by Sam Buntz
Even if man were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way…then, after all, perhaps only by his curse will he attain his object, that is, really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated…then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and have his own way. – Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground”
It may strike some as curious that the major Christian poet of the 19th Century preferred very perverse subject matter. Robert Browning, though under-studied today, pioneered the development of the dramatic monologue – a form later used to great effect by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in the 20th Cenutry. The speakers who utter the great speeches in Browning’s poems tend to be less than ideal or heroic figures – we find the quester, Childe Roland, proceeding to a contest with some fearsome opponent (possibly an ogre), dauntlessly blowing his slug-horn in challenge—despite the fact that he feels his doom is assured. We meet the cultured but insane Duke Ferrara who, in “My Last Duchess,” gradually reveals that he murdered his last wife because “she had a heart – how shall I say it? – too soon made glad, too easily impressed.” And – among many others – we encounter the libertine monk, Fra Lippo Lippi, who, despite his distinctly un-monastic lifestyle, has some quite interesting opinions on the proper way to paint; the “flawless” yet bland painter and cuckold, Andrea del Sarto; and a figure known only as “Porphyria’s Lover,” who is a madman, a murderer…and something of a necrophile.
One notes a certain tendency running through all of these characters – namely, marked imperfection (which is a bit too broad, but I will use it nonetheless). The lust and zeal of Browning’s characters cannot help but impress us, yet the objects of these mad impulses are always unsettling. One could easily say that Browning – who began as an “atheist” (though he was a follower of the poet Shelley, who was not an atheist in any contemporary sense – he believed in a Platonic spiritual reality, dominated by Love – which was Shelley’s real version of Deity) and later, in his great poetic phase, returned to the non-conformist evangelical Protestantism of his youth – was depicting Original Sin. This is, to some degree, true, but it is inadequate. Browning is certainly not taking the position of the Calvinist who mourns our “total depravity” and leaves the ball, so to speak, entirely in God’s court. Rather he – like Dostoevsky (both were profoundly influenced by Shakespeare, in this regard) – was searching out the mystery of the human soul. He is not just dissecting our fallen state. He is pursuing an understanding of what it is about us that made us choose to fall – why did the human soul (which had, according to one legend, enjoyed a mere sixteen hours or so in Eden, in a perfect world) almost instantly disobey God and seek out exile from Him? This awful desire was and is not only the most damaging force in existence – the source of all Evil – but it is also amazing, astounding — and frighteningly beautiful. It commands one’s respect and fearful admiration. We need it – we even sense that we are it, this “fatal fantastic element” (as Dostoevsky called it) that we find within us.
Browning referred to his subject as “the perfection of Man’s imperfection.” His great critic – G.K. Chesterton – later added that, not only was this his primary theme but his other chief theme, inextricably tied to the former, was “the imperfection of God.” By this, Chesterton meant not that God was imperfect, but that without suffering the Law imposed on human beings by the Fall, God would have been imperfect. But God – Chesterton and Browning both believed – did suffer the Law, and expressed the fullness of His Love and Mercy (His central attributes) by incarnating as Jesus of Nazareth. Considering the logical conundrum that God is perfect and that, therefore, his creation must be nothing less than perfect, Christians have always wondered how the world could be just as terrible as, for example, Browning often depicts it as being, through the eyes of his characters. The traditional response to this question – as exemplified in Milton’s Paradise Lost – is that God made the human race, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” In other words, in order for the Creation to be perfect, humanity would need to possess the freedom to make it imperfect, because a kingdom of robots would be highly imperfect and undesirable. God had no interest in compelling Man to love Him – but He had every interest in extending His own Love to Man. Therefore, in return, love would need to be freely granted by Man toward his Creator and could not be impelled from above. Despite the late Christopher Hitchens’ protestations, the design of the Christian heaven is expressly not intended to be that of a “celestial North Korea” (however some of our less tolerant co-religionists may strive to depict it as such.) Of course, being truly free, humanity immediately chose to alienate itself almost as much as it possibly could (were it not for God’s grace) from the presence of the Creator. Hence, the world as we know it came into existence.
I’m sure that any Christians who read this last paragraph were not exactly bowled over, because it’s pretty standard stuff. But the crucial mystery is this, and it is inevitably interesting, no matter how banal its means of expression happen to be – what is the soul, our soul, perfect in its inception, that chose to distance itself from God? What advantages was it seeking by putting such immense psychical distance between itself and its Divine Parent? Browning analyzes these advantages – he seeks to understand our “fatal fantastic element.” He is not just blandly condemning Original Sin. One of the great Christian poets of the century just past – T.S. Eliot – once admitted that he found the idea of sex as “Evil” to be more exciting than the idea that it is just a matter as routine and drab and healthy as taking some vitamins or doing a few push-ups. I see what Eliot meant – the idea that our basic impulse, so perfectly realized in sexual desire, is unpredictable and free to do the most dreadful things, is much more preferable – or, at least, more interesting – than the idea that it is just a function of Natural Law, of Reason and Good Hygiene. Dostoevsky is often hailed as a “master psychologist,” but he and Browning are not at all psychologists in the Freudian or materialistic / analytical sense. You can’t explain their evil characters away anymore than you can explain away the characters that are good. They, whatever circumstances may have influenced their predilections, cannot be reduced back to prior, natural causes. Out of Dostoevsky’s Karamazov brothers, one is saintly, one is an intellectual and a skeptic, one is pleasure-seeking, and one is a murderous nihilist. But they are not “piano-keys” to be played by outside forces – they are not created socially, biologically – they will not admit explanation aside from the fact that God made humanity wondrously strange.
Browning’s characters are like this too – they are pursuing advantages that have a spiritual use, that satisfy the will and desire in awful ways, but necessarily lack any social or biological sense. The Duke kills his duchess because he badly wants her to flatter his pride and vanity by adoring him more for giving her a “nine-hundred years old name” than she might adore someone else for picking her some cherries in the orchard. “Porphyria’s Lover” strangles his darling with her own hair (wound into a cord) in order to capture forever the affection that she finally managed to show him at that moment, but never could before. These characters all demonstrate that we are primarily creatures of desire – but our desires cannot be seen as social or natural creations. We are what we are, mysteriously – we are, or at least we were in Eden, “free actors of ourselves.” Increasingly, in the modern world, we see everything as being the creation of external, material factors (the social being a sub-set of the material), and forget that “fatal fantastic element” – which, despite its inscrutable nature, will always be with us.
I want to turn now to another, slightly earlier example of the Christian poet in action – keeping my focus, for the reader’s benefit, on poetry written in English. William Blake – who, above Christian Classicists (a total oxymoron in Blake’s view) like Alexander Pope and Dr. Johnson, I would rank as the greatest English poet of the 18th and early 19th Centuries and the one with the most interesting things to say about the Christian tradition– once scribbled in his notebooks: “Grecian is Mathematic Form, Gothic is Living Form.” In writing this, Blake condemns the Greek and Latin Classics for providing a model of the universe, which asserts that all human actions and motivations can be reduced to a simple and mathematical “cause and effect” model. The human will cannot break out of the prison that the Laws of Nature have set for it, according to Greeks. Necessity trumps desire every time. Human beings are effectively only “natural” and lack a deeper spiritual or, in Blake’s terms, “imaginative” component. Blake thought that the British thinkers and creators of his day – literary men like the aforementioned Pope and Johnson, but also artists like Sir. Joshua Reynolds, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, and the philosophers and essayists of earlier generations like John Locke and Francis Bacon – had “sold-out” to the pagan worldview while still pretending to remain Christian. He perhaps condemns them a bit too harshly – I still feel like Pope and Johnson are essentially Christian writers and not Satanic-Epicurean traitors – but his assault is pungent. Blake wanted to re-inject the dry, completely rationalistic form of Christianity that dominated his age with a fresh infusion of Spirit and imagination – this lack of Spirit literally drove many poets, like Christopher Smart and William Cowper, into fits of “madness.”
Although they are very different, Blake and Browning strike me as having at least this in common: they both embraced Gothic “living form” over and against Classical-materialistic prescriptions, and they exalted the spiritual centrality of will and desire. Blake – somewhat ironically but also very seriously – salutes those rebellious poets and sinful geniuses who insisted on creating while their timid, time-serving, and conventionally religious fellows could only wag fingers and chide. I remember that when a family member began to practice a form of meditation – while remaining a firm Christian – other relatives urged her to forego this practice, claiming that meditation (despite its long heritage within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches) was a Satanically inspired practice. I don’t mean to bash my own relatives (God only knows what they’re really like in their heart of hearts) but Blake would’ve seen Christians who have no desire for or aspiration towards the higher world of the Spirit (not that I’m accusing anyone of this) – no longing for God – as impostors. Their conception of Christianity is merely one of dull obedience, unmediated by the deep burning desire, which is our essence. Their faith is one, as Blake contemptuously wrote, “Of Hindrance and Not Action.” Blake positively addresses desire, while Browning salutes it through negative depictions.
Both poets exalt our free will and desire – even in their more distorted manifestations – because they know that it is God’s gift, His terrible and insanely generous gift, to the human race. It is not rules and prescriptions that are the essence of religion – though they are indispensable when it comes to aiding will and desire in charting the proper course back to God – but it is desire, fervent devotion, and a need to continually put-off the “fallen self-hood” (which Browning’s monologues illustrate so brilliantly) and enter into a more spiritual, and therefore truly human mode of being and perceiving. God created humanity in a perfect state of innocence – but, like everyone’s childhood, that state was inherently unstable. It couldn’t last. The descent from innocence into experience is dramatized by Blake in his famed “Songs of Innocence and Experience” where he demonstrates that the peaceful truths realized in early childhood (“To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love / All pray in their distress / And to these virtues of delight / Return their thankfulness”) ultimately yield to the more difficult truths realized through experience (“Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor / And Mercy no more could be, / If all were as happy as we.”) But Blake sees that the person who would cast off the “fallen-selfhood” (which he associated with the sweetly mild yet infinitely constricting rationality and intellectuality of the Classical Tradition) and become re-born in Christ as a new, truly spiritual and truly human person, must somehow “marry” the truths learned in innocence and experience, in order to rise from the ignorant bliss of childhood to a stable and permanent bliss, united with the infinite love and “energy” of the Godhead. “Energy,” he says, “is eternal delight.”
While Blake is preoccupied with showing the way back to God, Browning implies it by showing our fallen-state and our basic perversity. When Browning’s Andrea del Sarto says, “ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?” he is expressing the views of a failed artist, who has mastered his craft technically, but could not reach after the heaven of imaginative delight that his rivals, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, attained (or that Blake was later to attain as an engraver). He is saying, “Hey, we’re on earth. God’s in His heaven. Let’s keep it that way.” This is a Classical-Pagan view, and not at all that of Browning. Browning merely dramatizes the failure of human desire so that we might better see how desire can succeed – by aspiring upwards to God, and away from false objects. Likewise, Blake said that our cry, “More! More! Is the cry of a mistaken soul[. L]ess than All [God] cannot satisfy Man.” This is the opinion of a radical-dissenting Protestant, a “sect of one” – but it does not differ so much from the calculus of desire that Dante, the supreme Christian poet, portrays in orthodox and Catholic terms. Following St. Augustine, Dante holds that the fondest desire of every creature is to return to its Origin – God. But in order to do this, one must first channel desire away from the lesser objects that are constantly pressing for its attention. The sinners Dante confronts in hell are really just representations of the different ways in which people fail to fully satisfy their desires in life (which is a funny way of putting it, considering how often we equate the satisfaction of desire with evil), settling on passions for food, for murder, or (in the deepest sense) for self. Dante brilliantly depicts the method by which desire is re-directed towards God in Purgatory, and then finally shows how it soars up to its ultimate goal in Paradise, guided by Beatrice, the image of perfected human love.
I hope that these scattered thoughts cast some light on the essential poetic difference between the Christian “Gothic” poet or novelist (or artist of any other variety) and the Classical “Grecian” poet or novelist. When we consider a great poet like Virgil, we admire his poetic strength – a manifestation of the same energy and desire that fortified Blake, Browning, Dostoevsky, and Dante – but we cringe from his essentially tragic worldview (Dante’s Christian masterpiece is, after all, the Commedia.) G.K. Chesterton usefully observed that the pagans were happy when they looked at all the little things – money, sex, power – but were filled with despair when they looked at the bigger picture of cosmic destiny and fate. There’s a reason Virgil’s great poetic moments come with a tragic swoon – for instance, in the Georgics, when the severed head of Orpheus rolls down the river, moaning with “ice cold tongue, with ebbing breath” for his lost love, Eurydice, we sense that Virgil is expressing his deepest convictions about the essential nature of our condition. But a Christian is always an optimist, regardless of how grim his or her perspective on the present state of humankind might be. Reconciliation will eventually ensue – apocatastasis.
After arguing against Greek and Roman influence in favor of Christian-Gothic and, since Blake’s true precursors are Ezekiel and Isaiah, Hebraic models, I don’t intend irony by using the Greek term for the fulfillment that will occur when, at the end of time, our souls are re-united with God in eternal bliss. I mean to suggest that, insofar as the classical worldview – which is basically worldly and materialistic (as Homer certainly is, and the Epicureans certainly were) – is subjected to or counterbalanced by the concerns of Christendom’s wild heart – a heart more at home on the Red Sea Shore than among the ruins of Rome – it is fine. Also, I give my seal of approval to Plato (and all of his descendants) and the Stoics, who are, indeed, far more optimistic and capable of conceiving an infinite absolute than, say, the Epicureans and the staunch Homeric polytheists – though they are horribly insistent on the importance of being under that grisly Natural Law. But they’re of our own heart, at this point, thanks to how thoroughly Christianity has absorbed them. What I really mean to argue against is the influence of those writers who espouse a completely “dead-letter” philosophy – whether it masquerades as Christianity or parades as the atheism and neo-Epicureanism that Blake rightly perceived it as being. This force is continually evident in our culture today. I was an admirer of Christopher Hitchens as a writer, but he was a foe, since he explicitly advocated Athens over Jerusalem. While it may be true that Athens was more progressive in terms of homosexuality than other places – which is the only argument Hitchens really made in its favor – it was blatantly behind Jerusalem and even behind Medieval Christendom in terms of respect for women, egalitarianism, and in appreciating the joys and sorrows of Wordsworth’s “common heart, by which we live.” The Jewish Essenes were the first people in the West to oppose slavery, whereas the Greeks and Romans wholeheartedly embraced it (Southern justifications of slavery were often made on Classical grounds.)
Since Jews and Christians had the examples of Israel and Jesus, they did not look down on weakness as something detestable or even, necessarily, pitiable – in the sense in which the Athenians would’ve condescended to find it. Whereas the Spartans and the Athenians saw physical splendor and beauty as the keystones of existence, Christian and Jewish hearts have always been tugged most profoundly by tenderness and softness and self-sacrifice. T.S. Eliot – despite his own (supposed) Classicism – spoke for every true Christian when he said that he was “moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images and cling: / The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” Yielding to the penalties imposed by those who are the servants of Natural Law (whether worshippers of Homeric deities or of Richard Dawkins) – and have no conception of Grace, which abrogates that Law – is easy for the Christian, since his or her desire always stretches up to God, and cannot be diverted by pressures of this world. The defining Christian symbol is that of an execution – Grace Personified, crucified on the frame of the Law — and Israel was defined by its status as a people who were originally a disparate band of outcasts and outsiders. This reverence paid to love demonstrated through voluntary weakness is utterly foreign to the materialistic worldview.
At any rate, I’m not digressing entirely from my subject – the Christian writer. All of the writers I cited in this article grasped the essential religious difference I’ve just highlighted. I chose among them selectively, as a treatment of the important Christian themes in, say, Shakespeare or Milton, is even further beyond my powers than to do justice in so brief a space to Browning and Blake. Nevertheless, I hope I kept my finger on the central matter: these writers saw that we are not entirely material and rational creatures, that we possess immortal souls, capable of making perfectly imperfect decisions – pursuing indefinite distance from God, while, simultaneously, still affirming the perfection of the freedom He bestowed on humanity. Consequently, they all demonstrated tenderness towards the idea of childhood and innocence – the dream of a lost Eden, enjoyed in proximity to God before the soul’s descent into sin and experience (something foreign, I believe, to the classical worldview) – and sought to chart or suggest a road-map back to an even higher Innocence. If Christianity is going to retain a hold on the Western imagination, and not crumble under the increasing pressures of materialism and post-modernism (and the same advice applies equally well to other religions – I’m writing in the terms provided by my own “field of action), its reach will need to catch up to the same verities it has always grasped. The Christian artist – whether Christian in ecclesiastical terms (like Dostoevsky) or in sensibility and stance (like Tolstoy or James Joyce) – needs to return to the “living form” of style and subject matter, advocated by Browning, Blake, Shakespeare, and all the rest. Writers today have unfortunately seen their task more and more in terms of delineating social structures and webs of rational organization and less in terms of the miraculous human enigma. I think that this will change, as our current state of immense imperfection only elevates my own sense of the perfection that is not, but could (to however imperfect a degree!), be there. For this reason, I am an optimist.