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Tag: poetic imagination

Poetic Truth, Part I: Giambattista Vico

Vico drove me to it!

I may be the only person ever to have a traffic accident
because of Giambattista Vico. Partly, this is because he has been dead since anno
1744, and partly because not that many people (I guess) meditate on his theory of poetic language while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic. (Perhaps
also because most people who do are smart enough to buy cars with anti-lock
brakes, but that discussion will have to wait.)

Anyway, assuming that you, gentle reader, are not yet
counted in the number of those privileged to have glimpsed the beauty of Vico’s
theory of poetic language (which makes up one portion of his wonderful work, La
Scienza Nuova
or The New Science
(by which is meant not “science” but “knowledge”),
I will give you a very rough idea of what I’m talking about. It’s been many
years since I first read Vico, and almost as many since that traffic accident,
and it’s entirely possible that my apprehension and application of Vico’s ideas
is, ahem, idiosyncratic and my current memory of them imperfect. Nonetheless,
(having thus indemnified myself against the objections of those who may know
Vico much better than I), here, in a nutshell, wrenched from its proper context
in Vico’s theory of Western history, is my take-away of his theory of poetic language:

Inadequate representation of the truth of God.

Ancient poets were, for the most part, trying to express, in
human language, truths for which ordinary language is utterly inadequate.
Many of these truths could be called “theological” – i.e., truths about the
supernatural, about God(s). Now, in those primitive times, when language itself
was still new and unrefined, mankind did not yet possess words to express
the ineffable, the supernatural, but human language did possess plenty of terms for indicating and describing the natural (rocks, birds, trees, bolts of lightning). Therefore, since human language was inadequate for the task of explaining divinity, the poet was forced to express himself by means of metaphor (or analogy), substituting something natural (which language could express) for the supernatural thing the poet desired to communicate. The power of Zeus/Jove, for instance, is not a lightning bolt, but a lightning bolt is a familiar, natural phenomenon (for which human language has a word) which has important similarities to the power of god (for which language has no adequate

In other words, poetry is necessarily analogical or, if you
prefer, metaphorical. “Poetic language” means, before anything else, figurative language; “poetic truth” is a truth which cannot be expressed in ordinary, expository language – the poet must cast about for a metaphor that seems to grasp the essence of the truth he wishes to express. Once you have grasped this essential truth, you will recognise that much of what calls itself “poetry” these days is anything but. It possess rhythm, rhyme, and other features or uses of technique which we associate with “poems,” but if it is not trying to express truth through concrete verbal images, it is not “poetry,” strictly speaking.

I’m skipping over a lot here, but this will do for my
purpose, which is to explain the value of “poetry” (by which I mean what most
people call “literature”). Poetry/literature’s purpose is to communicate truth,
and its method is to express that truth metaphorically (by means of analogy),
because that is the most adequate way to do it. I’ve had students (future
engineers, accountants, and fry cooks) who complain that it is much easier just
to say things in plain words, but the poet (or the lover of literature) knows
that they are wrong.

Perfectly adequate expression
of the truth of God.

It’s important to point out that the theory of history and language that Vico elaborates in La Scienza Nuova referred specifically to what he called the “Gentile” (pagan, Graeco-Roman) world, NOT Judaeo-Christian history. The Christian should recognize that in Judaeo-Christian history, God did not need poets to describe or explain Him, rather He did it Himself – i.e., Divine Revelation does adequately what the mytho-poetic tradition of the pagans did inadequately. God’s perfect self-expression is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Logos, true Man and true God. Nonetheless, even in this (I would say), God Himself is the poet – i.e., he provides us adequate analogies to give us glimpses of his true nature. But as every Christian mystic who ever lived has known, what God has revealed is true, but it is not the whole truth. Neither our language nor our minds are adequate to the task of comprehending God in His fullness – for that we must wait until “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll just
let you chew on that. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, etc. Meanwhile, think about poems, or other works of fiction, that you
have read which have given you new insight into some truth about the human
condition. Something which, upon reflection, you recognized to have “opened your eyes” in some respect. (I am not talking about information but about insight.) If you can think of something along these lines, please leave a comment and let us know what it was, and what it illuminated for you.

(If the idea of poetic truth appeals to you, you might like to read this post from a while back.)

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.

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.