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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Poetic Knowledge

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.)

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