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Religion & Poetry

Marilynne Robinson, reviewing Harold Bloom’s and Jesse Zuba’s anthology, American Religious Poems speaks about and around what we’ve been discussing elsewhere. There’s much worth remarking on, but we’ll start here:

Just as Augustine and Aquinas appropriated the pagan philosophers for the purposes of their theologies, Calvin appropriated the secularizing tendencies of Renaissance thought for his. Any definition of religion that assumes an opposition of religion to secularism is therefore misleading. For Calvin the experience of the godlike self is the full experience of civilization and of consciousness. All this is worth pointing out because it rescues early and formative American thought from the odd little narrative that it fledged out of the unpromising husk of a cranky primitivism, and that it is at its best a rejection of a minor tradition rather than a new variant on a great tradition. Major American poetry is the best philosophy ever written on this continent, and with good reason.

Robinson pulls together a larger thesis that religion and poetry are best understood and interpreted by each other, that in their attempts to name transcendent things, they pull from the world all they can. There’s no moralizing about it, no prescriptive shoulds or oughts; religion and poetry have no choice but to take advantage of the world, the better to express their common cause. Science is no exception to this: as a general thing, it’s a means of describing the world; it flays the universe that it may be known, and as such gives new meaning to transcendence itself.

(Aside: I find Robinson’s criticism to be brilliant and enlightening, but also somewhat maddening for its simplicity. Am I the only one who feels as though I’ve just read someone who really, really gets it (whatever it may be to get), but who, for some sake or another, asserts that the best way to communicate it is a plainspokenness that may in fact not always be best? I don’t begrudge her this choice. Because of it her criticism takes on the flavor of always being her own; one can appreciate but not quite completely agree. Or am I being overly contrary?)



up to now, i have only read your little excerpt. but i take umbrage with the word appropriated, in that it seems much more purposeful, much more agent driven than i think to have been the case. not, of course, that these three men aren’t highly aware of who they are and where they stand, but being in and thinking in and writing in one’s culture is often less a matter of “appropriating” and more a matter of being of that time, thinking in that time.

oftentimes, we read an illusionary agency back into those authors we study, assuming that their hermeneutics is one they’ve chosen rather than one they’ve been given and with which they contend.

now who’s cranky and contrary?

On that you ought to read the rest; that excerpt follows several direct citations and more in-depth explanation of what she means.

yeah, yeah. i’ll get to it tomorrow, once i’m done with a possible draft of that article i wanted be done with 3 weeks ago.

this is really nice:

Any reader of Ecclesiastes or the Book of Job is aware that the canon of scripture has room for thought that can disrupt conventional assumptions about the nature of belief, whether these assumptions are held by the religious or by their critics. Indeed, religion is by nature restless with itself, impatient within the constraints of its own expression.

as are these

To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire….

If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be “understood.”...

But the problem of paraphrase is deeper yet. Anyone, asked to give an account of her or his deepest beliefs, will experience embarrassment and difficulty. This is true because of the way belief lives in experience. By analogy, it is impossible to know how many nuances and associations a given word has until they are discovered in the use of the word, or in the recognition of a novel inflection given the word by another speaker….

so, i take much less umbrage with her. it is another very nice piece of writing.

more later, when i’ve actually finished that draft.

from David E. Anderson’s review:

Indeed, Bloom seems to be so anxious to turn the Whitman-Dickinson-Crane tradition into a religion (“Dickinson, like Whitman, is a major poet of the American Religion, but she does not assume the role of American Christ as Whitman did” and “Crane’s still undervalued American epic ‘The Bridge’ celebrates what I again would call the American Religion”) that he ignores religion and the many religious sensibilities that have marked the nation’s remarkable religious history. Apart from Emerson, the only references he makes to actual American religious history are to the Second Great Awakening, when he quotes a letter of Dickinson seemingly distancing herself from its emotionalism; Whitman’s recollection of Quaker preacher Elias Hicks; and the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801.

Bloom misreads Cane Ridge as badly as he does Emerson, calling it a fusion of Gnosticism, Orphism, and Enthusiasm, which would certainly be a surprise to all those evangelical, Bible-believing Protestants spawned by its remarkable events. It is worth quoting Ahlstrom here: “The most important fact about Cane Ridge is that it was an unforgettable revival of revivalism, at a strategic time and a place where it could become both a symbol and impetus for the century-long process by which the greater part of American evangelical Protestantism became ‘revivalized.’ � A second consequence of this historic camp meeting and the great revival which swept across Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio during the next three years was the vitality which it poured into the participating churches. The future of the country’s denominational expansion was in large part determined by the foundations laid during this period.” While Cane Ridge may have manifested Enthusiasm, the religion of the revival was neither Gnostic nor Orphic, and it had little in common with either Bloom’s American Religion or the mainstream poetic tradition.

Bloom’s little essay leaves one scratching one’s head, asking either “What does this mean?” or “So what?” or sometimes both. To say, as Bloom does, that “so pervasive is the American Religion that it makes obsolete most distinctions between theism, agnosticism and atheism” is to say, finally, that language doesn’t count, that it points to nothing. At the same time, while Bloom dismisses traditional religion, especially Christianity with its Middle Eastern and European origins and expressions, he wants to garb his American Religion with all the trappings of Trinitarian Christianity. Thus, the non-American D.H. Lawrence is not Whitman’s John the Baptist but his St. Paul. The Exodus is the thematic center of American religious poetry. “The American Jesus, the American God, the American Holy Ghost: these have only spectral traces of European and Middle Eastern dogma.” What we have in Bloom’s American Religion is a version of faux Christianity.

But no matter. His redundant introduction can be safely skipped for the more sensible and usable one by Jesse Zuba. Better yet, the poems themselves, despite some glaring lapses, offer the best antidote to Bloom’s bluster and demonstrate the host of religious sensibilities American poets bring to their work. As the poet Samuel Hazo, who compiled a brief volume of contemporary religious poetry in 1963, said of the poems he gathered, they are “testaments of how poets have tried to discover themselves in the world around them, and the world around them in themselves. This is ultimately every poet’s mission, and it is a spiritual or religious mission.”

The lines you quote in 5 are approximately what I react against (while at the same time, mostly agreeing) in reading MR’s criticism. It’s this ease she has with naming what is what, with describing how the world should be. She’s quick to see Calvinism in the world, for example, which she can do because she (unlike most people) has read a lot of Calvin. I react a lot like Jeff Sharlett did when he went to her Bible study:

I don’t share Robinson’s beliefs, but I’m fascinated by her gods.

Literature, says Robinson, proceeds by pushing toward definition. The messiah is a definition of how God will act in history. Which is to say, a counter-intuitive definition, since the messiah’s action is that of literature. “The revolution that goes on continuously,” says Robinson, “is a refining of definitions.”

Would that it was so simple. But Robinson detects in the story impulses toward universalism and impulses away from universalism — a literary rubber band.

Or, a “pulse.” “We have broken His heart a million times over.” And every time we do, God responds. “The whole Bible is God trying to say, ‘I take this very seriously.’”

But we just won’t listen, and we keep knocking God around. God, says Robinson, can be understood at times as like an abused wife — an interesting idea about who holds the power in this relationship between humanity and the divine.

Then Robinson says: “What would we do without feeling like we’re on the dark side of justice?” I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I wrote below it, “asked in a tone of gratitude.” She follows with: “As soon as language of justice emerges, it becomes metaphysical.” So perhaps this all means that we’re spared the abstraction of one of the things that matters most to us — justice — by being on the wrong side of it. There are moments of justice in this world, she says, but not where we expect them (or create them?)

The last coherent note I made was: “Humanity will be betrayed by authority.”

“Would that it were so simple” is exactly what I want to say every time.

What I see in her is a dialectic between literature and religion; the one defining, the other resisting definition: literature as the capturing/description of the ephemeral, religion the experience of the nouminous.

To all that, though, I wonder (and to the whole creed screed) how do you line this definition up with the various definitions offered up by Church Fathers of religion as a bounding to God and tradition, on the one hand, as a constant re-reading/meditation of Scripture on the other.

I imagine that what you find yourself agreeing (and disagreeing) with is the Gadamerian hermeneutical circle this essay seems to posit. Agreeing because it has the flavor of being right; disagreeing because it has little of the threat of the loss of self or misunderstanding. That is, American poetry as the best philosophy (theology, given the topic at hand?) casts literature/poetry as the always productive, always victorious, always useful Virgil through this vale of woe. And, that celebratory rhetoric almost seems flippant.