His birth,
is clothed not in swaddling bands, like any village brat, but in jeweled
clothes befitting a king.
“Dream of the Rood” by MrVisions
on DeviantArt.com

Later in his life, as any great
Saxon king would have done, Jesus attracts a band of noblemen who become his comitatus, the thanes of the king who
serve him by choice, for honor, rather than under obligation. In the great day
of battle, when Christ takes on the greatest foe, death itself, even the
noblest and bravest of his thanes, Peter, quails before the power of the foe
and deserts his King, much as Beowulf’s thanes deserted him when he faced a
fire-breathing dragon. The Lord, however, carefully keeps His true identity
veiled, appearing weak, because otherwise the Jews and the Romans would never
dare to assault so great a warrior-king. In this way, He allows Himself to be
taken prisoner and bound to a rood, but just as the Foe believes he has
conquered Him, He escapes his bonds, breaking the chains of Death and leaping
up victorious. Thus, as a medieval Christmas carol acclaims, perdidit spolia princeps infernorum, the
prince of Hell forfeits his victory, the spoiler is despoiled.

Antony Esolen, in a recent essay on TheCatholicThing.com, says that “[t]he soul of
poetry is not so much to make strange things familiar, but to make familiar
things strange, so that we can really begin to see them.” Perhaps this is why I
find poems like The Heliand such a
bracing corrective to the modern, sentimentalized version of Christmas. By
making God just another cute and cuddly baby, we run the risk of forgetting
that he is the Man Who was born to die, the almighty Creator of everything that
is, Whose power and craft alone could save us from the wiles of the devil and
inexorable death.